A new 10-part series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick coaxes out stories from the Vietnam War, stories that have taken years to unearth. Karl Marlantes, 72, of Woodinville, is one of the veterans who appears in the documentary.
It’s easier now. Time has calmed hearts and minds and let lessons sink in.
People have gotten help with their wounds, others have apologized for those they caused. And a country has realized some of its misdeeds — including some of its leaders.
So the time feels right for “The Vietnam War,” a new, 10-part series by filmmaker Ken Burns and his collaborator Lynn Novick. It will premiere on the local PBS station, KCTS, starting Sept. 17.
‘The Vietnam War’
10-part series debuts at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17, KCTS channel 9
For the last 10 years, Burns and Novick have sat with those who fought in the war — and who fought against it — coaxing out stories of that dark time, which one interviewee compared to growing up with an alcoholic father. (“Shh,” he said.)
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“There seems to be a new openness and a willingness to have that kind of conversation,” Novick said when she and Burns visited Seattle earlier this summer. “And I think part of it is also including the Vietnamese perspectives. We’re acknowledging the humanity and inhumanity on all sides.”
The 15-hour journey begins with the clatter of a helicopter, a distinct and chilling sound of urgency, and conflict.
Over the Bob Dylan classic “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” narrator Peter Coyote reads the words of longtime Burns collaborator, the writer and historian Geoffrey C. Ward, who sums up the Vietnam War in measured, manageable sentences.
“America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended 30 years later in failure, witnessed by the entire world,” Coyote says. “It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War miscalculation.
“And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than admit that it has been caused by tragic decisions made by five American presidents belonging to both political parties.”
When the war ended in April 1975, more than 58,000 Americans were dead; 1,500 have never been found. At least 250,000 South Vietnamese troops died, as did more than a million North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas. Two million civilians died in the north and south, as did tens of thousands more in the states of Laos and Cambodia.
American forces left Indochina, communist governments took over South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; and South Vietnam was annexed by North Vietnam.
And America turned to healing divisions between those who went to Vietnam and those who refused, and who attacked returning veterans with spit and rage.
Ward called that time in American history “A decade of agony, the most divisive period since the Civil War.”
But the film isn’t just about those who experienced combat, Novick said.
“Our whole country was in a very extreme trauma of the war,” she said. “And everyone who lived through it had to deal with it in one way or another. If it was a Gold Star family, if it was a family that was split by the war. Or people who were facing crises of conscience about what to do.
“The memories are painful and raw in a lot of ways,” she said. “Still. And hopefully, it won’t always be. I don’t know.”
Karl Marlantes, 72, of Woodinville, is one of the veterans who appeared in the documentary, and was in Seattle with Burns and Novick for a screening and panel discussion.
Marlantes was a Rhodes scholar who left Oxford after one semester to volunteer for active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps and go to Vietnam. In 2010, he wrote “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War” based on his combat experience.
He spoke with Burns and Novick for six months before they ever turned the camera on, and even then, it was a struggle.
“Their other documentaries are like, ‘What do you think about what the Red Sox did in 1919?’” he told me. “But when you’re talking about what you did in the war, I mean … you start trembling. You’ve got to trust these people.
“I don’t think I could have talked about it before now,” he continued. “I hadn’t gone through the whole post-traumatic stress thing. The VA psychologists. I had never heard about PTSD, and 20 years ago, the country had never heard of it.
“A lot of these veterans wouldn’t have been able to talk. It’s taken time. I don’t think you could have done much before now.”
The film also includes interviews with Vietnamese veterans who give the film more depth and context.
“There’s a slogan on the poster that says, ‘There’s no one truth in war,’ and that’s true,” Burns said. “We feel we made a space where lots of perspectives could coexist without making the other perspective wrong at the same time.”
Burns doesn’t feel like he has to come to any conclusions about Vietnam, or any of the other American institutions he’s chronicled, be it The Civil War, cancer, the Roosevelts or even baseball.
“We are passionately interested in how our country works,” he explained, “and all of our films ask that question: ‘Who are we?’ We don’t consciously go in thinking we are the ‘answer people’ about the big institutional things. We decide to pursue that question, knowing the answer will never come.”
In the case of “The Vietnam War,” Burns said, “it’s been 10 years of figuring out how to manage a Russian novel that has a complexity of five American presidents and 80 on-camera people and 145 soundtracks.
“We have so many parts that if we ever took our eyes off just getting today’s job done and considered larger questions, it would result in — as (John F.) Kennedy said about Vietnam early in his career — ‘foredoomed failure.’”
One thing became clear to the filmmakers early on: America’s leaders knew more than they let on, and the war went on far longer than it should have. Those things should make viewers even more curious about current events and conflicts.
“There was something profound about finding out what our leaders knew and finding out later what they didn’t tell the public,” Novick said. “It’s a good thing for our country to understand.”
Said Burns: “You wonder what’s going to come out now about Iraq and Afghanistan as stuff is declassified, as people write memoirs. You begin to understand the dynamics of that, and it’s chilling. Because it cost lots of lives.”
Now that the film is finished and set to air, Burns and Novick are asking viewers to keep the conversation going with a dedicated Facebook page and a spot on the website where they can share their stories.
They’re also mourning a bit, like parents watching a child go off to college.
“We learned a lot and have a lot more clarity about some of the major forces at work that propelled us into the war and that got us out of it,” Novick said. “There are some parts that are still pretty murky and obscure because there are some questions that you really can’t answer.”
“And that’s OK,” Burns said.