Sara Wheeler VietnamAn article in The New Yorker two weeks ago about veteran documentary maker Ken Burns led to hours on YouTube when I should have been working. (‘It’s research, Sara’). I knew Burns’ work only from his 9-part PBS Civil War doc, which had helped educate me, in a limited sense, for my book O My America!

Burns must have shot more hours of documentary footage than anyone alive, and he’s still in his sixties. He is routinely criticised by those who think of themselves as auteurs in the doc department. And he has projects slated up to 2030.

I was in Vietnam not long ago (see previous blogs) so I was drawn to the subject. Before Burns’ 18-hour PBS series begins this week I watched Martin Smith’s 1983 13-part television series on Vietnam. I did an hour a night.

There are no actors. There are no talking heads, either – everyone who appears was there, or directing operations from DC. The series starts with a whole hour on the French involvement in Indochina, which ultimately segued into what Vietnamese call The American War. There are many Vietnamese voices. Smith has the advantage over Burns, in that in 1983, more of the players, in the US and Asia, were still alive.

I’d read almost nothing about the war bar Neil Sheehan’s stupendous A Bright Shining Lie (admittedly the book that credible experts say is the best ever written on the topic). In Smith’s film it’s the accumulated stupidity of five presidents, of both parties, that

shocks, politically (as opposed to the tens of thousands of deaths that shock on a human level). And Robert McNamara? Yikes.

Now we’ll see what Burns’ 18-hour series makes of the subject. The director doesn’t go in for narrative devices. He reckons that conventional narrative – ‘and then and then and then’ is ‘about as good a thing as has ever been invented.’ He’s right. He is accused of being ‘popular’ , which surely shouldn’t be a crime, even though I can think of many historians who would be horrified if you called them that. Burns can err towards nostalgia. And in Vietnam, according to The New Yorker, he calls Mai Lai a ‘killing’, not ‘a murder’. But I think his work is important, and contextual, and that the criticism is largely based on envy. How many people out there would like to make docs for a living? Fifty per cent?

Vietnam cost me sleepless nights. It’s hard to fathom the horror of it. In the end, nobody really won. The war won.