Does the Burns/Novick Vietnam Documentary Deserve an Emmy?

Emmy nominations are ongoing. Veterans For Peace recently announced it will place this full-page ad in Variety urging an Emmy not be awarded to the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, The Vietnam War. The Hollywood Reporter has refused to run the ad. Here, Vietnam veteran, Doug Rawlings, adds his voice to why the filmmakers should not get a Best Documentary award.

By the time I reached Episode Four in this ten-episode film, I concluded it should not be touted as an Emmy Award winning documentary.

Episode Four "Resolve," is the story of 1966, a year that the producers of this film have designated as the time when doubt began to worm its way into American troops. This doubt sows the breeding ground for what we now call "moral injury."

The American soldier in Viet Nam begins to realize that his job of killing others, or supporting those who are carrying out the killing, is not divinely ordained. He is not in a just war. In fact, he is being used by others who have much more pedestrian motives – rank, saving face, gaining political favor, selling weapons.

This is three years before I even set foot in country, into a war much different than early 1966. In 1969, we trudged into that muck and mire as reluctant cynics. We were intent on surviving, not attaining some fanciful glorious victory over the demonic communists – but not so for the 173rd Airborne in the Central Highlands in mid-1966.

So, let’s assume that Burns and Novick et al are somewhat accurate in setting off 1966 as the "turning point" in our slow awakening to the truth. So what?

First off, this would have been a good point for the auteurs to work in the aforementioned concept of moral injury.

As that term begins to be thrown around in popular culture, losing any real meaning, it is important to note that it was intended to mean a slow, remorseful process of recognizing one’s complicity in what most religions call "evil," combined with a soul-shaking sense of betrayal.

You realize that there is no excuse for your unwillingness or inability to stop human degradation as it unfolds before you as your deeply held moral codes wither away. And now you must accept the consequences of that debilitating malaise that worked its way into your head.

Some of us have deflected that responsibility by attacking the commanders and officers and politicians who told us to follow their orders. But that excuse wears thin over time. Even as the filmmakers worked for a decade on their enterprise, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. The filmmakers do not overtly acknowledge this concept, but its presence begins to cast shadows on their narrative.

As I watched the faces of the soldiers caught up in the moment or moments that will change their lives forever, those acts of quick reflex to survive or to avenge the deaths of buddies, I cringed. Doug Peacock, a medic with the Green Berets for two tours, captures "the horror, the horror" of it all in his memoir WALKING IT OFF when he writes about the staggering realization that "everything is permitted." You are nineteen, and you can end life, make life for another unbearable, and you can do it with virtual impunity. A person does not come back from that world unscathed.

At this juncture of the film, four episodes into a ten-episode saga, it is evident to me that we are not watching a true documentary film. In my eyes, documentation is rooted in facts and, if at all possible, immutable truths. The documentarian’s function is to get down to historical truths, to discover cause and effect, and to provide us with a trustworthy scaffolding on which to rebuild our memories as soundly as possible. No, we are watching instead a series of anecdotes, each one imbued with the earnestness of the teller. Who dares to question the grieving mother or disillusioned sister or duty-bound soldier? We are not being invited into a logical discussion of facts here – we are being asked to bear witness.

As a veteran of that war who has tried to bring to light its utter depravity and as a teacher, I oppose letting this visual extravaganza stand as a definitive historical record that students will turn to in their studies.

It is a cornucopia of anecdotes that gives us a glimpse of that war that I’m sure the Pentagon and the Koch brothers, who funded it, would approve of, but its priorities are misguided. The war was never "begun in good faith," it was never just a "mistake," it was, from the beginning and throughout, a morally depraved undertaking.

Three million soldiers from this country sent to Viet Nam did not "serve"-we were used. We were blood-sacrificed on the altar of greed and power along with millions of Vietnamese dead. And for what?

John Pilger, the Australian journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker wrote, "The invasion of Vietnam was deliberate and calculated-as were policies and strategies that bordered on genocide and were designed to force millions of people to abandon their homes. Experimental weapons were used against civilians."

Burns and Novick avoid those conclusions although thousands of Viet Nam veterans came to realize the soul-devastating truth during the war or soon after. A film that brings their words into the narrative would be a major step forward. This one is far from that.

This is not history we are watching. We are watching theater. And we who lived through that war, whether "in country" or not, must see ourselves as players on a stage. That exercise is not without merit, but let’s not confuse it with a "healing" historical account or an Emmy award-worthy documentary.

Doug Rawlings retired six years ago after teaching writing composition for 33 years at high school and college levels. He was drafted in 1968 and was with the 7/15th artillery in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam from July 1969 to August 1970.

2 thoughts on “Does the Burns/Novick Vietnam Documentary Deserve an Emmy?”

  1. How many times did the documentary mention the Phoenix Program? Did they interview Douglas Valentine (author of the book “The Phoenix Program”)

    or any of the CIA officers involved in it? Did the program mention how CIA backed drug lords by flying them (and their product) around?

    I never watched the doc–because I knew it was a PBS production designed to twist the emotions (cue music) and not actually expose the deep, calculated murderous underbelly of WAR, INC. (USA).

  2. Burns propaganda film excusing the war in Southeast Asia, as a serious of well-intention mistakes rather than the crime against humanity it was, is apiece with the Pentagon and CIA directed 13-year program launched by President Obama on the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War on May 12, 2012. The media program features an Orwellian display of forgetfulness about the crimes committed during the war, chauvinistic events to glorify that war alongside similar current wars, Hollywood war movies & TV programs on the same wicked themes, with websites and social media glorifying the actions of combat units in Vietnam, all alongside a similar massive media assault to undermine the Movement that rose up to oppose that illegal, immoral and imperialist war.

    Burn’s effort in revisionist history is not so much about Vietnam, IMHO.

    It is about the wars, combat actions, covert operations and economic damage around the world TODAY required by the ambitions of neo-liberal Democrats and their billionaire donors like George Soros, Warren Buffet and the lockstep millionaires of Hollywood and Silicon Valley – teaming up with always warmongering neocon Republicans and their billionaire donors such as the Koch Brothers, conservative industrialists and Wall St. banksters ( the neolib/neocon coalition comprising today’s War Party).

    It is especially about the AfPak war, now even longer than Vietnam, which – like that previous war in SEA – fuels the heroin traffic from the Afghanistan poppy fields (protected by NATO troops) and trafficked through CIA connected channels. Just as heroin from the Golden Triangle area of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar was trafficked by the CIA and its associates during the Vietnam War. A fact that helped prolong that wicked war.

    But drugs are not the only way the oligarchs behind the War Party have profited. War itself is outrageously profitable for those who own the military-industrial-complex and control our war economy. War today is an end in itself to a wide spectrum of America’s leaders.

    And, of course, there are the geopolitical & ideological motives for war but profit must surely rank among the highest of inducements for both the Vietnam War and today’s wars.

    Burns purpose with this documentary is also about all the other globalist wars begun in recent times by George Bush & Dick Cheney and their crime crew in support of the ambitions of foreign nations such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.K. and the military-industrial companies.

    Bush’s wars evolved into the Permanent War, now being waged in over 75 countries around the world, a new dystopian world developed by Obama, that imperialist in blackface, and continuing to be waged, with a few exceptions, by Trump.

    in the Anti-War Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, we referred to the globalists as “imperialists” – a better term, IMHO. The imperialist oligarchs, the ruling class, the 1%, the power elite, the free traders, whatever you want to call them, have always had “global” ambitions.

    Personally, I don’t like to discuss psychobabble (history, science and economics are more valid) BUT I think globalism has become a mental disease among some elites resulting in these reckless conflicts. I think there is nothing wrong with accumulating wealth but there comes a point when a person or a corporation or group may have too much wealth. The point where reasonable enterprise & profit are replaced by cowboy free trade schemes, hedge fund piracy and financial manipulation executed with ruthless abandonment. At that point the super wealthy and the super-wealthy wannabes no longer control their wealth, but their wealth controls them. History has shown that free trade imperialists only want more and some will abandon ethics, morality and even common sense to acquire and control. That is deranged. These upper class ladies and gentlemen may have an aura of respectability about them, but they are insanely greedy and war crazy,

    I think the proximate cause of war is greed. Greed is the heart of the cowboy capitalism (imperialism/globalism) of the present era.

    That is the story of The Vietnam War which Burns deliberately failed to report in his revisionist review.

    Burns failed to report on the many, many, many war crimes, the Phoenix assassination program, the CIA drug trafficking, nor did he expose the venality of the secret behind-the-scenes trade and financial deals of the time — all of which fueled the war.

    A better idea of the what that war itself was about can be viewed here:

    Nowadays in the Era of Permanent War the War Party needs new propaganda such as Burn’s film about the previous war to glorify today’s permanent war, as well as to justify the development of a surveillance state to prevent or control the development of any new movement or Party for Peace. Like the wars, new police state activities exploded in parallel to the new conflicts under Bush and Obama.

    “War on Terror” or “humanitarian interventions”, “Russian hacking”, “Chinese expansionism”, etc., the terms used in today’s war agitprop.

    As for Burns, he needs to be recognized for what he is – a paid, professional, partisan propagandist for today’s war machine. The memes of his other documentaries must also be judged in this context. Burns is not illuminating, he is brainwashing.

    He who controls the past, controls the future.

    As Burns’ professional predecessor from WWII Germany, Reich Minister Goebbels, wrote,

    “Propaganda is not a matter for average minds, but rather a matter for practitioners. It is not supposed to be lovely or theoretically correct. … Propaganda should be popular, not intellectually pleasing. It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths.”

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