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 7, “The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968-May 1969).” The transcript has been edited for readability.

For many Americans, a major turning point in the Vietnam War was Seymour Hersh’s reporting on a place called My Lai.

American soldiers had killed at least 347 unarmed civilians in that hamlet.

You’ve probably seen pictures of the people who were murdered at My Lai, of a road choked with their bodies.

But it’s one thing to see pictures of the brutal things done in war, and another to hear people talk about what it was like to do them and to experience them.

In “The Vietnam War,” people who fought on both sides talk about crossing the line, and reckoning with the fragility of their own decency.

Sometimes that meant hacking to death someone who had been deemed an enemy.

Sometimes that meant throwing a grenade down a tunnel to kill the people who were hiding there.

Sometimes it meant going to live in a house that once belonged to people who were killed in a war crime after a battle.

It’s easy to look at pictures like My Lai and think, “Only a monster could have done that.” But in “The Vietnam War,” we learn that war can push many people past the boundaries that they thought they had. Even people we think of as decent, even likable.

I spoke to Ken Burns about the brutality of the Vietnam War.

Q: Episodes 6, 7 and 8 all deal with the escalating brutality of the Vietnam War. And in this episode there’s this very plain, blunt letter from a man named Michael Holmes, who was in the Army, about burning down villagers’ homes. And that’s not the worst thing that anyone you talk to in this movie did, of course. You have sources who talk about assassinations and rape and killing prisoners. But I thought that letter was really evocative. And I think one thing that hit me hard in this movie was getting to know these soldiers on all sides of the war and then hearing them talk really candidly about doing terrible, even criminal, things.

So how do you deal with that personally as a filmmaker? You guys have come to know these people, either because you’re interviewing them in person or watching hours of this interview tape. What is it like when that story comes along in the middle of someone’s broader story?

KEN BURNS: Well that’s actually a tape that you’re listening — you’re listening to his voice. And what’s so extraordinary about the Michael Holmes scene is that I was off some place giving a speech, and I was approached after the speech — unrelated to Vietnam — several years ago. And people say, “I knew somebody who sent reel to reel tapes back and forth.” And so I got the name and sent it off to Sarah [Botstein] and Lynn [Novick] and they tracked the person down. And we have this magnificent slice of life in a southwest Missouri town. A tiny, tiny town and a general store, and him in Vietnam and his family back home talking about things. The whole neighborhood crowded into the general store to record their things.

But in the midst of this, he does have this really frank admission: I don’t know why we’re doing this, it seems like we’re going to create more enemies and the Army gets everything backward. And it’s so plain and it’s so elemental and simple that it’s nice to place these larger policy things in the hands of so-called ordinary people.

And Michael Holmes is one of the most interesting to me. For us, though, the whole film is trying to calibrate something. Try to calibrate an aerial view through the eyes of the policymakers. And from them, even larger than that geopolitical setting, how to get to the intimacy of the soldiers. How do you describe what happens in the atrocities of war, both from an intimate point of view or from a remote point of view, or from something that’s more clinical and descriptive?

And so all of this becomes, for us, an incredibly difficult and arduous task to figure out what our distance is, and therefore our future audience’s distance, from the material at that particular moment that we’re going to show. And there are lots of options and ways to do it, and a lot of it just has to do with the rhythm — the kind of respiration of a particular episode.

And 7, it’s so interesting, was very early on an obvious really great episode that emerged. Tricia Reidy, one of our senior editors for this, was doing it. And then later on it had too many notes. And one of the things we worried about taking out, and experimented taking out, was the Michael Holmes scene. And we so passionately missed it that we put it back in. And several of the other units that we did take out have remained out, or half of it remained out.

But Michael Holmes had to go in because, it seemed more than anything else, it made the war and the experience of families and individuals in the war so intimate and yet reflective of the larger policy. I mean this is really William Blake finding the world in a grain of sand.

Q: You mention this idea of calibration, which is interesting to me, because I feel like we’re in a moment in just the way we talk about politics and the politics of individual life in America where if you do one really bad thing then you’re really bad forever. And to me that doesn’t really hold in this movie.

You have someone like Bill Ehrhart who has this terrible story about — I don’t know if the right word for it is rape, but he and his friends all have sex with this woman who’s desperate for food during the Tet Offensive. And by certain rules of contemporary political discourse I shouldn’t like Bill Ehrhart, but I really like Bill Ehrhart. And that’s one of the things I think is, for me at least, sort of unsettling in a good way about the movie. That you have these stories that are really hard to hear, and some of them are excusable — someone gave an order. Some of them are not excusable — this guy came up and found this girl and she’ll have sex with all of us for C-rations. I realize I’m talking at you about it, but it’s a mode of the movie that is so not in keeping with a lot of the way that we talk about individual behavior in politics right now.

BURNS: Exactly. Because we are so oriented to the binary, to just an endless existence of one thing or the other. Black and white, a one and a zero. We’ve lost our capacity, it seems to me, to bring into our larger consciousness a sense of how complicated and nuanced and shades of gray everything is.

We know it in our own lives. We’ve forgiven ourselves and those closer to us things that are complicated. It’s much harder to do that at a remove from somebody. And I think the calibration that I was speaking about, we have to distinguish.

One is the calibration of life. Please don’t yell at me. Let’s have a decent conversation. Or, please understand this. I know it doesn’t reflect well on me, but it’s torturing me and I needed to tell you this. And so real life demands a certain calibration.

But also there’s calibration within storytelling itself. That is to say if we accept, whatever we want to call it, normal Aristotelian poetics — that is, how stories ebb and flow. There is a kind of respiration that you become aware of. There’s no formula, there’s no guide to this other than Aristotle’s “Poetics.” But you’ve got to see what your material is doing and at times if you perceive there are too many notes you sometimes have to kill a little darling that you like. At other times you can’t bear that loss and there’s some other adjustments that take place.

So, I want to distinguish between a kind of calibration of art and a calibration in life. They’re not dissimilar and they do intersect at various times. And I think with Bill Ehrhart it’s a wonderful thing. It puts us at odds with our desires to make instantaneous judgments and not have the kind of suspension of that facile, supposedly moral decision, in favor of why human beings are so endlessly fascinating. It’s not because they’re perfect — all good, or evil, or bad — but in fact because they veer in between these polarities and enrich our lives.

And I think they also by extension enrich our stories.

Q: One thing, hearing you talk about this, is that most of the people — the overwhelming majority of the people — you talk to in the movie who have done things that I think as civilians we would find terrible and hard to comprehend, they have some level of self-awareness and self-reflectiveness about those things.

Even in cases where they think they’re right, which, you have some of your Vietnamese sources earlier in the movie talking about things that I would probably describe as murders, there is some level of reflectiveness. And I don’t know if that’s sort of a prerequisite. I mean, would it have worked for you guys to get someone who is unrepentant or unreflective, or is that just not someone who fits into your process or your way of telling these stories?

BURNS: I think there are those people that populate the films. They may not just be interviews, because in point of fact that unreflective viewpoint makes for a not very good interview. In fact, those people don’t even commend themselves to be interviewed for obvious reasons. But it doesn’t mean the film isn’t populated — whether you hear a presidential tape and that president or his associates are engaged in something that is remorseless in that way, or you learn a story about the My Lai massacre or a land reform that kills hundreds of thousands of people instituted by the communists. All of these things are part of our larger calibration, and we’re watching and seeing because we don’t want to in any way seem to be placing a thumb on the scale in any direction.

I noticed early on when the films were unformed, there’s often, among the warm bodies that we continually bring in to watch — that is to say, warm bodies are people who aren’t filmmakers or aren’t experts in Vietnam, we just want them to watch — that there is an early uncomfortableness at one scene and then they suddenly realize down the line, oh, it’s been matched with a kind of comparable thing.

I don’t mean necessarily equalizing. But more often than not you will see something, which, you begin to realize that, just as you’re beginning to solidify some thought or some idea about the American side then the other side does it too, and it helps keep things a little bit loose and free from making that final certain decision. And we find certainty, and the fundamentalism that also often attends certainty, one of the great enemies, not only in the world but in filmmaking. And what we like there is that openness and that ability to find things other than the simple binary.

Q: I wanted to go back to the question of the brutality of the war, because I think that is a central fact, but maybe a more complicated one than we think it is.

You’ve made three movies about Americans at war and we talk a lot about the ways in which they’re similar. But was there something distinct about this war that made not just Americans cross the line in spectacular ways, but that produced such horror about those events at home?

BURNS: Well, you know, I would like to fit this neatly into that compartment, but I really can’t.

Q: Don’t fit it in neatly. That’s not the point.

BURNS: All wars are the same. The Civil War is very unusual because civil wars usually produce mass civilian casualties, and with the exception of the killing that took place in Missouri and Kansas before, during and after the war, there’s almost no civilian deaths, negligible civilian deaths, in our Civil War — which is one of its odder and more interesting, and I think perhaps positive, features, despite all of the carnage.

In World War II we did a lot of damage. There are incidents of murders, not of innocent civilians in that way, but does bombing rural civilian populations not count as the same kind of murder? Do we make a distinction between a knife or a gun? No, but we somehow do if it’s a remote bomb. And I think that what happened in Vietnam was actually a fortunate thing, is that the press, and the ability of the press to get up close, and the contentiousness of the war, the fact that it wasn’t all agreed upon 100 percent back home the way World War I essentially was, permitted these things to seep out — to leak out. And we basically raised our standard of decency that much higher.

Now it still didn’t exonerate the bombers and I don’t mean to do that — the people who are doing it from afar. But I think that Vietnam helped to bring to bear that, as we say and worked on the language very, very carefully, the deaths of civilians is common to all war.

It’s one thing to accept that war is savage. It’s another to really confront that fact and grapple with what that means for our understanding of human nature.

According to co-director Lynn Novick, “Mutilation, not taking prisoners, abuse of the other, dehumanization. These things happen in every war. And that’s why Karl Marlantes says, very beautifully, that we’re not the top species on the planet because we’re nice.”

Novick interviewed a lot of the veterans and spoke with them about some of the terrible things they’d done in the war. I talked to her about what that was like and how they incorporated those stories into the documentary.

Q: What is your sense that the sides in Vietnam escalated in response to each other? Obviously you have a huge American attachment to prisoners of war, and then you also have things like the Phoenix Program or the massacre at My Lai. It seems like some of the individual soldiers you talked to felt strongly about those events and what it either required or licensed them to do. But on a larger perspective do you think it was — I don’t know if retaliatory is the right word, but escalatory?

LYNN NOVICK: I think one thing I want to say before I even answer that question is that we do tend to focus on the atrocities that became infamous, and My Lai would be at the top of the list, because they’re horrific — and because we’re obliged to remember them and try to figure out how these things happened, and why, and who was responsible, and what accountability was imposed on those who were responsible. And that’s very important.

But we also have to take a step back when thinking about the Vietnam War and think about the numbers. If there’s 3 million Vietnamese that were killed, according to the best guess we have, including a million North Vietnamese soldiers, 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers. That leaves a lot of people who were killed who were civilians. And there’s Viet Cong guerrillas also in there, and we don’t have an exact number for that, but most of the people who died in the Vietnam War, maybe half, were civilians.

Many, many people were killed by indiscriminate use of firepower, and that’s bombing and artillery and naval battery and that kind of thing. And we don’t consider those atrocities. That was just collateral damage. Unfortunate. Just what happens. And so there’s something sort of inherent in how we waged the war that we have to think about as a society.

So that’s just one piece of this puzzle, because it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around. And it’s easier to focus on a unit going into a village and perhaps killing everybody there, which happened to My Lai, or almost everybody. Unimaginably horrendous. Evil. Awful. I don’t even have the words to describe what that is. But that does not really represent how most of the Vietnamese who died in the war were killed.

Q: For this movie you interviewed people who had experienced harsh treatment and torture, as well as people who did terrible things. I assumed when you’re going to interview Hal Kushner or Everett Alvarez or someone else who is a prisoner of war that you knew that was a substantial part of their story. I assume that when you were sitting down with Vincent Okamoto or some of your other sources, you didn’t necessarily know from the beginning that something like that, that was really terrible, was going to be part of the interview.

How do you prepare for the possibility of something like that coming up in an interview?

NOVICK: Well, it’s not like going to trial where the advice to a lawyer is don’t ever ask the question that you don’t know the answer to, because you don’t want to have your witness say something that you don’t want anyone to hear in a trial.

Our situation is sort of the opposite, which is that sometimes we know the answer because we’ve talked to the person or they’ve written about it or they’ve said it before or something like that, but often we don’t know. And I think often people are in that moment deciding what they’re going to say or what they are going to tell you. So you sort of see that negotiation in someone’s head. They’re thinking, “Okay, I’m going to tell you what really happened on this day and my experience of the war.” So it’s always a surprise.

And even if you kind of know, when the words come out of someone’s mouth it’s different. Because it’s not just the information that they’re conveying. It’s who they are and how they say it and what they choose to tell you and the expression on their face. And there’s a lot of information that comes across that’s not just the facts. And so you can’t really prepare yourself.

I think the most important thing, at least for me doing these kind of interviews, is to say to myself, “I want to know who this person is, what they remember, what happened to them, what they did.” And no matter what they say, I’m going to keep an open mind. And I’m not going to be judgmental, I’m not going to think about how could you do that or how could you let that happen or whatever. I just want to hear what they have to say and I want to just be present. And I want to extend humanity to them, whoever they are.

Q: Well, one thing I wanted to ask about was — I mean, obviously by the time that, say, Bill Ehrhart tells us that story about this guy coming in and saying, hey, I found this girl who will have sex with all of us for C-rations, we know him to a certain extent by that point in the film. We like him, I think. I liked him by the time he told that story. I liked him after he told that story. Does letting viewers hear that story after getting to know someone change their sense of who can do this sort of thing?

NOVICK: I would hope so because I think it’s maybe a cliche to say, but I think all of us are capable of doing terrible things and doing incredibly brave and courageous and valorous things, and no one has the market cornered and no one is immune.

And I think that’s the power of what Bill Ehrhart gets across when he decides to tell us that story. I’m not going to say he’s a good person or a bad person. He’s harder on himself than anybody else ever would be. The fact that he wrestles with it to this day and can’t forgive himself is what stays with all of us, really. We’re very grateful that he was willing to share that with us. It was not easy for him to do.

I recently went to see him and had the privilege of showing him that scene, and his wife and his daughter were there and he talks about them in the moment. He says, “I really should have said no.” And that’s the one thing that bothers him after all these years, because his mother is a woman, his wife is a woman, his daughter is a woman.

And watching him and his wife and daughter all crying watching that scene was quite something. Watching his wife hold his hand and tell him it’s okay and you did the right thing to tell that story was very moving.

It’s hard to hear about the things that happened on both sides of the Vietnam War.

And for me, one of the things that makes Burns and Novick’s movie more powerful is that it gives us time to get to know the people who did some of these things.

That means we can’t dismiss them as abstract monsters we don’t have to think about too carefully.

Instead, we have to reckon with the fact that people we’ve come to know and like can make terrible decisions and do deplorable things.

And we have to think about what in the circumstances of the Vietnam War made it easier for them to make those decisions.

For more on “The Vietnam War”: