Ken Burns

Documentarian Ken Burns on How Vietnam Explains the Current Political Moment

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Ken Burns. Photo by Julian Dufort.

Filmmaker Ken Burns is best known as the disembodied voice accompanying black-and-white photographs of everything from baseball players to whiskey bootleggers to Confederate soldiers. This fall, he's back with a new 10-part documentary for PBS, The Vietnam War, created with longtime collaborator Lynn Novick. In June, Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Burns to discuss the project.

Q: Why should we be talking about Vietnam now?

A: We think it's the most important event in American history in the second half of the 20th century. If we want to understand the political divisions and the lack of civil discourse that bedevils us today, the seeds of that were planted in Vietnam. If you could unpack the fraudulence of the conventional wisdom, and repack it benefiting from the testimony of people who lived through it and the recent scholarship that has taken place—and also to triangulate with the South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese perspectives, which are almost always left behind—you have an opportunity to understand it better and maybe pull out some of these fuel rods of discourse.

Q: In one scene from the documentary, General Westmoreland goes on TV and says, "I can give you a bunch of statistics on how we're winning," and it's like, "We're shooting this many bullets." But there was no real indicator of what success would look like.

A: Part of the tragedy is that many people in government, at high policy levels, understood this and did not reflect it. You can hear in the tapes the anguish of [Lyndon Johnson] or the anguish of Richard Nixon, and then they both go out the next day and say the exact opposite of what's going on.

Q: Looking back, the access that reporters got to troops in the field during Vietnam is stunning.

A: This is the key ingredient. During World War II, [press access] was really limited. In Vietnam, you got your credentials, you promised not to betray ongoing operations, and you were free. What happened is that the Vietnam War revealed itself to the press and they reported it back to the United States.

What the military learned is: We're not doing that anymore. So the "embed" idea is a way of babysitting a journalist. You're not going to ever get to watch [the war] as Morley Safer did: soldiers burning a village in retaliation for the fact that they'd received some fire from there, and then quite frankly saying, "We have no feeling for these people," even though the obvious calculus is that if you destroy the village you are creating more enemies.

Q: In one episode, the Marine Karl Marlantes says, "Think about how many times we get ourselves into scrapes as a nation because we are always the good guys. Sometimes I think that if we thought we weren't always the good guys, we might actually get into less wars." Has America changed its self-image when it comes to military interventions?

A: You know, we learned some lessons, and the military was very anxious to apply those lessons with Desert Storm [the 1991 invasion of Iraq]: to have a very clear rationale, a very clear sense of beginning, and middle, and end.

Q: And the importance of having a wide, multinational consensus.

A: Right, and we had a clear enemy who had done a bad thing, invaded another country, so it hearkened back to other very clear, delineated world wars that we fought.

But it's the policy makers who actually succumb, for domestic political considerations, but also because of sentimentality.…Our memories are very short with regard to the cost of war.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.

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32 responses to “Documentarian Ken Burns on How Vietnam Explains the Current Political Moment


  1. Q: Why should we be talking about Vietnam now?

    If you could unpack the fraudulence of the conventional wisdom, and repack it benefiting from the testimony of people who lived through it and the recent scholarship that has taken place?and also to triangulate with the South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese perspectives, which are almost always left behind?you have an opportunity to understand it better and maybe pull out some of these fuel rods of discourse

    That thar is some authentic faux-intellectual, pedantic-obscurantist gibberish

    “unpack, repack, triangulate, fuel-rods: Got it!”

    1. translation:

      “Lefty hippy baby-boomer Rightfeels, Good!
      America, especially anti-commie America, bad!””

      (complex handwaving gestures intended to obscure the fact that it was Kennedy and Johnson who really owned the war)

      the fact he cites Desert Storm as an example of ‘very clear rationale’ just shows how fucking stupid Ken Burns is.

      Its hardly a recipe for marlante’s idea of how to get “less war”: its the hubris of thinking that the US, provided it has a large enough coalition and ‘overwhelming force’, has a mandate to intervene anywhere and accomplish some complex geopolitical task with guns.

      But Desert Storm didn’t actually accomplish shit. Clinton spent the next 8 years quietly bombing Iraq, and yet nick acts like somehow the Gulf War was as decisive as the erasure of the Nazi regime. All it did was put a rogue state on low-boil and give the UN a mandate to sanction/extort a country into further rogue-status. Desert Storm was an idiotic and hideous expansion of the Carter Doctrine which directly resulted in our now almost 20-year “War on Terror”. See: Andrew Bacevitch. Also: “Romancing the Sunni: a US Policy Tragedy

      1. Also. I didn’t read this to say that Desert Storm actually had a very clear rationale, only that the military was anxious to create that conventional wisdom to create the consensus they needed. And the quote is in the context of Muriantes proposition that we’re always the good guys with all of the historical baggage that comes with that notion.
        ” But it’s the policy makers who actually succumb, for domestic political considerations, but also because of sentimentality.?Our memories are very short with regard to the cost of war.”

      2. Desert Storm had a very clear rationale – end the invasion of Kuwait and send Iraq packing. Its a bullshit rationale, to be sure. Like you said, ‘we can fix it, we’ve got guns’ is a stupid way to go about business.

        Then, like everything else, once accomplished that rationale changed from ‘stopping an invasion’ to ‘preserving our phoney balogna jobs gentlemen!’ Which is why Clinton spent the next 8 years bombing the place – too many people saw that their rise in status would be reversed once they were no longer needed so they ginned up excuse after excuse to keep fucking around in order to keep collecting that paycheck.

        Its at least 75% of the reason we invaded Iraq again – too many people have seen that the way to prominence in the public sector is blowing up BSP’s.

        1. Desert Storm had a very clear rationale – end the invasion of Kuwait and send Iraq packing.

          “Packing”? where? a few hundred miles back across their border, where they will be capable of doing the same (or worse) at some future date when we’re weren’t stationing troops in perpetuity in the region anymore?

          The ‘rationale’ extends a lot farther than you’re allowing. You make it sound like Operation Quick + Easy when as i already noted: our action required us to become the perma-babysitter of the region.

          Read the linked Codavilla piece (“Romancing the Sunni”). People fail to appreciate the significance of Gulf I in how it effectively made the US a permanent oversight-force in the region. Nick + Burns completely misunderstand it by pretending it had some “very clear sense of beginning, and middle, and end.”:

          It “began” around 1980 when Carter decided the gulf region was a strategic US interest; and it hasn’t “ended” yet. We still have troops in Iraq *right fucking now*.

          if this is how blind and ignorant he is to contemporary history, i have little confidence in his ever teasing some new lessons out of vietnam.

      3. Quietly bombing Iraq w nitro-whisperin?

    2. I thought the quote made a lot of sense. Whether the new conventional wisdom, created by his TV show, results in pulling out any fuel rods I rather doubt.

    3. This, Gilmore.

      This.

      Spot the jargon and ye shall see truth.

      1. ‘fuel rods of discourse’

        Ahhhh shaaaadappp!

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMaUBeaiHnQ

  2. What about the CIA’s secret war going on at the same time?

    Try “The Politics of Heroin in South East Asia” McCoy.

    Or this shorter version:

    The Trillion Dollar A Year Scam

    1. Read it about thirty years ago. Predicted the heroin problem of today when the war started in Afghanistan.

      1. Only there is virtually no Afghani heroin in the American market.

  3. How Vietnam explains the current libertarian moment.

    That’s right. This is it.

  4. Like some Stalin-era ‘hero tractor driver’, Burns always seems to be staring off into the middle distance.
    Hey, Burns! We’re over here, sorta where the rubber meets the road.

  5. Student protesters at UVa drape Thomas Jefferson in a burkha

    “A group of protesters shrouded the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the Rotunda on Tuesday night….

    “The base of the statue was draped with a sign that read “Black Lives Matter – [Fuck] White Supremacy.” Other members of the crowd carried signs that said “Thomas Jefferson is a racist and a rapist,” as well as “End Hate Now.” They also shouted chants of “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!””

    1. Cavalier daily. They’ve slipped from the Washington Post. The end is nigh.

      How many months before we see a sign for BLM reading, “This Sunday at the Emerald Queen Casino, Black Lives Matter & REO Speedwagon!”

    1. Stuff like this reminds me that Mike Judge’s only mistake in Idiocracy was setting it much too far in the future.

  6. Ken Burns is a leftist hack.

    His series “The Roosevelts” conveniently left out a series discussion on T.R. genocide of Indians and Franklin’s internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps.

    1. It’s incumbent on us to understand our role in history. For example, Churchill handing the Cossacks to the Soviets wasn’t his finest moment but it’s not mentioned whenever we suck his cock about how great he was.

      1. Britain went to war with Germany because Germany invaded Poland. After being on the winning side, Churchill went to Yalta and helped give Poland to the Soviet Union. I’ve often wondered what the veterans thought of that little irony.

        1. Germany and the Soviet Union *jointly* invaded Poland from opposite sides and divided the country between them. A historical fact that seems constantly on the verge of being forgotten.

        2. Germany and the Soviet Union *jointly* invaded Poland from opposite sides and divided the country between them. A historical fact that seems constantly on the verge of being forgotten.

          1. I bring it up as much as humanly possible which drives the lefties crazy.

            Two socialist nations (USSR & Nazi Germany) entered into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 and invaded Poland from East and West in 1939.

  7. This is why people think Reason is little better than the Huffington Post, letting leftist hacks spew propaganda unchallenged

  8. I remember being impressed with Ken Burns documentaries a long time ago. Like… back in the 90s. But I re-watched one recently– or started to, and I was left a bit cold. It seemed from a film-making standpoint, he took the short road. Take a bunch of photographs, have them slowly drift across the screen to give the viewer the illusion of movement, then narrate it or have celebrities read letters.

    I mean, I’m not saying they’re bad, but I will go so far as saying they’re highly overrated.

    I’ve watched obscure documentaries from lord-knows-who that are free on Youtube which are very high quality and if one avails themselves of the lesson, a lot of solid, quality history can be learned about a particular time or world event.

  9. “This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.”

    How drunk and stoned was everyone?

  10. Well I expecting some kind of Trump-worse-than-Nixon arguments or something, but all we got is a rehash of Bush I vs Bush II doctrine arguments, and something about the importance of good war propaganda. Where’s the unpacked fuel rods?

  11. he lack of civil discourse that bedevils us today, the seeds of that were planted in Vietnam

    I would offer that political discourse has never been civil

    ….and that the only similarities between then and now are: “lefty college kids are making asses of themselves in the streets”

    Given no threat of draft exists today, the reason seems to be pure petulance.

    If there’s any lesson about vietnam, it has to do with cold war politics. he could have simply said, “we need to understand how fucked up the cold war was”, and spared us the (fuel) rods; but maybe that would spoil whatever narrative he’s superimposed.

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