Pay attention to Ken Burns’ ‘The Vietnam War’ on PBS, there’s much to learn

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who a decade ago co-directed "The War," about World War II, have now made "The Vietnam War."

Written — like that series and other Burns projects running back to "The Civil War" — by Geoffrey C. Ward, it begins Sunday on PBS, with 10 episodes running some 18 hours.

The series is both long, and somehow not long enough. Vietnam, a conflict kept alight by official lies, naive idealism and a shark-like inability to go any way but forward, was as deep a well as the country has ever gone down; half a century later, we have still not climbed out.

There are many good reasons to watch “The Vietnam War.” Unless you are very well informed, it will teach you things you do not know and correct things you thought you knew. It may be, if you are of those generations for whom the words "the war" call to mind only Iraq or Afghanistan, that you know nothing of Vietnam at all. But there are lessons in this misadventure worth learning regarding the crooked course of human events and the collision of interests and individual lives. Its multiplicity of voices, from both sides of the war and the war at home, might make you a more thoughtful, less judgmental person in the end if you pay attention.

And you should pay attention.

“It was so divisive,” one commentator remembers. “It’s like living in a family with an alcoholic father — ‘Sssh, we don’t talk about that.’ Our country did that with Vietnam."

Still, this is not the first time television has looked at Vietnam; indeed, it was the first "television war," played out in millions of living rooms on the nightly news. Burns’ project is not even the first long examination; "Vietnam: A Television History" ran 13 hours on PBS in 1983.

But Burns is America’s Documentarian; there is a built-in weight to his work — not appropriate to every subject he’s tackled, but it works for war.

Burns’ reputation gives him access to people and pictures. He has the drive to be definitive, which is of course impossible. As huge as “The Vietnam War” is, parts of the story are left unexplored; for example, it barely touches the ways in which American forces interacted with the civilian society of South Vietnam, and how one might have changed the other. Subjects that might have whole documentaries of their own — drugs, the children some soldiers left behind — are dutifully noted and dropped.

But if there is never another series on the subject, this one will serve posterity very well. It is something to reckon with: fact-filled, fascinating, infuriating, dreadful, beautiful, nerve-wracking and numbing. There are so many bodies, burning and blown apart, that they fail to register after awhile. (It’s possible that we have seen too much artfully simulated screen-glamorized violence to fully appreciate the real thing; in any case, this is not a show for young eyes.) But as the series moves on past the war to passages of reflection and reconciliation, it grows moving to a degree unusual in Burns’ work; whatever you have managed not to feel in the preceding hours comes back to get you.

The story goes back to its French colonial origins, with a young Ho Chi Minh looking for Western support for Vietnamese self-determination, jumping ahead every so often to remind us that an American story is coming. (There is a sequence at the beginning where the footage is actually run backward, back through Presidents Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower and Truman, with bombs returning to planes, Buddhist monks and draft cards emerging from flames.)

Given the scope of the subject and the size of their series, and how many participants in the war and the war at home are still available, Burns and Novick use relatively few commentators to move their story along. But each has personal experience of Vietnam; there are no remote scholarly voices, but a well-chosen cast of soldiers, citizens, politicians, protesters and reporters.

As is his wont, Burns threads personal journeys through the history that shaped their course, which grows more chaotic and out of control, and a conflict few Americans paid mind to in the early ’60s gives way in the ’70s to massacres at My Lai and Kent State.

Seen from afar, Vietnam may have been for nothing, or less than nothing; Burns and his collaborators clearly regard it as tragic. (For North Vietnam, of course, it was a successful war for national liberation and reunification.) But up close, history is only a way of describing in a general, theoretical way many individual experiences, each of which is beyond theory or argument, and all of which are true.

‘The Vietnam War’

Where: KOCE

When: 8 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; concludes Sept. 28.

Rating: TV-MA-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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