[October 3, 2021] To learn from our past is one of the many virtues of great leaders. To gain essential lessons, to ‘see’ what needs seeing, to hold onto something that pushes us in the right direction, is the value of history. But we can get history wrong, and that creates a dilemma. Our history of the Vietnam War is wrong.
“The past actually happened, but history is only what someone wrote down.” – A. Whitney Brown, writer and comedian
The Vietnam War was a time of great turmoil. Of course, there are many reasons. The time was an intersection of the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, technological leaps (like putting a man on the moon), and political upheaval. Out of this tumultuous time, a common narrative about the Vietnam War was taking shape. The war was seen as something to be maligned and spit upon (in many cases literally).
What is considered the ultimate history of the war was put together by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, an 18-hour documentary series. The Vietnam War tells the epic story of “one of the most consequential, divisive, and controversial events in American history…” I agree, but not for the reasons stated.
Ken Burns got it wrong. And, I’m not the only one who thinks this way. I studied war for 40 years, read over 50 books on Vietnam, interviewed more than a hundred Vietnam War vets, participated in professional studies, and listened to the many “experts.” From all this, I wanted to gain important lessons that I could apply to war if I were ever to be in the fight. But, what I learned is not what one would expect.
“From my perspective, the Burns production had one objective, to reinforce the standard anti-war narrative that the Vietnam war was unwinnable, illegal, immoral, and ineptly conducted by the allies from start to finish.” – Lewis Sorely, Vietnam Vet and historian1
Lewis Sorely gets it right. His critique of Burns’ documentary is telling. Crucial omissions, a focus on “emotional reality,” a lack of context, poor and biased research, reliance on discredited sources, dependence on sponsors and untrustworthy advisors, and revisionism deeply stain the Burn’s product.
But go and read the hundreds of reviews, and you will not this mentioned. Amazon, for example, shows nearly 3,000 reviews of the film and an average five-star rating. IMDb gives the film a 9.0/10.0 rating, extraordinarily high. The problem is that the film is wrong from the get-go and provides the wrong lessons for us as a society. If we are to learn from history, we had better get the history right.
I recommend Lewis Sorely’s criticism of Burn’s documentary. Read the article and see what you think. See link here.
Please read my newest book, “Our Longest Year in Iraq,” at Amazon (link here).