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A Tale of Two Critics

Previewing the Burns/Novick PBS Vietnam documentary

The one clip of Musgrave I saw reveals nothing of note, but that is not the case with Harris, shown both as he appears today and in photographs from his tour in the war zone. There’s a touching scene where he recalls a conversation with his mother – there were rare occasions in Vietnam for telephoning home – in which he tells her not to expect that he will survive, not with self-pity, but just calculating the odds he sees all around him. His mother’s invokes the protection of her god, and the son mercifully survives. But there is something especially cynical in the way Burns and Novick use Harris as a strawman to promote the greatly exaggerated trope – to coin a phrase – about Vietnam veterans subjected to abuse, in particular in being slandered as “baby killers.” Maybe someone did call Harris a baby killer, but in the clip I saw, he appears to be generalizing – “they called us…” - not speaking from personal experience. To juxtapose my own homecoming experience, and that of the scores of Vietnam veterans I have gotten to know over the past fifty years, not one of them ever complained of being confronted with those hurtful words, not to mention being spat upon.

That narrative of the badly treated Vietnam vet, never properly welcomed home, another trope and one exploited by Ronald Reagan in his first presidential campaign, has lubricated the smooth transition into the American collective unconscious of the ordinary boy next door, the citizen soldier who went to war, reluctantly or willingly, into the inflated, glorified warrior we are expected to revere today, and which David Kamp abets shamelessly and without reflection. Not a reader of Vanity Fair, I had none the less formed the vague notion that the magazine was a showcase for good writing, the only possible motivation for slogging through its telephone-book-thickness of glossy ads for power wrist watches and the fashion menu from the Milan rag trade. Gratefully, David Kamp has disabused me of that hollow misimpression.


In the hands of Thomas Bass, a thoughtful, informed scholar, The Vietnam War is cast in an infinitely more revealing light. Bass’s exceptionally insightful essay, America’s Amnesia, appears in the lively Mekong Review, edited by a Vietnamese expatriate, Minh Bui Jones, until recently based in Phnom Penh, and now relocated to Sydney, Australia where Minh’s refugee family settled in 1978. Leading with a solid blow, Bass nails the essential flaw in the “cinematic topoi” – the conventional syntax - of the Burns’ brand, “the urge toward healing and reconciliation, rather than truth.” And while Novick has shared top billing as Producer in many works Burns has “created” since 1990, Bass “wonders,” based on what he sees in the Vietnam project, “what tensions might exist between… the patient archivist and the sentimental dramatists?” This bit of provocative coup de theatre Base launches with the penetrating observation that “a dichotomy between history and drama shapes all ten parts of the PBS series… it feels sometimes as if it were edited by two people making two different movies.”

story | by Dr. Radut