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Ken Burns And Lynn Novick On 'The Vietnam War'


The Vietnam War changed the way America saw itself and its role in the world.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: But for many, it remains a hidden history, a shameful defeat, a generation of veterans shunned and a country that tried its best to forget the war and its lessons. Now acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, who has chronicled the Civil War, jazz and baseball, takes us back to this still raw and wrenching subject. The 18-hour documentary begins tonight on PBS. And co-directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick join us now. Welcome to the program.

KEN BURNS: Thank you.

LYNN NOVICK: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ken, I'm going to begin with you. You once said that covering the Civil War and World War II - you weren't going to do any more wars? What changed your mind?

BURNS: It was at the end of producing the Second World War film that was coming out in 2007 - that in late 2006, I looked at Lynn and said, you know, we have to do Vietnam. It lay ahead of us on the historical road from the Second World War. And for Americans, I think it's the most important event since the Second World War - so defining, as your introduction suggests. And, you know, Lynn and I just sort of gulped hard and dove in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lynn, what drew you to this?

NOVICK: I was born in 1962. And so for the entire time that I was growing up, the Vietnam War was happening. I was a child and an adolescent. I was 13 when the war ended ignominiously, tragically, in a devastating way. And it just felt that there was this terrible thing happening that we couldn't seem to get out of. That got worse and worse and worse. And it was confusing. It was unsettling. And it was upsetting. And I didn't understand it. And so as soon as I was old enough to understand what was important, I became sort of obsessed with the Vietnam War. It seemed to both Ken and me that there was this unfinished business in our country - that we just need to face it and figure out what happened.

BURNS: Part of war has to be that reality that we, as we have too often in previous wars - the Second World War and Civil War are ones I'm familiar with - in which they've been sentimentalized and romanticized. And there's a kind of nostalgia about it. You can call the Second World War, which is the greatest cataclysm in human history, killing 60 million people, the Good War. I know why it's called that - in large part because of Vietnam. War is an incredibly brutal thing, and we felt that we had - we were obligated to tell an important story, particularly because, as you suggest, we tend to bury this. And particularly with Vietnam, we've buried it a lot. We've just sort of shunned it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lynn, you conducted the majority of the interviews for this project. Am I right?


GARCIA-NAVARRO: What were the unheard voices that you wanted to bring out? Give me an example.

NOVICK: Well, wow. There's a veteran that we spoke with at length named John Musgrave (ph).


JOHN MUSGRAVE: I hated them so much. And I was so scared of them.

NOVICK: He's extremely honest, brutally honest about his feelings about the Vietnamese and how it was necessary to dehumanize them in order to do his job.


MUSGRAVE: Turn a subject into an object. It's racism 101. And it turns out to be a very necessary tool.

BURNS: In many cases, the most interesting wars going on in our series are wars going on within human beings.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And within a family. You - tell me the story of one of the main characters on the Vietnamese side.

BURNS: Yes. So Zhongwen Mai (ph) was born in Hanoi to a family of Mandarins. Her father worked for the French. And when the French were defeated, the family had to skedaddle down to Saigon, where she began to watch the creation and then the corruption and then the death of that country of South Vietnam. And she had just very coincidentally a job working for the RAND Corporation interviewing captured Viet Cong cadre. And she had always been taught how evil they were.


ZHONGWEN MAI: My mother would describe them as (foreign language spoken), which means that these are people with the head of a water buffalo and the face of a horse, meaning that they were subhumans.

BURNS: Here, she found somebody who was incredibly dedicated to the cause.


ZHONGWEN: Here was a man who had devoted all his life to fight for what he called a just cause - to free his country of foreign domination, to reunify the country under just government. So he really totally believed in it to the point that he sacrificed his whole life to this cause. So I left - I was very impressed with him.

BURNS: You'll see among many people throughout our film, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong - people undergoing radical emotional and psychological changes within themselves, doing battle, in essence, with who they had been, who they were right now and who they might become.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mention that you focused on what was happening in Vietnam, hearing from North and South Vietnamese. And I'd like to dig into that. It tends to be true that we rarely look at the countries we fight with and tell their stories.

BURNS: That's exactly right. And I think that when Americans talk about Vietnam because it is so fraught, we end up talking just about ourselves. Everything's with an American accent. And we felt that it was impossible to fully understand this unless we came to terms with the winners and the losers of this war, right? I mean, the Americans didn't lose. We failed. What was lost was the country of South Vietnam and the people who were defending it.

NOVICK: They would say again and again, you know, we don't really speak about the war here. It's very painful. We've tried to forget it. We look forward. But maybe it's time to tell the truth about how very, very terrible this war was and the price our country paid because they lost a million soldiers on the winning side and as many as 2 million civilians on both sides - you know, as many as 3 million people in their entire country.


LO KHAC TAM: (Foreign language spoken).

NOVICK: There's one particular soldier. His name is Lo Khac Tam. Probably one-third or maybe half of the men that were under his command didn't come home. And he lives with that every day, he told us. He cries when he hears certain songs. He couldn't celebrate when the war was over. And he is really excited about the film and excited that it's going to be seen in Vietnam because we've had it translated into Vietnamese.


NOVICK: And it's going to stream on the PBS website in English and in Vietnamese and in Spanish.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ken, why is it important for both Americans and Vietnamese to see something like this, to see this work?

BURNS: It's unsettled business. And, clearly, we know it's unsettled for us. But it's unsettled business for them. In sharing the film, one North Vietnamese soldier said that he had always seen the American demonstrations as a sign of our weakness. And now seeing the film, he understood that it was a sign of great strength that Americans could voice their own opinions. And I think we can take a lesson from them - that they remind us that what we consider this terrible time when we're ripped asunder now in retrospect represents to them, and perhaps also to us, a time when democracy actually functioned, was, you know, using all of its muscles.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Highlights of the documentary were shown at the Kennedy Center. And in the audience were John McCain and John Kerry, two Vietnam vets with very compelling stories of their own. What was their response?

BURNS: Well, we've been fortunate - both of us - to have known both men for an awfully long time. And John McCain was most poignant, I thought, when he said, you know, he'd seen a lot of the film. And he wanted to make sure that he thought that this could become the beginning of the healing. And when you look at his - that man, that old man, there was a poignancy - that you realize that the healing had to happen inside him. The healing had to happen between Americans. The healing had to happen in Vietnam between Vietnamese. And the healing had to happen between us all - and that in one simple phrase, you understood that it was not a hope or a wish. It was kind of an order from a guy who outranks us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are the co-directors of "The Vietnam War," which begins tonight on PBS. Thank you both so very much.

BURNS: Thank you, Lulu.

NOVICK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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