Even after the passage of 50 years time, it is hard to imagine anyone except Ken Burns who would have dared to take on a documentary about the Vietnam War. Love him or hate him, he has stature and respect and a resumé that means that, if nothing else, he cannot be ignored. Already, before it has aired, partisans of the extremes of opinion the culture has carried for all this time, are condemning it for not doing what it has expressly set out not to do – bring the issue to resolution.
The Vietnamese-American Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen has said that all wars happen twice, first on the battlefield and second in memory. The battlefields of Vietnam are empty and desolate now, airstrips crumbling into the earth, landing zones bulldozed for developments or fields, swords into plowshares. In another sense, of course, the war continues, for UXOs continue to maim and kill when they are unearthed in fields or played with by children and Agent Orange will cripple and deform for generations still to come. The official hostilities are over, though, and now Vietnam welcomes Americans as allies.
Memory, though. In memory the war has not ended. It is as if the history of that time is now the constant play of the “Ken Burns Effect” – the slow panning and zooming over still images, the anguished haunting of memory that cannot now be changed. Locked into oppositional positions, the partisans, in their deep psychological need to be Right about that war (“We could have won if they had let us, goddammit.” or “That war was an unmitigated evil. Goddammit.”) will miss a blessing inherent in the Effect – the restrained hand, the slow respect, the chance to draw breath. The sheer length will give us the opportunity to think again, see in a new way, allow the seeds of doubt, or compassion, or simply awareness to make the picture we hold in our minds more complex, deeper, more humane. The image above is an example – American Marines from the Vietnamese point of view. “There is something extraordinarily powerful,” co-director Lynn Novick says, “about having to listen to the stories of people you disagree with.”
Which brings us to another aspect of the Ken Burns Effect. Ken Burns documentaries are cultural events now. Some, like “The Civil War,” have changed the conversation, helped us to see its complexity. Most have taken on core aspects of American creativity, invention, and character. Whatever we will see, in 18 hours over most of two weeks, beginning on September 17, it is almost inevitable that, by the end of it, we will know something new about ourselves.
If you are someone remotely connected to this war, which means essentially, all of us, watch this documentary. Watch it in the company of others. Hold still, let it happen. Our times now are at least as turbulent as they were then – the 60s had no monopoly on the forces of change countered by the forces of repression. It may feel like revisiting the Vietnam War now is just too much, but perhaps there is no accident in the way these things happen. Healing comes from the willingness to enlarge one’s own world to encompass that of others. There is so much now that needs to be repaired, we may as well add the Vietnam War to the list. The way out is through.