Ken Burns, Boy Capitalist, And The Vietnam War (Part I)

09/21/2017 01:12 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2017

Given my age (71), I have had a long history with the Vietnam War. Ken Burns, a little less so. He was born in 1953 and is a different sort of Baby Boomer, blessed with a self-reported high draft-lottery number. I ran into my own fate a few months before the lottery was put in place. Those experiences resulted in my first novel, The Meekness of Isaac, which appeared in 1974. It was reviewed fairly well for its time, a long, supportive review in the New York Times Book Review by C.D.B. Bryan, who died recently.

Not many in 1974 wanted to read about the Vietnam War while it was still raging. It was similar to the fact that no one wants to discuss fire in the middle of a conflagration. No paperback, no audience to speak of. Around that time (1975) Tim O’Brien’s nonfiction book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, did have a paperback, but his hit novel, Going After Cacciato, didn’t appear till 1978.

Now we have Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18 hours of the war. I have only seen four episodes thus far. Unfortunately, for me, the project’s first few minutes were its worst. Two things occurred. First, we see a Missouri vet saying that, though he and his wife were good friends with another couple, they didn’t know both of the men had fought in Vietnam for 12 years. This either questions the notion of what good friends are, or is a distortion of history. The vet claims no one spoke about the war. He was in Vietnam in 1969. In his case, this seems to be a personal problem, not a public one. In my circles, the war never vanished as a subject of conversation.

Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I was in the midst of the anti-war movement, insofar as my first book, which came out two years before my first novel, The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, was about relatively famous protesters of the Vietnam war. Not many read that book either, though it was on the NY Times Book Review’s New and Recommended list for 6 weeks. Even then, television was supreme and I wasn’t on TV.

Ken Burns has always been on TV. He knew, knows, which way the culture was/is blowing. Yet, Burns most resembles some fellow 1950s births of renown: Both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were born in 1955, two years after Burns. What Burns shares with those two (and others) is that at heart he is a satisfied capitalist. Not all of his Baby Boom predecessors found in the anti-war movement were cut from that cloth. And, like Gates and Jobs, he likes lawyers and doesn’t hesitate to threaten and sue his critics. A friend of mine, now dead, wrote a book about documentary film makers some years back and managed a few mild criticisms of Burns and he and his hirelings harassed her publisher in order to suppress the book. Gates, too, was always a big suer, Jobs, also. You have to protect your interests.

And that, doubtless, accounts for the other problem with the The Vietnam War’s beginning, practically the first thing Peter Coyote says, was that the war was started in “good” faith by “decent” men. No they weren’t, one or another, or both. Burns is solidly in the “both sides” camp, like another capitalist, Donald Trump. Nice white supremacists and bad protestors, blame on both sides, now as then.

I can understand. If you need to be funded by huge corporations, including David Koch and the Bank of America, you have to be nice to rich people and not offend them. It was one of Barack Obama’s problems. You don’t become president of the Harvard Law Review, much less of the United States, and not be nice to rich people.

But, beyond the first few minutes, thus far, the episodes have been great, if by great I mean truthful, hard hitting, more than appalling in their revelations. The early few mentions of the anti-war have problems. Like most television, the series, in so many ways, is superficial. No analysis of political economy, no Follow the Money, no War is the Health of the State.

I fear Burns is on the way to endorsing the “spitting on soldiers” narrative that has been a right-wing favorite for decades. That is what is called now fake news, trumped up by the government then and now, attempting to create animosity between soldiers and citizens. (Here are pro and con spitting stories.) Would the most successful (and last) anti-war group, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, have become so honored if that was true?

What did occur back then I recount in my 1974 novel. Before its veteran character, based on a good friend of mine, left Nam for the World, as it was called, the plane load of departees were treated to a lecture saying they would be harassed by their fellow citizens when they returned and they should be on alert. That warning causes a scene of semi-violence in the novel. Again, this was back in the early 70s. The government had a settled policy to enhance friction between soldiers and the rest of their countrymen. Hence the spitting stories. None of this has gotten better, other than the hollow Thank-You-For-Your-Service mantra handed out to the 1 percent by the 99 percent. The military always wanted a volunteer army – easier to privatize wars that way, fewer people in the streets.

And, boy, did we get that, along with all the continuing wars we have. I’ll wait for Burns’ documentary on the good and decent folk who brought us all the Middle East wars that, if they have their way, will never end.

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