Documentarians peel back decades of pain in 'The Vietnam War'
WASHINGTON — The camera captured something unthinkable: American veterans going back to Vietnam and embracing men who once tried to kill them.
It’s a culminating chapter in the long journey home from war for these veterans and it punctuates the final episode of “The Vietnam War,” the epic documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It also speaks to a key theme that Burns and Novick sought to highlight in their 18-hour account of one of the most conflicted periods of American history: The only way to find peace is to reckon with war’s brutality.
For years, Vietnam veterans stayed silent after coming home to a country that had grown to despise their fight, often blaming the fighters themselves. But 50 years later, these veterans are talking about it, many healing after a long, arduous journey.
“They are now a little bit overweight and grandpas, and they are beginning to see that really the club that they are in -- this unique and sometimes terrifyingly lonely club of having experienced combat -- is shared by people that they were trying to kill and people that they were trying to avoid being killed by,” Burns said during an interview with Stars and Stripes before the documentary began airing in September on PBS.
“That’s an amazing healing thing that war produces,” he said. “It’s a push-me-pull-you that we find incredibly interesting, and by the end of our film you know you are really at a place where you know: These are my brothers.”
Burns and Novick decided early on that veterans weren’t the only ones who needed to heal from the pain of that era. The deep wounds that gnawed at the veterans for decades are in many ways reflected in rifts that continue to erode the nation’s unity today, Burns said.
“We think that in some ways the divisions we experience today in the United States, the hyper-partisanship, the rancor the district the lack of civil discourse – had its seeds planted in Vietnam,” Burns said in a presentation to midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in September, days before the 10-part documentary aired.
“We feel that if we could finally bring a fresh perspective to Vietnam, we might in a way be able to pull out the fuel rods of that disunion. And be able to return to civil discourse and doing what Americans do best, which is compromising, working together to achieve common goals, yearning for community.”
To do that, they decided the documentary must include everyone involved in the war – not just Americans. The history is told through the stories of 80 people: American soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines; draft protesters and anti-war demonstrators; Gold Star families and Pentagon policy wonks; diplomats and intelligence agents. But it is also told through North and South Vietnamese soldiers, civilians and Viet Cong. The film discovers fierce warriors, great lies, betrayal and deep pain on all sides.
‘More than one truth’Before its debut, Burns and Novick traveled the country to promote the film. They found that people were able to recognize the idea that “there can be more than one truth, particularly in war.”
In a talk at the Kennedy Center in Washington, three prominent Vietnam veterans -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent nearly six years as a prisoner of war; former Secretary of State John Kerry, who was a Swift boat commander; and former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel – agreed that the film can bridge these half-century divisions.
“It’s time, particularly since we are in such turmoil,” McCain said.
Burns and Novick found that veterans of the current wars see themselves in the film too. If it gets current warriors talking about their wars sooner, it can help them heal too, Novick said.
“We’ve seen Vietnam veterans and soldiers coming home today share their experiences about feeling alienated, not feeling connected and not being able to talk about what they went through,” Novick said during the interview.
“The Vietnam veterans say to them, ‘We are here. … We are still alive. So we are living proof that you can do it,’ and the most important thing is don’t keep it inside,” she said. “You have to tell your story. … And it will free you from the burden you are carrying.”
Sharing storiesFor more than a decade after he was carried off the Vietnam battlefield, given up for dead, John Musgrave stumbled through his life in momentary increments.
He said he was frequently suicidal; he didn’t hold a job for more than a few months and spent as much time as he could prowling the country on his motorcycle “looking for something – I didn’t know what.”
The documentary followed Musgrave’s story, from mud so sticky it would pull his boots off as he fled enemy bullets to the culminating moments when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall brought him to his knees. He described to Stars and Stripes how the war had taken hold of his future.
“In the infantry, I gave up the concept of a future while I was in the bush because – you realize it is a pipe dream and it gets in the way of doing the job,” Musgrave said. “If you are thinking only of this fantasy of a future, you are not going to take the risks required of you and you are going to let your buddies down.”
Musgrave lost dozens of comrades before he was shot in the chest during an ambush by North Vietnamese soldiers. He went through three triage corpsmen as he was transported to the rear, each taking one look at him and moving on to someone they believed they could help.
But then a doctor saw that he was awake and lucid and -- with the words “Why isn’t someone helping this man?” -- saved his life, Musgrave said.
He didn’t start his drinking binges until he was recovering at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. With nothing to do but recover, his war came crashing in on him in a country he believed didn’t want him anymore.
He said he was called a baby killer and felt like he was alone in hostile territory. He became consumed with survivor guilt and drank to silence growing thoughts of suicide. In his darkest days, he was convinced that those who loved him would be better off without him.
He somehow survived the first year. Drinking wasn’t working, so he took to driving his car and his motorcycle way too fast. It helped, he said. So did writing his story – as if putting it on the page allowed him to take control. What he found most healing, he said, was taking up skydiving again.
“I felt when I cleared the door of the airplane, I’d never been in war, never been hurt, never hurt anybody. It was perfect peace,” he said. “When I cleared the door, it made me want to stay alive so I could do it again.”
And when he held his first child for the first time, Musgrave rediscovered the future. He stopped struggling with suicidal thoughts. Musgrave started counseling other veterans. He helped establish a program to bring together Vietnam veterans and current war veterans to share stories and talk about healing.
One of the things he tells younger veterans is that most healing doesn’t come through epiphanies.
“Some questions, some struggles, we have to live ourselves into the answers,” he said. “The experience and the information accumulate within us and one day it all comes together. The important thing is to survive long enough to live ourselves into that answer.”
Saving livesBecause of the controversies over Vietnam, many veteran leaders were apprehensive about the release of the documentary.
But while those on both ends of the divide found fault – Oliver North, the Marine lieutenant colonel and former member of the National Security Council who was forced to resign over the Iran-Contra affair, wrote that the film was unfair to President Richard Nixon. A review in The New Republic described the film as too forgiving of the disunity intrinsic in American culture and says it obfuscates the truth by taking the "many sides" approach -- the film has met with strong support even from skeptics.
Vietnam Veterans of America was upset that Burns and Novick did not work closely with the organization in making the film, said Marc Leepson, the organization’s arts editor and a Vietnam veteran. Leepson said many at VVA were concerned that the documentary would paint the war veterans in a negative light. He was relieved, he said, when he saw the film and the men and women chosen to speak for his generation.
“Having those well-spoken Vietnam veterans there on the screen thoughtfully talking about their Vietnam experiences – it was a blessing in my mind,” he said. “It was a sigh of relief that they got it so right.”
Leepson was glad the film included voices of Vietnamese men and women with whom the veterans connected.
“They unexpectedly and in most cases found so much in common with their former enemies,” Leepson said. “Healing from war is not something that stopped in Vietnam.”
The first episode of “The Vietnam War” introduces Duong Van Mai Elliott, the daughter of a South Vietnamese government official who later married an American. She worked for the Rand Corp. think tank, interviewing Viet Cong prisoners of war about their motivations. When she interviewed a high-ranking Viet Cong cadre, or commander, she was surprised to find not the monster she expected, but a man who had dedicated his life to the cause of reunifying his country under a just government.
Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese soldier, describes how, much like the Americans, his people don’t talk about the war. “In war, no one wins or loses, there is only destruction,” he said.
Marine Karl Marlantes, author of “Matterhorn” amd “What Is It Like to Go to War,” described the brutality that emerges when people go to war. The military doesn’t turn men into killing machines, he said. That savagery is already in them. “I would argue it’s just finishing school,” he said.
Musgrave described how afraid he was of the enemy. The more scared he got, the more his hatred of them grew.
By the end of the war, the documentary portrays sense of betrayal that was almost universal. Soldiers and civilians stopped trusting their leadership; heroes became reviled. The United States left its South Vietnamese allies to fend for themselves and ultimately, Saigon fell. Every opportunity to save Vietnamese families who had allied themselves with the Americans were squandered.
“I realized what the Americans had often forgotten in Vietnam,” said Frank Snepp, a CIA officer who described his work in Vietnam like being a B-52 bomber who never had to confront the consequences of his actions. “They had forgotten that these were human beings.”
Ultimately, Americans struggled to find answers to why it went so wrong.
In the two-hour final episode, as the prisoners of war come home, the enormity of the disaster gives way to survivors: A North Vietnamese commander who couldn’t sleep because he’d left so many of his soldiers unaccounted for on the battlefield; a South Vietnamese commander who described his wish to die as he retreated; or an American haunted by a war he couldn’t explain. They all came home haunted.
Mike Hearney described going back years later to meet with Vietnam veterans. “All former enemies, but mellowed, quite a bit like me,” he said.
“They took me under their wing like a brother soldier. We exchanged painful memories, stories. You know, you don’t get closure but you get some peace. I got some peace.”
On Nov. 13, 1982, after fierce controversy over its design, veterans made their way for the first time to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The film captures grown men hugging and tears running down the faces of those finding names on the wall.
At the Kennedy Center talk, John Kerry noted that it was the veterans who were responsible for coming up with that memorial project and seeing it to fruition.
“Somehow they knew that this design and writing all the names on the wall and creating this public space was an enormously important thing for our country,” Novick said.
For Musgrave, that first visit was one of those moments that did bring about an epiphany. “All of a sudden, my throat swelled up and I thought, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this right now.’ And I collapsed,” Musgrave said in the film. “And all the tears I had been holding back – I didn’t cry, I sobbed. I was on my knees sobbing. I couldn’t get my breath and I was so grateful to God that it was there.
“I thought, ‘This is going to save lives,’” he said.