In the spring of 1975, after the strains of “White Christmas” signaled the conclusion of the United States’ foolhardy sojourn in Southeast Asia, the CIA’s Saigon station chief, Thomas Polgar, composed his final wire to Washington. “It has been a long fight, and we have lost,” he wrote, as allies clamored for space in the chaotic evacuation and American servicemen sent helicopters toppling into the sea. “Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it. Let us hope that we will not have another Vietnam experience, and that we have learned our lesson.”
These are old saws, of course, so oft repeated as to induce a certain skepticism, but in PBS’ 10-part, 18-hour examination of that long, lost fight, appearing at a moment in which the past’s dread echoes cannot be ignored, old saws cut deep. Indeed, it is by marshaling the familiar images and frequent phrases of that tumultuous era into a single, stricken epic that The Vietnam War becomes the most thorough screen treatment of the conflict since its ignominious end, and perhaps the definitive one: What it lacks in the immediacy of Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig, the Winterfilm Collective’s Winter Soldier, Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds, and the thousands of hours of ghastly footage that Americans watched from the dinner table in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s indispensable docuseries regains from the sheer grandeur of its portrait, and from its plaintive understanding that the war was the hinge on which the optimism of “the American century” swung firmly, irrevocably shut.
Though it reaches into Indochina’s colonial past, and includes President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam in 2016—a span of more than 150 years—the series focuses on the disastrous two decades between the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the fall of Saigon, casting a particular eye to the United States’ almost inexorable intensification of the war. Kennedy’s advisors, Johnson’s Rolling Thunder, Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia; “pacification,” “search and destroy,” “peace with honor”; anticommunism, containment doctrine, domino theory: From this cascade of political miscalculations and tactical blunders, The Vietnam War constructs its potent argument that the conflict grew, in essence, from American officials’ fallacious interpretation of the “lessons” of World War II and the Cold War in Europe—and then, upon realizing their error, proceeded to double down, desperate to avoid humiliation.
This is, to be sure, no new interpretation of the Vietnam War, but as filtered through the experiences of American GIs—many of them men of color, nearly all of them poor—it assumes human shape; a fitting requiem for a struggle of complex origins and incomprehensible costs, The Vietnam War’s emotional palette is an intimate one, run through with shame, grief, fear and despair. “I’m scared of the dark, still,” former Marine John Musgrave says in one poignant moment. “I still got a nightlight.” Shifting from strategic debates at the highest levels of government to ground operations in Vietnam, from the antiwar movement at home to atrocities abroad, the series positions the scope of the war as its signal feature, and so begins to explain its enduring hold on the American imagination. In Burns and Novick’s hands, the Vietnam War, with its many-tentacled influence—on the pursuit of the Cold War, on the United States’ international stature, on protest movements foreign and domestic, on the economy, on presidential war powers, on culture and counterculture and much more besides—emerges as the central event of the second half of the twentieth century, shaping the course of so much that’s happened since.
It’s the sustained attention to Vietnamese voices, though, that turns The Vietnam War into the most important TV series of the season, an essential reminder that the destruction the United States wrought in Southeast Asia dwarfs the ledger of losses we count as our own. Through interviews with Vietnamese from both sides of the DMZ, including soldiers, diplomats, historians and memoirists, Burns and Novick underline the thorniness of the situation into which the United States inserted itself: Within their broader struggle for self-determination, the Vietnamese populace included communists and capitalists, Catholics and Buddhists, city-dwellers and rural farmers, destitute laborers and corrupt elites, complications for which the abhorrent American obsession with “kill ratios” failed to account. As a result, The Vietnam War suggests, the conflict’s human tragedy is inextricable from its geopolitical one. In reducing Vietnam to a series of maps, charts and data sets, the United States created the cruel logic by which one might say, without irony, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Telling, then, that the series’ first installment, “Déjà Vu,” should feature a montage of the war’s familiar images and frequent phrases, this time unspooling in reverse: Though Burns and Novick decline to draw explicit connections to the present, the prophetic sense that we’ve been here before shadows The Vietnam War from first frame to last. We learn, for instance, that the dehumanizing language of “gooks” and “slopes” originated with earlier conflicts, in Haiti and Nicaragua, the South Pacific and the Korean peninsula. We learn that Ho Chi Minh, then the leader of the Vietnamese independence movement, sought an audience with Woodrow Wilson at Versailles in 1919. We learn—we’ve already seen—that restive civilians, religious martyrs, guerilla forces, improvised explosive devices are born of the recklessness of American power, and that the anarchy we loose upon the world necessarily redounds upon us in one form or another. And yet we persist in our own “Vietnam experience” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria, under another series of five presidents ranging from the well-intentioned to the positively Nixonian, as if Polgar’s warning had been buried with those helicopters in the South China Sea. The French, whose collapsing colonial interests in Southeast Asia first lured the United States into what would become the Vietnam War, have another expression for this feeling that the “lessons” of that awful adventure remain beyond our comprehension, one Burns and Novick’s essential series captures with historical rigor and emotional depth: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The Vietnam War premieres Sunday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. on PBS.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.