Yesterday afternoon, Ken Burns himself visited Columbia’s hallowed halls to discuss his new documentary on the Vietnam War, along with co-director Lynn Novick, Dean Awn, and two veterans (one a GS alum who served in Vietnam and one a current GS student who served in Iraq and Afghanistan). We sent newly minted staff writer Abby Rubel to the event; her thoughts on both documentary and discussion are below.
Ken Burns is a documentary maker primarily known for his signature photo effect and secondarily for the thought-provoking, thorough documentaries he makes on subjects ranging from baseball and the national park system to the Civil War. His new documentary, co-directed with long-time collaborator Lynn Novick, covers the Vietnam War with a focus on providing perspectives from everyone involved, from the soldiers who fought it to the Vietnamese whose lives were destroyed by it.
On Tuesday, Burns and Novick stopped by Low Library for a forum focusing on one specific perspective on the war: that of veterans scarred by battle returning to college campuses hostile to the war. The panel consisted of Burns; Novick; Michael K. Heaney, JD, PhD, a Marine who served in Vietnam and spent a semester at GS; and Mark Franklin, GS ‘19, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. Dean Peter Awn (GS) moderated and President Bollinger made some brief introductory remarks.
In his introduction, Bollinger discussed the importance of the Vietnam War in shaping the worldview of his generation as well as the many ways in which it can inform us today (though he did not explain what those ways were). He also discussed the importance of GS as an institution for veterans, a subject Awn also touched on briefly in his opening statement. Thankfully, these mentions were brief–there are few things more annoying than Columbia lauding itself.
The structure of the forum was simple. A clip from an episode of The Vietnam War would be shown, and then the panelists would discuss the themes it brought up. The first clip of the forum discussed anti-war protests that did not take place on college campuses. Though the panel generally stayed away from drawing direct parallels between the political situation during the Vietnam War and the political situation today, this clip inspired the most politicized discussion of the forum. Franklin brought up the existence of today’s volunteer army, in contrast to the draft of the Vietnam era. For him, this changed what is meant by a “victim of war,” because soldiers are no longer being forced into conflict. (He did not mention the many ways in which some are effectively coerced into the armed forces today.) Burns similarly expressed that the lack of a draft “takes the public’s skin out of the game” and creates a massive disconnect between the them and the armed forces. The public no longer cares enough to hold the government accountable. At this, a few members of the audience loudly clapped and cheered. Franklin then added that he sees the creation of a “warrior caste” in today’s volunteer army.
The second clip focused on “homecoming”–soldiers’ experiences when they came back from the war. In particular, the clip told the story of one John Musgrave, a Marine who was injured in the war and returned to school only to find himself alternately attacked and isolated. After the clip was over, Burns revealed that Musgrave had (unsuccessfully) tried to kill himself and spoke about the battles, both internal and external, that these returning soldiers had to fight. Novick added that everyone, protesters and soldiers alike, was trying to do the right thing, but, as usual, there was disagreement over what “the right thing” was.
Heaney then told a story about a party at which he was confronted at a party and accused of killing women and children. He said that he calmly contradicted that account, and that in general he was treated well. He also mentioned that he eventually came to be anti-war, but refused to publicly break faith with the Marines. Franklin said that, while most people were “hyperaware” of the Vietnam War, he was mostly met with either apathy or curiosity, though he also had a story of being called a “baby killer.”
The third and final clip talked about PTSD. It discussed the differences between the way PTSD was understood after Vietnam and the way it was understood after other wars in American history. This clip sparked a discussion of the ways in which a clinical understanding of PTSD has both helped and harmed veterans. Novick mentioned that the idea of PTSD created a stereotype of soldiers as “time bombs.” Awn spoke about his experience with veterans at GS, saying that PTSD is not a “deadly disease” and that students are generally able to overcome it. Burns added that “there’s no half-life” to PTSD.
The most moving part of the forum for me came when Heaney talked about his struggles. He spoke candidly (though briefly) about the flashbacks he experienced and his struggle with using alcohol to deal with them. Heaney said that what most helped him was helping other soldiers who were worse-off than he was.
Then came the question and answer session. One woman asked Novick about how other perspectives were incorporated into the documentary, to which Novick responded curtly, “watch the documentary.” Other questions touched on the purpose of the documentary, which both Burns and Novick stressed was not to proclaim a new orthodox interpretation of the Vietnam War, but rather to present the many different facets of the war. Another question, asked by a Ken Burns maven (he mentioned writing about a Burns documentary in his college application), prompted Burns to discuss the purpose of his war documentaries in general. Burns said that he sees a tendency in our culture to romanticize war, and that there is a need to remind people how destructive war can be. He tries to answer the question of “what happened” rather than do political commentary.
Overall, I wish college campuses in general and Columbia more specifically had played a greater role in the discussion, especially given the description of the event, but the more general experiences that were discussed were enough. As the panel clearly emphasized, understanding the importance of the human cost of war is critical. But, perhaps unintentionally, it also conveyed that conceptualizing that cost is, for those of us who have not experienced war first-hand, much harder than Organic Chemistry.