FRESH AIR: When filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick began research for a 10-part PBS documentary on the Vietnam War, they thought they knew the material. After all, Burns was of draft age in 1970, though his draft number was too high for him to be called to serve. But as they began interviewing subjects and sorting through archival footage, Burns and Novick soon came to appreciate just how complicated the war was. “We went in, both of us, with this kind of arrogance about it, and immediately had that blown out of the water,” Burns says. “We realized we knew nothing.” In The Vietnam War, the filmmakers reconcile themselves with the war’s inherent contradictions by offering multiple perspectives on the conflict. The series includes interviews with the American, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese soldiers who fought in it — as well as with Americans who protested against it. Burns and co-director Novick tell Fresh Air that their work on the series deepened their understanding of the war. For his part, Burns likens the documentary to a series of intertwined stories that present “a fundamental fact of not just war, but life, which is: More than one truth can [exist] at the same time.” MORE
MEKONG REVIEW: In 1967, eight years before the war’s end, Lyndon Johnson is announcing “dramatic progress”, with “the grip of the VC on the people being broken”. We see mounds of dead Viet Cong heaved into mass graves. General Westmoreland assures the president that the war is reaching “the crossover point”, when more enemy soldiers are being killed than recruited. Jimi Hendrix is singing “Are You Experienced” and a vet is describing how “racism really won” in “intimate fighting” that taught him how to “waste gooks” and “kill dinks”.
By 1969, Operation Speedy Express in the Mekong Delta is reporting kill ratios of 45:1, with 10,889 Viet Cong fighters killed but only 748 weapons recovered. Kevin Buckley and Alexander Shimkin of Newsweek estimate that half the people killed are civilians. By the time the kill ratios have climbed to 134:1, the US military is massacring civilians at My Lai and elsewhere. Edward Lansdale, by then a general, said about this final stage of the war he had set in motion (quoting from Robert Taber’s War of the Flea): “There is only one means of defeating an insurgent people who will not surrender, and that is extermination. There is only one way to control a territory that harbours resistance, and that is to turn it into a desert. Where these means cannot, for whatever reason, be used, the war is lost.” MORE