« Making Sense with Sam Harris

#97 — The Impossible War

2017-09-14 | 🔗

In this episode of the Making Sense podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about their latest film, The Vietnam War.

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Welcome to the waking a podcast. This is SAM Harris. Okay, a few new speaking dates to announce the links are not yet live on my website, but you can mark your calendars if you live in their relevant cities, be in Seattle on December Sixth, San Francisco, on December seventh, Boston on January 11th, do we see on January 12th and Philidel Thea on January 14th? Those last really are surrounding the January 13th date in New York, which is
virtually sold out. I believe there are twelve seats left last time. I looked so more to come about those events. Supporters of the podcast will get a link to tickets on September 20th and then tickets will be available to the general public a week after that. So you can see my events page on my website for more details and you also join my email list. If you want to hear about these things in the most reliable way. Ok. Today, I am speaking with KEN Burns and Lynn Novick. They are filming here, have made some of the most beloved documentaries of our time and certainly changed the way that documentary films have been made over the last few decades and they're releasing their latest film. The Vietnam WAR this weekend on PBS it premieres on Sunday, the 17th of September and it available on DVD and Blu Ray very soon after that
documentary is in ten parts, is eight hours long and as you'll hear in this conversation it fairly blew my mind it. It is a remarkable piece of work, took KEN and Lynn and the rest of their team ten years to make so you'll hear much more about it and my experience watching it over the next hour, but I really recommend that you take the time to watch this series. If you thought you knew something about the Vietnam WAR and what it was like to live through it, I would dare say, even if you fought in that war, there's something to be learned from this documentary. So now I bring you KEN Burns and Lynn Novick. I I'm here with KEN Burns and Lynn Novick, KEN and Lynn, thanks for coming on the podcast, thanks for having us our pleasure, what wasn't to say that I'm a fan of your work is certainly an understatement
and I think that's probably an understatement for almost anyone who encounters your work. You have made so many amazing films together, probably most famously that the civil war which virtual everyone has seen. I imagine- but there was prohibition, jazz baseball, just so many great films- and these are. These are many series really. I mean there are many hours long and now we have released or you're bound to release the late, which is the Vietnam WAR, which is eighteen hours long. Is that correct? Yes, ten episodes teen hours yeah, so I am about fifteen hours into it. Don't will the information we win this war right? I don't. I really don't want to get a do a spoiler, a thing for you. I've had a full immersion experience that most people watching it on PBS won't because I you know, I I have the desks and I was I've watch those fifteen hours in the last. You know
forty eight, so it really really amazingly intense, and it strikes me that this is an utterly unique document for reasons that you couldn't fully control and the first of all. There was endless amount of footage of the actual war which you can't say of of every and there's also the fact that there are so many people who experienced the war who are still alive, who you could talk to and then there's additional fact that we are at enough remove from this particular in time now about fifty years so that you can have this perspective on it and give this amazingly even handed treatment. And finally- and this is something you really had no control over- there is the fact that you're, real using this now at this moment in history, and it has a resonance which I really I feel
wouldn't of had had you release this, both in the first term of Obama's administration images. It's it's. It strikes me as an incredibly relevant and Prashant document. Right now is a busy. It looks like we'll look into a time capsule, but it's also we're. I also felt like I was looking into a crystal ball. That was fifty years old, and so I don't know if it strikes you that way, but it just seems like this is a uh goldmine yeah. This is the great gift of history that we always forget, and I would suggest that had we released it ten years ago, it might also have stunning and different end of resonances human nature never changes, and so whatever is going on now. The past is always going to resonate with it because we can see features of it, but I think it's quite star '
feeling right now and nothing that we intentionally timed the the the completion of the film to. Indeed, most of the editorial work was done on this before the caucus and primary seasons began in the election. But this is a film about mass demonstrations taking place all across the country against the current administration, about a white House in disarray, obsessed with leaks about a president. Certain the press is lying, making up stories about him about asymmetrical warfare that confounds the mighty might of the US military about huge document drops of stolen, classified material into the public sphere, that destabilizes the conventional wisdom and the current conversation and accusations that a political campaign reached out
during the time of a national election, to a foreign power to help them influence that national election year. That's pretty stunning, but all of these were true back in two thousand and six when Lynn and I began working on it as they are still true now and all of and dozens more are from Vietnam that resonate in the present. Strangely, some of the residences are inconvenient, or at least uncomfortable in that their pro LA party is reversed in a way, yes me, so, for instance, there was some. I forget which administration did it. I guess it was LBJ at point. There was the allegation that russian operatives, but we're stoked in the Anti WAR movement essentially- and you know whether or not that could have been true- then it it is certainly played as a completely cynical bit of paranoia where 'cause. Now we have this increasingly well done. Meddling of Russia into our system is, it was a bewildering experience frankly to
to watch this film, yes and then you have the actual evidence that the Nixon campaign reached out to South Vietnam to get them to boycott the peace talks that had suddenly Imp proved an we're. Improving Humphries Chances and Johnson gets wind of this and calls up Everett Dirksen the republican leader in the Senate and said this is treason and Dirksen says yes and in our film next call that you hear is Nixon sort of saying. Oh, you know, Mister President I'd never do this and since lying in the president knows it, and so you have an exact correlation, just as the other one seemed kind of absurd and and paranoiac near now. True, this one is, you know a fact, but we are now trying to connect the dots in this moment about that. So it's you know please. I shown yeah. So, let's step back from the actual content of the film for a moment and just talk about your
making of it. And then I want to move through the story a little bit systematically because it's, he is an education that most of us haven't had on just how damaging the the Vietnam WAR was to our society into Vietnam, and it was a disaster on on so many levels. When did you guys decide to make this film well, we've been thinking about the Vietnam WAR is one of the most important events in american history since the Second World WAR, and it's been that sort of uh back burner for many years sort of working there? Many other subjects and when we finished our fill in the Second World WAR hadn't been broadcast yet, but it was around two thousand and six- turn to me one of the mixing sessions and said you know we really have to do Vietnam. And I remember saying I agree which part he said all of it, and I said: okay, that's great. Let's do it, and yet we took a big, deep gulp, because we
so even then how enormously complicated and challenging the story me to tell, and it has turned out to be the case. We really wanted to try to tell it from every possible side and to listen to people who have very wrong feelings about. It, sometimes conflicted feelings and to understand vietnamese perspectives as well as Americans, and so it those ten years to kind of Russell. This enormously challenging story to the ground, and the footage you have is amazing. Both the contemporaneous footage of actual battles which you appear to have from both sides. You have n vietnamese footage too right. Yes, is just astonishing that this even exists and You seemingly have an endless amount of footage of our own side, which is also it just strikes me as strange that it exists in so many cases, but we had a free press that was unfettered in their access to the war and the theater of war. In this case, unlike world WAR, two
in Korea, where the press was very much censored and controlled and Vietnam represents that one outlying situation that permitted the press at great risk to themselves and, in fact, hundreds of journalists and videographer's, and film makers. And sound men were killed during the course of the war to provide this seemingly bottomless amount of a footage. What happens, though, is that they congregate in archives all around the world and a traditional film auction only has the resources to spend a little time in each archive if they can even get there. So what happens is that we tend to push around our plate the same footage over and over again an it's footage that we have, but we've also the luxury of spending a decade and having the deep die in permitting us to go into the archives, spend more than just a cursory amount of time, but literally
once in years, getting to know them and finding out all the nooks and crannies of that archives, not just footage but also still photographs, to benefit this production. So well, the classic images. Are there the classic of famous moments we are able to deconstruct them in. We think a different kind of light, whether it's the napalm girl, kinfolk or it's the assassination of Lamb, in the streets of Saigon. During the Tet offensive by the head of the national police, Luan or other famous things we we can, we can in some ways deconstruct them, but more importantly, for these quotidian moments with your pilots and helicopter crew Chiefs and Marines and Army guy ambushed or in battle charging up hills. You, have a kind of immersive experience that places you there, and one thing you should know, oh, is that ninety eight percent of the footage comes to us without any sound, and we have to therefore, then research ourselves. Why
m16 sounds like, as opposed to an Ak47, as opposed to a traditional tripod mounted machine gun, as opposed to other kind, armaments, and what the sounds of the engines of an A3 as opposed to an A4 sound like and what they actually look like to get it straight and so much of the years involved in this is is the attempt at verisimilitude and in many cases, those battles that you refer to have new footage, perhaps never before seen footage, but also a sound efx track? That may number in one hundred and fifty or one hundred and sixty individual sounds to create the moment of battle. I didn't know that, but you know in retrospect it seems The sound design was amazing. I mean it's just that there's something I I felt like. I had not actually seen war footage like this before. Well, we we were so our own
sound editors, we've worked with for years and years, and they are a remarkable group of people. What was the most telling test it was when we would have playbacks of the completed episodes and invite periodically the head of the archives, CBS or eight ABC or NBC Principle source of material, as you can imagine, and watching them watch stunned at how their footage had been used. Intermixed with their predators, footage and then finally brought to life with his complex, sound effects, and they found themselves as distracted an immersed into the story when their job. I was just sort of evaluate the uses of it, and we felt thrilled and they were extraordinarily helpful at every juncture in making sure we could find and get every lost bit of footage. Every you know obscure bit of footage and that extended is still
photographs and audio tapes from the presidential library, presidential tapes that are so extraordinary unbelievable and damning yeah. I mean just just to have that as a resource LBJ tapes are unbelievable, because what you have both in the case of LBJ and Nixon, I guess Kennedy to you- have the ultimate mind. Reading machine and what is perfectly obvious from the earliest stages of this war, is how hopeless it appeared Eve from their perspective. And yet we meander further and further into this quagmire for years and years atom, there's a point in in the series where you think surely war is about over given what we're hearing and yet is just beginning.
Ask a little more about your process before we dive into it. But perhaps you can address this question. How is it given what they were clearly thinking that this war was possible that it unfolded? The way it did Well, you know we don't have historians appearing on screen interpreting. What is the story being told, so we really try to just put the pieces together and using this remarkable, real time, audio of conversations in the White House. As you hear, LBJ and Nixon and Kennedy talking about what they're doing and their decision making says in the information they have available to them, and then, have to as a viewer sort of try to think yourself about. Well, why are they continuing to prosecute a war when they don't think they have a very good chance of success and one of the things that comes up again and again, when is that they're worried about getting reelected they're worried about their popularity they're worried about whether the american public would want to be told that we're not going to win the war? That's a pervasive theme,
a drum beat from very early on and that's we live democracy. That's a real question for people who assume you know the greatest levels of power they're always worrying about getting reelected and the Vietnam WAR is a huge byproduct of that yeah. It was a concern turn over the LOS of face which it is a kind of psychosis, but when you actually understand what's happening on the ground and you're just sent, in waves upon waves of people to die for something that on every level that the scriptions of these battles, where the whole goal is to take a hill, but there's no point in actually taking the hill and once they take it at the cost of hundreds of lives they occupy it for like an hour and then walk on down the other side, because there was no point in getting the hill in the first place. The picture of futility that develops here over the course of the series.
You basically live out the political implications of it hour after hour, as you see the resistance to this war building again before we jump into the content, I want to just ask you a little more better process. How do you collaborate on a film like this? I mean? Are you together? Most of the time are you in different states? I live in and work in New Hampshire and Lynn lives and works in New York, so the New York Office became the kind of production center during production. The film was edited in New Hampshire, and so there's thanks to the way, we're talking now all sorts of is in which we collaborate instantaneously. On the and it's just, we have an extraordinary group of colleagues, Jeffrey Ward, the writer I've worked with, for you know thirty, five years editors, I've worked with
or- and you know, even at eight- that amount of time as well. Thirty plus years producers that have assisted US people who are researching pictures it it's it's extraordinarily close knit family divided between New Hampshire and New York and and lots of communications, and it's a wonderful process and you're right to focus on that. Because process is everything that were about we're not about setting a a prescribed research, pier and then followed by a writing period, out of which is produced some document that is now written in stone that informs the shoe being in the editing, but in fact an open ended process that never stops researching that never stops. Writing that is car instantly willing to shoot or reshoot or add a new interview and is all
he's looking for new material, whether it's footage or still photographs- and I think more to the point- it's easy to say never stop researching, but that means constantly of being where particularly on a subject, is controversial and is constantly shifting as the scholarship about Vietnam. Aware of the most recent scholarship so we we find a lot of our work, just changing in a number from four to three, when we find out that that was many regiments of north vietnamese soldiers went down the Ho Chi Minh Trail that month to try to get it right. The last year and a half as we were sound, editing and online
ng in mixing. We were also removing adjectives and adverbs that we thought, maybe perhaps might have suggested a particular bent. We had no agenda, we had no axe to grind. This was not a polemical piece. We wanted to be on tyres, calling balls and strikes, and it was hugely important that our process serve that and it has for a long time, and I think this production, more than anything else, bears at the fruits of that kind of diligent and hear institute to process. In so far as this was the most challenging of any production we've ever engaged in and very satisfying, because we were able, even in the darkest moments to trust, to our process and to yield to it, and understand that eventually, structures and arcs
and story lines would emerge that things that we seemed overly identified with would be lost that new things. We would have to incorporate that the little darlings would all have to be eliminated, but new ways of understanding it. We were, you know filmmakers, particularly my experience is when you have a scene, that's working. The last thing you want to do is change it. If it's working, but inevitably in every scene, you found out new information that complicated each minute, I dynamic within every scene and instead of sort of pushing back and perhaps settling we sort of reveled in and move towards that complication and and tried to every time in gauge what was difficult to add about this in and proved a point that we felt all alone that particularly in war, but also in many other things more than one truth can obtain at the same time, and still be
there's not a moral relativism to that there. There is just depending on your perspective, then, as Lynn said, we and we had it- had decided at the beginning to engage all sorts of perspectives. Not just I can perspectives, but North Vietnamese, the winners and south Vietnamese. The losers, who lost not only a war but their country which disappeared off the face of the earth after barely twenty years in existence, and so every day was a constant reminder that that open endedness miss the willingness to be corrigible. The willingness to suddenly realize you might have to double back on yourself the necessity to at the very beginning, jettison preconceptions in baggage in favor of a Vietnam war that betrays, even though like me, who lived through it, the trays original you know, can a conventional wisdom about it. It was exhilarating and humiliating, and about is
relating as you could possibly imagine. I just wanted to check and one thing about the way that we collaborate, because, as KEN was speaking of, is it's hard to explain, but you know we're we're documentarians right so we're not making up a story. We're actually trying to organize this enormous amount of material that can described into a coherent narrative that works sort of chapter by chapter scene by scene episode by episode into some kind of coherent whole over eighteen hours, and what happens is the process of distillation and it's enormously creative and it is enormously collaborative. And you know it really comes down to sort of intuitively suggesting ideas about what might or might not work in the film and then trying them out and listening to each other and then trying to make the film better and that's what we do day after day after day, in a very open way that I think is unusual and how most people go about their jobs. We're just go out, get up every day and go to work eager to hear what the
each other has to say and how to make our film better and it could be a little tiny decisions or huge decisions about you know, what's in an episode or what's in the sea, nor which character we're going to amplify and we're going to cut and what word we're going to choose and we're going put the comma in which picture we're going to look at and what you know, what music going here and where the sound effect is going to go, there's a million decisions and it is as can process and the most it's almost euphoric when we're all working together toward this thing that ends up being bigger than any of us, and I wished I just feel very lucky that we got to do it together. I'm glad you mentioned the music because talk about an embarrassment of riches he has it has it's. Actually. A point is made in the film about the protest movement that somebody at some point says that the protest movement itself was immensely empowered by just how good the music of the time was, which is something I had never really thought of, but it that point is brought home
just how you score this thing, because it's just one fantastic song after another. I want to go back to something you said can about moral relativism because get here is not a picture of moral relativism, but it's just there's. The status of the war in in so many respects is so ambiguous. Morally that it almost demanded it the kind of even and in you, you described where, as you you went there with. As from Mars, without any agenda, and you just let each side tell it's Tory and it's an amazing experience to witness a war from both sides in this way where there
aren't obvious bad guys minute. There there's some obvious bad guys, and- and- and perhaps we can talk about that, but the the picture of the pointless wastage of human life and big gains, such as they are of civilization, is brought home by this. Because it's just you can understand both sides and yet the whole thing seem so profoundly unnecessary is it is remarkable. It's not a story, you could have told say of our fight against the Nazis and did do a film Lynn and on the history of world war. Two and and while it was a challenging and complicated narrative, and we had to do is new and unique ways of perceiving it. Nothing had the kind of degree of complication about it, but I like your idea of being from Mars, I mean, I think we
We kind of felt that in many many ways that we were obligated to not just jettison preconceptions but to try to the something that has undergone gone. Change in the scholarship that things like that. Just the desert of centrality of Ho Chi Minh's leader, if by episode, one is already challenged by competing, figures in the politburo who will eventually supplant hello as the dominant figure in charge of things. And that's you know you could have blown us over with the with a feather early on learning that and then how you integrate that, how you introduce and and developed that character, who is actually the dominant figure in the Politburo throughout the film a
challenge in what you understand early on is that music is your best helper and, unfortunately, for most films. Music is something that sort of added at the end to amplify emotions. You hope you are there, and sometimes we're very familiar with a very wonderful popular soundtrack of lots of pieces of music that actually isn't really about the subject matter, but here we are absolutely certain that our music had to reflect the time, and so we have a hundred and twenty five pieces of music which we could have never afforded. But we went. First to the Beatles and for the first time ever, they licensed at a minuscule rate us songs to us, as did Bob Dylan, which permitted us to go out to all the other dozens and dozens of artists that make up this most great sound, fx, soundtrack, music, soundtrack and they all agreed and people who've never license things. Crosby, stills and NASH
and young with Ohio and the Hendrix Estate in a difficult were in fact the exact opposite, because they understood that we be using this music from the beginning, baking it in to letting the music be part of the structure of the scenes and the episodes we were constructing and in addition, we reached out and asked Trent Reznor and at is Ross if they would provide original composed music for this, which they did almost three hours of which we've used and reused throughout the film which gives it its anxious and a completely appropriate tone and yet still ends up resolving itself in some incredibly harmonious and even the
ways and this Yo Yo Ma on the silk road ensemble took vietnamese melodies and transform them in a unique way. So we had a kind of triple threat with the music that helped us address. The the larger thing that you're bringing up SAM, which is just this notion of of the unreal, ng of this story and what I still find is you're standing there in episode three and it's called the river Styx and work boots on the ground and you've already busted through a few road signs. Saying bridges out. Stop bridges out, I had stop and suddenly in mid air- and you, if you lift your head up, you go. Oh my god, there's seven more episodes to go, and this becomes almost Dante like in terms of the descent you have to take, and yes even get its mitigated by the transformative nature of the testimony.
Of not just the variety and it's a complete variety of Americans, but by the variety of north, vietnamese and South Vietnamese and Viet Cong guerrillas, both soldiers and civilians. All of this, you know, is what we why it took a decade for us to sort of wrestle to round is Lynn said: let's go back to the moment in history where this made the most sense. Let's just talk about our involvement in Vietnam, and I guess the point This pride comes around episode. Two, where I guess I sort of understood how this happened was when Kennedy is: is the president and at some point you are conveying that the end of the lesson that he drew world WAR two was that ambitious dictatorships have to be opposed. You window points with the universe for giving someone like Hitler more runway, so the moment
recognize how evil A movement or ideology is and how empowered it's becoming. It never gets easier to oppose it and you know that in in hindsight, against Hitler. That makes total sense and you could see how everyone true that lesson, and it also, we should remind ourselves. It was pretty clear at that point how evil communism and I mean whatever you think of it by reading Marx, it was pretty clear that it's apple, Asian in the real world was selecting for some of the worst behavior human beings are capable of well said absolutely it was kind of easy to see where Kennedy thought we can't let these countries fall to communism. Take me there and how do you think about? Let's go president by president? How do you think about Kennedy's
getting there, and I guess we should remind ourselves. He was also from a political point of view. He was worried about being perceived as not being strong enough. There is in the bay of pigs at a certain point here in the story, and he was feeling a lot of pressure to contain the spread of communism in what he called a limited war. How do you think about Kennedy in the beginning of the story? Well, you know it's some, it's dangerous to judge the pass by the perspective today, so we've tried very hard to just unravel the story as it happened and let the facts speak for themselves and the crucial mistake that was made before Kennedy ever got there as the conflation of the end of the colonial era and the cold war, and that in Vietnam, it's confusing, perhaps that you had both a nationalist movement and the communist movement that were became,
into one movement, and so we were up against not just the spread of communism, but also you know, of people wanting self determination and not wanting to be controlled. What they viewed as an imperial or colonial power. And so I Fortunately, for America we sort of oversimplified simplified a very complicated problem and put it into a box into which it didn't really perfectly fit, and that was the source of so much tragedy after the fact and as we said earlier, the Kennedy administration on degrees sort of understood that but on another level, also appreciated that the cold war was real. There was a threat of nuclear war, and that was really. It was in some ways. Fear of Armageddon. Overshadowed everything. The cuban missile crisis came and went and was terrifying, and so the sense that it wasn't only to stop the dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia, but a sense that we had to show the
In this world that we would support our allies, that are word was good, that you know that we shouldn't be messed with and that we meant what we said partly threw us into the problems of trying to solve the. So there is the conflict in Vietnam and here Kennedy and his colleagues, his closest, is wrestling with this throughout his presidency and yet committing more and more advisers american advisors. At that point, to try to arrest the spread of the revolution there, and also realizing from the beginning that it's not really working. I guess we should underline that crucial bit of confusion because it it's actually stated in the film that we mistook the populist opposition to Cologne ISM for the pure ideological efflorescence of marxism. We thought fighting the cold war when we were actually continue to impose what was perceived as cologne
all domination, and we were. Going to win that one ideologically that's right and I think you can use the arc of Kennedy's Ex This is a very instructive understanding of the way in which the group think about cold war mentality takes over young congressman he's on a fact finding visit. He hears the guns, the French and the the the southern Vietnamese or sort of dismissive, it's okay- don't worry about it, but he's taken aside by Seymour topping a reporter who says, look this is a terrible situation and Kennedy is convinced. Topping is right and warns his own constituents when he gets back that this is a failure. If we were to get involved, but his thinking, as does the of the vice president under the President Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and one of the leaders of the Senate Lyndon Johnson
begin to realize that they're, all regardless of party affiliation, now they're aware of that or not our captive of that cold war mentality. Where what becomes, as you say, quite a correctly angelique colonial and postcolonial manifestations and the independence movements and the insurgencies that they produce, particularly in a post world war, two environment when, when the whole dynamic, the whole paradigm has been turned upside down. Somehow gravitate student easily, he understandable dialectic of just good versus evil, us versus them communism versus democracy and is fed by a military industrial complex that doesn't want the steady profits of the Second World war to disappear and are happy to add their voice amplify a call for these Lynn.
Did you know conflicts as opposed to the alternative, the alternative being nuclear annihilation in world war? Three, and so what you have. Vietnam is superimposed circumstances or interpretation of circumstances that just have a way of kind of sitting in festering in relation to one and civil war, war for independence, war of ideology, proxy war, limited war, the place where, instead of fighting the Russians, thermonuclear devices, we're fighting them
and they had Chinese in this tiny, a country that in in self, can even decide what this struggle is about, except that they know that they don't want foreign domination and they want to be themselves something we ought to be very familiar with. So I I think that the table setting that takes place, the the GEO political table, setting that takes place in episode, one and two is sort of baffling in one extent, but also completely human and another. This is this is what human beings do, and it Just some things that Americans are particularly susceptible to or Victor's or arrogance. Is it's just part of the way. The human dynamic will always choose the belligerent stance over the more difficult negotiation and even reconciliation.
There's one figure here who has come in for harsh criticism under the glare of history is Robert Mcnamara, but it's interesting his change of heart in the context of this documentary, when you are at having to spectate on the surreal pointlessness of everyone else is just persisting. Basically, under the sun cost fallacy we've been in so long, we just have to keep going. His change of heart really has the stature of a kind of wisdom that is shared by as no one Robert Mcnamara, is one of the masterminds of our involvement in this war, but a certain point he decides is unwinnable and and that we need to get out and he seems to hold to that in a way that is not really absorbed by the people around him and it comes in the after. We hear about a top secret analysis of are essentially our motives for continuing
moment in the war, and it was it broke down as as seventy percent to avoid humiliation, twenty percent to the China and ten percent to help the Vietnamese that recipe for our own moral confusion and masochism really is there on paper being talked about, and you hear again this audio from from LBJ it probably at this point is just amazing. I mean he's so obviously reluctant to get involved in this and so despairing of what was happening over there and yet totally in full of contemplating getting out. Well, you know the moral dimensions of is the way so heavily here, and one of the really difficult things to contemplate is that that ten percent to help the Vietnamese? If that was our goal, you know the war ended up, causing the deaths of three million Vietnamese. Fifty eight thousand Americans
which is a normal tragedy for our country, but three million Vietnamese in the country of thirty million, and you hear on tape and different ways: Robert Mcnamara and President Johnson for discussing how the war is going in at one point: Mcnamara talks about love or not killing enough people, to break their morale, but if we just kill a few more, maybe that will work, and so you see how leader have to kind of detach themselves from their true human effect of the war that they're waging, especially on another people, far away half a world away that you don't really know or understand, and that is a a deep G of the war that seems clear, Robert Mcnamara Vessel, even though we never spoke about it publicly, not the war and not after the war, not for many many years did he really sort of give voice to the enormous moral conundrum that was unleashed. I agree with Lynn. I think that's exactly right. The word tragedy
is is really etched over everyone I mean Mcnamara can't be excused. He had his doubts, did people in the Truman administration, in the Eisenhower administration and throughout, and the fact that he maintained a public posture of of optimism in the sieve. Of all of this empirical evidence not just of the american experience but dating back duplicating the frame experience we have known better in that regard. But we have you know what is tragedy, but maybe the inability to in any way for stall the expression of negative aspects within a personality. It's not the only thing they have, then. What makes tragedy tragedy is that we can see the tension between the PA positive, as well as the negative operating within and between peoples, and so what makes this so large is that you just
like there is a momentum that anybody, a school child could understand did represent, is Kennedy said for failure, but nobody can stop it and nobody is able to stop themselves and that impulse that you, just I'm SAM, is is throughout the film I mean at one point a marine in the context of combat said. You know we're not the dom species on the planet, because we're nice and people like to complain military turns young men into killers. I'd like to suggest it's only finishing school is a damning statement that doesn't regard it doesn't just doesn't apply to combat, but applies to all of these, as Lynn was talking about abstracted decisions making being made at thirty thousand by policymakers. Who, who are you know? As we say in the beginning, decent people trying to come to? You know some sort of solution against things that
seem at least on paper and in ideal logical evidence is being good and bad, but can't do anything but but commit themselves to bad things and that's the nature of tragedy. That's why it's so trusting to watch and why you know we will forever be. You know, watching versions of Hamlet and Macbeth and and and King Lear, and all of these of masterful tragedies in Vietnam is its own natural one. One of the levels are tragedy. Only we step back from the leaders and their flaws are human frailties. Is that the decision, if they're making, are having epic consequences for ordinary people in America, Vietnam and the people that we got to know that we've alluded to in camera. Speaking about earlier, you know
young man who believe that their duty as citizens is to serve their country, and they are the generation that grew up after world war. Two and they want to. You, know, be heroic and be patriotic and go to Vietnam as a result of that, and then many of the people that we talked to you know came back with serious questions about what they've been asked to do and what their friends had died for and the men that they had killed. And you know the one point one of the veterans says you know that he realized after the Pentagon papers were published, that Robert Mcnamara had determined that the war was unwinnable by one thousand nine hundred and sixty five. And yet this guy over there, you know in sixty eight, and he said you know is that what I kill people for so the consequences we understand in the context of making this film the tragedies both for the leaders and their inability to scan was saying, but also for the ordinary people who really bear the brunt and that's one aspect of this.
She is so unique to this conflict. The way our troops were treated when they return, I want one of the legacies of Vietnam. At least. I hope it is that we managed to differentiate our criticism of a war and the policy that that brought us to war from a moral criticism. The troops who are serving in that war, because we clearly did not understand how to differentiate this after Vietnam and have people who, as you said, many of whom were just as morally conflicted about the policy as the pro testers, but they were coming home only to be spat upon and further isolated and talk about keeping tragedy on tragedy. Exactly, and I think that one you could. You could say that a probably a permanent lesson learned
Vietnam is that we won't blame the warriors. I think in some ways that has been exaggerated, you can see very early in the protest march banners it they're saying, bring the g home and their many people who are not spitters or or baby killer. Shouters, and things like that enough soldiers had that experience that we, I think, we've all regardless of our political persuasions, have come to understand the folly of that and that we really did that in the absence of being able to hold to account the policymakers who brought that and yet The policymakers, who made that war happened all had the war, definitely shorten their political careers. It's true of Lyndon Johnson and it's true of Richard Nixon, though we
don't always and you'll see in the last hours of the film not wanting to ruin it for you. The ways in which his political demise comes very much as a result, a Vietnam related things we like to think of it as domestic, political paranoia, but it has its direct connections to his his annoyed about information about his conduct in that one thousand nine hundred and sixty eight election coming out. I might have in the first line of the film in the first sewed coming home from Vietnam, was as close to as dramatic as the war itself correct. That is the first english words that you hear in this film and is followed by the stunning admission that he and his wife had been friends with another couple for twelve year, and it was only the wives talking that they had discovered. They had both been Marines in Vietnam. That no one had said a word about that and at the end of the introduction, another soldier
in another parade. This is taking place over footage of a parade in Vietnam is saying the exact same thing that the veterans don't talk about it, and so what you have is essentially this secret war secret because of how much wasn't confessed to the american public at the time, it should have been, but secret all also because we have taken the facts of it at the results of it, the displeasure with it and buried it and that it becomes hugely toxic for us. When we do that. As so much of our repressed. Psychology is, and there can be a a sort of talks, city to a collective repressed memory and that it becomes incumbent upon us to figure out where, ways in which we can have died daylight with regard to Vietnam, and I think, covering it from so many diverse perspectives, having a kind of three and sixty
view creating a space in which nobody's wrong, in which we were able to just dispassionately talk about things and not necessarily have to point arrows of shame or arrows of glory in any direction, but realize that war offers us an opportunity to see human nature on steroids, but also to see not just conflicts between nations, but conflicts within individuals and so half the people that you meet in this film on camera undergo profound psychological and emotional transformations in the core. Of this war, having, as you suggest, SAM of their own doubts, but not willing to have to go to let anyone else go and fight for them or seeing that their absence of courage. Refusing the draft was the real tragedy or serving you know not blindly, but in and dedicate fashion and then coming home and
having your home molecular system rearranged by the protests that are going on and find your off in another mindset yet again, and we tried just to accept and embrace the fact that that's what we complicated and deeply flawed human beings do all the time no, I was I was in Vietnam recently, because we had. The whole film translated into Vietnamese and all eighteen hours will be streaming on the PBS website, PBS, DOT, Org, slash the Vietnam WAR and it will be available in Vietnam. So the Vietnamese can see this story in a way that they, it turns out, have never understood their own war or the war that they also experienced, and we were showing clips to some people there in a a man about my age. I think probably was ten years old in nineteen. Seventy five he As you know, I'm going to have nightmares tonight after seeing the piece of the film that you showed, because I
the war and fleeing from Danang to try to get somewhere away from the communists. That was my family too. And you know what since then, I do not think about the war. He said in Vietnam. They have a saying we celebrate the good things and the bad things we put into the drawer and we shut the door and we don't open it. And he said you know: that's how he's lived his life until now, and he realized in watching the film that you have to open that drawer and take out the things that you don't want to talk about, and you have to face them. And so it's just interesting and listen to KEN speak about how american veterans don't talk about. The war turns out that and Vietnamese as well that there's. Maybe the film will help to open up a kind of conversation there, as well as here
well it's really a testament to how you've approached making this film that you could stream it in Vietnam and imagine that it would be a totally positive, not to say pleasant, but positive and cathartic experience to have people see it there again This is really the in some ways the view from nowhere everywhere that is brought to bear on this tragedy. We've we've had such great risk this is we've been on the road with the film in the United States, but also is Lynn, says in Vietnam and to have these and a very similar cathartic moments is, is really ning in and we always speak in a way about the cliche of a national conversation. That's that's an impossible thing to have become stations happen on the intimate level that we're having one right now and there are perhaps over heard or shared or passed on, and what we hope is that you get fathers and sons. You know about what you did in the war for the first time or perhaps
daughters in grandmothers about why they attended this protest and why they spoke out the way they did and begin to feed the an inherent yearning, is as much as we focused on the aspects of of nature that are so catastrophic and so violent and so wrong that we, so have in this story. All the seeds of the best impulses of people, not just to say, protest, something that they felt was morally unjust and do it in a parade as a nonviolent way. But the ways in even our warriors have resolves things, reconciliation and love and fellowship for the other, maybe unresolved for us here in in the United States, and it may be a resolve for the Vietnamese there in Vietnam. But it's also there's an extraordinary exchange between the two countries. We are now allies and trading partners. They have a wonderful, ambitious entrepreneurial.
They love us Americans, going there, love them and and- and there's is see in in our last episode- an amazing sort of fellowship that has sort of you know, overtaken both sides. One of course always wishes that human beings would skip to the reconciliation from the beginning, but that's not our lot and we will pay the place in future wars, but also have the opportunity to learn from these extraordinary moments that take place during war of love and fellowship and and brotherhood and camaraderie and community, and a lot of the free electrons that I would consider positive. In addition to the to the on lending, sometimes it seems tragedy and folly of it all last night. I am aware that this conversation is functioning an infomercial for this amazing-
and I wanted to this- is not normally how I think of my podcast but omitted. The goal of this conversation is to convince our listeners that they should be sitting in front of their televisions or their computers for eighteen hours, because it's it really is an amazing experience to tell people the various ways that can be sure you know salmon. One thing you said at the beginning of our wonderful conversation and we're both so grateful for your thoughtfulness and attention to this, and and particularly for the time and space to be able to develop and play out themes and ideas and and questions and and pains on, is that it is possible to have an immersive experience. The way you've just had, which is that this will begin broadcasting on Sunday September, seventeenth on PBS they'll, play each episode one night a week for five straight nights, but they'll play
those episodes twice. So if you get home late, you can watch the second showing of episode one. If you go to bed early, you can watch the early a showing of episode one and then the next night episode, two twice at cetera, bending on Thursday night and picking up again on Sunday, the twenty fourth for the final back half of the the the ten episodes, the last five episodes, but on Tuesday the nineteenth everything will be released in DVD and Blu Ray. Also on Sunday. The seventeenth are those first, five episodes will be available for streaming free of charge, and that will permit that immersive experience in the following Sunday. All ten will then therefore be available to be streamed the PBS station It will launch marathons on the weekends to catch you up that first weekend on what you've missed before the second week,
and and then when it's all over PBS will launch this. As a weekly series on Tuesday nights are that will permit current every which way people. However, they digest their content. However, they binge or a sip slowly to imbibe the Vietnam WAR and get to have the immersive experience that we've tried to design. For the last decade and the one it seems that you, SAM, are having that's fantastic and I will live, to whatever you want me to link to on my blog, where I embed this. So people have access to that information Is there anything else you want people to know about follow you online or anything else. You want to say about your experience making us, because I know you're in the middle of a quite a press, junket now and and our time is a lapse in well the guy. Maybe I should just share briefly one of the comments we've been talking about a lot since we came back from Vietnam and just
been so interesting to see one of the elderly veterans, who is in the film the came to New Hampshire and screen the film with us and as such thoughtful reactions to it that We right then, and there and KEN's barn, because he just was such a deep thinker his name is when not he's revered writer and she in Vietnam and he's he was the first person in Vietnam to see the entire series subtitled and he said that it was revelatory to him because before he saw the film he had seen the back in country as divided and Riven by protest during the war. He thought it was a sign of weakness and he felt that even to this day, you know that America. Why are we still haunted by the and I'm more and that you know why we keep on going back to it and why don't we just get over it and, as he's saw the film he realized? These were great signs of strength. Our democracy and the hope that one day they would be able to have the same
of reckoning with the war and its cost in Vietnam, and you know that he found it heartening that this film, which covers this tragic episode between our two countries, would actually help us understand ourselves. Americans understand themselves, Vietnamese understand each other and our two countries to understand each other in a deep way. So we feel very grateful for that wisdom. To be honest, that echo is something that some of our own soldiers say in the film that they talk about what it was like to hear about the Anti war protests. While they were still over there and some of them are take later that that point, that was it that this is the very democracy they were fighting for now and and that this was a something a valued in our society. As you can hear, I'm still recovering from from what you've done to me and I I've got I've got to a few hours. You have to go. Thank you for your time and for taking the immense amount of time it took
to produce this film. If you are both to be praised, but you're also just incredibly low I mean to have your talents and your energy coincide with this moment in this material, and it's just it's great you are. People who've really founder moment and if you've been doing that year after year after year, on all these topics, it's it's really beautiful to watch. I think we're very grateful for the opportunity to have the time to try to explain ourselves in depth, but I do think there is a a larger piece here that permits us at a particularly challenge moment in our national life, where we feel so beset by partisanship in this union to perhaps be a sway.
It's just a little bit by the fact that it was worse back then, and that maybe by understanding a little bit about what happened back then that we might be able to muster the necessary tools, including listening to the other. Begin to reassert a great american strength of compromise and civil discourse and kind of shared sacrifice and and and shared objectives. It seems perhaps because of the very instrument that we are communicating through, that we are all relatively lonely and disconnected the hyper connected free agents, and I think that we yearn for community and I the work that went.
I do first and foremost in public broadcasting is exactly that emphasizing the owner rather than the player abyss and and and if we had any wish for the film is that in some ways it might help of appeal to the better angels of our nature that we might begin to have the kind of conversations we have been avoiding since the Vietnam WAR didn't turn out the way we thought it would I'm glad you said that can because that is one message that comes through, if only subliminally, while you watch this is a it was worse back then I mean the echoes are are echoes, but you can see that in. What what you never knew it or you forgotten our society was coming apart. Seems in a way that it certainly isn't now and is uncomfortable as the present moment is in many respects politically. There's a lot to be grateful for even
The current circumstance, because we are not where we were in nineteen, sixty eight and sixty nine, that's right and and and we can use history to be that kind of armor that permits us to have the perspective about the present moment and that's why you want to study. History is very important to understand what happened there. This is a particularly good story to tell, but it's only useful, if It is applicable to the present that we can transform the raw materials of story into experience and perhaps understanding and then applicable knowledge. Well can Lynn. Thank you so much for taking the time, and I wish you the best of luck with this film. Thank you so much them. Thank you is a wonderful conversation was really uh privilege if you're in So in the waking up podcast, there are many ways you can support it at SAM
press dot, org, slash support as a supporter of the podcast you'll, get early access to tickets to my live events and you'll get exclusive access to my ass man. Thing episodes as well as to the AMA page on my website, where you can pose.
Transcript generated on 2019-10-14.