Friday March 23, 2018
Ken Burns: The Vietnam War

I have just finished watching Ken Burns (& Lynn Novick)'s 18 hour documentary about the Vietnam War. It is nothing if not comprehensive, containing an amazing amount of film, sound recording and photography from the era.

The Vietnam War must have been the most recorded war in history and this documentary is an amazing archive, if nothing else. Burns is one of the truly great documentary makers and thanks to his amazing American Civil War documentary is one of the few film makers to have an editing style named after him.

However, this video (despite an amazing approval rating on IMDB) seems to be the victim of having a very large editorial board behind it.

The best thing about it is the forensic reconstructions of some of the most memorable events of the war. How he did this is a mystery.
It's almost as if he had a time machine and was able to re-shoot the original footage. Yet he did it without staging anything, using exclusively original material.

The worst thing is that it represents the war as a contest between two powerful and well supplied armies and it ignores many of Kissinger's illegal bombing exercises in adjoining countries.

Whilst there were about three fairly large set piece battles (starting with the Tet offensive) these were exceptional events and most of the Vietnam War consisted of drugs, confusion and soldiers shooting above the heads of the enemy because they did not want to kill anyone. The grunts were mainly conscripts.

The documentary does feature soldiers saying they went out on patrol until they were out of sight and then hid, but it gives more prominence to the heroic efforts of genuinely brave (foolishly brave in my view) soldiers whose heroic efforts came to nothing as a result of bad leadership.

The Vietnam War makes it absolutely clear that both Presidents Johnson and Nixon knew perfectly well that the war was lost and only kept it going for political reasons (in the case of Johnson mainly pride). To kill 60,000 Americans (and probably ten times as many Vietnamese) for politics and pride is indeed evil.

However, in my view it is probably too early to make a documentary about the Vietnam War. It is clearly too raw, too fresh a subject to stand back and present an objective view.

Posted by Jonathan Brind.
Friday March 23, 2018