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A Tale of Two Critics

Previewing the Burns/Novick PBS Vietnam documentary

Of course, Burns’ deaf ear here is really tuned to left historians who know quite well “what we’re supposed to make of it.” The conclusion is foregone that in the documentary we will not hear from Noam Chomsky, whose powerful writing on Vietnam constitutes a virtual library of its own; nor from Christian Appy, whose several works will inform a reader exactly what happened; nor from my friend John Marciano whose The American War in Vietnam is a gem suitable for inclusion on curricula wherever the war is taught. Perhaps in failing to present Vietnamese visas when they submitted their passports to Burns and Novick, these and other alleged ‘Monday morning quarterbacks’ came up lacking.

To ‘avoid old tropes,’ Kamp wags approvingly, Burns has coined new ones “by interviewing those with firsthand accounts, from Vietcong guerrilla fighters to Army deserters.” Certainly all of the above are entitled to their opinions, and most of them presumably have had half a century to compose their own sound bites. Moreover, might there be something problematic in assigning equal weight to all “firsthand accounts” in rendering informed historical judgements about the war? This is not a question Kamp appears to have grappled with. And to Burns, the question is irrelevant. During an early stop last April at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs to promote the film, America’s favorite documentarian was asked if Vietnam was a ‘’just war?” “It’s impossible to make a blanket judgment about the war,” intones Mr. Burns - the very paragon of avuncularity.

The war about which no judgment can be made, writes Kamp, “began as an ill-considered but contextually understandable effort” to restore French colonialism in Indochina after World War II. But following the defeat of the French by the Vietnamese resistance in 1954 – by no means entirely “communist,” as Kemp suggests - Vietnam became “America’s headache.” Fast forward to America’s defeat, and the subsequent years of “agonizing debate [that] begat a kind of reckoning fatigue,” which Kamp glosses as: “Okay, okay, we get it: The Vietnam War messed people up, divided our nation and is a stain on our history – let’s drop the subject.” Enter Burns and Novick to pick it up again, believing that “enough time may have elapsed for tempers to have cooled and for perspective to have been gained.”

Kamp heartily agrees. The completed documentary, which Kamp screened in a “marathon viewing session,” was “emotionally taxing.” It was worth the angst it caused him, though, because, “By dint of its thoroughness, its fairness, and its pedigree, The Vietnam War is as good an occasion as we’re ever going to get for a level-headed national conversation about America’s most divisive foreign war.” It is, gushes this unabashed Burns groupie, a “monumental achievement.”

Much of this “achievement,” Kamp acknowledges rests on the availability of archival footage “filmed by news organizations with minimal governmental interference.” This remark is particularly telling for what Kamp does not say. One of the lessons of Vietnam that the American war making establishment learned definitively, and applied widely, was to throw plenty of “interferences” at news organizations to prevent them from such independent coverage of our current string of wars since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But Kamp is a hack for hire; he has no skin in defending or protecting the prerogatives of the 4th Estate.

story | by Dr. Radut