‘War stories aren’t really anything more than stories about people anyway.’ (Michael Herr)

History is an argument about the past, as well as the record of it, and its terms are forever changing, sometimes under the influence of developments in adjacent fields of thought, sometimes – as with the sea-change in attitudes followed the First World War – as a result of politics. (Paul Virilio)

She has a historian’s belief in the salutary power of explanations. (Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride)

You know if we’d lost here in Vietnam, I think it might’ve driven us crazy. Y’know, as a country. But we didn’t. Thanks to you. (Edward Blake [The Comedian] to Jon Osterman [Dr. Manhattan], from Alan Moore‘s fictional America in Watchmen)

Years ago, when 9/11 was still fresh, and individuals like Susan Sontag learned the dangers of attempting to position that event historically, as opposed to the jingoistic slogans of ‘they hate our way our life and freedoms’ espoused by George Bush II, I encountered a book that has defined much of my critical approach to art and history. Slavoj Žižek‘s Repeating Lenin was not just a lovely book, in terms of its design and typography, but as I learned (it was the first of many his books I ingested, and those of authors he both praised and panned) Žižek was also willing to say dangerous things.

Edward Keinholz, The Non-War Memorial, 1970 / 72.

One of these was in comparing 9/11 and the ‘understanding’ of this event, and many others, such as the Holocaust, was, in the “West” (he generally meant America and the U.K., acknowledging the imperialist domination of interpretation at play, flowing from these empires to their vassal states, like Canada) like the character in Christopher Nolan’s excellent film Memento. We ‘knew’ something major had happened, it defined our reality and world, but we seemed to constantly forget and have to relearn or re experience it, only to forget it again. It loomed, but in a hazy, vague manner. (This is currently a frightening analogy, in light of the rise of fascism and other other such -isms, I reccommend Timothy Snyder‘s fine book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning).

There’s a similar sentiment in Hanna Arendt‘s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil: an insidiousness, perhaps, that looks normal but that also is self denying, or that we aid and abet in its covert denial. We all, to quote a Vietnam Veteran looking back with older eyes, like to imagine that we must be the ‘white hats’ in any morality play.

Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1971.

Furthering my tangent: there was an interesting article in my news feed, declaiming that many ‘young’ Americans were embracing and advocating socialism because they didn’t remember or ‘know’ about the USSR. It was a relatively balanced piece, that was more so highlighting generational differences regarding interpretations of history, and how differing experiences can – and must – lead to differing conclusions. To return to Žižek , I’d cite his plea for a “concrete analysis of [a] concrete situation.”

Corita Kent, yellow submarine, 1967.

And anyone who’s read any of my articles – especially as pertains to place, and definitely as relates to larger historical narratives – knows I see the world through the lens of contested narratives. Amusingly (ironically, perhaps), I might say that’s the only constant in many of my responses to art and cultural politics.

All of this is a foundation I carried in my mind as I sat down to watch The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, with the descriptor of a “comprehensive history of the United States’ involvement in the bitterly divisive armed conflict in Southeast Asia.”

I’ll begin with a necessary disclaimer: I once joked that no good history of the 20th century would be possible (also hinting that no ‘good’ history of Modernism in Canadian art making might be written) until all the invested parties had passed. This may seem harsh, but consider – if you’re of my generation, the ignored but unconcerned Gen X – the dismissal of the ‘Battle in Seattle‘ and the gilding of the Boomer’s ‘social activism’ (did I mention that we’re back in the ’20s, with income disparity, racial tension and the rise of fascism? If you ‘own’ the good, you ‘own’ the bad – and it’s not like my generation doesn’t have a hand in all that, either….). So, less acerbically, what Burns and Novick have attempted is almost an impossibility: the individuals who share their experiences and stories are amazing, and necessary, but unlike the people in The Civil War, or The West, they are alive and will do that thing that people do: inconveniently contradict and disagree and fracture the ‘larger historical narratives.’ For the most part, I’m good with this: I am a fan of Howard Zinn‘s work, after all. But this is something that is a necessary portal through which to see The Vietnam War, and I’d echo one of the voices in Burns’ The Civil War series. Dr. Barbara Fields commented wryly but truthfully that because it was America’s civil war, it must be about major issues, and is the most significant of any such war. A variation on American exceptionalism, which is an ideological blinder that runs through The Vietnam War, too. Has it truly been that long since Francis Fukuyama‘s foolishness of The End of History and the Last Man, which also seemed incapable of thinking beyond the borders of ‘merica and her interests? Perhaps, in mentioning Fukuyama, it’s also good to suggest Michael Herr‘s Dispatches, and even Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July, as required or supplementary reading: and, of course Johnny Got His Gun is always necessary to help remove blinders. It’s not accidental that a film was made of that book, published originally post WWI, in the midst of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia, in 1971.

Or take a different tactic, and read Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King: “It was how wars really ended, Dieffenbaker supposed — not at truce tables but in cancer wards and office cafeterias and traffic jams. Wars died one tiny piece at a time, each piece something that fell like a memory, each lost like an echo that fades in winding hills. In the end even war ran up the white flag. Or so he hoped. He hoped that in the end even war surrendered.” But if that seems too ephemeral for something like Vietnam, which not only laid bare serious social fractures and failures in America (and beyond) but can be seen to have been indispensible to the mess we’re currently within, here’s a more visceral line from King’s Vietnam Veteran Sully John: “In the bush you sometimes had to do something wrong to prevent an even greater wrong. Behavior like that shows that you’re in the wrong place to start with, no doubt, but once you’re in the soup, you just have to swim.”

Martha Rosler – Cleaning the Drapes, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, ca. 1967-72

But history is a site of contested narratives, and perhaps there is no better recent example of this than Vietnam (any who claim Bush’s invasion of Iraq had ‘good intentions’ is a blind sycophant or profiteering liar, though its destructive repercussions are like history repeating….). The episodes are titled in this manner, with evocative teases like Deja Vu, Riding the Tiger, Things Fall Apart, The Veneer of Civilization, The History of the World and The Weight of Memory (the last one being, appropriately, the closing chapter). The arrangement of the chapters is also linear, marked off by years: in this respect, if follows the listing of names on Maya Yin Ling‘s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, which is also chronological.

On Kawahara, Title, 1965.

Before I go further, it’s necessary to say that Burns and Novick present a good series, that touches upon major issues, and the ideological ‘feet of clay’ on both sides, and does position it historically well. The rabid anti communism of post WWII America and the long suffering nationalism of the Vietnamese that, to paraphrase Rushdie’s take on the Iranian Revolution of 1979, push a people into a revolution that ‘eats them alive’ is not sugarcoated. It’s a common trope among historians that Ho Chi Minh allied with the communists as they were the only ones intent of throwing the French and later American empires out of the country: and one might observe that this single mindedness was as much of a hamartia as America’s inability or unwillingness to understand that people and places exist outside their sphere, and need not – will not – confuse their understanding of ‘freedom’ with what that means to plutocrats and corporations. Both sides failed, and Burns and Novick are unflinching in showing this, or even allowing the players within that theatre of war to speak it, still, whether still with faith or aware of the fraudulence played out by them, or upon them.

Carol Summers, Kill for Peace, from the portfolio Artists and Writers protest against the war in Viet Nam, 1967.

Burns and Novick proffer us a narrative that isn’t as nuanced or as wide as it could be, both in facts and in stories that might enfleshen the history: but to be blunt, this is impossible. In watching one episode, where a former American soldier spoke of the music they listened to, I was initially chagrined at such a facile topic being given time: but in many ways this meshed with the focus on how media coverage of the war was unregulated and a bloody and visceral experience that ‘brought the war home’ in a way that the SDS never could, despite their playing at being terrorists. So many of the voices are so conflicted, and entail their own histories which move from one position to another, on both sides of the Vietnam War (this is, in itself, inaccurate, and another opportunity to speak to Burns and Novick’s rigour: it’s clear at many times that there were three factions, four, perhaps even five, depending upon the year and the day of the story).

Duane Hanson, War, 1967.

When considering The Vietnam War: A Film, turning it over and over in my head, and incorporating it into other seminal artworks and histories about the war, I also came to the conclusion that whether I ‘liked’ this series was irrelevant. Like a work of art that may annoy, or upbraid, or inspire anger, The Vietnam War gave me a great deal to enage with, to argue with, or to reconsider. After all, my first real thoughts about Vietnam were informed by reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and my high school English teacher showing us Francs Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (amusingly, this coincided with the film Oliver Stone made about Jim Morrison, so The Doors’ The End was already on my high school playlist, nostalgia disguised as history, or vice versa….)

There’s a harsh, but exact line, from another author who has written a fine book where Vietnam – and the Americans who were there – looms large. I’d add Peter Straub‘s KOKO to my previoius rough list of ‘suggested further reading’, but I’m thinking here of a vignette he wrote in his collection Houses Without Doors. In a brief interlude, a nameless character who’s a Vietnam Vet is taking an appraisal of his life and belongings, and thinks of how he has a t shirt that says ‘if you weren’t there, shut the fuck up.’ This unnamed man thinks to himself that he knew Vietnam when it ‘wasn’t a crutch for shitty filmmakers.’ (For some reason I’ve always been sure that Straub’s veteran meant the previously mentioned Oliver Stone, as I remember Platoon being the movie that truly broke the taboo on employing that war as a filmic device or setting…)

Burns and Novick do the opposite of that, even if there are some implicit biases and assumptions that even historians of their calibre are simply unable to shed (the age of American Exceptionalism is fast coming to a close, but it will kick and scream and deny its inevitable end all the way to the grave. It’s as much manifest in an orange buffoon as it was in Richard Nixon reaching out to the South Vietnamese government to commit treason, by scuttling peace talks prior to the election that made Nixon president, or in the bloody deaths of brothers Ngô Đình Diệm and Ngô Đình Nhu. But the filmmakers here seem to know that history, even ‘American’ history, is a site of contested narratives…and though it could push further, it gives enough to make you seek more, if you like, or know that there are, as always, stories outside the stream that still fed into it.

Jasper Johns, Moratorium, 1969.

I’ll let the historian from Atwood’s The Robber Bride have the closing comment (and though I like to ‘speak to collage’, I also feel it’s appropriate here, as that’s what Burns and Novick have done, in giving voices to Le Quan Cong or Bill Ehrhart):

Where to start is the problem, because nothing begins when it begins and nothing’s over when it’s over, and everything needs a preface: a preface, a postscript, a chart of simultaneous events. History is a construct, she tells her students. Any point of entry is possible and all choices are arbitrary. Still, there are definitive moments, moments we use as references, because they break our sense of continuity, they change the direction of time. We can look at these events and we can say that after them things were never the same again. They provide beginnings for us, and endings too. Births and deaths, for instance, and marriages. And wars.

Leon Golub, Napalm 1, 1969.


Many of the images in this article are from the exhibition Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975, which was an exhibition at the Smithsonian that toured to the Minneapolis Museum of Art as well. You can see more about that exhibiton here. Some of the other images are from the this site: Vietnam! Vietnam! Artists & America’s Longest War. The header images is a detail of Leon Golub’s “Vietnam II” (1973), at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This article was produced during my extended writer’s residency at AIH Studios in Welland, and gratitude, as always to them for facilitating this work.