The Pity of It All

The Vietnam War

a documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Larry Burrows/Larry Burrows Collection
US Marines with an injured comrade at a first-aid station, Mutter’s Ridge, Nui Cay Tri, South Vietnam, October 1966

Ken Burns achieved renown with lengthy film histories of the Civil War, World War II, jazz, and baseball, but he describes his documentary The Vietnam War, made in close collaboration with his codirector and coproducer Lynn Novick, as “the most ambitious project we’ve ever undertaken.” Ten years in the making, it tells the story of the war in ten parts and over eighteen hours. Burns and Novick have made a film that conveys the realities of the war with extraordinary footage of battles in Vietnam and antiwar demonstrations in the United States.

The narration, written by the historian Geoffrey C. Ward (who also wrote the companion book to the film) and read by Peter Coyote, is lean and pointed, and instead of people like John McCain and John Kerry, who have often discussed the war, the eighty talking heads are largely unknowns: former soldiers, officials, journalists, deserters, and peace activists. The time elapsed since the war has allowed the filmmakers to include secret White House tapes and testimony from former members of the National Liberation Front (NLF, also known as the Vietcong) and North Vietnamese soldiers and officers. The soundtrack, which greatly enhances the film, includes classic songs of the period, from “The Sound of Silence” to “Let It Be.”

For those under forty, for whom the Vietnam War seems as distant as World War I or II, the film will serve as an education; for those who lived through it, the film will serve as a reminder of its horrors and of the official lies that drove it forward. In many ways it is hard to watch, and its battle scenes will revive the worst nightmares of those who witnessed them firsthand.

Asked why he and Novick took on this project, Burns said that more than forty years after the war ended, we can’t forget it, and we are still arguing about it. We are all, Novick added, “searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy.” Their aim, the filmmakers said, was to explore whether the war was a terrible mistake that could have been avoided. They might have added that some consider it no mistake but the result of a deliberate policy. Nonetheless, she and Burns do provide answers to some questions Americans may still be asking about the war.

They begin by running the combat footage backward, the shells flying up into helicopters instead of exploding on the ground, as though the US could take it all back. They then show Ho Chi Minh with American OSS men during World War II, and quoting from the Declaration of Independence in his triumphal speech when he entered Hanoi in 1945. They show snippets of the First Indochina War (1946–1954), later making…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.