Historians were MIA from the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentaryHistorians in the News
tags: Vietnam War, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s recent 18-hour PBS documentary on the Vietnam War was adored by critics (The New York Times, for example, said it would “break your heart and win your mind”). And judging by the numbers -- some 34 million viewers total -- audiences loved it, too.
But historians? Not so much, based on a lively weekend panel called “A Fateful Misunderstanding: A Discussion of the Film Documentary The Vietnam War” during the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.
One big problem, panelists said, was Burns and Novick’s deliberate exclusion of professional historians from their 80 talking heads. By the panelists’ accounting, the documentary included two trained historians with military credentials but otherwise relied on witnesses -- mainly U.S. veterans and their families.
The panelists, all academic historians, credited Burns and Novick with including some North Vietnamese veterans but questioned any attempt to tell the full story of the Vietnam War without an explicit critical interpretation. Such a perspective, or perspectives, are crucial in the name of history, they said, and also in terms of how history can inform the political present -- namely one that also involves long-term military engagement with shifting objectives.
In various press interviews, Burns has drawn many parallels between the Vietnam era and the present. But the documentary itself avoids overt judgments about policy decisions that led to and prolonged the war, and instead takes what panelists described as an “elegiac” and “conciliatory” tone.
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