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A Tale of Two Critics

Previewing the Burns/Novick PBS Vietnam documentary

Burns reassures Kamp on this point, the inevitable analogy of weighing Vietnam against our subsequent wars, telling him that “the initial impulse to do [the documentary] was uninformed by some cultural Zeitgeist… our production was not going to set up a neon sign that says, “Hey, isn’t this a lot like Afghanistan. Isn’t this a lot like Iraq?" Not to worry, Kamp writes, Burns “is a long view historian… accustomed to finding modern day resonance in every story his films tell.” Thus, in a generality that is as sweeping as it is vacuous, Burns enlightens Kamp with this fortune cookie wisdom, “There is a universality to human experience.” Next to Ken Burns, a folksy philosophizing sentimentalist of Americana of an earlier vintage like Carl Sandburg comes off like Immanuel Kant. Of course, there was also the feelings of the sponsors to consider; David Koch wants to wrangle the Zeitgeist, not be stampeded by it.

The one surprising sign of intelligent life in Kamp’s review was a comment about how “watching the first half” of the documentary was like the scene in Delmore Schwartz’s iconic short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” where the author dreams he is watching “a film of his parents’ courtship playing on a movie screen, and is moved to stand up… and shout, “Don’t do it!... Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred and scandal.” [Schwartz, a literary prodigy in the late thirties, was a close friend of Robert Lowell’s, and the model for the tragic protagonist in Saul Bellow’s novel, Humboldt’s Gift, a fictionalized account of Swartz’s decline into failure and alcoholism; it’s years since I read James Atlas’ biography of Schwartz, but if memory serves, the once poet of great promise died penniless in a hotel flop on upper Broadway].

Alas Kamp immediately squanders this minor triumph with a banal observation about the war’s outcome also being “fixed” from the beginning. And how in watching the old newsreels assembled by Burns and Novick, he “winces… every time John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or… Robert McNamara ignores or rejects a plausible exit strategy.” Kamp’s tender moment notwithstanding, one wonders if Vietnamese survivors who have an opportunity to view this “monumental achievement” – as most assuredly they will -- also wince when witnessing these unpunished acts of criminality by American leaders who worked so assiduously to bomb them into submission.

Veterans, Americans and Vietnamese, whose interviews Burns and Novick work into the documentary through-line, many “left with enduring wounds both physical and psychological,” are introduced by the filmmakers “slowly and situationally.” Kamp highlights the contributions of two of them, a white Middle Westerner, John Musgrave, and Roger Harris, a black man from the hood in Boston. Musgrave, who Kamp predicts, will “captivate viewers the way that the hominy-toned historian Shelly Foote did in The Civil War…, speaks with remarkable candor and eloquence about the terror he felt, the despair he fell into, and the pride he still takes in having served his country.” Kamp has also interviewed Musgrave separately, and provides a quote that offers some hope, “I’ll probably take some heat for some of the things I said.” I won’t know which way that sword cuts, of course, until I’ve actually seen more than the preview I watched recently near my home sponsored by Maine’s PBS station.

story | by Dr. Radut