Documentaries are, always and everywhere, histories. The connotation of social science, or at least of “objective fact,” around the term “document” can, however, fool one into thinking otherwise. The method of delivery, or the form, adds an additional layer of confusion. The visuals—vivid colors and sounds, and their penchant for capturing our emotions—cause one to place documentaries in a different conceptual category. They seem different and novel rather than familiar.
Andrew Bacevich has fallen victim to these kinds of confusion in his recent review of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. Bacevich denies the series placement in the genre of history, stating that it “is not history, but rather story-telling and remembrance.” He adds that “it glides along the surface of things, even when that surface is crowded with arrogance, miscalculation, deceit, and bloodletting on an epic scale.”
The Burns-Novick story confuses Bacevich because it seems, to him, to elide the historian’s duty of interpretation. Bacevich rightly reminds his readers that “the purpose of history is to unearth and engage with those truths that have something to teach us.” He adds that “this requires a willingness to interpret and render moral judgments.” This means that documentaries might only rise to history when they include historians in the work.
These things are true. But Bacevich denies Burns and Novick the ability to accomplish those tasks. In so doing Bacevich undermines the potential greatness of certain documentaries as independent histories, and falsely diminishes The Vietnam War series in the process. We should never underestimate the role of moving picture directors, or producers, as historians.
But Burns and Novick have a thesis, which is delivered in the first episode: The Vietnam War “was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation.” Bacevich himself identifies a thesis, worded by himself:
If The Vietnam War as a whole has a point to make, it would appear to be that war is a great tragedy. Of course, this qualifies as a truism. In this particular tragedy, the participants on all sides—the people of North and South Vietnam no less than the Americans sent to fight against the North on the South’s behalf—suffered more or less equally. On all sides, the combatants exhibited courage and stamina. No side was innocent of grievous atrocities. All are victims; all are guilty.
And then Bacevich delivers his own thesis in response: “It comes closer to the truth to say that the war was begun—and then prolonged past all reason—by people who lacked wisdom and, when it was most needed, courage.”
This brings us to the truth of the matter. It’s not that Burns and Novick avoid the historian’s duty interpreting events or providing a thesis. To Bacevich, it’s just that they relay a wrong, simplistic thesis (i.e. “truism”) and interpret inadequately. Rather than designate our documentarians as historians, it’s easier to deny them the role and confine documentaries to the special lightweight category of “story-telling and remembrance.”
If we count Burns and Novick among historians, we then have to confess that major events can be described with many different theses. There will be many valid arguments and truths about the Vietnam War, for as long as we talk about it. Its causes were too complex, and its ending too prolonged. There will never be an all-encompassing, Holy Grail thesis that succinctly encapsulates everything important about the Vietnam War.
In The Human Condition, Arendt illuminates a truth related to the theses of Bacevich and Burns-Novick. In her discussion of public and private realms Arendt reminds us that, for humans, “appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as ourselves—constitutes reality.” She continued:
Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life—the passions of the heart, the thought of the mind, the delights of the senses—lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape fit them for public experience. The most current of such transformations occurs in storytelling and generally in artistic transposition of individual experience.
We can bring this passage into the Burns-Novick philosophy of history, as relayed—accurately I think, in a Dissent Magazine review by Maurice Isserman:
The narrator (the excellent Peter Coyote, formerly of the San Francisco Mime Troupe), says in the series’ final episode, “Meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through [the war].” That is and has always been Burns’s credo as a documentary-maker. He is not primarily an idea guy—he’s a story-teller (which, of course, is key to his popularity). Story-tellers are necessarily selective—the stories they choose and the ways in which they decide to tell them determine the narrative’s larger purpose.
With Arendt in mind, Burns and Novick have shaped a narrative for public consumption. The constituent parts of that narrative are first-hand accounts from American and Vietnamese soldiers, as well as citizens from both countries. Those “deprivatized and deindividualized” oral histories forge a certain appearance of reality and a compositional truth. As is the case with all historical narratives, The Vietnam War becomes another set of contingent truths and arguments about the war. Its scope and length, and visual artistry, make it compelling. They make the series feel authoritative. And it is precisely this felt authority that raises the ire of Bacevich and host of other reviewers and historians.
One fear raised about the series, conveyed to me by a senior historian (who is friend of S-USIH and an acquaintance through Facebook), is that it will become a canonical classroom fixture. The PBS imprimatur and monumental scope of the series will, through innumerable classroom screenings, instill a new generation of students with yet another set of biases and errors about the Vietnam War. This is a legitimate fear, but also easily corrected. Any professor or teacher who screens “documentaries”—from the best to the worst—without sampling the reviews and passing along criticisms is not doing their jobs as instructors. Any professional historian who uncritically screens a moving picture, whether documentary or feature film, is in a state of dereliction of duty. No historian or history teacher should ever present a film such that it can be interpreted as The Truth. All moving pictures should be treated as propaganda. They just differ on how the propaganda is proposed, minimized, or maximized. I think most historians treat films and documentaries this way (meaning critically).
Like Bacevich, I have had my fears about the series, and have even conveyed some early judgment. It’s a human thing to do, even for professionals. But, having now screened most all of nine episodes (through Wed., 9/27), I have found the series to be, at the least, above average—much better than merely acceptable. I think that criticisms from people like Bacevich derive from an assumption about the series’ creators—namely, due to the length, scope, and PBS placement (i.e. primetime), the creators want this to be the definitive historical statement about the Vietnam War. I haven’t seen that aspiration stated in print, and I don’t detect it from the series’ creators. Until that denial, or aspiration, is firmly stated, fears about the series from historians, and historically-minded intellectuals, will persist.
Meanwhile, all historians would do well to remind themselves and others that, no matter how authoritative a historical documentary might feel, it’s just another historical narrative. As such, documentaries are subject to all the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. They are just history by another means. – TL