Opinion writer

After each episode of “The Vietnam War” airs, our new podcast — “The American War” — will break down the major themes and questions raised. We’ll talk to Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and others involved with the documentary for a new perspective on how the film was made and what it all means.

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Here’s our conversation about Episode 4, “Resolve (January 1966-June 1967).” The transcript has been edited for readability.

Americans who signed up to fight in Vietnam did so for lots of different reasons.

Some of them, like Mogie Crocker, wanted to do what they saw as their part to fight the international spread of communism. Others thought the military would toughen them up, give them chances to be heroes. And some figured that if they died, at least their families would be provided for.

They didn’t necessarily know what they were getting into, or that they would be fighting hardened, professional troops. But they saw just how difficult the war would be long before their bosses in Washington were willing to admit the truth.

To tell their stories and the stories of their families, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and their co-workers crisscrossed the country. They spoke to veterans, looked through local archives and, for one family, even brought part of the past back to life.

And they’ve started making connections between Vietnamese veterans and American ones, helping them both learn more about some of the most important moments of the war.

I talked to Burns about Mogie Crocker and what it was like to connect with Crocker’s family, especially his mother, Jean-Marie.

KEN BURNS: Before you ask a question, can I just say something?

Nobody has to relive, for strangers, the worst thing that’s happened to them. And yet, Jean-Marie and Carol shared with us the worst time of their lives.

And there is no other moment in the film more pointed to me — and now I’ll start crying — than the very opening of Episode 3, in which Jean-Marie is reading to him from Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” And it’s the St. Crispin Day speech. And it’s all about how you’re not going to feel as much of a man if you are abed in England rather than on this battlefield. And something crosses her face like: Oh, my God. This is what I did. I helped arm him to be who he became.

It’s one of the most powerful moments that we’ve ever been privileged to capture and put there. And I have only the highest gratitude for their courage.

And it’s not even that, it goes beyond. That they were willing to come to a screening that we had and relive it again in the way we had done it. And to turn around at various moments to watch Mrs. Crocker just try to do it again with the same poignancy she did in the interview, and then of course in her memoir and more importantly in the way she and Carol and the rest of their family experienced what has got to be the worst thing.

Q: Well, I wanted to ask you about telling their story, because I feel like the moment we meet Mogie we know he’s going to die. And maybe that’s me having watched too many movies and just kind of guessing, but I wanted to ask you about spacing his story out. Because up until the moment that we hear them talk about the decision to bury him in Arlington instead of at home, I just hoped it wasn’t going to happen.

BURNS: Yeah. We’re all pretty sure. There’s no Mogie that we’re interviewing. We’re hearing a voice. And yet I’ve watched audiences go, “Oh no!” when he died, thinking he’s not going to die. And I think this is our wish, you know? We don’t want Mogie to die. We don’t want to die. We want the dead to come back to us. And there’s something extraordinarily hopeful — even though all the signs — with not telling us until the moment that it happens, in which a mother is not put in the position of having to claw at the dirt to reclaim the warmth of him.

I mean, come on.

I’ll tell you what happens is that I hear “One Too Many Mornings” by Bob Dylan and I know what’s about to happen, but I’m just experiencing it anew. And we’re seeing the outside of their house on a beautiful day and that American flag, and that is their house in Saratoga Springs.

And I’m always sitting next to Sarah [Botstein] or Lynn, or both. And I just reach out and say, “I can’t do this anymore.” And they’re, like, the same position.

Like, I can’t. I have lived through Mogie dying and Jean-Marie and Carol talking about that day so many times and I will never — even if it’s a clip in a clip reel it will hit me in the same way.

Q: So, I mean, you mentioned one of the veterans from the war. You’ve made these movies about three American wars. Are there things that unite the veterans and their families across the Civil War, World War II and Vietnam?

BURNS: Absolutely. My big thing is that human nature doesn’t change, and it doesn’t. And mothers love their children and their young boys now as much as they did before. Whatever arrogance you have — is the past lesser or greater? It’s all the same. And loss is loss is loss.

And so wars are united, because they are big loss machines. They drive families apart and then some people don’t come home. And that’s what wars are. And that’s why they’re so instructive, because they remind us again and again of the worst of us.

And we hope in some ways that by studying it you might mitigate it, but it won’t. There will always be wars and everybody feels it the same.

And yet each war also has a paralyzing uniqueness to it, as if there couldn’t be any similarities to what I’m going through right now. And I think it’s somewhere in between those two polarities, of how just poignantly, movingly and maddeningly common and similar they are, to also the freshness and uniqueness of each tragedy. Nobody’s tragedy is exactly the same.

I mean I constantly hear all the time — I’ve been engaged for 10 years of the film production, and now in the conversation in the country — people who have arguments. “Oh, if they’d only gotten rid of Westmoreland earlier and put in Abrams this might have happened.” Well, they didn’t and it didn’t.

And so these become abstract. What’s not abstract are the observations and the testimony of all of our witnesses. And we carried them as if they were delicate vases through this long, arduous process, because we knew that unless we honored them, that we didn’t manipulate them, that we didn’t have a greed for content in them, that we would miss the point of having received this testimony.

I think one of the biggest things that I carried that whole time was something in my pit of my stomach that we are going to be able to take these 79 people, however many are in the final film, out of the 100 we filmed, and just carry them and the essentialness of their commentary unimpaired by us into the final film.

Because you don’t want the essential message, the code of that, however familiar, or unique, or in large measure both it is to be lost or polluted or messed with by us, who don’t have the stakes in it. As much as we are moved by it, as much as we are engaged in an emotional archaeology, this is not our son, this is not our brother. And we have a huge obligation to try to be as close to them — it’s why, after we finish a film, we are still friends with these people. They’re still on our Christmas card list. There are still people we call up and talk to.

I call Katherine Singer from the World War II film all the time and say, “It’s your Yankee boyfriend calling.” And, you know, she’s 90-something and I can’t not. She’s part of my family, because we honored the suffering of the Phillips family as she watched her older brothers go off to war.

Q: One thing I think I found really painful about the Crocker family story was the sense that — I mean, Jean-Marie Crocker had such doubts about him enlisting and developed such doubts about the cause for which he died. And she and Carol had to deal with the fact that he felt doubts when he was in Vietnam.

And I know saying that people died for noble causes is not always true. It doesn’t always make people feel better in the moment. But that was something where that tension was just so painful and powerful for me, that they felt that conflict.

BURNS: I really have a rare “no comment.” I don’t know how to say — does a mother feel any less grief knowing that her baby died for a noble cause or one that’s not? I suppose, in thoughts that come later there might be some distinction, but that does not in any way mitigate the loss. And if you feel Mogie Crocker’s death in our film, then you multiply that by 58,000-plus Americans, and then multiply it by 3 million Vietnamese, and each one had a mother like Jean-Marie.

There are two things that are really important when you want to tell a story of a family like the Crockers. First, you have to find them. And then you have to convince them to trust you.

Lynn Novick, co-director of the film, says when she started working on the project, she went to see author Tim O’Brien, who has written about the war. According to Novick, “He said he would be willing to be involved in the film in some way but that the first thing we had to do was to find a Gold Star family.”

I talked to Novick about how she went about this.

Q: One thing that I was curious about, watching this, is — obviously there are a lot of veterans organizations in the United States, there are prominent veterans in the film. How did you find the Crocker family?

LYNN NOVICK: Eventually after some trial and error I contacted the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, because I knew they had collected all kinds of incredible stories from around the country of different wars. And the librarian there said that they had indeed collected a testimony of a World War II veteran whose wife had deposited a memoir that had never been published about their son who died in Vietnam.

And he thought that she was still alive and that maybe she would speak with us. So first he sent us a copy of the memoir, which is called “A Son of the Cold War.”

And it’s Jean-Marie Cocker’s anguished and beautifully researched attempt to make sense of what happened to her son. What drove him to want to be in the war and what he felt about it as he got more involved. And so we read the memoir and got in touch with her, and Sarah Botstein and I went up to see her in Saratoga and spent a day with her. Just sort of getting to know her and telling her a little bit about what we were up to and gingerly, delicately asking, “Is there any way you would consider telling us your story for the film?”

And she gave it some serious thought. She said she had to think about it. She’s a very thoughtful — she’s a person who doesn’t jump into anything, I would say. And she eventually agreed that she would do it.

She said she wanted to do it because she felt that it would be a way to honor her son, and also perhaps too, by sharing his story, maybe that would help some of the other families who had lost someone in the war. So it was an act of extreme generosity for her to do that.

Q: Did the family have all of the archival material that you use in the film? The video of them recording those Christmas greetings was just shattering to watch. And I didn’t know if that was something that they still had.

NOVICK: They had photographs of him, and when we went into Mrs. Crocker’s home there are pictures of him on the wall and his medals. They had kept everything — family photographs, and some slides, and I think there’s a scrapbook, and some of the articles in the newspaper and things like that, and letters that he sent and received. They were generous to share all of that with us. We did do some research at the Saratoga library as well, just for pictures of the area and that kind of thing.

But in the memoir she had described going to this television station and taping that greeting. And after we read the memoir we said, “Oh, did you ever see that film?” And they said, “No, we never saw it. We sent it to Mogie.”

And then when he died it came back with all of his belongings — whatever was left. And so they had never watched it. And they had this little piece of film that they had gotten from their TV station. And so they let us borrow it and we had it transferred to video and then we sent it to them.

They had never seen it until we got organized to put it in the film. And I can’t watch it without crying. It’s absolutely devastating.

Q: I wanted to broaden out a little bit and ask about veterans on the American side in general. Were the American veterans curious about what the Vietnamese had experienced in the same engagements?

NOVICK: One of the really great rewards of this project has been to be able to carry messages back and forth between Americans and Vietnamese who were on different sides of the same battles. And I think all the American veterans we’ve talked to have been really fascinated to hear from us what we heard from the Vietnamese. As much as possible we’ve tried to bring things back and forth.

The most striking of that is Matt Harrison, who described being at Hill 875 in the fall of 1967, and [Ho Dang] Hoa was able to find a North Vietnamese veteran who was there as well. And that’s very difficult, because they suffered such enormous losses. He said it was very difficult to find anyone who was in that battle who was still alive. But he did find Nguyen Thanh Son.

Nguyen Thanh Son described to us how they got there to that part of the Central Highlands a month before the battle and were told to prepare trenches and bunkers in anticipation of an American attack on this hill. And that they knew that the Americans were going to come to this area and that they would want to control the high ground, and that this hill would be an objective for them.

So they were basically luring the Americans into a trap, and they had a month to prepare. And that sounded to me a lot like Peleliu and Iwo Jima, which is essentially very similar narrative, and this doesn’t happen every day in the Vietnam War but it happened here.

And Matt Harrison was in the 173rd Airborne and he ended up being part of that battle. And he was absolutely fascinated to find out that we had found a veteran and what his experience had been and what it was like for him. And he just couldn’t get enough of it.

Retired Gen. Merrill McPeak served in Vietnam, where he flew bombing missions that were intended to make it harder to move supplies and people along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He is one of the subjects of “The Vietnam War” and helped Burns and Novick fact-check the movie. I wanted to know if, like Matt Harrison, he was curious to exchange messages with the people he fought against. His answer surprised me.

GENERAL MERRILL McPEAK: No. No. I have not been back to Vietnam. Like I say, I’m a poor loser. I did go back to Laos with my two boys. I’ve got two grown sons. We rented motorcycles at Pakse, which is in Laos on the Mekong and rode up into the forest. I spent a week or so trying to find the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It’s essentially gone. The jungle conquers all very quickly. So it’s hard to find even the smallest remnants of that trail up in those forested mountains that I got to know by heart.

But I did not, I have not tried to make contact with any of my former opponents. I hope they get the message when they see the documentary how much I admire and respected them.

I’m a professional. I didn’t go over there as an 18-year-old draftee. I was in my early 30s. A major. A commander. A unit commander. And a professional hired gun. I didn’t get angry with the people that I was trying to fight. I went and did what the president said to do. So I don’t feel an emotional bonding to these guys. What I feel is professional respect.

And I don’t have to go have a beer with them to respect them. Because I don’t want to be friends.

Watching these episodes of “The Vietnam War,” I realized I’d often thought about the conflict only on the highest level.

Most of my thinking about the war was tied up in policy questions: Did the United States really think the North Vietnamese were hardcore communists? Why did we think that a war in Vietnam would require the same skills as fighting conventional battles in Europe?

These are important questions. But if they’re all you think about, you get a view of the Vietnam War that’s dry and academic.

And the experience of fighting the war was anything but.

Learning about Mogie Crocker forced me to confront the idea that Americans volunteered to fight in Vietnam out of a simple but deep faith in the value of public service.

Hearing Matt Harrison’s stories about his family’s military service suggested that going to a foreign country to fight can be part of a noble tradition rather than an anomaly.

And talking to former Air Force chief of staff Merrill McPeak reminded me that war is a business, too.

The stories of Vietnamese and American soldiers, especially when you hear them all together, makes the human cost of war impossible to ignore. And their experiences are a powerful illustration of the gap between policymakers and the people who have to carry out their decisions.

For more on “The Vietnam War”: