The Vietnam War was one of the most politically and socially divisive events in American history. The conflict took the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and untold numbers of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. It tore the fabric of American society and the long-held idea of patriotism. And it forever changed the way Americans would perceive their government and its leaders.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick directed The Vietnam War, a 10-episode documentary event chronicling the human tragedy of the war not only on a geopolitical and historical scale, but also through the intimate personal stories of soldiers and civilians who took part in it.
“We really wanted to tell the human story of the war from all sides, and that we would talk to both the Vietnamese who won and the Vietnamese who lost, and Americans who were for and against the war,” Novick says. “We’re really trying to present as many perspectives as possible on the human level.”
Burns believes that the film will offer a courageous conversation about a turbulent time in American history that many try to forget. “A lot of it has to do with the sense that we lost, that it was a failure, and Americans don’t do that,” Burns says. “Our exceptionalism kind of got in our psychological way, and it was OK to bury it. It was also because of the ingredients that went into the tragedy of Vietnam, it was also particularly hard — as all war is — on the soldiers. But they also came home not just literally alone, but also metaphorically alone.”
More than 40 years after the fall of Saigon, Burns sees a need to remember the painful lessons of Vietnam, especially in our politically polarized times. “We kind of let it fester and metastasize in a way so that the divisions that exhibited themselves in Vietnam have only grown, and have only seeped into our national life now,” he says. “We feel a funny connection to Vietnam, that so much of what happened then is happening now.”
The Vietnam War is an opportunity to see our present through the lens of history, and the chance to learn from the mistakes of Vietnam so as not to repeat them. “It may be possible to have a courageous conversation about Vietnam that might also remind us of our better selves, and permit, perhaps, the turning down the volume on all the vitriol now,” Burns says.
Clocking in at over 18 hours spread across 10 episodes and nearly two weeks, The Vietnam War requires a serious commitment of time and attention, but every frame rewards the viewer’s effort. The film is at times terrifying, disturbing, infuriating and heartbreaking as the human costs of the war are vividly presented. At the same time, the stories of valor and mercy in an unimaginable situation are inspiring.
The Vietnam War is an essential experience that cannot be missed. The film premieres on PBS Sunday, Sept. 17, at 8pm ET (check local listings). View the full schedule and episode guide.