'The Vietnam War' co-directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick explain why Vietnam is relevant to us today

Burns and Novick call the Vietnam War 'the most consequential event in American history in the second half of the last century.'

Eddie Adams/AP
U.S. Marine infantry stream into a suspected Viet Cong village near Da Nang in Vietnam during the Vietnam War in this April 28, 1965 file photo.

A decade in the making, "The Vietnam War" – a 10-part, 18-hour documentary by co-directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick – will air this fall on PBS. Monitor contributor Steve Donoghue recently had an email exchange with Burns and Novick about their work and the nearness of its connection to contemporary American lives.

Here are Donoghue's questions and their answers.

Q: How does the fact that you're dealing with a living subject matter– a great many Americans have personal or family connections to living Vietnam War veterans – alter the process of weighing the history involved? Have veteran reactions surprised you?

We’ve covered many subjects and periods involving people who are still alive, including of course the men and women featured in our film on World War II, "The War." So the question for us, as filmmakers, is less about the fact that so many of the people from the period are alive – which is of course important – and more about the fact that the Vietnam War remains so contemporary for us.  As we’ve said, it is the most consequential event in American history in the second half of the last century.

Our film on the Civil War captivated the country when it aired in part because it is America’s most painful and epic story but also, we believe, because we can better understand who we are when we come to terms with that period and conflict. With Vietnam, it is of course different because so many people still have such strong feelings about the war and the era. It was a profoundly tumultuous time in our past, and many Americans have conflicted emotions about it to this day. 

We have not been surprised by the reactions of veterans, which are as varied and multi-dimensional as the reactions of those who opposed the war. For an entire generation, this was the defining event of their lives. As we have been traveling the country sharing clips, we have seen a wide range of emotions come forth – memories of friends and comrades lost in battle, a sense of time past, a desire to find meaning in this fraught and complicated epoch. Maybe most, we have been struck by the ways in which people want to talk [about how] so many of the issues and conflicts that divide us today seem to have metastasized during the Vietnam War period.

Q: The portents here are fairly dire – a strategic US involvement degenerating into a bloody slugfest and ending in a messy, chaotic defeat. Are there any hopeful lessons to be drawn from the Vietnam War? Or any lessons at all?

History provides many lessons and the Vietnam War is no exception. But maybe more, it startles us with resonances, with parallels with our present world. Just think about it. You want to understand Wikileaks? Let’s go back to the Pentagon Papers. You want to understand about a political campaign reaching out to a foreign power in the midst of a war? It’s all over the news today and very much part of the story of Vietnam. What about an epic conflict between the news media and the White House? A disconnect between the politicians who make the policies, the generals who design the military strategy and tactics, and the service members who do the fighting and dying? Vietnam reveals all of this and so much more. To study the Vietnam War is to arm yourself in the best sort of way for how to make sense of our own incredibly fraught moment. It is more relevant than ever.

Whether or not we have learned from this history is a question we cannot answer.

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