Editorial: War documentary serves as catalyst for discussing current affairs

  • Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the minds behind “The Vietnam War” documentary film. The documentary is being broadcast on PBS, with episodes airing at 8 and 9 p.m., Sundays through Thursdays. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/Mike Pride

Monday, September 18, 2017

As we wrestle with the anger, lies and racism ripping apart the fabric of the United States today, filmmaker Ken Burns reminds us that such turmoil echoes an earlier time, when this country was deeply divided by distrust, despair and violence.

His 10-part, 18-hour documentary “The Vietnam War,” which began Sunday night on PBS, delves deeply into one of the most painful periods of recent American history. By many accounts, this series is the most powerful piece of an impressive body of work by Burns, a Hampshire College graduate who has become a popular, renowned historian.

Along with co-director Lynn Novick from his Florentine Films team, Burns, 64, tells the story of this tragic time, which he lived through, from all sides: North Vietnamese communists and their Viet Cong allies, South Vietnam and the United States, showing the heroes and villains among the players, military and civilian, as the war and its opposition unfolded.

The series, like all of Burns’ documentaries, calls for a large time commitment from viewers during consecutive days. But for those who watch, particularly those who are too young to have lived through it, the series is enlightening about the war, its impact on America and the government actions that inflicted so much pain here and in Vietnam.

Much of the praise the series has drawn from early viewers focuses on Burns’ and Novick’s decision to skip the expert historians who provided key voices in Burns’ “The Civil War,” and their earlier work together on “The War” (about WWII), “Jazz” and “Baseball.” Instead, they let eyewitnesses do the talking: veterans from all sides, war protesters, relatives of the dead or damaged soldiers.

The filmmakers also include audio tapes of presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon — which reveal their deceitfulness in frank, disturbing language — as well as raw combat footage. Some veterans who have seen previews of that footage found it hard to take.

Lidon “Don” Chevannes, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam during 1970 and 1971, was one of the four panelists who discussed the screening following an hour-long preview of the series on Sept. 10 at the Academy of Music in Northampton. “I didn’t watch it,” he admitted after it ended.

Chevannes, who was drafted into the Army and came home with post-traumatic stress disorder, said, “I just hope what this film will do is make America learn that there is a big cost to war and it’s an even greater cost when these men and women come home.”

While Burns and Novick say their team worked hard to present a balanced picture, that may not be possible with such an emotional subject. Another of the panelists, Michael Klare, director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies, said he was immediately angered.

“I got upset in the first minute of the movie and I haven’t calmed down since,” he told the audience. He referred to a statement in the prologue that the war “was begun in good faith, by decent people” who misunderstood the circumstances. Rejecting that, Klare said: “I think that they were people driven by hubris and arrogance and racism in the sense they had utter contempt for the people of Vietnam. They had no understanding whatsoever what those people were fighting for and as a result, they brought us into an utter catastrophe.”

The panel’s moderator, Northampton attorney and civil libertarian William Newman, found the preview staggering. “I don’t know about you, but I can barely stand,” he said at its conclusion. Newman was a student attending Antioch College in Ohio in 1970 when three students were shot and killed by National Guard officers during an anti-war rally at nearby Kent State University. He has said that the war and the social turmoil surrounding it shaped his adult life.

Burns’ and Novick’s “The Vietnam War,” will provoke hard reflection and discussion by Americans. That will be a good thing for all of us as we try to make sense of the discord we face today.

“The Vietnam War” will be broadcast on PBS Sundays through Thursdays through Sept. 28, with each episode airing at 8 and 9:30 p.m.