Skip to Content

The Vietnam War As Public Spectacle

Bottom-up Collective Drama or Top-Down Atrocity?

Sometimes, the editing is strange, or playful. Karl Marlantes, a Vietnam combat veteran and author of the novel Mattehorn, gets featured treatment in the film. Commenting on the lying that so characterizes the Vietnam War as top-down history, he says: “It’s like living in a family with an alcoholic father … you know, shh, we don’t talk about that.” When Marlantes says this, we cut to a shot of an anonymous, very young GI on the ground, looking back; he seems to be hugging the earth protecting himself from something, maybe a firefight or a mortar attack. The cut to the kid is at the precise moment Marlantes says, “...shh, we don’t talk about that.” It feels a bit corny, like the fourth wall breaking in or something. In a scene of ARVN corpses, we hear the faint, almost subliminal, buzz of flies. Over the litany of LBJ’s confusion and bad judgments and images of LBJ and McNamara slouching and grimacing in their swivel chairs, we hear strains of Dylan’s “Eve of Destruction.” Then, it’s the NVA build-up in the South and Mick Jagger singing, “Don’t play with me/ ‘cause you’re playin’ with fire”. Of course, sixties rock ‘n roll classics have always been associated with the absurdity of Vietnam.

In the film’s introduction, we get a long segment where the iconic images and film of Vietnam (the napalmed naked girl, the shooting-in-the-head of a VC man on the streets during Tet, Hueys shoved over the side of an aircraft carrier, etc) are run backwards. It goes on for a long while. As visual metaphor suggesting the erasure of iconic stereotypes, it’s a call for fresh eyes, ears and mind. To get beyond the “dissonance” Burns and Novick speak of. I liked that they were willing to do such a jarring and unconventional thing.

What interests me is how this “intimate” history of the war works in a kind of no-man’s land between non-fiction and fiction, between reality and fantasy -- the cultural coordinates where we all live today. It’s the Age of Trump and charges of “fake news” are tossed back and forth; we’re told we’re living in a post-fact, post-truth world. You soon realize in the Burns/Novick film how stories are put together, or as Novick put it to Terry Gross about the Kent State narrative, how an editor “built the scene.” Pieces of film, video and stills that clearly do not come from the incident being recounted by a participant are edited together to create what can only be called a hybrid of non-fiction and fiction. Like a writer uses words and metaphors, the filmmakers use aural and visual material.

"There is no single truth in war." Is this true?"There is no single truth in war." Is this true?

story | by Dr. Radut