Why America is still raw over the Vietnam War

Nation

HARI SREENIVASAN: This Sunday night, PBS will air the first of 10 episodes of the new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary "The Vietnam War."

It's been 10 years in the making.

And Judy Woodruff met with the co-directors at the Vietnam Memorial recently to talk about why this topic and its resonance now.

LYNN NOVICK, Co-director, "The Vietnam War": Thinking about every single name here as a story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That's the tall older of the latest Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, "Vietnam."

LYNN NOVICK: We just tell a few of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The team culled hundreds of hours of footage into 18. It's a flash point in history that's been examined countless times, but they say it's still not fully understood.

KEN BURNS, Co-director, "The Vietnam War": There's one way to think about it, is there's really only one name on the wall here, which is your name, your story, your brother, your uncle, your father. That's the important thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Vincent Okamoto is the most highly decorated surviving Japanese American veteran of the Vietnam War.

VINCENT OKAMOTO, Vietnam War Veteran: The real heroes are the men that died, 19-, 20-year-old high school dropouts. They didn't have escape routes that the elite and the wealthy and the privileged had. And that was unfair. They weren't going to be rewarded for their service in Vietnam.

And yet, their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself, how does America produce young men like this?

JUDY WOODRUFF: After tackling the Civil War and World War II, Novick and Burns vowed:

KEN BURNS: We're not going to do any more wars.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But as they realized hundreds of Vietnam War veterans were dying each day, they decided to take on what they call the most important event in the second half of the 20th century for Americans.

KEN BURNS: There's an interesting thing, having done these three wars, that the Civil War and the Second World War are really encrusted with the barnacles of sentimentality.

And that's not a problem with Vietnam. And so, in a way, we get it raw. Nobody's going to sentimentalize Vietnam. It defined who we were. It was this horrible loss. And I think a lot of the divisions that we experience today had their seeds in the Vietnam conflict, and we haven't really gotten over them.

LYNN NOVICK: It's still with us in this very present way.

I think we came across a quote after we finished the film that all wars are fought twice, on the battlefield and in our memory.

I think we're still fighting the Vietnam War in many, many ways. The great gift for this project was that so many of the people who lived through it are in their 60s and 70s, and they're here today, and they remember it very, very well. And they told their stories to us in the most generous and brave way.

People took tremendous risks to kind of open themselves up and just tell us what it was really like.

ROGER HARRIS, Marines: You adapt to the atrocities of war. You adapt to killing and dying. After a while, it doesn't bother you. Let's just say it doesn't bother you as much.

I was made to realize that this is war and is what we do. And that stuck in my head. This is war. This is what we do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The documentary comes at the war from all sides, the divisions among Americans and the divisions among Vietnamese. Burns and Novick say they wanted to include all voices, but avoid passing judgment themselves.

KEN BURNS: In addition to a whole cast of American characters, every possible stripe, we have also got North Vietnamese soldiers, and Vietcong guerrillas, and North Vietnamese civilians, and South Vietnamese civilians, and South Vietnamese soldiers, and South Vietnamese diplomats.

But we're not putting the thumb on the scale of any kind of political agenda. We are just interested in sharing the stories of a remarkable set of people.

NARRATOR: As many as 230,000 teenagers, many of them volunteers, worked to keep the roads open and the traffic moving. More than half of them were women.

Le Minh Khue, who had left her home in the North with a novel by Ernest Hemingway in her backpack, observed her 17th birthday on the trail.

LE MINH KHUE, Youth Volunteer (through interpreter): We all had to endure. The jungle was humid and wet. Bombs fell day and night. We women had to find a way to survive. We thought it was terrible.

LE QUAN CONG, Viet Cong (through interpreter): My brother, the seventh child in our family, joined the local resistance. The Americans came through on a sweep and killed him. Another brother was ambushed while he slept, shot through the heart.

BILL ZIMMERMAN, Antiwar Activist: I never considered the Vietnamese our enemy. They had never done anything to threaten the security of the United States. They were off 10,000 miles away, minding their own business. And we went there to their country, told them what kind of government we wanted them to have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There have obviously been hundreds, if not thousands of books…

LYNN NOVICK: Indeed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … written on this here and, I'm sure, in Vietnam.

Do you think you now understand this war, Ken?

KEN BURNS: No, I think there's something — just like you can be married for years and years and years, and that other person remains kind of inscrutable to the end, this is the arrogance of history and biography, that we think that we can know, go into the past, and do it.

Every day was a daily humiliation of what we didn't know. We always had not just scholars, but veterans present. And their B.S. meters are so fine. And they would go, you know what, I'm not so sure about that. And they'd say, in my experience, it was like this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The documentary team shot about 40 times the footage they eventually used, and spoke with more than 1,000 witnesses in the U.S. and Vietnam, one-third of them Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American.

Research took them to almost 20 countries. Facts were checked and rechecked. In addition to sorting through 5,000 hours of historical footage and photos — one took a year to locate — they wove 120 pieces of music from the period in with original music, led by composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who did the soundtrack for hit movies like "The Social Network" and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," as well as from Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

The filmmakers say they hope that, by airing this documentary, what happened will become clearer, even if the why continues to provoke debate.

The documentary comes out at a moment in American history when we're thinking a lot about America's role in the world and how important Americans are and America compared to the rest of the world. And judgments are being made. So there's a timeliness here, isn't there?

LYNN NOVICK: Yes, people ask us how — what does it feel like to have the film coming out in this moment?

And it's just the sense that we live in this extraordinarily polarized and divisive moment, and we don't seem to be able to talk. We don't seem to be able to listen. We don't seem to be able to agree about basic facts. And yet so much of that really started escalating during the Vietnam War.

The resonances of where we are in the world and who we are in the world, especially — we have been in several wars that are not unlike the Vietnam War for the last 15 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, inevitably, there are the questions of lessons from this war, so many lessons that may or may not have been learned.

What do you think they are?

KEN BURNS: Well, they're legion, but the one that we could agree on is that we're not going to blame the warriors anymore.

History is the set of questions we in the present ask of the past. If we can't talk about the current toxicity, let's go back and look at the other one, and maybe, with the kind of courageous conversations you can have, permitting people to have and hold views opposite of your own, you could really begin to have something, and not just the talking at or the shouting over that we do today.

MAN: For years, nobody talked about Vietnam. It was so divisive. And it's like living in a family with an alcoholic father. Shh, we don't talk about that.

Our country did that with Vietnam. And it's only been very recently that I think that the baby boomers are finally starting to say, what happened? What happened?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can see more of my conversation with the filmmakers in our next piece.

The documentary will air for the next two weeks.

HARI SREENIVASAN: "The Vietnam War" premieres Sunday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on most PBS stations.

You will find more online information right now, including an excerpt about a Navy pilot who spent more than eight years in captivity, making him the second longest held American prisoner of war.

That's at PBS.org/NewsHour.

Recently in Nation