A searing documentary: Ken Burns’ “The VietNam War”

By Caitlin Kelly


Maybe you know little about the VietNam war — you were too young then, or it didn’t affect you or maybe you didn’t care to learn about it.

This week, a 10-part series on the war has been airing on PBS in the U.S.; you can buy DVDs of the series or download episodes of it on ITunes.

It is unforgettable, moving, appalling, the result of nearly 100 interviews.

Each episode is 90 minutes to two hours long, and features a mixture of interviews with veterans of the war, both South and North Vietnamese and American, including an American doctor who was a prisoner of war, an anti-war protestor, the sister of a soldier killed early on in the conflict, journalists and others.

It is searing, disturbing, deeply sad; I see friends’ reactions on Facebook, left sobbing.

It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to (better) understand a war that lasted just under 20 years, from 1955 to 1975.

From Wikipedia:

Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from 966,000[30] to 3.8 million.[52] Some 240,000–300,000 Cambodians,[53][54][55] 20,000–62,000 Laotians,[52] and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, and a further 1,626 remain missing in action.[A 2]

As someone who was born and raised in Canada, I had little conscious awareness of the war, which ended in my final year of high school. We knew about it, certainly, as Canadian media is forever saturated by all news from the United States, our largest trading partner.

It was a time, as today now feels again, when the country was deeply divided, between those who thought the war still worth fighting — and those staging enormous protests nationwide.


IMG_20160616_134045187_HDR (5)

It’s deeply depressing to hear — on audio of the time — the endless lies fed to Americans by their leaders year after year, their broken promises that produced more domestic rage and frustration and more and more dead bodies.

One surprising effect, which I and others felt personally, was draft-dodgers, some of whom were professors in our university, exotic Americans — some 30,000 Americans fled to Canada to escape the draft and (!) 30,000 Canadians apparently volunteered to serve in the war.

One of the best-known songs of the era — written by fellow Canadian Neil Young — commemorates the unimaginable, the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University in Ohio, shot by National Guardsmen while protesting the war:

“What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?”

The interviews in the film are raw and intimate, shot in tight close-up, as men and women now in their 50s, 60s or beyond recall the most terrifying moments of their lives. There are color images of them, young and strong, wearing camo, a stark contrast to the silk bow-ties and elegant jackets they wear as they recall the war for us.

The noisy, shocking film footage of battles and bombings and napalm, of ambushes and gruesome injuries and rows of dead bodies — both American and Vietnamese — makes looking away both tempting and cowardly.

There is, in Episode Nine, an astounding speech by John Kerry — then returned from the Mekong Delta wearing fatigues (who would later become U.S. Secretary of State.) That same episode includes an interview with photographer Nick Ut, whose image of a young girl who had just been napalmed, Phan Thi Kim Phuc (now living near my hometown, Toronto), remains one of the war’s iconic photos.

One of those famous images shown in the film sits on our living room wall — a signed gift from the late photographer, Bernie Boston, on assignment for the Washington Star.




And we have a friend, a former colleague of my husband, a  “boat person” who fled VietNam after the war as a little boy, and who now works as an art director at The New York Times. He once told us his story, and it was difficult to reconcile the highly successful man we know today with the terrified refugee he was then.

Read the link and you’ll see an echo with the millions of refugees today fleeing in overcrowded boats from Syria and Africa. Plus ça change…

My father, a film-maker, also worked on a television series about the war, The 10,000 Day War,  — it was the first time I knew the name of General William Westmoreland, a key player whom he interviewed.

I Googled that film —– and found that the nearest copy of it to my home is (!) at West Point, the military academy just north of where I live on the Hudson River.

How apt.


Do you know much about this war?


Do you know anyone who served in the U.S.military in Vietnam?


14 thoughts on “A searing documentary: Ken Burns’ “The VietNam War”

  1. Robert Lerose


    I have watched the Ken Burns series from the start. I thought I knew a lot about the war, but this series puts my knowledge to shame. I have learned so much from each episode.

    Over the last two weeks, my heart has broken over the personal stories of all the interviewees. And the extent of the lies…the lies…the lies. And the impossible-to-imagine utter waste of human lives. The destruction of families. The larger societal fractures. The devastation and ripple effects of Agent Orange. The pain inflicted on POWs. The self-serving politicians who knew privately that a military victory was unattainable, but kept up a public facade that victory was at hand.

    And the courageous work of journalists like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan who tried to expose the deceptions that were being spoon fed by the military brass. And the intrepid photographers who captured the searing images of My Lai and the naked napalm-soaked little girl. The emotional impact of this series is staggering…and so necessary. I am left after each episode speechless. And disgusted at the chicanery and ineptitude of government officials today who lie unceasingly.

    Ken Burns and his colleagues have done a public service with this series.


  2. I’ve been recording the series and my original plan was to binge watch it. But I caught about 20 mins of one episode and I think binge watching it is not a good idea. I know I will need the time to decompress and reflect. I have friends who fled as refugees and their tales are harrowing.

    1. Oh, indeed. There is NO way you want to binge watch this. I’ve been seeing it every night (missed the 1st 2 or 3) and every time it ends i sit there stunned and emotional — as I think is a fair response.

      1. i was 10 and then a young teen, when i became aware of it. the news at night, the protests, the music, etc. my parents didn’t talk much about it. i remember my uncle, who was at notre dame, was due to go and suddenly landed in the hospital with ‘appendicitis’ and never left. his way out, most probably.

        i look forward to seeing this series, even knowing it will be hard to take at times, but i yearn to know more. i am not one to shy away from history, i always seek to understand more of the whole picture.

        have you ever seen the doc, ‘the fog of war?’ if you haven’t, i’d highly recommend it. it is about the former defense secretary, robert mcnamara, (under the kennedy and johnson eras, at the peak of the vietnam war). in this doc, he seeks to apologize for his role in all this. powerful.

      2. i was young, but old enough to remember it well. i would love to see it to understand more. i remember that my uncle was due to go and suddenly in the hospital with ‘appendicitis’ and never went. timing is everything and makes more sense now. i know it will be hard to watch, but i really want to understand the bigger picture. have you

  3. I confess I know little about the Vietnam war. I was born much later and, being British, it isn’t as much a part of the UK’s history (the Prime Minister at the time, Harold Wilson, refused to send troops to Vietnam).

    But I’ve heard about how the war divided Americans, and I’ve seen that famous photo of the little girl running from the napalm attack. So visceral and horrifying.

    The documentary sounds excellent but very hard to watch. “It was a time, as today now feels again, when the country was deeply divided” — yes, it feels as though the world is heading towards war again.

    It’s scary to hear about the tensions between world ‘superpowers’ — the US, North Korea, China, Russia…. Slightly off-topic, but I watched the first part of an excellent new BBC documentary about Russia last night. I was astounded to see that the BBC film crew were stopped and detained by Russian police, their passports withheld for ‘inspection’, on more than one occasion.

  4. “Henry Kissinger’s genocidal legacy: Vietnam, Cambodia and the birth of American militarism
    Nixon introduced us to permanent, extrajudicial war in Southeast Asia, and it continues today in the Middle East”

    “Crimes against Humanity: Why Is Henry Kissinger Walking Around Free?”

    Is Kissinger mentioned in this PBS documentary?

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