“The Civil War” was Ken Burns’s first war film, but it wasn’t his last. “The War,” his seven-part exploration of World War II, aired in 2007. And when we met in a New York editing studio in May, Burns was taking a break from working on “Vietnam,” a 10-part movie about that conflict that is now scheduled to air in 2017.
Thinking about those movies as a kind of trilogy raises interesting questions. When Burns and I sat down to talk about “The Civil War,” I pointed out that in the first installment of “The Civil War,” historian Shelby Foote argues that “the war opened us to being what we became.” And when the series first came out, my colleague George Will wrote a column about the film in which he argued that the war “transformed the foremost democracy into a nation of such philosophic clarity and political unity that, in the next century, it could save the world from several tyrannies akin to slavery.” If the Civil War is the war that makes a certain American idea, and “The War” is Burns’s movie about the war that is the employment, or execution of that idea, where does Vietnam — a war ostensibly fought to prevent the spread of communism — leave us? I asked Burns. Is it the expansion of the American idea to a place that we didn’t want to know that it could go? Is it the undoing of that idea?
“All of American history comes from the Civil War. It is the most important event in our history. Everything before it led up to it, everything since, everything, is a consequence of it. And the Second World War has, as the greatest cataclysm in all of human history, similar sorts of aspects to it. And both of them have the great redeeming features of having transformed positively everything,” Burns told me. “There’s not a redemptive aspect to Vietnam. And so the tendency is to sort of ignore it, which is the default position, or to superimpose into it your own contemporary political beliefs, hoping it can become a cudgel with which to win your arguments. Or you find in the individual stories, the redemption, the reconciliation, the understanding that you need.”
That means making a very different movie from “The Civil War.” In that movie, Burns said, it was possible to find the better angels of our nature and opportunities for genuine national transformation in leaders such as Abraham Lincoln. In Vietnam, those transformations happened “at an individual, person-to-person level, whether that was a North Vietnamese soldier or an American Marine. And that’s what you want to look for,” Burns said. “If you’re lacking the overarching better angels, which is certainly for the most part devoid in the big picture of Vietnam, in the aerial picture, those angels actually appear, and make manifest, in a thousand myriad stories.”
Where “The Civil War””could be top-down and bottom up” because of leaders such as Lincoln, for “Vietnam” Burns said he needed to be “granular and bottom up” to find characters whom audiences could relate to and would find inspirational.
But Burns cautioned that just because the Civil War forged a new American idea didn’t mean that all the work began by the war was effectively accomplished at Appomattox — or that gains for African Americans had actually been effectively consolidated in the years since in ways that resonated again in Vietnam.
“You also have to walk back a little bit of the poetic rhetoric about the Civil War,” Burns warned. “Because we’re still, 150 years later, arguing about Ferguson, in which, yeah, slavery’s gone, yeah, Jim Crow, sharecropping prisons are gone, but we’re warehousing African Americans, we’re killing young black men of a rate of one or two a week because they are black men, so we’ve got municipalities that are acting like the sort of predatory company store of a supposedly bygone era. So maybe all of the great flowing consequence of the Civil War hasn’t actually actualized. So you continue to deal with race and you continue to deal with war because human beings haven’t resolved a lot of pretty basic stuff having to do with solving our demons, our differences, and judging the content of somebody’s character through a lens of skin color.”