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In 'Vietnam War,' Ken Burns Wrestles With The Conflict's Contradictions

American soldiers advance through a rice paddy during the Vietnam War.
American soldiers advance through a rice paddy during the Vietnam War.

When filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick began research for a 10-part PBS documentary on the Vietnam War, they thought they knew the material. After all, Burns was of draft age in 1970, though his draft number was too high for him to be called to serve.

But as they began interviewing subjects and sorting through archival footage, Burns and Novick soon came to appreciate just how complicated the war was. "We went in, both of us, with this kind of arrogance about it, and immediately had that blown out of the water," Burns says. "We realized we knew nothing."

In The Vietnam War, the filmmakers reconcile themselves with the war's inherent contradictions by offering multiple perspectives on the conflict. The series includes interviews with the American, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese soldiers who fought in it — as well as with Americans who protested against it.

Burns and co-director Novick tell Fresh Air that their work on the series deepened their understanding of the war. For his part, Burns likens the documentary to a series of intertwined stories that present "a fundamental fact of not just war, but life, which is: More than one truth can [exist] at the same time."

Interview Highlights

On the Ho Chi Minh trail, which the North Vietnamese used to move supplies and troops into the South

Lynn Novick: The story of the Ho Chi Minh trail, in a way, kind of emblematizes the entire war, because you see the determination and the willingness to sacrifice on an epic scale. There were 20,000 people that were killed maintaining the Ho Chi Minh trail. Many of them were young women who volunteered as something called the youth brigade. There were teenagers that spent years and years under these bombs, working during the night to repair the bomb damage and sleeping during the day when the bombing was happening, because we couldn't bomb at night. They suffered tremendously. ...

I think the footage, where you see the fires burning and then women kind of frantically trying to put them out — young women, teenagers — and then they go ahead to try and fill the bomb craters and they're clearly in the middle of a cataclysmic event, is pretty remarkable. The footage of the truck drivers at night going down the trail with these tiny little lights — you can barely see the road in front of them. ... In those moments, we see exactly what the people who were there remember.

On why the 1968 Tet Offensive — in which North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched surprise attacks during the Lunar New Year — represented a turning point in Americans' opinion of the war

Ken Burns: What [Americans] saw about the Tet Offensive on our television sets, what the reporters brought back and later tried to digest for us, a series of just startling images, [contradicted] the sense that there was light at the end of the tunnel, that we were doing well.

Our leaders had been saying, "We're winning this war" ... and everything that the Tet Offensive revealed in pictures suggested the exact opposite. Though it was, in fact, a catastrophic defeat for the North and for the Viet Cong; they suffered losses — dead, not just casualties, in the tens of thousands. But the thing was it was a huge public relations victory for them, because we had not been quite frank and honest and transparent with the American people. We hadn't been so for years.

On the famous photo and television footage of a Viet Cong operative being executed in the street

Novick: This is a devastating image taken by Eddie Adams of The Associated Press. The head of the South Vietnamese National Police, Gen. [Nguyen Ngoc] Loan, is basically with a scrum of other officers and they have a Viet Cong operative who they've captured, and essentially Gen. Loan assassinates him on the streets of Saigon in broad daylight with this photographer watching and NBC cameras rolling. ...

There were assassinations and retaliations and atrocities in the streets of Saigon during the Tet Offensive on both sides. This is the one that was captured on film with this incredible photograph, where it's the moment of impact of the bullet in this man's head and he's about to die. And that photograph was on front pages of newspapers around the world, and was shocking and devastating and kind of makes everybody who saw it complicit in this act, in a way. You're part of it; it's happening and you're there. And that had deep impact on the American public and the world about what's happening in this war. ...

NBC does not ordinarily license that footage for obvious reasons, and they would only let us license it if we would show what was actually shown on television. So our producer Sarah Botstein and her team spent a lot of time working back and forth with NBC to determine, exactly to the frame, what was shown, and not a frame longer or shorter. And that is what we put in the film. We frame it on a television set because we wanted our audience to see what the American public saw. It was only shown once on television.

On finding new footage of the 1970 shooting at Kent State University, in which four students were killed when the Ohio National Guard opened fire during a Vietnam War protest

Novick: [The] shooting lasted 13 seconds — that's a long time. A lot of bullets were fired. Just seeing the images — one of the things that was so powerful was that there's some footage that we didn't quite know where it came from, and our producer Mike Welt tracked it down and it was a student at Kent State who had a camera that day. ... He had been filming the demonstrations, and he kept rolling his camera as people were getting shot, and there was blood on the street, and people were screaming and crying and he just followed it around. And after that moment, [he] was so disturbed by what he had seen and recorded that he never was the same.

The footage ended up in his garage or in his family's garage and Mike Welt tracked them down after a year and they were willing to let us have access to these cans of film that no one had looked at.

On the lessons of war

Burns: I think history has made me an optimist, despite the fact that it shows you that human nature doesn't change — that the same venality is present, the same abstraction of war is present, the same greed is present, but so is also the same generosity and the same love.

The soldiers know the lessons. The people who were there, they know what it's like, they know what happened, they know the cost — it's the leaders [who don't].

War is human nature on steroids ... and we assume it [is] just all negative, but in fact the free electrons that war gives off (in all the instances that I've tried to tackle it) reveal as much about the positive sides of human nature. ...

We could reasonably assume to be huddled in the fetal position, but we don't. We raise families and we plant gardens and we write symphonies and we try to make films and talk about history. Maybe there's something that comes from that that sticks.

Novick: The soldiers know the lessons. The people who were there, they know what it's like, they know what happened, they know the cost — it's the leaders [who don't]. It's hard to hold on to these lessons.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.