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Ken Burns’s ‘The Vietnam War’ Is Worth Your Time

A few years back I was teaching a course on the Vietnam War. One morning I walked into the classroom early and found one of my students absorbed in one of the assigned readings—Tim O’Brien’s war memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. The student, a young woman, looked at me, waved the book, paused a beat, and simply said: “Hooo-ly. Crap.” Her eyes became a little misty and she looked away: “My grampa fought . . .”

Those of us of the Baby Boom cohort, for whom the Vietnam War was such a looming generational presence, have a hard time imagining such a moment of revelation. But today more than half the population has no living memory of the war. By default, Vietnam is largely a cipher for the Boomers’ children and grandchildren, as distant and irrelevant as Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps.

The Vietnam War—the latest PBS film series from iconic documentarian Ken Burns (The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, among others) and his collaborator Lynn Novick—presents an opportunity to fill in that experiential gap. In addition to providing new perspectives on the war and the era, it opens a window onto issues and controversies that continue to divide our culture.

Complex War

The 10-part, 18-hour series (available to watch here) has been more than 10 years in the making, but Burns—a Boomer born in 1953—took on The Vietnam War only reluctantly. Raised in a left-of-center family and growing up in the shadow of the war (his father was an anthropology professor at Michigan who attended the first “teach-in” protest), Burns took on the project more out of a sense of historical duty than any real enthusiasm for the subject. Loaded with preconceptions about the war, research and interviews with hundreds of participants proved to be an eye-opener.

“I thought I knew a lot about [the war],” he told Mother Jones, “so I went in with the kind of arrogance that people with superficial knowledge always have.”

Learning more about the complexities surrounding the war and America’s involvement proved to be a chastening experience: “I have spent 10 years shedding [my] feeble preconceptions. It was a daily humiliation.”

Broader Story

As in his previous documentary series, Burns seeks a multiplicity of voices and perspectives to tell the story of the war and the cultural upheaval that accompanied the conflict. Politicians, CIA operatives, diplomats, reporters, officers, common soldiers, and civilians appear throughout each episode; no one perspective dominates the account. The effort to explore the African-American and Latino experience of the war is a particularly helpful broadening of the narrative. Burns’s wider vision extends itself in the series’ attempts to highlight a variety of Vietnamese voices—North and South, ally and enemy—to bring out the Vietnamese experience of the war. Inevitably The Vietnam War cannot help but have an American focus, but the series succeeds in its effort to show that the Vietnamese were human beings affected by a terrible war, not mere props for an American tragedy.

One charge that could be laid at the series’ door is that it tries to do too much. Even at 18 hours (as recently as 2013 the project was touted as being “a 10-hour series”) the video format cannot pull off the in-depth treatment a written history like Fredrik Logevall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Embers of War can provide.

But beyond the sprawling war itself, the biggest challenge for Burns is that the war cannot be isolated from the pervasive turmoil that rolled through the American home front in the 1960s: the antiwar movement, escalating racial tensions, the rise of the hippie counterculture, the wave of conservative backlash, and the growing cynicism about the government and cultural authorities of every kind.

Burns is right to consider the larger cultural context as integral to the story of The Vietnam War. While we do well to avoid simplistic connections, it’s not overreaching to argue the Vietnam experience exposed and intensified numerous fault lines in American society, setting in motion a historical trajectory that persists to this day and looms large in the nation’s cultural, political, and spiritual landscape.

Where Was the Church?

As you watch The Vietnam War you may notice that an underplayed element of the story is how American communities of faith dealt with the war. Throughout Burns’s body of work, religious conviction and theological reflection tends to be a bit player (in a 2008 interview in The Christian Century, Burns described his Episcopalian childhood as characterized by “haphazard” attendance and his then-current mindset as “deist”).

But the Vietnam War was no small matter of debate among American Christians. For many conservative Christians—like evangelist Billy Graham and Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York—the threat of atheistic communism’s tyrannical spread inspired ardent support of intensified American involvement in the war. Meanwhile, Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) and traditional “peace churches” like the Quakers and the Mennonites were key players in the rise of the antiwar movement.

All too often, though, many American Christians simply went about their daily business, virtually ignoring the war until thousands had been killed on both sides. By that point, stark cultural and political battle lines had been drawn through every segment of American society; for great swaths of the American church a strategic chance to be “salt and light” had passed.

Teaching Moment

Ken Burns’sThe Vietnam War is a long trek, but worth the time. Besides being educational and informative, the series offers Christians across the generational and denominational spectrum a serious opening for discussion and ample fodder for reflection and self-examination.

A look back at the Vietnam War, with all its unimaginable folly, violence, and suffering—and, yes, its innumerable moments of noble sacrifice and mercy, too—invites us to better understand a fallen world and humanity’s universal need for Christ’s grace. In these volatile days, as division and visceral hate stalk America and external threats and challenges abound, The Vietnam War offers us a bit of a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young moment—to teach our children well.