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 9, “A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973)” The transcript has been edited for readability.

In the first episode of “The Vietnam War,” Ken Burns and Lynn Novick argue that “Vietnam seemed to call everything into question.”

One of the biggest issues that divided Americans as the war went on was what it means to be a patriot.

Is the patriotic thing to support your country when it’s right, and more importantly, when it’s wrong?

Or is it to point out when America’s actions don’t live up to its stated values?

As the American war in Vietnam dragged on, the gulf between these two positions widened.

It became harder for Americans in each camp to recognize those in the other as patriots, people who rooted for their country even if in very different ways.

The years since haven’t bridged that divide, and sometimes it seems like the chasm between us has become permanent.

I talked to Ken Burns about that theme in the ninth episode of their documentary.

Q: I’ve talked to you about the things that make me cry in this movie. And one of the things where I cry every time I watch it, and I’ve watched this footage maybe 15 times, is the Vietnam Veterans Against the War protests at the Capitol where they’re throwing the medals.

Sorry, I told you I cry every time I watch it, and I cry every time I think about it, too. They’ve been blocked from the Capitol and they’re throwing their medals away.

And it feels cliche to say that during the Vietnam War, Americans became just so deeply divided on the question of what it meant to be patriotic. And the veterans in this scene seemed so pained. Their service meant that they supported their country, but they’re at the Capitol to criticize the substance of what they were asked to do as part of that service. What did you want the audience to understand about the different positions in this debate about patriotism? Because you give voice to so many patriotic ideals in the movie and this scene just seems to be at the place where the Venn diagram is sort of pulling apart.

KEN BURNS: You know, there are definitions of patriotism that are going to be challenged. Simplistic definitions of patriotism, I believe, that are going to be challenged in this film and throughout this film. From the very beginning, from Episode 1 all the way through.

This is a particularly vivid moment, because people care about this. This was a big deal and it was a big deal for all of them. And if you noticed there’s a wide range of explanation for why they’re doing it. Ron Ferrizzi doesn’t want his son to admire that. Somebody else said this matters to them and because it matters to them let’s give it back to them to speak about the war. And we’re meeting people that we’ve met throughout the film who are making this gesture. It’s how complicated it is and how wide it is and how much it represents a different version of courage.

For me it comes down to the dynamic of John Musgrave and his father after the event, in which he goes back home. His father is a true believer, is angry at him for his antiwar stance. And then all of a sudden because there’s publicity, local publicity, in Missouri about what you know what he’s done.

People are up and at ’em and there’s threats against him and his father suddenly just does a reverse turn. And he said, they’re your medals, you earned them, you can do whatever you want with them. We’ll go out on the driveway and fight ’em. And Musgrave just says, “Whoa. Yeah, Dad.”

There’s that wonderful moment in which you realize that, even in the most disparate distance between two people, a moment of reconciliation or at least union is just as close as it seems far away.

And I love that moment, and for me it makes it most poignant. It’s the inexplicable jumble of emotions that you feel as you watch this go — that this isn’t right, it can’t be right, this is so beautiful, look at what they’re doing, see the sacrifice. There’s a new definition of courage, there’s a new definition of heroism. All of that sort of stuff is swirling. And the last thing on our mind is what we want to communicate to the audience.

We’re trying to assemble something and put in enough that it has some poetic resonance. And it was so interesting that it was one of these historical intersections that happen in film sometimes — maybe like Eddie Adams — where our characters that we’ve intimately known, we’ve known their high school pictures, and in John Musgrave’s case, we know the wallet calendar from his dad’s insurance agents that he’s crossed off every day until he arrives at Kham Thien for the second time and just says, “Why bother, I’m not going to survive,” and he barely does survive and is triaged three times, and all of a sudden he’s in a different position.

But we have an intersection of a lot of our people in the intimacy that we’ve known them, now in a kind of public arena. You see it, you know, again in Episode 9 with Joan Furey. The episode starts with her story as a nurse and she’s just what she is. And we have the bravery and the intimacy of her experiences with soldiers. And then you find out that she is going to be involved in protests, and all of a sudden she’s on the national news.

And a lot of times we find these out by accident. We’re pursuing somebody, we’ve interviewed them, they’re terrific, they send us their photographs, and as we keep digging — Hal Kushner, our prisoner of war who’s trying to survive in jungle prison camps in South Vietnam before he’s ultimately moved up and repatriated, at the end of Episode 9 we learn about his own wife’s radicalization and her seconding of the nomination of George McGovern, and how it’s the death knell of his marriage because they’re going in different directions politically. We had no idea interviewing Hal that we would end up with so much information about his first wife, Valerie, who is left behind with their daughter and it turns out a son that he didn’t know what the sex was until much, much later.

Q: Now, I know you did a lot of travel around the country playing clips and having conversations in the lead-up to this movie coming out. And at one point when we were talking you mentioned to me that you’d brought a draft dodger who had renounced his American citizenship to West Point. Am I remembering that story right? I wanted to know more about that. I think you just mentioned it in passing.

BURNS: Yeah. So Lynn and Sarah imported Jack Todd, who is a major figure in our film, a primary figure I would call him, that we’ve been following since his Nebraska boyhood. I think he’s most definitely in Episode 2, where he and Musgrave admit to this idolization of John F. Kennedy and he says, “Kennedy was God to me.” And he’s joining ROTC one summer and by the fall he’s against the war.

And that’s how quickly society and campuses and American life was changing, swept up in these, you know, eddies and whirlpools of conflicting emotions and thoughts and politics, and all that stuff going on. And then, as you know, he makes this decision.

We had invited him back, Lynn and Sarah invited him to West Point, and the West Point cadets were very much on guard and very angry. He seemed to be the absolute antithesis of who they were. But he was himself trained. He considered himself this way and the moment — it’s a DVD extra in the film — is just so unbelievably amazing.

By the end they’re hugging each other and there’s a kind of mutual respect. I mean, there’s great nervousness and trepidation, as you can imagine, on the part of Jack Todd to go into the symbolic heart of the American military structure, this training ground for warriors, after he had rejected his own service and then done the ultimate thing. But it was amazing and I hope a blueprint, a harbinger of what could possibly take place in our conversations that follow the airing of this film.

It seems to me that if Jack Todd, a deserter and a renouncer of American citizenship, can go to West Point and receive a civil welcome and then suddenly break down some barriers, then there’s hope for us all.

One of the other people we see in the film who makes this transition from fighting the war to protesting it is Tommy Vallely. Now, he works on higher education issues in Vietnam. But in 1971, he was one of the Marines who threw away their medals during a demonstration at the U.S. Capitol. I asked him what that day was like.

TOMMY VALLELY: I knew it was the right decision.

I knew it was something I believed in.

Just to put it in context, when I was in the Marine Corps I had achieved some personal — I was a really bad student. I came from a family of eight children and all seven were geniuses but me. Not geniuses, but really good at school. And I was the only one who really bad at school. And so the Marine Corps was the thing that I did that gave me for the first time my own confidence in myself. So I like the Marine Corps for that. I was good at it.

I reacted really well to getting the Silver Star, but if I had to do it over again I wouldn’t have done that. That’s craziness. Just luck that I’m not dead. So I’m proud of this thing. But I’m also now questioning, getting this sensibility, “You know, this war is not a good idea.” The way we’re doing it is not — I want to be proud of that, I want to make a statement. And I just came to that conclusion.

And once I did that, the medals were easy.

I was a kid. I was younger than the John Kerrys or the Rusty Sachses in the film. I’m younger than they are.

But I remember that I was moved by it.

I remember being thinking to myself: I’m really lucky. I come from a pretty well-off family. I have two legs. I think I’m okay. I’m not unemployed. I’m not going to be. I’m going to go to college. So I knew at the Mall that I was privileged. I knew that. It just reinforced it with me watching the other people protesting or I knew that I was in the fortunate side of the luck distribution of life.

The people who joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War were standing up for a new idea of what it meant to be a veteran. And their efforts were a more intense version of what a lot of people were struggling with. After Vietnam, what did it mean to be a patriotic American?

Lynn Novick also co-directed “The War,” Burns’s film about World War II. Vietnam and World War II occupy very different places in American history. I talked to Novick about how the version of America that came out of that first conflict set us up for heartbreak in the second.

LYNN NOVICK: We came out of this time after World War II where this triumphal narrative of having, you know, been on the side of right, having sacrificed for a just cause, having made the world better, that things happen for a reason, that our leaders were competent and well-meaning and worthy of our respect and loyalty. Those sort of became bedrock principles and really came through with everyone we spoke with in the World War II generation.

With the significant and important exceptions being that for African Americans who fought in the segregated Army and came home to a segregated country, at least in the southern part of the country, in a country pervaded by racism, and for Japanese Americans who were interned and for Hispanic Americans who were not accorded full citizenship, our country wasn’t so perfect and our leaders were not so right all the time and there was a lot of systemic injustice that needed to be corrected. So it’s easy to kind of gloss over World War II with this romantic haze of: Everyone was in the same boat rowing together.

But even for the people who didn’t have full citizenship and didn’t enjoy the rights to which they were entitled, they still felt it was their patriotic duty to serve in the military and to help win the war and to be part of something. And so, without oversimplifying it too much, the Vietnam experience is the polar opposite of that.

Q: When you were interviewing American veterans of the war, what was the breakdown about how they felt about opposition to the war? It sounds like a lot of your sources started in one place and ended up in another. But were you surprised by how many of them ended up finding a place in the antiwar movement?

NOVICK: I think what was really interesting was that most of the veterans that we spoke with had, at best, conflicted and ambivalent feelings about the war. That would be as good as it got for the most part. Now that does not mean, and I would never say, that there were not, many of them, proud of having served and grateful for the chance to participate in this rather excruciating and sometimes devastating experience. Which I find very interesting and I cannot explain. But it’s something about coming of age, about participating in something bigger than yourself, about being patriotic or loyal, and in the eyes of your family and friends being a man.

Even speaking to a number of people who didn’t go to Vietnam and did not serve in the military, we sometimes heard regret that some men of this generation feel they had missed out on something even though they thought the war was wrong. So there’s really no one way to see this. Everyone that we spoke with had complicated feelings about it.

Q: In conversations about wartime patriotism, people tend to make sort of grand pronouncements on behalf of the people who are fighting those wars. Do you think Americans found it disconcerting when soldiers spoke out in opposition to the Vietnam War?

NOVICK: I think the soldiers who spoke out against the war, having received medals, having fought honorably there, had a tremendous amount of credibility, actually. They knew what they were talking about. They had been there. They had served. They were safely home on a college campus avoiding war and criticizing it and criticizing the people who were fighting it. So, they had quite a lot of credibility among many, many, many people.

On the other hand, there are certainly many examples of, especially the World War II generation, of soldiers or veterans feeling that they had transgressed.

We heard from many Vietnam veterans that when they came back, they did not feel welcome in VFW halls and Foreign Legion lodges and that the World War II generation seemed to really resent and not welcome them.

And it was partly this fact of some soldiers protested, but also that they hadn’t won the war, that there was bad news coming home. And there just was enormous tension between the two generations when the Vietnam veterans came home.

Q: Was that a factor for the veterans you talked to who threw away their medals?

NOVICK: We spoke with a number of veterans who participated in the protests in Washington and threw their medals away. And it was a very difficult decision for many of them, thinking about the approbation of their families particularly, and what would that mean?

Ron Ferrizzi — who has the Silver Star, which he threw away very poignantly, and overwrought and deeply distraught in remembering the people who died as he was trying to save them, and that’s how come he received the decoration in the first place — I believe he said to us that his wife told him that she would divorce him if he threw away the medals. Which she didn’t. But it was extremely painful to reject and renounce what those metals represent. And the fact that the ones who did it felt they had to make that statement was really powerful.

Q: The title of this episode comes from something Tommy Vallely says about the idea of a disrespectful loyalty. And I wanted to talk about that, because you and I in our conversations about this movie have talked about how important it was that people came out of Vietnam questioning the government, pushing it to have higher levels of integrity instead of just accepting what it was saying.

But it does seem like our conversations about patriotism break down into these two positions. And there’s one that says patriotism is about defending a country’s values and another saying that the way to be patriotic is to defend the country’s actions. Do you see a way to reconcile those two positions?

NOVICK: I hope so. There seems to be a transition from optimism, confidence, faith in ourselves, belief that we are right and that patriotism is sort of embedded in that — just representing America in the world in this incredibly positive and honorable way. And that really is at its apogee after the second World War, through the Eisenhower presidency and beginning of the Kennedy presidency.

And as we go through the Vietnam experience, and first we start with skepticism and the credibility gap and wondering if we’re being told the truth, and soldiers going to Vietnam and finding out it’s not exactly what they expected, and questioning whether the war is winnable, whether it’s being fought properly, whether we should be there, what are they fighting for. Coming back and trying to understand the country has now becoming increasingly divided about this. And over time more and more information being made available through a variety of ways, so that the public begins to see that the government that had gotten us into this had not been actually telling the people the truth about what was happening. That our presidents had doubts, that they weren’t sure we could win, that they didn’t know if the strategies could ever work, that they couldn’t see a way to get out, that they wanted to get reelected. That they had sort of made Vietnam important and then had to keep fighting for our own credibility rather than for any larger goal of helping the Vietnamese people.

The questions just get deeper and deeper and deeper, and by the time you get to Nixon you know there’s a sort of realpolitik that Vietnam isn’t important and we just need to get out. And we need to focus on other things, including getting reelected and getting a mandate. And when those revelations, particularly in Watergate and afterwards, came and we found out more about what was really going on, skepticism morphed into cynicism and alienation. And so, in that context it’s very hard to define what it is to be patriotic. If you are led by leaders that you now no longer can trust and don’t think are being honest and aren’t honorable and don’t represent the best of us. So patriotism is to be true to what and to whom. These are big questions, and we’re still wrestling with them.

Getting all Americans to agree about what happened in Vietnam is probably an impossible task.

These days, though, that’s true for nearly every subject.

Simply getting to a point where we can talk to each other again isn’t the solution to the division that has plagued America since Vietnam.

But it is an important step toward being a healthier country. One where we can have more of those hard conversations in the future.

For more on “The Vietnam War”: