- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2017

Documentarian Ken Burns, known for his exhaustive film explorations of jazz, the Civil War and World War II, has spent the past decade at work on a new 18-hour compendium on the Vietnam War, which will premiere on PBS in September.

Mr. Burns and “The Vietnam War” co-director, Lynn Novick, will serve as honorary grand marshals for the National Memorial Day Parade in the District Monday. Actor Joe Mantegna, Miss America 2017 Savvy Shields and celebrity chef and U.K. Royal Navy veteran Robert Irvine will all appear to make speeches and meet with members of America’s veterans community.

“It’s so interesting how we memorialize our soldiers [of one war] for some years, sometimes decades,” Mr. Burns told The Washington Times of his interactions with veterans of World War II and Korea. “Now we’re into the full consideration, in memorial ways, of Vietnam, and that’s important because it is a war that we haven’t talked about.”

Indeed, the National Memorial Day Parade was even sidelined during the Second World War and did not return to the capital until 2005. Mr. Burns has attended the parade before, but it will be a first for his co-director, Ms. Novick.

“I wasn’t familiar with the history of the parade and the fact that it’s meant to honor the whole history of American soldiers, not just recent participants,” Ms. Novick said. “Ken and I have spent many years trying to understand American history and understand what sacrifices our soldiers have made over the history of the United States, and to be part of an event that is honoring that” is a true privilege, she said.

Ms. Novick said her maternal grandfather desperately wished to serve during World War II, but a heart condition kept him sidelined stateside as an air warden.

“My mother always remembered him being devastated that he was stuck at home while all the other men of his age” went off to the Pacific and European theaters, she said.

Ms. Novick and Mr. Burns both say the aim with the upcoming documentary was to get to the heart of what it means serve one’s country from a historical perspective versus a personal one. Ms. Novick said many of the subjects she has interviewed all look back upon their time in combat as profoundly defining.

“No matter what emotion they might have, the fact that it’s so present when they talk about it has definitely stuck with me,” she said.

Mr. Burns maintains it was important to the new documentary that all sides of the war in Vietnam be explored, be it American soldiers, South Vietnamese forces, the Viet Cong as well as the home front struggle between anti-war protesters and GIs returning from overseas — sometimes to harsh welcomes.

But Mr. Burns discovered that the oft-cited trope of veterans being spat upon by demonstrators, while not without evidence, was far less common than the culture has recorded.

“Even in ‘65 the big signs say ‘bring the GIs homes,’” he said of the protest movement. “There were isolated areas of protest, especially after My Lai. And so we’ve [believed] that every soldier got spat on, every solder got called ‘baby killer,’ and it just didn’t happen.”

(Mr. Burns’ and Ms. Novick’s epic even features vocal anti-war protesters now apologizing to the soldiers they once humiliated so publicly.)

The Vietnam War veterans are now in the sixties and seventies. For the millennial generation, mostly born in the 1990s, there is little consciousness of the conflict in Southeast Asia, but Mr. Burns is proud that young people both on his crew and those he has met express an intense interest in the war.

“Our crew was just mesmerized,” he said of his young staffers learning of the minutiae of the conflict.

Mr. Burns believes that too often, documentaries and fictional films have not accurately reflected the points of view of the men on the ground in wartime. Accordingly, “The Vietnam War” will recreate certain moments of the conflict wherein America, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese Army personnel will all share their recollections of the exact same moments of battle.

“All of those people are in the mix, and when you treat each of their perspectives with respect, then you have the possibility to get off this binary notion of what happened and who’s right and who’s wrong,” Mr. Burns said, noting a refrain of the 1966 Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth: “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

Ms. Novick and Mr. Burns will spend time at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Monday in between their commitments to the parade and various speaking engagements.

“You can learn a lot about the human experience just by spending some time at ‘the wall’ and watch how different people move through it,” Ms. Novick said.

Mr. Burns said participating in the parade is a way to honor the veterans of all of America’s wars, but also serves as an important reminder of separating the soldier from the conflict itself.

“We learned one lesson out of Vietnam,” he said. “Never again will we blame our warriors.”

The National Memorial Day Parade will begin at 2 p.m. Monday on WJLA Channel 8 and will also be streamed live on Military.com.


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