Month: January 2018

Masur Reviews Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Note: Professor Masur wrote a review of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS series The Vietnam War for the North Dakota Quarterly. The essay is reprinted here with permission. Professor Masur’s preliminary thoughts on the first episode of the series appeared on the blog in September.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War

America’s war in Vietnam, which ended almost fifty years ago, has never really faded from the country’s memory. Every American military intervention since the mid-1970s has elicited inevitable comparisons to Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial remains one of the most popular destinations in Washington, D.C. The Vietnam War and Vietnam vets continue to crop up in American movies and television programs. Colleges and universities around the country offer courses on the Vietnam War, and Millennials have shown no signs of losing interest in the topic.

This year in particular the Vietnam War seems to be on the minds of Americans. The Post, Steven Spielberg’s most recent film, recreates a pivotal event related to the war: the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of American involvement in Vietnam. Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of some of the War’s most fateful years, the New York Times has been publishing a series of articles looking back on the events of 1967 and 1968. Last fall, PBS began broadcasting Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part series The Vietnam War.

The Burns and Novick series is of particular interest because viewers tend to judge documentaries as more credible and “truthful” than Hollywood adaptations like The Post. And The Vietnam War it is likely to reach a wider audience than the New York Times series, and will certainly reach more Americans than most scholarly articles and books on the war. If earlier Burns and Novick productions are any indication, The Vietnam War will be watched and re-watched in living rooms and classrooms around the country. High school teachers and college teachers may lean heavily on the series, not only because it is a convenient way to present the war but also because it is powerful and informative. In other words, The Vietnam War may, for the time being, become the single most influential source in shaping Americans’ understanding of the history of the Vietnam War.

As would be expected for an 18-hour series, The Vietnam War offers ample material for analysis. Early reviews have applauded the series for its powerful use of first-hand recollections of the War. Some critics have lambasted Burns and Novick for favoring “balance” over accuracy. These critics feel that the series presents a false equivalence between the United States and its Vietnamese enemies, thus failing to hold the U.S. fully accountable for the war. Many have focused on one line of narration that comes early in the series: the assertion that American officials acted in “good faith” when they oversaw U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

Whatever the documentary’s virtues or shortcomings, Burns and Novick have made an effort to “Vietnamize” their account of the Vietnam War. (“Vietnamize” is a loaded term, of course, as it refers the strategy of shifting military responsibility from the United States to South Vietnam. President Nixon, most closely associated with “Vietnamization,” found the term preferable to its synonym: “de-Americanization.”) The series is available with Vietnamese subtitles, a nod to the fact that the Vietnamese themselves are not only sources for the series, but also a potential audience. Viewers will also notice right away that Burns and Novick include numerous Vietnamese interviewees throughout the series. Less obviously, the historical narrative in the series relies on important recent scholarship on North and South Vietnam during the war. Although The Vietnam War still gives primacy to the war as an American experience (not surprising for a film produced and broadcast in the United States), it gives Vietnam and the Vietnamese a more prominent place in the story.

The most riveting segments of The Vietnam War come from the first-hand accounts of the war. A few stand out. Marine Corps veteran John Musgrave vividly describes his combat experience in Vietnam, his post-war struggles, and his decision to protest against the war. A soldier from Roxbury, Mass. recalls a conversation with his mother, who assures him that he’ll make it back alive because she “talk[s] to God every day and your special.” “I’m putting pieces of special people in bags,” he replies.

Viewers hear the story of enlisted man Denton “Mogie” Crocker from his sister Carol and his mother Jean-Marie. The fact that Mogie himself is present only in pictures and letters tips off viewers to his ultimate fate. The foreshadowing makes it no less heart-wrenching when Carol and Jean-Marie describe the day that they learned of his death.

In an effort to present a more complete account of the Vietnam War, the series also includes interviews with numerous Vietnamese participants. Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese veteran and novelist, appears in multiple episodes and provides some important insights about the War. In episode nine, he describes the conflict as a “civil war”—a characterization that is generally at odds with the Party-sanctioned narrative that the Vietnamese were fighting primarily against a neo-imperialist foreign enemy. Bao Ninh also offers a touching anecdote near the end of the series. Describing his return home after the war, he says that his mom was overwhelmed with emotion:

For six years my mother had no idea if I was alive or dead. . . . My mother cried [when I returned]. But we didn’t make a scene. . . . In our apartment building, six young men were drafted, and I was the only one to return. We didn’t dare celebrate, didn’t dare express our joy, because our neighbors lost their children.

The series reflects the prominent role that Vietnamese women played in the conflict. Duong Van Mai Elliott describes her experience as a young woman interviewing NLF captives for the RAND Corporation. A North Vietnamese woman talks about her time as a truck driver ferrying materials down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, constantly threatened by American bombing. Americans may not be surprised to hear American soldiers talk about killing the enemy, but it is still a bit stunning when soft-spoken NLF veteran Nguyen Thi Hoa cooly describes her actions during the Tet Offensive: “When I found them, I shot them. An American, not that far away, about three meters. He opened fire. I raised my AK. I aimed. I had to shoot him. [Pause.] And I dropped him.”

While the interviews with Vietnamese participants do provide much-needed balance to the series, they do not quite carry the emotional heft of many of the American accounts. The series includes some story arcs that span several episodes: the Crockers worrying about Mogie’s fate; Hal Kushner undergoing a harrowing ordeal as a POW and not seeing his family—including a son born after he left for Vietnam—for over five years; Matt Harrison volunteering for a second tour to prevent his brother from being deployed. For the most part, the interviews with Vietnamese participants do not have the same depth, limiting their dramatic power.

The series includes Vietnamese perspectives in other ways as well. The historical narrative that is woven throughout The Vietnam War incorporates some of the most recent scholarship on the war, much of it exploring the political, economic, social, and environmental conditions in North and South Vietnam during the conflict. Several episodes depict the political and social unrest that plagued South Vietnam during the war, but the series also acknowledges that the South Vietnamese generally enjoyed more political freedom than their counterparts in the North. In a stunning revelation, a North Vietnamese Army veteran admits that up to 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians from Hue were massacred in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. “We rarely speak of it,” he says. “So please be careful making your film because I could get in trouble.”

The Vietnam War also incorporates recent scholarship revealing that Le Duan, rather than Ho Chi Minh, was the most powerful North Vietnamese official for most of the war. A hardliner, Le Duan generally pushed for a more aggressive military strategy in the South and seemed willing to accept high numbers of casualties as the cost of victory. Until recently, Le Duan has usually appeared as a secondary figure in scholarship on the war—if he is included at all. His name appears only eight times in Stanley Karnow’s 700-page tome Vietnam: A History, the companion book to PBS’ 1983 multi-part Vietnam documentary. The second edition of George Herring’s America’s Longest War (1986), for years the most popular textbook on the war, did not include him at all. (Even during the war the United States was slow to realize Le Duan’s significance. Episode 5 features a recording of a conversation from early 1966 that appears to be the first time Lyndon Johnson had ever heard his name—Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has to spell it aloud for the President.) But Le Duan crops up again and again in the Burns and Novick series, usually pushing for another bloody military offensive that he hopes will finally bring victory.

In spite of its efforts to show the war from many perspectives, The Vietnam War does have some unfortunate omissions. The series briefly describes the devastating effects of the war on Laos and Cambodia, but does not include any Lao or Khmer interviewees to tell their stories. Several American interviewees express their sadness at what they consider America’s betrayal of its South Vietnamese allies at the end of the war. The Hmong who participated in America’s covert activities in Lao were similarly left to fend for themselves, often experiencing similar oppression and suffering. And yet they are not even mentioned in the series. By the same token, the final episode briefly mentions that ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam were singled out for oppression in the years after the war ended. Their stories would provide even more evidence of the tragic nature of the war.

Any account of the Vietnam War will necessarily include some gaps and oversights. But viewers who watch the entire series—no small commitment—will encounter the central historical themes of the war. They will also be rewarded with a very human depiction of the Vietnam War, one which places the experiences of the participants at the forefront.

Advertisements

Hollywood History is Wrong–and Maybe That’s OK

Historical films and TV shows are now all the rage. On the big screen, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, The Post, Victoria & Abdul, American Made, and a host of other films set in distinct historical periods have caught audiences’ attention. Folks staying at home who content themselves with the tube have been treated to shows like Vikings, The Crown, Victoria, Poldark, Peaky Blinders, and Medici.

But now Simon Jenkins at The Guardian comes to ruin the party by resurrecting an old lament: Hollywood history is fake.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/11/hollywood-history-churchill-getty-trust-fiction?CMP=fb_gu

Indeed, Jenkins condemns this history in the strongest terms—the title of his piece more or less claims that movies treating historical topics are just as phony as “Russian propaganda.” Jenkins points out several examples of events in such films and TV that were manufactured (e.g. Darkest Hour has Churchill taking the Tube in London and asking commuters whether they wanted to make peace with Germany—which, of course, never happened).

Jenkins sees this cavalier attitude toward the truth as a symptom of a contemporary world that has lost its bearings, where journalism “is now made up of unattributed quotes” and the line between fact and fiction has been blurred by tolerance of fake news.

This blog has read The Guardian for a long time and understands that it has several axes to grind. The Guardian generally dislikes American culture and especially Hollywood. Its attitude toward Americans could be summed up generally by Fanny Trollope’s famous condemnation in Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832): “I do not like them. I do not like their principles; I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.” Moreover, The Guardian’s politics has made it wary of films like Dunkirk (which to some seems whitewashed and pro-Brexit) and Darkest Hour (the contemporary left in Britain very much dislikes Churchill). Still, Jenkins may be half right.

One Thing after Another has complained in the past about historical inaccuracies in films, especially among those whose explicit purpose seems to be didactic in some way. The thing is, though, there is nothing new about such films. They are not a product of a contemporary truthless age. Hollywood has always produced such movies. Take, for example, The Story of Louis Pasteur, which won Best Story, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (Paul Muni) at the Academy Awards in 1936. It was terribly inaccurate. But that did not set it apart from all the other major biopics headlined by major stars during that period. Think of Queen Christina (1933), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Annie Oakley (1935), Rembrandt (1936), Mary of Scotland (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Marie Antoinette (1938), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). We could also refer to films set in particular historical periods (e.g. The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was released in 1934, or Gone with the Wind, which appeared in 1939). These films are rotten history, but there were important differences between that time and ours. These differences emerges in the Frank Nuget review of The Louis Pasteur Story which appeared in The New York Times and is worth quoting at length:

There are times when even a film reviewer feels the need of a preamble and today is one of them. With your permission, then, before speaking of “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” which moved into the Strand over the week-end, the department will confess that it is guilty of heresy. It believes that accuracy is not the most important part of biography. It will accept errors of time and place cheerfully, and it will condone the addition of known fiction to known fact provided these untruths are committed in the interests of a greater truth, which would be the preservation of spirit—not the chronological letter—of a man’s life.

“The Story of Louis Pasteur” telescopes the French scientist’s years and highlights his achievements. It embroils him in a prolonged feud with the French Academy of Sciences and its president. It has him incur Napoleon III’s displeasure and virtual banishment from Paris. It delays his recognition until the evening of his life. It portrays him as a model of scientific detachment, the laboratory method personified, a modest, academic, self-effacing man.

Most, if not all, of this is against the weight of such biographical evidence as one might encounter in staid Britannica or in the more lively pages of Paul De Kruif. And yet, possibly because we have heretical notions, we believe that Warners’ “The Story of Louis Pasteur” is an excellent biography, just as it is a notable photoplay, dignified in subject, dramatic in treatment and brilliantly played by Paul Muni, Fritz Leiber, Josephine Hutchinson and many other members of the cast.

There are two important points worth highlighting about this review. First, Nugent conceived of films and even biopics as art. He recognized that The Story of Louis Pasteur, like most other forms of art, fudged facts or “reality” to present larger more important truths. Second, Nugent was educated enough to know that The Story of Louis Pasteur was factually inaccurate. In other words, he had the capacity to distinguish between art and history, and he performed the service of letting his readers know what the distinction was. If there are differences between Nugent’s time and ours, they amount to the following. First, nowadays, many people possess so little understanding of history and art that they cannot grasp that “historical” films are more art than history. Second, contemporary reviewers, whose task consists of educating the public, have conspicuously failed to delineate the distinction between art and history—largely because they know nothing about the past.

The preceding seems to suggest that what is wanted among audiences and critics today is a broad, liberal education that would allow both to navigate the world of culture somewhat better. In this context, it should be pointed out that Nugent, who reviewed films for The New York Times for years, eventually moved to Hollywood and, among other things, worked with the famous director John Ford. In this capacity, Nugent wrote the screenplay for The Searchers, widely considered one of the finest Westerns ever made. We cannot claim that Nugent was the product of a liberal arts education (he attended Columbia University where he studied journalism), but judging from The Searchers, he was, for the times, a man of wide, human sympathies who understood much about people and things. If we cannot obtain our film critics from liberal arts colleges, maybe these sympathies and understandings, which we associate with a liberal education, are a good place to start.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.