Thank you Megan Hughes for taking the notes, writing them up and sharing them with us! – Lil
Ken Burns — In the Wake of Vietnam
“History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme,” said Ken Burns, quoting Mark Twain. He talked about Vietnam, its significance, and documentary film-making in a talk hosted by the Walpole International Affairs Discussion Group before 190 people on February 13th at Alyson’s Orchard.
“The Vietnam War” — co-directed and co-produced by Burns and Lynn Novick and written by Geoffrey C. Ward — traces the conflict and how the effects of war rippled through the lives of those who fought it, as well as through the very fabric of life, American and Vietnamese. It is an account riven by different views — from all sides at all levels — of what was at stake, a telling marked by listening. The see-sawing of power and the death, wounding, and uprooting of millions is braided with personal accounts of those who had been in the thick of battle whose voices still bear the imprint decades later.
“The half-life of grief is endless,”said Burns of the loss of his mother when he was a child, but also speaking in the context of the grief engendered by war where the vast expanse of casualties threatens to numb feeling. “If we had given $600,000 to each South Vietnamese person,” he said at one point, “we would have spent less, the country would be successful, and three million more people would be alive.”
Burns ticks off a list: a President convinced the press lies, top documents stolen, deals made with other countries before a national election. He is describing issues nearly half a century ago. “Vietnam was a Pandora’s box” and the human actions and interactions revealed there, he said, are universal. Speaking of the here and now, he remarked, “We are in uncharted waters. We have never had anything like this,” adding, “The history “rhymes” in other countries’ experiences, but you don’t want me to name them.” He spoke of journalism as something of a counterweight, “the first rough draft of history,” as Philip L. Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post, put it. “But no one ever turns in a rough draft. History eventually gets it right.”
The question-and-answer format of the talk was moderated by Bill Dakin, a Vermont veteran who was severely wounded in Vietnam. In attendance was Thomas Vallely, a decorated Marine interviewed in the film and now Senior Advisor on Mainland Southeast Asia at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center.
Burns said of the life of soldiers “Nothing is more vivifying than to know that your violent death is possible any second.” On the front they could be set up as bait with commands to “Go out and draw fire.” Without a draft, Burns said, “People don’t have skin in the game. We have created a separate military class that suffers its losses apart and alone from the vast majority of Americans.” And, he noted, “the burdens of fighting fall disproportionately on the poor.” Discrimination by race existed, he said, but evaporated in battle. The film shows the folly in war–of land being taken, then immediately abandoned. Such folly was amplified when military decisions were made simply to advance a drive for re-election. Asked about post-traumatic stress disorder, Burns said there are records of it back to the time of Agamemnon (who, in Homer’s Iliad, led the Greeks in the Trojan War 3,500 years ago). The Greeks called it “divine madness, ” Burns said, and it has gone by other names since, including shell shock and combat fatigue. Soldiers carried it home. He mentioned one veteran driving with his four-year-old who suddenly found himself kicking in the windshield of another driver’s car. He now talks himself down, saying the offending driver must be having a bad day. As to the Vietnamese, who suffered greater casualties, Burns said they had not seen photos of the carnage, were not given information, and had not been asked about their experiences. He told of one North Vietnamese soldier who returned home to a muted welcome out of consideration for neighboring families mourning kin who had not returned. For American troops, Burns said, “You went alone and came back alone.”
Asked what response to his film from the military interested him, Burns noted that they hated not having been able to stop traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail (dozens of paths coursing over thousands of miles). They consequently developed precision-guided bombing, with a loss over the last 25 years (not counting accidents) of only six planes.
Challenged on the idea of parallel patterns of history, Burns replied that yes, the agricultural and industrial revolutions change how we might live; that you could change culture, religion, and language; but that there is, as noted in Eccliastes, “nothing new under the sun,” that “human nature doesn’t change.” He advocated for a return to the teaching of civics. “It’s a manual of how you got things done together.”
In reference to the protests of the Sixties, Dakin asked if the fervor has died out or is it still there to tap. “It’s still there,” Burns said, “Not only here, but around the world.”
Asked about what biases he might have, he answered, “I love this country. I believe all people are created equal.” As to faults, he said, smiling, that he, like any other, can be hard-pressed to know what they are, citing his ancestor Robert Burns’ plea “for the gift to see ourselves as others see us.” But, he said, he thinks working collaboratively mitigates against that. He said they work to double-, triple-, and quadruple-check facts. “Both sides,” he said, “trusted us to get it right.”
Rejecting the descriptor “historian,” Burns sees himself as a storyteller of the rhymes of history. Initially, he found revisiting the issue of Vietnam “staggering.” “Everything we thought we knew was wrong.” But ultimately he found it “exhilarating.” He credits Novick for insisting on the inclusion of perspectives from the Vietnamese. He is drawn to the complexity of story, giving voice to “many truths,” and alert to what jazz musician Wynton Marsalis said, that “sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing can be true at the same time.” “Art,” Burns added, “can hit the yes and no at the same time.” He embraces paradox, wanting to “always be asking who we are but never being able to answer it, of course.” And he seeks that improbable calculus where “1+1=3,” where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. As to impact, “there is,” he said, “no such thing as a national conversation.” “But,” he added, “you can ignite individual conversations.” He tells of people saying their relatives never talked of their time in Vietnam. But they watched the film and have begun to talk. It is strong counterpoint to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger intoning “No one will remember and none will care.” And maybe understanding can generate its own ripples.
– Megan Hughes