The Vietnam War: An Intimate History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, Alfred A. Knopf, US $60.00, Pp 640, September 2017, ISBN 978-0307700254
The Vietnam War came to an end a little more than forty years ago but we the Americans are still trying to grapple with the bitter reality and truth of the war that deeply divided the nation. The political fault-lines created during the Vietnam War still divide us. As a nation, we still have to agree on why we entered that war. Award-winning historian and filmmakers Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns got together again and produced a major, multipart PBS film and The Vietnam War, the companion volume. The film was premiered in September 2017. Continuing the collaboration they started with the production of The Civil War, Baseball, The War, The Roosevelts, and others, Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns look at the Vietnam War in a refreshingly way.
Nearly a decade ago, as Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns were completing postproduction on a seven-part series about the American experience in WWII, they resolved to make a movie on the painful, bitter, confounding, and much-misunderstood tragedy that was the war in Vietnam. Ward and Burns say, from the start, they vowed to avoid the limits of binary political perspective and the shortcuts of conventional wisdom and superficial history. This was a war of many perspectives, a Rashomon of equally plausible “stories” of secrets, lies, and distortions at every turn. They wanted to try to contain and faithfully reflect those seemingly irreconcilable outlooks. Ward and Burns write, “We were interested in trying to understand the colonial experience of the French – and the way it eerily prefigured what would befall the United States in subsequent years. We wanted to find out what actually happened in the halls of power in Washington, Hanoi, Saigon, and to get to know the leaders who made the decisions that determined the fates of millions.
Though the availability of recently declassified records, ongoing scholarship, and revelatory, sometimes shocking, audio-recordings, the actions and motives of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon are laid bare, as are the complicated power struggle going on in South Vietnam during the autocratic, ruthless regime of Ngo Dinh Diem and the succession of generals who followed him. Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns say that of particular focus for them were the fascinating political dynamics in Hanoi, where the familiar figure of Ho Chi Minh fought for supremacy with other less well-known but more powerful figures.
They wanted to understand and show what the war was like on the battlefield and on the home front, and they wanted to find out why Americans have been unable to have a conversation about one of the most consequential events in their history. Marine veteran Karl Marlantes told them, “For years, we just did not talk about that war. You should open your mouth and you’d ask, which side was this person on? Am I going to get into a fight here? It’s like living in a family with an alcoholic father… You know, shh, we don’t talk about that.”
Ward and Burns say that the war remains as unsettled and painful for the Vietnamese as it is for us. For decades, they too have avoided speaking about what happened. The memory of the nearly incomprehensible price they paid in “blood and bone” has been too grievous. But now, as they near the end of their lives, some Vietnamese players want their families, and the world, to know what they went through. General Lo Khac Tam told Ward and Burns on camera, “The war we fought was so horribly brutal I don’t have words to describe it. I know, how can we ever explain to the younger generation the price their parents and grandparents paid?”
The Vietnam War is richly illustrated with some great and rare and previously unpublished photographs of Vietnam War. These photos bring the war to life and show how brutal the war was. The photos are accompanied by the history of the war by great historians Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns who have drawn on many dozens of original interviews in America and Vietnam. Many of these interviewees speak on the record for the first time and give their unique perspectives. The Vietnam War helps us understand why the war happened the way it happened but does not answer the question why we entered the war. Unless we have the answer to that question we will keep entering the wars which are not ours.