Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

Ken Burns Ends War Film Trilogy With 'Vietnam'

A still from the PBS documentary "The Vietnam War."
Florentine Films
A still from the PBS documentary "The Vietnam War."
Ken Burns Ends War Film Trilogy With 'Vietnam'
Ken Burns Ends War Trilogy With 'Vietnam' GUESTS: Ken Burns, co-director, "The Vietnam War" Lynn Novick, co-director, "The Vietnam War"

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Film maker Ken Burns has documented American's military complex including the Civil War and World War II. Now Burns and Lynn Novak have produced the Vietnam war that is a series that gives a view of a war that can promote theProvoke deep pain and answered question. Spoke I spoke to them about the documentary which airs on KPBS television this weekend.You said our inability to have civil discourse today starts with the Vietnam war. How so?Having done a film on the Civil War, the lack of civil discourse can do, the seeds of the disunion that we feel today, the sense that everybody is opposed and cannot have a conversation about complex issues anymore without revolving to the Republican or Democrat the visions that people like to see are very artificial in the defendant -- the dimension of war. They found the beginnings, a viral beginning in Vietnam and we have not really escape the specific gravity that. One think that we hope the film does because I think it will introduce viewers to many things that they did not know and that is true of us. Every assumption we went in, we had to shut it. We were humiliated about how little we knew. Other people will shake their heads at every episode and they say I have no idea. Even from veterans who were there and participated, they were surprised at the dimension of the study that we tried to share with people in an entertaining way. We would hope that in some way, the film might be an agent for promoting conversations we could and should be having as Americans about complex issues that not only face does in Vietnam but achieving peace and reconciliation or whatever you want to call it but maybe the larger positive force would be to have a civil discourse today.One of the things that struck me in watching a long trailer of the Vietnam war, the footage. Many people commented that Vietnam was the first war that was shown in America's living room. The news coverage of Vietnam came from reporters with more freedom in the coverage that journalists do now. Did the intensity of some of this footage surprise you?Our team, we were the recipients of the hard team and the producers went through hours and hours to come up with the material we end up in the final film and some of it is very hard to look at.Some of the most gruesome and graphic and horrific footage is not in our film. We had to try to process how much can we see and how much can the audience look at. We wanted to show the horror and this is the first war were the cameras did bring back images that Americans were not used to Seeing. We did have horrible images in World War II but not as much. For a lot of the war, what was shown on television was not nearly as bad as the raw footage that we have access to today.This is a place where conventional wisdom has squashed our sense of what really happened. We think this was the living room war. To some debt it was but it was very carefully presented. The real gritty stuff would happen in specials or in the shock which was enfolded -- unfolding in real-time. But what we have done is assembling everything and got sources from Vietnam and archives around the world. We brought it to life.You talk about the voices included in this documentary series. One of them is Marine Roger Harris who was stationed in the northern most output -- outpost in Vietnam. I want to play a clip in your documentary.Everybody in my unit is dying. You know? I will probably not coming back. My mother said you are coming back. I talked to God every day and you are special. You are coming back. I said, everybody mother -- their mother think they are special. People in bags. I was feeling that my mother was in denial and she is not facing the fact that her only son is dying in Vietnam.You had access to these people because this has been the first document you have done with the people in the war are with us. What do you hope they get out of the documentary series?We made lots of mistakes in Vietnam and maybe we learned some lessons and maybe we have not but will one lesson is that we will no longer blame the warriors again. That was for a short period of time but this is wrong. We want to bring them home. They are just like us. We did forget them. What we hope is that everyone, not just the people who appear in the film but everybody who served, particularly those who served in the horrible thing that human beings do to each other which is actual combat, they will feel a sense that they have been honored and the service has been recognized that we in no way are going to abstract what they went through. They are as brave as the people who landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy in June 1944. One of the great errors that we make when you supposedly lose a war or when a war is that we have a selective collective amnesia. In Vietnam, we do not want to know about it for a variety of reasons and World War II, we cannot get enough of. We want to shine a light on this story as acutely as we did perhaps and were so they can World War II.I do think that we have seen the power of what it means for someone to tell his or her story. They let go of the baggage. It sounds like pop psychology but it is real. We talked to these people and they can let go a little bit of what they are carrying and we can carry that together. You know? Last episode is the way to memory. You know, people say we are still fighting the Vietnam in how we remember it. Having a space where people can tell the truth about what happened to them and share painful stories, some of them are not unique to Vietnam. War is war. Some of these things that people go through are the same. There is a human connection and an ability that we can all help carry the burden.That was the Vietnam codirectors Ken Burns and Lynn Novak. The first part of this series airs this Sunday on KPBS television.

Ken Burns started his documentary journey through American wars with his award-winning examination of the Civil War. That 1990 documentary mini-series enlightened a generation about America's bloodiest conflict and changed the way audiences responded to documentary films.

Now, Burns is ending a trilogy about America's wars with one that many living Americans can remember well. Burns and co-director Lynn Novick produced "The Vietnam War," an 18-hour series on a war that even today can provoke unanswered questions.

Ken Burns Talks To KPBS About Upcoming Film 'The Vietnam War'

"It was so divisive and it's like living in a family with an alcoholic father. 'Shhh, we don't talk about that,'" Marine Karl Marlantes said in the documentary. "Our country did that with Vietnam and it's only been very recently that the baby boomers are finally starting to say, 'What happened?'"


Burns and Novick believe the Vietnam War has contributed to America's current political in-fighting.

“We live in an era still suffering from the deep, deep wounds of Vietnam and we’ve got to figure out a way to talk about it,” Burns said at an event in Michigan last month. “And it really doesn’t become important to say ‘Did he change his mind? Did he come around?’ All it requires for all of us is some sort of seeing larger than the myopia of our own binary point of view.”

Burns and Novick are in San Diego Tuesday to preview the film series, which airs on Sept. 17 on KPBS-TV. A preview will run May 28 at 9:30 p.m. They join KPBS Midday Edition to share excerpts from the series and discuss why the decades-old war is still reverberating today.