Ken Burns, of the Burns-Novick team responsible for The Vietnam War and many other documentaries, is known to be a man of the left. Leftists have many tics. One of them, which Barack Obama exhibited vocally and often, is the habit of apologizing for America’s moral imperfections. It is those imperfections that justify the left’s dismissal of America as just another country — nothing exceptional to see here, folks, so just move along.
One of the exceptional things that leftists dismiss is the written (real) Constitution, with its explicit limits on the power of the central government. The left’s aim — everywhere and always — has been to override those limits, so that government can decide what is best for the people, instead of allowing the people to decide that for themselves.
Also exceptional are the sacrifices that Americans have made — in life, limb, and money — to defend people around the world against tyranny. But leftists have a way of turning those sacrifices into sins.
Which brings me back to Ken Burns, whose first and perhaps most famous series revisited the Civil War. Where better to begin hammering away at America but with the Civil War, which was all about slavery — except when it wasn’t? But why would a leftist bother to give serious consideration to the legitimate, constitutional cause that impelled many Southerners to defend their homeland?
Burns managed to turn his baseball and jazz series into extensions of the Civil War, with their long sermons about America’s racism. Burns’s lop-sided history of baseball included the obligatory (and badly distorted) depiction of Ty Cobb as a vicious ballplayer and a vicious racist.
The War illustrates that, however necessary a war, victory may be attainable only at a very high price. The War also makes the case, graphically, that there can be no alternative but to pay that very high price when one is faced with brutal, fanatical enemies. (These are points that The Vietnam War fails to follow through on.)
But The War also spends a lot of time on issues with racial dimensions; specifically:
- the forced removal and internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans (62 percent of whom were United States citizens) from the West Coast of the United States during World War II
- government-enforced racial segregation in the armed forces (and, sometimes, among workers in defense plants), against a backdrop of racial tension.
The War neglects to mention the military considerations that justified the internment. (See these three posts, for example.) Instead, The War engages in the kind of second-guessing eschewed by the U.S. Supreme Court when it opined in the case of Korematsu v. United States (1944). It is right to give time to the internment; it was a significant (and temporary) event arising out of the prosecution of the war. But it is wrong to give a one-sided presentation of that event.
Why hammer away at the segregation of blacks and black-white conflict? They were not central to the conduct of the war. Racial tension is an ineluctable fact of life that had nothing to do with World War II, except as it found its way into the armed forces. But so did other social phenomena, including divisions along the lines of class, religion, and region, for example. But leftists — who are as clannish as they come — just cannot abide the thought that other people are also clannish. And in the case of racial tension, the clannishness is depicted as one-sided — as if blacks aren’t just as clannish and prone to race-based violence as whites.
Forced segregation had been (and would remain, for some years), a government policy. Would it have been too much to expect a government that was battling ferocious enemies abroad to take time out to desegregate the armed forces, desegregate civilian life, and deal with the resulting racial conflict (of which there was already enough)? The short answer is yes. That is not to excuse government-sponsored and government-enforced segregation. It is simply to call, once again, for perspective and balance, which The War does not offer.
The effect of the racial sideshow is to tarnish what was a great and noble undertaking: the defeat of Japan and Germany. Which is to say that the racial sideshow plays into the anti-war message of The War. That message is underscored by the exploration of three other themes.
The first is that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, according to Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891). But after making that observation (in slightly different words and with the wrong attribution), The War goes on to conflate it with a second theme about defective leadership.
The fact that war is an unpredictable endeavor is a thing entirely apart from the fact that some commanders aren’t fit to lead men in battle. We can thank The War for reminding us that unpredictability and bad decisions can be part of any war. But there is too much about bad leadership (which wasn’t endemic among U.S. forces in World War II), and too little about the unpredictability of war and the necessity of working through it to attain the ultimate strategic objective, which is victory.
The third theme is the horrors of war, especially as expressed by Eugene Sledge and the egregious Paul Fussell (see this). Fussell clearly implies that the war wasn’t worth fighting until the Holocaust came to light, late in the war.
Under the heading of horrors, there is the presentation of “balanced” reactions to the dropping of A-bombs on Japan. One of the “witnesses” who appears throughout the series staunchly defends the act. Another notes its strategic wisdom but still wishes it hadn’t been necessary. But it was necessary — and, really, an act of mercy toward the Japanese as well as to America’s fighting men. Why pander to the nay-sayers, who will go to their graves condemning the act, in spite of its moral necessity?
Finally, there is the film’s subtext, which has two main elements. One element is voiced at the very end of the final episode, in the dedication. It is to those who served in World War II, “that necessary war” — not “a necessary war”, as the first episode has it. The implication is that no later war was or is necessary, including (of course) the war in Iraq which was going strong when The War first aired.
The second element of the subtext reinforces the first one, and it is less subtle. That second element is The War‘s insistence on playing up America’s moral failings (as discussed above). The intended message is that because of America’s moral failings, and because war is hell, World War II was barely worth fighting, although it seemed necessary at the time (even to the left, given that the USSR was an “ally”). The left proclaims an act of war against anyone but Hitler (not a Hitler, but the Hitler) to be an act of hypocrisy and brutality by a morally imperfect nation.
In sum, The War affirms the American left’s anti-defense, anti-war dogmas, which reflect the post-patriotic attitude that America is nothing special. It’s as if Burns and Novick were paving the way for the ascendancy of that post-patriotic president, Barack Obama.
The Vietnam War picks up where The War left off. Yes, The Vietnam War is superficially balanced, but its anti-war, anti-American message is in the subtext — or, rather, the missing subtext. The Vietnam War is an exemplar of propaganda by selection and omission.
The ex-soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen chosen for on-camera roles are notable for their range of views: from being stridently against the war to stolidly neutral. Was it impossible to find anyone who served during the war who thought it a worthwhile cause, a cause that was undermined by the media and poll-driven politicians? Surely it wan’t impossible. But Burns and his production partner, Lynn Novick, nevertheless were unable — unwilling, really — to produce such a person out the tens or hundreds of thousands whose testimony would have conflicted the Burns-Novick story line.
To take a second, glaring example, The Vietnam War glosses over the media’s complicity in drumming up anti-war hysteria, especially in the wake of the Tet Offensive. The fact that it was a defeat for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong is mentioned but not pursued. Why did the U.S. government fail to exploit the U.S.-South Vietnamese victory?
Here’s why: LBJ, who at the time of the offensive, was probably aiming for re-election, gave in to the media-led hysteria in the wake of the offensive. LBJ, anxious as ever about “public opinion”, responded to media-led hysteria by turning victory into defeat.
Does The Vietnam War pursue that line of inquiry? No. Instead the viewer is treated to a monotonous stream of snippets from “news” programs. These feature the oracular, avuncular Walter Cronkite (and his imitators) crying doom and gloom and pushing the polls against the war.
So Burns-Novick gladly second-guess the French, the decisions that led the U.S. into Vietnam, and the wisdom of the war itself. But it’s off-limits (for Burns-Novick) to second-guess LBJ’s reluctant-warrior act after Tet. Despite a further troop buildup, the constraints placed by LBJ on the conduct of the war — especially in the air — led eventually to the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the defeat of South Vietnam. It’s as if those ignominious outcomes were inevitable — and perhaps deserved by a nation as flawed as the one the Burns likes to portray.
I am far from alone in my disdain for the Burns-Novick treatment of the Vietnam War:
Lewis Sorley (author of A Better War) appears in The Vietnam War, but if he said anything contrary to the Burns line, it fell to the cutting room floor. Later, in a different setting, Sorley speaks his mind; see the video embedded here, starting at 48:00. There are many other Sorleys out there, I’m sure (e.g., Mark Moyar, author of Triumph Forsaken).
Scott Johnson of Power Line has much to say about The Vietnam War in “Notes on the Ken Burns Version” and “Notes on the Ken Burns Version, Continued“. In both posts he cites and quotes other dissenters from the Burns-Novick narrative.
Another example of informed dissent is George J. Veith’s post at Library of Law and Liberty, “Burns and Novick on Vietnam: A Neutral Film, or a Rifle Butt to the Heart?“, which concludes that The Vietnam War
was at best an imperfect effort to tell an extraordinarily complex story. At worst, it has cemented, perhaps forever, the old stereotypes—the Americans as bumbling interlopers layering mistakes upon bad judgment and governmental deceit; the communists as ardent nationalists simply trying to unify their country; the people in the South as corrupt incompetents not worth the lives of our GIs. The film serves as a stark reminder that, “In war truth is the first casualty.”