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A Tale of Two Critics

Previewing the Burns/Novick PBS Vietnam documentary

 

In the run-up to the Burns/Novick documentary on the Vietnam War to air on PBS beginning the 17th of September, I’ve read two previews that likely define the opposing poles around which critical commentary will grade the film series:
 

“Why the Vietnam War is Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Most Ambitious Project Yet,” by David Kamp, in the August 2017 issue of Vanity Fair.

“America’s Amnesia,” by Thomas A. Bass, in Vol. 2, No. 4 (August-October 2017) of the Mekong Revie.
 

As I read the tea leaves, the revived debate on Vietnam prompted by the documentary will essentially bypass the old nest of apologists among the surviving neo-cons and the highbrow sages of the National Review and Commentary, and pit forces from the neo-liberal camp, who see the “lessons of Vietnam” as repudiations of the U.S. policy of permanent war targeting international “bad guys” not down for American global hegemony, against the principled crowd of leftists and academics who cut their political teeth during the period of massive opposition to the Vietnam War. We may hear from the right, the diehard revanchists among the Viet Kieu, the rants of Rolling Thunder’s ersatz vets on their hogs, the idiocracy of Trump’s base, or even the Idiot-in-Chief, Trump himself. But their voices on this topic will be ignored as so much extraneous background noise. No one serious, you know, still supports the Vietnam War.

Given what he’s served up in Vanity Fair, I place David Kamp, if only in the utter Arendtian thoughtlessness he brings to the topic, among the temporizers. Kamp’s operative critical pose is ennui chic. He is bored by treatments of the Vietnam War he’s encountered that recycle the “tired tropes… of Hollywood,” and is refreshed in finding that auteurs Burns and Novick have “avoided” them. After all, Lynn Novick instructs the critic in an interview, ““There is no agreement among scholars, or Americans or Vietnamese, about what happened: the facts, let alone whose fault, let alone what we’re supposed to make of it.” Burns punctuates his partner’s hymn to ambiguity, telling Kamp he disdained to give voice in their epic to “avuncular, Monday-morning quarterbacking from historians and scholars who never set foot in Vietnam.”

US soldier uses a flame thrower to torch a Vietnamese peasant hutUS soldier uses a flame thrower to torch a Vietnamese peasant hut
 

There it is: throw out your Gibbon, unless the renowned author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire managed to time travel in the Way-Back machine with Sherman and Mr. Peabody to personally interview the Visigoths as they sacked the Eternal City.



story | by Dr. Radut