In which I get a sneak peak at Ken Burn’s The Vietnam War

Last night I accompanied my friend Scottie Kersta-Wilson–writer and artist-extraordinaire–to hear Ken Burns talk about his new series The Vietnam War, which will air on September 17 on your local PBS station.*

Burns is an appealing speaker. It was fascinating to hear how his team works to tell a story. The depth of the research. The care with language–long debates over whether to describe the American experience in Vietnam as a failure or a defeat, for instance. The fact that research continues alongside writing and filming. It was equally fascinating to hear how he organized this particular story around the concept that there isn’t just one truth about the Vietnam war. (I loved the fact that he described the events surrounding the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968 as an important battle in the war.) He and his crew talked to soldiers and civilians from both sides of the war. Perhaps more importantly, the people they interviewed were not the big names of the war. This is a man-in-the-street look at the war, set within a rigorously researched framework

The heart of the evening was a set of nine clips from the coming series–a little less than a hour of what will be eighteen hours of television. In the course of fifty-some minutes, I laughed** and cried. I was horrified.*** I felt ill and angry and sad and, occasionally, proud. I covered my eyes more than once. I learned stuff.

I’m not sure I’ll make it through all eighteen hours of The Vietnam War. It is a beautiful piece of cinematography and intelligent story telling, but the depiction of death and violence is graphic and gruesome. Despite the fact that I write about war more than I write about anything else,**** I am kind of a wimp about images of dead and broken people. But what I saw on the screen last night makes me determined to try.

I’ll be interested to know what you think.

(A quick reminder to those of you who get this by email: If you want to watch the trailer, you need to go to the browser. Just click the header.)

* Or at least that’s true if you’re in the United States–I know not all of you are. At some point the episodes will also be available online.
**Lyndon Johnson saying “the press lies like a bunch of drunken sailors.”
***Lyndon Johnson saying “the press lies like a bunch of drunken sailors.”
****Not something I could ever have predicted.


  1. Diana Holdsworth on September 10, 2017 at 12:32 am

    Dear Pamela, As always, I love reading your wonderfully informed and sensitively written blog postings. I usually respond by email but this time feel moved to respond here.

    About Vietnam: I was a young person at University during much of that period and it hovered over us like a military helicopter. It informed our lives. We worried about the boys getting snatched away and sent to die in a jungle fighting a people half way around the world they did not know for reasons they could only guess at. We discussed the war the way we discuss #45 today, wondering how much further into the mud of self-delusion our country could go. I joined the protests, though I did not make it to the Chicago Convention with my friends. I am moved to hear that Burns considers the Convention part of the war. That’s certainly how we felt about it.

    For the first time, this innocent teenager who thought the US was the best country in the world began to doubt the place to which her Austrian family fled during WW2 to escape Hitler’s Vienna. I was sorry to lose that innocence and pride in my country. I began to see it as a corporatocracy as the memory of our fathers’ honorable fight during WW2 began to fade.

    I’m going to try to watch all 18 hours, because Ken Burns’ work is a national event in itself. I’ll never forget the Civil War series. It changed forever the way documentaries are done.

    From what you say, The Vietnam War will not be an easy ride. I hope I can get through it because I assume from the pilot and what you wrote that it might help heal the wound that the war created in my heart and soul. I began to hate my country when I learned the truth about the war as a teenager away from home, and I still have my doubts about the US. Who knows if Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War will help or heal, but as I’m working to heal so many other aspects of my life, I might as well give this one a try. Thanks again for sharing your life and thoughts with the rest of us. Di

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