Ken Burns Just Ripped Me Off!


Gregory Laxer

On Wednesday, September 6, I drove round trip to Boston, MA to attend a Preview for the Ken Burns’ gargantuan TV series on the Vietnam War, debuting September 17 on PBS affiliates. The event was held in an 1100-seat auditorium and, frankly, I didn’t expect it would be a full house. To my amazement, the place was bursting at the seams.  I imagine most attendees were there to worship “America’s Storyteller.” Peter Lynch, the former Fidelity Investments “guru,” who has his own non-profit foundation now, was sitting about eight feet from me.

Here is the official Program for the evening, verbatim: “6:30pm–Doors open; 7pm–screening begins; 8pm–Audience Q&A with panelists.”

Here is how things actually unfolded: It was at least 7:10pm before the recorded announcement about emergency exits and turning off cellphones was heard.

Finally out came the President of WGBH TV/Radio (this is one of the major public broadcasting operations in the nation). He thanked the corporate underwriters, Bank of America most prominently, and heaped praise on Ken Burns. Next came a senior executive from Bank of America to say how thrilled they are to be a long-time financial supporter of the Burns-Novick (Lynn Novick, Burns’ sidekick) documentary machine.

Eventually, the magic little fellow himself trotted out to the podium to introduce the actual video. It was clear from these remarks that Burns actually believes there once was a legitimate, sovereign entity called “South Vietnam.”

Then, as the clock ticked away, the Preview itself was screened.

By the time the Preview concluded, the clock on the wall read about 8:30pm. Time to squeeze in a few questions from the audience, perhaps? Wrong!!

Instead, Dr. Harris, a Boston educator and combat Marine in the war who’s featured in the series, was introduced. This African-American gentleman told how, having landed at Logan Airport in Boston, returning from the war in uniform, he was snubbed by multiple taxi drivers. That was real, as we say, and he comes off in the film as very real, speaking of becoming accustomed to killing: “We’re Marines and it’s war. It’s what we do.”

Okay, well and good. Now may the audience ask some questions of Burns and Novick (Ms. Novick has joined Burns on stage by now), please? No!! Two radio journalists from WGBH are now trotted out and they put questions, between bouts of additional adulation-heaping on Mr. Burns. The latter reiterates that his objective in his work is to “tell a good story.” Note that this is not the same as boiling matters down to essential truths. “There is no single truth in war” is the promotional tag-line for this series. And suddenly, as if by magic, it’s 9pm and the evening is over. Not one single question taken from the audience!

By this time several members of the Boston Chapter of Veterans For Peace and I had positioned ourselves at the exits to distribute a 28-page document explaining the VFP Full Disclosure Campaign that was launched to try to counter the Pentagon’s 13-year effort (2012-2025, at taxpayer expense) to whitewash this most shameful and criminal episode in our history. I handed a copy to Peter Lynch, calling him by name to get his attention. (His facial features and “shock” of pure white hair are unmistakable.) When there was but one copy of our handout remaining, I went back inside the auditorium on the slim chance I might be able to hand it directly to Mr. Burns, in an attempt to educate him. But Ken had already vanished. I shook Dr. Harris’s hand, thanked him for being real, and left the handout with him. I explained why I felt I was entitled to a refund, and he took it well (obviously he wasn’t to blame for the misrepresentation of what was to transpire that evening). I suggested he might pass the handout on to Mr. Burns when he’s done with it.

You must understand that for over a week, leading up to this event, I was unable to sleep soundly because I was fretting over how compactly, how concisely, I could phrase a question for the panel… assuming I could even get to the microphone. And admittedly, from a practical standpoint, audience Q&A would have been a madhouse. Nevertheless, I paid $16.28 for admission to this Preview in hope of getting to speak. To say nothing of $21 for parking, tolls and gasoline and three hours round-trip driving.

And what was I going to say?  Up to the time of Burns’s introduction of the video, I was going to say: “For me and like-minded veterans, there is one overarching fundamental truth: this war was utterly unjustified.” But I decided I would say instead: “Mr. Burns, I am mortified that you are perpetuating the myth of ‘South’ Vietnam, a puppet state only created when the USA manoeuvred to cancel the 1956 election, which would have seated Ho Chi Minh as president of a unified nation.”

Without a doubt, this series has assembled never-before-seen material, including interviews in Vietnam with combat veterans from “the other side.”  However, my personal decision now is to not invest any of my time watching it. And I shall always remember Burns and Novick as “The folks who required 18 hours to offer no answers!” 

And furthermore, Mr. Burns, I want my money back!!

Gregory Laxer was a Vietnam era US soldier who refused to deploy to Vietnam because he viewed it as an illegal intervention by the US.

19 thoughts on “Ken Burns Just Ripped Me Off!

  1. To put it mildly, Greg, major corporate sponsorship from Bank of America doesn’t bode well for harsh truth-telling.

    Another TCP writer, Dan White, often gets stonewalled (or blacklisted) at these public affairs precisely because he has the temerity to ask tough questions to the worthies on display. It seems Q&A (when it happens) is not about facilitating honest — and perhaps outspoken or even angry — questions by the educated public. It’s really about throwing softball queries while complimenting whichever sage is on the stage that day. PR is much more important than public enlightenment or participation.

    I can’t help myself. As a historian, I will watch the series and write about it. Occupational hazard.

    • I should have added, Greg, that “umpire” Ken Burns, who says he didn’t want to take sides, already took sides at your Preview event. He chose a Marine and Vietnam veteran to comment on the war, and that comment focused on learning to kill. (He didn’t choose a Marine who said he learned to hate war, or learned the war was unjust.) The taxi driver story apparently spoke to the casual racism of Boston, not to hatred of the military. (I assume a White Marine in uniform would not have been so snubbed?)

      He further took sides by taking safe questions lobbed at him by PBS underlings, and of course by allowing heavy promotion of his series by Bank of America.

      I’m sure PBS is worried about its funding being cut by Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress, hence the careful stage management, eliminating opportunities for unsettling questions such as yours.

  2. Gregory, I would appreciate more of your perspective on both Burns and his new documentary. Did he simply sellout to corporate interests, or is something else at work here? His reputation for historical accuracy is renowned. I’ll not want to watch it if he’s trying to push some false or misleading narrative about Vietnam – a war in which most everyone involved has for one reason or another run away from.

    Assuming an intent to sugarcoat or whitewash America’s unjustifiable actions in Indochina, I doubt it alone could make much of an impact. The deep and lingering pain of that national nightmare won’t soon be forgotten. Too much has happened.

    • Before deciding whether or not to watch the Ken Burns documentary, I suggest watching a short interview with Daniel Ellsberg on The Real News Network conducted eight years ago at the beginning of the then-new Obama Administration. It explains what has predictably happened in the new Trump administration. The interview comes complete with a transcript which I advise you to copy and keep for future reference. Four or eight years from now, a “new” new U. S. administration will take office and the “new” new Commander-in-Brief will “consider all options on the table” before deciding on more of the same. If the upcoming documentary by Ken Burns does not connect Iraq and Afghanistan to Vietnam, then I fail to see the point of the exercise.

      Anyway, do yourself a favor and see: Ellsberg – From Vietnam to Afghanistan. As President Obama decides what to do in Afghanistan he must learn the lessons of Vietnam, The Real News Network (October 25, 2009). I seriously doubt that Ken Burns can do any better.

    • Robert–Of course, we are all at the disadvantage of not having seen the entire series. I admit I felt leery the moment I started hearing specifics of what’s included (and we’re starting to learn what’s excluded–more on that shortly). But I tried to keep an open mind. However, Burns’s endorsement at the Boston event of the idea of legitimacy for a thing called “South Vietnam”–which lays the groundwork for claiming “aggression” from an entity called “North Vietnam”–was really fatal for his credibility, in my opinion. How can you spend ten years and $30 million looking into this war and not recognize the puppet nature of the regime in the south? It requires an act of willful deaf/dumb/blindness. Thanks to funding cuts under previous Republican administrations, PBS gets very little public money these days. So they have gone to corporate sponsorship for their main source of funds. Just look at the credits for any of their programs to see what entities funded them. The David Koch Foundation has become more and more prominent as time has gone by. Knowing the politics of the Koch brothers, do we believe they want the truth about US war crimes in the spotlight? I think not. As my article was already around the limit of this site’s “tolerance,” I left out something very telling. Ken Burns expressed his personal belief that human beings are genetically driven to make war and that he finds war simply fascinating. “It’s in our genes.” This is a cheap cop-out way to surrender to War, Incorporated. “Why try to resist war? War is inevitable!” Mr. Burns clearly would be hostile to the argument that wars have something to do with a struggle between exploiters and exploited, or to seize and control resources, or that they generate huge profits for various corporations. I think a very interesting thing to research (any eager-beaver students out there reading this?) would be: 1.) how much money did Bank of America make, directly or indirectly, from the Vietnam War?; and 2.) how much money is Bank of America making from this country’s current military activities around the globe?

      In terms of what Burns and Novick have excluded, I only learned after writing my original article that one or more national officers of Veterans For Peace met with the Burns team while they were preparing this gargantuan film. Burns and company were presented with an earlier version of the literature we distributed outside the Boston event, explaining our position that the war was absolutely without moral justification. Though the anti-war movement is given space in the program, it’s a very safe bet the VFP viewpoint is excluded. One soldier who deserted and took refuge in Canada is interviewed, as I understand it. But those of us who actively resisted the war from within the ranks, rather than waiting until our service was finished a la John Kerry? I really don’t know if any acknowledgment of that feature of the war will appear on screen.

      One last thing I should mention: Mr. Burns noted the giddy, overwhelming support demonstrated by the American public when the US first attacked Iraq (George Herbert Walker Bush’s war). (Remember the “Support Our Troops” stickers that suddenly were on “everybody’s” vehicles? Not on mine, damn it!) Then he had the temerity to claim credit for a 25% decline in the approval rating of the war in the wake of the TV broadcast of his Civil War series, which graphically showed the casualties of war. Mr. Burns, we have a problem here! I just checked, and your Civil War series first aired in autumn of 1990, whereas Bush launched the war on Dr. King’s Holiday (January 15) of 1991!! Is this proof of Burns’s scrupulous attention to historical accuracy?

      • Bank of America was THE bank in Vietnam during the war. I should know, as I had a checking account while there. So yeah, they made millions during those years.

      • Between posting my first reply (to Robert Vella) and my head finally hitting the pillow in the wee hours of September 8, I was already fretting about whether I’d misstated the start date for “[Persian] Gulf War One.” Another night of sleep deprivation on top of the week of same deriving from struggling to compose a compact question for Ken Burns and Lynn Novick–the question that would never be posed. (see my original article) I figured I would log on today and find comments lambasting (or at least correcting) me for my own historical inaccuracy. So I just checked Wikipedia. “Operation Desert Storm,” which involved putting boots on the ground, was in fact launched by G.H.W. Bush in 1991 on Dr. King’s Holiday (marked on January 17 that year). This is what I think of as “The First US War Against Iraq.” Apparently US bombing of Iraq began in August 1990, however. So Burns is off the hook in the question of his own timeline, his “The Civil War” first airing a few months later (i.e. after start of the bombing campaign). Well, except for the little matter of his COLOSSAL EGO. It doesn’t rival Trump’s, but it’s still pretty colossal!

        At the Boston Preview of the Vietnam series, Ken Burns boasted that 39% of US households watched at least part of his Civil War program. I was not among them.* Are we to believe that the public opinion poll that supposedly showed a decline in enthusiasm for that lovely little war (the US having found a perfect designated enemy, one with an Army That Couldn’t Shoot Straight!) inquired as to whether the respondent had watched Mr. Burns’s program?!? I rather doubt it!!

        *Full disclosure: The only Burns-Novick series I have watched was “Jazz,” all 19 hours of it, because I have 30 years experience in non-commercial radio broadcasting of that music. That series almost made my head explode, so imagine how I might react watching the Vietnam series, given my feelings on that subject being more passionate than my feelings on Jazz! The “Jazz” program was so densely packed with talking heads and voiceover narration/commentary that it contained NOT ONE piece of uninterrupted music!!! NOT ONE!! Believe me, I kept track. There was one selection from an old 78 rpm recording, running less than three minutes, that was heard in its entirety…under the End Credits of one episode. Most viewers don’t sit through End Credits, but I do. In conclusion, I admit I am not a Burns admirer. Honestly, I made every effort to keep an open mind toward the upcoming program. But Mr. Burns’s “performance” at the Boston Preview put me off thoroughly. “Jazz”: 19 hours without an intact musical selection. “The Vietnam War”: 18 hours without offering any answers. No, I don’t think I will ever be a Ken Burns admirer.

  3. A quick note on David Koch, as I was wondering about his draft status during the Vietnam debacle. Being born in 1940, he was too old to be drafted during the height of US troop buildup unless a National Emergency had been declared. No need to develop Trumpian “bone spurs.” No indication in Wikipedia entry of any military service, not even in the Reserves. That’s all.

  4. War and military action as a tool for dominance is bi-partisan policy. Both parties wholeheartedly support it. Obama much loved by liberals and multiculturalists continued that policy with regime change operations in Libya, Syria and Ukraine, and lest we forget continued the failed war in Afghanistan. There’s a reason why Kim Jong Un is working feverishly to acquire credible nuclear strike capabilities. It is a testament to our politics that only those labeled fringe like Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich have opposed interventions in lands that the majority of Americans can’t either pronounce or locate on a map.

    • Indubitably!! This is verbatim from Obama’s letter left in the Oval Office for Trump: “American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War…” So there it is: our first black POTUS passing on Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” to his successor!! It’s so sick it’s kind of amusing! You know an empire is approaching its end when the military is idolized above all. Obama said near end of his second term that he was most fulfilled in performance of his responsibilities by being Commander-in-Chief. Here is a headline from NY Times about a week ago: “War may be hell, but this fall it’s just another action-drama genre.” Yes, this is real, not something Andy Borowitz or The Onion posted. The article states there are three new network primetime TV series coming, to glorify and romanticize US Special Forces ops. The show titles say it all: “SEAL Team,” “The Brave” and “Valor”! I’ll give you 3 guesses who WON’T be watching a single second of any of this crap, and the first two don’t count!

      • I haven’t voted for any candidate from the duopply in decades. I recall well the admonishment of my family and friends that not voting the lesser evil, meaning the Democratic party candidate (I live in liberal California ) meant that I was voting for the evil Republican. They could not abide my retort that voting the lesser evil was still voting for evil.

        I recall noting on Obama’s victory that John Podesta was the head of his transition team. It signaled clearly that Hope & Change was a slogan befitting Madison Ave. We only find out after Podesta’s emails got leaked last year, that a Citi executive had sent him the list of cabinet appointees and other top officials. Wall St determined the Obama administration policies and ensured that not a single prosecution of the credit fraud that nearly took down our financial system took place. Of course the warmonger was rewarded early with the Nobel Peace Prize. Partisan politics, the game most Americans revel in is designed precisely to provide the illusion of choice. Tocqueville was prescient that the American republic would end when Congress could successfully bribe the American people with their own money.

  5. Well said Tunis. And it will be quite interesting to see what Pelosi and Schumer give back to Trump for the deal they made with him on the debt. He has already goten his payback in thisdevils deal.

    • traven, Trump is only about himself and his ego. He has no ideology. Schumer and Pelosi represent the same moneyed interests that McConnell and Ryan do. This is all theatre to fill the endless minutes on TV and the columns in tabloid print media. Both masquerading as “serious” outlets for debate and information.

    • OMG! I have also read of late, in a review by a critic who advance-screened the entire program, that ex-Marine and successful author Karl Marlantes claims on camera to have been “abused” (verbally, not via spitting) by civilians upon returning from Vietnam. I had previously understood that Marlantes only appears very briefly in the program, speaking of the allure, the appeal, of real blood and guts combat, leading his troops to glory…and winning himself a promotion! But, you know, the “exceptional,” “indispensable nation” doesn’t have to apologize to anyone for any damned thing, right?

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