KTEP - El Paso, Texas

In 'Vietnam War,' Ken Burns Wrestles With The Conflict's Contradictions

Sep 21, 2017
Originally published on September 22, 2017 10:18 am

When filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick began research for a 10-part PBS documentary on the Vietnam War, they thought they knew the material. After all, Burns was of draft age in 1970, though his draft number was too high for him to be called to serve.

But as they began interviewing subjects and sorting through archival footage, Burns and Novick soon came to appreciate just how complicated the war was. "We went in, both of us, with this kind of arrogance about it, and immediately had that blown out of the water," Burns says. "We realized we knew nothing."

In The Vietnam War, the filmmakers reconcile themselves with the war's inherent contradictions by offering multiple perspectives on the conflict. The series includes interviews with the American, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese soldiers who fought in it — as well as with Americans who protested against it.

Burns and co-director Novick tell Fresh Air that their work on the series deepened their understanding of the war. For his part, Burns likens the documentary to a series of intertwined stories that present "a fundamental fact of not just war, but life, which is: More than one truth can [exist] at the same time."


Interview Highlights

On the Ho Chi Minh trail, which the North Vietnamese used to move supplies and troops into the South

Lynn Novick: The story of the Ho Chi Minh trail, in a way, kind of emblematizes the entire war, because you see the determination and the willingness to sacrifice on an epic scale. There were 20,000 people that were killed maintaining the Ho Chi Minh trail. Many of them were young women who volunteered as something called the youth brigade. There were teenagers that spent years and years under these bombs, working during the night to repair the bomb damage and sleeping during the day when the bombing was happening, because we couldn't bomb at night. They suffered tremendously. ...

I think the footage, where you see the fires burning and then women kind of frantically trying to put them out — young women, teenagers — and then they go ahead to try and fill the bomb craters and they're clearly in the middle of a cataclysmic event, is pretty remarkable. The footage of the truck drivers at night going down the trail with these tiny little lights — you can barely see the road in front of them. ... In those moments, we see exactly what the people who were there remember.

On why the 1968 Tet Offensive — in which North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched surprise attacks during the Lunar New Year — represented a turning point in Americans' opinion of the war

Ken Burns: What [Americans] saw about the Tet Offensive on our television sets, what the reporters brought back and later tried to digest for us, a series of just startling images, [contradicted] the sense that there was light at the end of the tunnel, that we were doing well.

Our leaders had been saying, "We're winning this war" ... and everything that the Tet Offensive revealed in pictures suggested the exact opposite. Though it was, in fact, a catastrophic defeat for the North and for the Viet Cong; they suffered losses — dead, not just casualties, in the tens of thousands. But the thing was it was a huge public relations victory for them, because we had not been quite frank and honest and transparent with the American people. We hadn't been so for years.

On the famous photo and television footage of a Viet Cong operative being executed in the street

Novick: This is a devastating image taken by Eddie Adams of The Associated Press. The head of the South Vietnamese National Police, Gen. [Nguyen Ngoc] Loan, is basically with a scrum of other officers and they have a Viet Cong operative who they've captured, and essentially Gen. Loan assassinates him on the streets of Saigon in broad daylight with this photographer watching and NBC cameras rolling. ...

There were assassinations and retaliations and atrocities in the streets of Saigon during the Tet Offensive on both sides. This is the one that was captured on film with this incredible photograph, where it's the moment of impact of the bullet in this man's head and he's about to die. And that photograph was on front pages of newspapers around the world, and was shocking and devastating and kind of makes everybody who saw it complicit in this act, in a way. You're part of it; it's happening and you're there. And that had deep impact on the American public and the world about what's happening in this war. ...

NBC does not ordinarily license that footage for obvious reasons, and they would only let us license it if we would show what was actually shown on television. So our producer Sarah Botstein and her team spent a lot of time working back and forth with NBC to determine, exactly to the frame, what was shown, and not a frame longer or shorter. And that is what we put in the film. We frame it on a television set because we wanted our audience to see what the American public saw. It was only shown once on television.

On finding new footage of the 1970 shooting at Kent State University, in which four students were killed when the Ohio National Guard opened fire during a Vietnam War protest

Novick: [The] shooting lasted 13 seconds — that's a long time. A lot of bullets were fired. Just seeing the images — one of the things that was so powerful was that there's some footage that we didn't quite know where it came from, and our producer Mike Welt tracked it down and it was a student at Kent State who had a camera that day. ... He had been filming the demonstrations, and he kept rolling his camera as people were getting shot, and there was blood on the street, and people were screaming and crying and he just followed it around. And after that moment, [he] was so disturbed by what he had seen and recorded that he never was the same.

The footage ended up in his garage or in his family's garage and Mike Welt tracked them down after a year and they were willing to let us have access to these cans of film that no one had looked at.

On the lessons of war

Burns: I think history has made me an optimist, despite the fact that it shows you that human nature doesn't change — that the same venality is present, the same abstraction of war is present, the same greed is present, but so is also the same generosity and the same love.

War is human nature on steroids ... and we assume it [is] just all negative, but in fact the free electrons that war gives off (in all the instances that I've tried to tackle it) reveal as much about the positive sides of human nature. ...

We could reasonably assume to be huddled in the fetal position, but we don't. We raise families and we plant gardens and we write symphonies and we try to make films and talk about history. Maybe there's something that comes from that that sticks.

Novick: The soldiers know the lessons. The people who were there, they know what it's like, they know what happened, they know the cost — it's the leaders [who don't]. It's hard to hold on to these lessons.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new 10-part PBS series "The Vietnam War" has revelations for those who lived through the war and those born after. There's footage from Vietnam that was never publicly seen before and stories never told on film before. The story of the war is told from multiple perspectives, with the help of interviews with American, as well as South and North Vietnamese people who fought in it, as well as Americans who protested against it.

My guests, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, are the creators of the series. They've been working together since Burns' PBS series "The Civil War." They also collaborated on the PBS series about World War II, "Baseball" and "Prohibition." The new series describes America's involvement in Vietnam as having begun in secrecy and ended 30 years later in failure in 1975.

Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on this series. You know, there's been no shortage of media about Vietnam - reporting, analysis, books - both fiction and nonfiction - documentaries, feature films, even a former PBS series from 1983 called "Vietnam: A Television History." So why did you feel the need to do another massive history of the war?

KEN BURNS: Lynn and I were finishing our series on the history of the Second World War in late 2006. And I just turned to her and in some ways, as we can see the light at the end of the tunnel of the Second World War sort of looming before us on the road of history was what we think is the most important event in American history since the Second World War, which was Vietnam.

And so I just said, you know, Vietnam, we have to do Vietnam. And she said, what part? I said, all of it. And we kind of both gulped together and kind of, you know, joined arms for the knowing it would be a decade-long commitment that would, you know, haunt our days and our nights.

GROSS: I think one of the most remarkable things about the series is the multiple perspectives. You have the perspective of American soldiers, of soldiers who were held POW. You have the perspective of South Vietnamese fighters and civilians and the perspective of North Vietnamese fighters. And I think that's a perspective that has rarely been heard before. Americans in Vietnam thought of themselves as fighting the Communist threat. What were the North Vietnamese fighting for? What did they see themselves as fighting for?

LYNN NOVICK: Well, that's probably sort of easy to answer and a little bit hard. On one level, they were fighting for the unification of their country. Two, they didn't really recognize South Vietnam as a legitimate country. And they felt that Vietnam was one country. They were fighting - they were inspired by their great leader, Ho Chi Minh, to the idea that they had to be an independent country. And they viewed the South Vietnamese as being puppets of the Americans, who they saw as imperialists. That's sort of the official Communist Party narrative that really did inspire people to fight.

But there was also a sense of sort of manifest destiny in a way. One of our interviewees said this the other day and it really stuck with us that there was this sense that the Vietnamese in the North felt they were destined to control the entire country. And so that was a very powerful and resonant message communicated extremely powerfully and simply by Ho Chi Minh and the people around him in a way that ordinary people could understand. And there was, you know, they were inspired by the idea that they would sacrifice to the last person, if necessary, to achieve this goal.

GROSS: And my impression is they also fought because they were forced to. They had no choice.

NOVICK: Right. Well, so there was a draft meant, mandatory conscription. That certainly meant that everybody had to serve. And also, once America got deeply involved in the war, we were bombing North Vietnam. And so that was their, you know, very direct and up close and personal motivation that they felt that to protect their homeland, they had to stop the war. And the way to stop the war was to liberate their country.

So they felt they had to go South to protect their families in the North as well. And there was a tremendous amount of resentment about what was being done from the air to the North Vietnamese people.

GROSS: Some of the remarkable footage that you have is from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This was the trail that the North Vietnamese created out of jungle to get supplies and weapons from the North to the South. Americans kept bombing the trail, hoping to destroy it and to disrupt the North Vietnamese plan. They tried to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail with bombs, with chemical defoliants like Agent Orange. And, Ken, you want to describe what the Ho Chi Minh Trail was and its importance in the war?

BURNS: Yeah. I mean, I guess for most Americans, when we think about our inability to stop the traffic, we've got to assume that it must be like Appalachian Trail, you know, a little guided path with blazes of white along trees and little, you know, cairns of stone that are built up.

But the Ho Chi Minh Trail is mostly in Laos and Cambodia, feeding in to Vietnam at various places, South Vietnam at various places. And it's a braided, interwoven network of dozens, hundreds of separate little paths and connections, which helps to explain why it was so impossible after dropping more bombs on it than we did on Germany and Japan combined on just the Laos portion of the trail were we unable to stop the traffic.

GROSS: And the point of the trail was for the North Vietnamese to get supplies, weapons and ammunition.

BURNS: That's right. We had a successful naval blockade of the Vietnamese coast, which had been a way to get things in, as well as from Cambodia, supposedly "neutral," in quotes, Cambodia. But once all of those paths were kind of cut off, the main principle source of supplies of men and materiel coming from the North to the South to aid the Vietcong effort but also to send North Vietnamese regular troops down was - and, of course, then also to bring back the wounded was the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

NOVICK: You see the determination and the willingness to sacrifice on an epic scale. There were 20,000 people that were killed maintaining the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Many of them were young women who volunteered as part of something called the Youth Brigade. And there were teenagers who spent years and years under these bombs working during the night to repair the bomb damage and sleeping during the day when the bombing was happening because we

couldn't bomb at night. And they suffered tremendously. And we had the good fortune to meet a woman named Li-Minh Kway (ph), who volunteered at age 16. She was motivated by the Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign of North Vietnam. And when she saw people in her village killed by American bombs, she felt - she lied about her age and ran down to go help, you know, support the war effort in the South or on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

And, you know, one of the things that we learned in this process is that in Vietnam today, there's very little conversation about how terrible the war was and the true costs that they paid and the suffering that especially these young women endured on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That was revelatory to us to hear her tell her story and to begin to understand through the images that our producer in Vietnam, Ho Dang Hoa, was able to get from the Vietnamese government archives of what it was really like there. It was really, really brutal and horrific.

And we were recently in Vietnam and shared some of the footage and the scenes with Li-Minh Kway. And she especially sort of called out that she appreciated that we were, you know, not shying away from representing and showing visually and through her story and other people's stories how very brutal And just horrific that aspect of the war was.

GROSS: Give us an example of what you think is one of the most remarkable pieces of footage that you have from the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

NOVICK: I think the footage where you see the fires burning and the women kind of frantically trying to put them out, young women, teenagers. And then they, you know, go ahead to try to fill the bomb craters. And they're clearly in the middle of a sort of cataclysmic event. It's pretty remarkable. The footage of the truck drivers at night going down the trail with these tiny little lights. You can barely see the road in front of them. In those moments, we see exactly what the people that were there remember.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Lynn Novick and Ken Burns, the creators of the new PBS series "The Vietnam War." It's a 10-part, 18-hour series. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more about making this series. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH'S "HEARTBROKEN, IN DESPAIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the creators of the new PBS 10-part series "The Vietnam War." They also did "The Civil War" and a PBS series on World War II, on baseball, on jazz. These are the guys. (Laughter). OK. So let's talk about the Tet Offensive and how you portray that in the film. And let me start by asking you, Ken, would you describe what the Tet Offensive was and what its importance as a turning point in the Vietnam War?

BURNS: It's a hugely important moment. It is an attempt by the dominant figure in the Politburo, the first party Secretary Le Duan, to continue his aggressive tendencies and to launch a massive assault all across South Vietnam, in scores and scores and scores of places, from provincial capitals and big cities like Saigon and Danang and Hue, but also to outposts. It was launched in the end of January 1968. It had been planned for months. And this thing went down, and it was a huge thing. We had intelligence about it but misread it, thought it was essentially an attempt to overrun our base in the northern part of South Vietnam called Khe Sanh. There'd been a lot of fighting around there. There would be - continue to be fighting. But what it was was an attempt on the part of Le Duan to sort of trigger the end of things. And he hoped that not only would they attack and be successful militarily, but that the ARVN, the army of South Vietnam, would give up and come over to their side or surrender, and that - most important to him - that the people oppressed by the puppet regime of the South Vietnamese would rise up against their oppressors and join the revolution. None of it happened. It was a failure across the board in every single place they attacked. Though it was, in fact, a catastrophic military defeat for the north and for the Viet Cong. They suffered losses. Dead - not just casualties - in the tens of thousands. They could not replace them immediately. But the thing was, it was a huge public-relations victory for them because we had not been quite frank and honest and transparent with the American people. We hadn't been so for years.

And so what we saw about the Tet Offensive on our television sets, what the reporters brought back and later tried to digest for us, a series of just startling images, contradicted the sense that there was light at the end of the tunnel, that we were doing well. Our leaders had been saying we're winning this war. We're doing that. And everything that the Tet Offensive revealed in pictures suggested the exact opposite.

GROSS: So during the Tet Offensive, the American embassy in Saigon is attacked. And you actually have footage of the attack, of that chaos. Would you describe some of what we're seeing in that footage?

BURNS: It is unbelievable. First of all, 19 sappers blow a hole in the embassy compound, and there is graphic footage of - of dead MPs, dead Americans but also dead enemy who have been shot brutally, and ongoing pitched battles when you can see what we presume are CIA agents as well as MPs as well as other regular soldiers trying to contain this chaos, all narrated by news people. And it is just an amazing thing. But it is so inherently chaotic that that chaos is communicated to the American people. And that chaos is so devastating for - sort of collectively for the American public to absorb. It's filled with brutal images, the assassination on the streets right there by the head of the national police of a suspected North Vietnamese spy.

GROSS: Let me stop you right there because that's one of the most famous photos from the war. That's a defining photo. It was taken February 1st, 1968. Describe what's happening in that photo.

NOVICK: Yeah. So this is a devastating image taken by Eddie Adams of the Associated Press. The head of the South Vietnamese national police, Loan, General Loan, is basically with a scrum of other officers, and they're - they've got a captive. They have a Viet Cong operative who they've captured. And essentially General Loan assassinates him on the streets of Saigon in broad daylight with this photographer watching and NBC cameras rolling. And there's...

GROSS: Yeah, he - this - the South Vietnamese chief of national police just puts a gun to the suspected Viet Cong officer's head and shoots him right in - right in the head and executes him right on the street, and we see it.

NOVICK: Yeah.

GROSS: I remember the still photo. Was the footage actually shown on TV, too?

NOVICK: Yes. And we - we were very, very careful, and we have to give some credit here because this was extraordinarily complicated to find out exactly what was shown on television. NBC does not ordinarily license that footage for obvious reasons. And they would only let us license it if we would show what was actually shown on television. So our producer, Sarah Botstein, and her team spent a lot of time working back and forth with NBC to determine exactly to the frame what was shown and not a frame longer or shorter, and that is what we put in the film. It was only shown once on television. It has then been used in a few other documentary films, but usually out of context so it's not explained what's happening. And, you know, the context is important. We interviewed a North Vietnamese spy who had infiltrated the south several years before, and he describes that they had assassination squads that were going around trying to assassinate the prime minister of South Vietnam and other officials.

GROSS: The North Vietnamese had assassination squads.

NOVICK: Yes, they did. And the Viet Cong. So this is - there was assassinations and retaliations and atrocities going on in the streets of Saigon during the Tet Offensive on both sides. This is the one that was captured on film and with this incredibly powerful photograph where it's the moment of impact of the bullet in this man's head and he's about to die. And that photograph was on front pages of newspapers around the world and was shocking and devastating, and, you know, kind of makes everybody who saw it complicit in this act in a way, that you're part of it. It's happening and you're there. And that had deep impact on the American public and the world about what's happening in this war.

GROSS: Yeah, I don't think Americans had seen anything like this where somebody is executed on the street. They're not taken prisoner. They're not interrogated. They're just executed on the street by our team, by the South Vietnamese. And I think it made a lot of Americans question, who are we supporting?

BURNS: That's right. It's - it's a tough thing for human beings to understand that this is one of the activities that we participate in. I think it was, for all of us, it comes down in many ways to a couple of images - you know, a girl on fire with napalm, a girl hovering over a friend at Kent State and then this image, perhaps more than anything else because it's accompanied by the startling footage and by some deep, deep seated realization of not just the geopolitics of it, not just the domestic politics that is plowing us forward - though people are, in private, filled with doubts - but just the - just the lack of humanity in it.

GROSS: We've been talking about Vietnamese, like, North Vietnamese footage that you got and how you were able to interview people from North Vietnam to tell their point of view so that you could get a complex multi-perspective on the Vietnam War. How did you find the North Vietnamese people that you interviewed?

NOVICK: You know, we - we essentially found them the same way we find people in the United States, sort of word of mouth and asking for particular people who might've have been in a particular battle or lived in a particular town or were involved in the Ho Chi Minh trail, as we said earlier. And we worked with a really remarkable and wonderful Vietnamese producer, Ho Dang Hoa, who is a veteran himself and just was able to help us. He tracked down, for example, a man who was at Hill 875, Wentang Zohn (ph). He's the only surviving member of his regiment, and Hoa found him after a year and we were able to interview him and tell his story along with Matt Harrison (ph), the West Point graduate. And he just traveled the country, and he sort of did a lot of research for us. And we also found people from reading books, people who had written novels like Boa Ninh and Le Minh Khue, who'd written some short stories. There were, you know - just basically the same way that we find people here with the challenge that we had to have someone help us communicate properly because we don't speak Vietnamese, sadly. I wish we did, but it's a very difficult language. We made multiple trips to Vietnam with and without a camera to just get to know people and, you know, hear their stories.

GROSS: So, you know, we've been talking about the multi-perspective that you bring to this film. You, of course, interviewed people who were captured by the North Vietnamese, Americans who were captured by the North Vietnamese. I want you to tell us a little bit about Captain Hal Kushner's story. He was a flight surgeon whose helicopter crashed and he was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese. Tell us a little bit about his experience.

BURNS: Well, you know, Hal is a remarkable force in our film, and in so many different ways. It's an unusual thing. Ironically, he'd given a lecture about the dangers of night flying and then ended up crashing into a mountain. He was the only survivor. He was captured by Viet Cong and others in South Vietnam and held prisoner there. So we tend to think of the American POW experience as one - checking into the Hanoi Hilton or other places there and trying to survive for years and years and years. Hal had an even worse time out in the - the jungle watching his men die, having no medicines to help them, having run-ins with camp commandants and guards, and losing people and being forced to switch places. And, finally, being marched along the trail up into North Vietnam and then took a train to Hanoi, where he joined the other Americans there. And so we do follow Everett Alvarez, the first pilot shot down over North Vietnam. We obviously have John McCain's remarkable story there without interviewing him, telling that story all through archival things. But Hal becomes a different story of, you know, a very brave soldier having made it.

NOVICK: One of the things that really struck us - you know, he doesn't tell the story, really - he's never actually told it on film in this way. And what the process was like for him to relive some of the things that Ken was talking about, he really has the ability to put you there in great detail. He's sort of a - he's a scientist, he's a doctor, and he thinks about things. He sees things very particularly and specifically, but he also channels this emotion of what he was feeling then. And going through that journey with him, you know, was - was powerful. He was asked the other day, you know, what effect this experience had on him, did it change him? And he said he hoped it hadn't.

And that's so Hal. He just, you know, he really - he said, I did not want this experience to define me, and I am an ophthalmologist, and I love my work and I don't think about the war all the time. I don't have PTSD. You know, he's a highly, highly successful, functioning person. And so for him to go back into this place for us was a great gift for this project.

GROSS: My guests are Lynn Novick and Ken Burns, the creators of the PBS 10-part documentary series "The War In Vietnam." After a break, we'll talk about the protest against the war at Kent State University that ended with four protesters shot to death by members of the Ohio National Guard. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "TUNJI")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the creators of the new PBS ten-part documentary series "The Vietnam War." It tells the story of the war from multiple perspectives through interviews with those who fought the war from America as well as from South and North Vietnam, and interviews with those who protested the war. Some of the film footage was never publicly shown before.

Another turning point in the war that you cover is Kent State. And this was a protest at Kent State University against the bombing of Cambodia. Cambodia had become a haven for North Vietnamese troops and supplies. And so the Americans started bombing Cambodia. This was protested by students at Kent State. The Ohio State National Guard moves in, tear gases. And when the students don't disperse, four students are shot to death by the Ohio National Guard. Nine others are wounded. Describe some of the tape that you have of that.

BURNS: You know, it's an interesting moment in the process of filmmaking in that we covered it. It was parts of mass demonstrations all across the United States against the Cambodian - secret Cambodian incursion that was discovered.

I happened to just coincidentally be giving a speech there. And I was ushered into a little room - a couple of rooms that they had beautiful exhibition of it. And in it were photographs and audiotapes. And I just walked out of there saying, you know, we've got to do more about this.

And it morphed because of the extraordinary team that we have into this complete moment, which, you know, Lynn can tell you, take over the story, which is - it is a profoundly sad and profoundly important moment in the history of the Vietnam War.

NOVICK: Yeah. I mean, I would say for myself, I knew the famous photograph of the young woman crying over her friend. But I really didn't understand exactly what happened there. And when Ken came back from Kent State and we sort of put the pieces together and our editor, Tricia Reidy, built the scene, I, for the first time in my life, understood what happened there. We have remarkable footage that was shot by a student.

GROSS: What did you learn that you didn't know before?

NOVICK: Well, you know, the scale of it - how many people were actually shot, what actually had happened. Why - you know, where was the National Guard? Where were the students? What had been going on before and during that moment?

I didn't understand also, you know, it was not normal for the National Guard to be there with live ammunition. That was not the normal course of events. There are other ways to disperse crowds. The students actually were sort of moving away. And the National Guard had turned. And then this one unit basically wheeled around and started opening fire. And no one to this day really understands exactly why that happened. And it - the shooting lasted 13 seconds. And, you know, that's a long time. And a lot of bullets were fired.

And, you know, just seeing the images. One of the things that's so powerful was that there's some footage that we didn't quite know where it came from. And our producer, Mike Welt, tracked it down. And it was a student at Kent State who had a camera that day. And he'd been filming the demonstrations. And he kept rolling his camera as, you know, people were getting shot. And there was blood on the street. And people were screaming and crying. And he just followed it around and, after that moment, was so disturbed by what he had seen and reported that he never was the same.

And that footage ended up in his garage or in his family's garage. And Mike Welch tracked them down after a year. And they were willing to let us have access to these cans of film that no one had looked at. And we had them all transferred to digital medium and then put them in the film. So that's a remarkable job by our producer and our editor, Tricia Reidy, to put it together. And, you know, we don't think anyone's ever seen Ken's tape quite this way.

GROSS: Something that really struck me in the Kent State chapter of your film is, at some point, the National Guard - after the shootings, the National Guard gives the students five minutes to disperse or else they'll start attacking again.

BURNS: Right.

GROSS: And there's a film you have - a moment you have of a Kent State professor pleading with the students to disperse, saying it will be a slaughter if you don't disperse. Jesus Christ, I don't want to be part of this, he says. And he's so - he's so upset and so wants to make sure that no more students are hurt. And he doesn't know how to stop it.

BURNS: It's so unbelievably hard to even hear it. And we've heard it hundreds of times. And we still lose it in the editing room. He's one of the heroes of the Vietnam War. Lots of different heroes and sometimes the courage doesn't take place on the battlefield. This is, in fact, courage on the battlefield. And he is able through his pleadings to help stop what would have certainly been further slaughter.

NOVICK: It was, you know, the other - I was just unable to really understand. It took many times of watching the film and trying to understand this that after this happened, polls showed that most of Americans supported the National Guard and thought that the students deserved what they got. And that speaks to how polarized our country was about the war and how tragic this whole situation was.

GROSS: So, you know, of course, in this movie, in trying to get multiple perspectives, you have the perspectives of soldiers - American soldiers who fought in the war. And - because - you managed to work in the stories of soldiers who died and soldiers who survived.

And the constant theme I think for all of the soldiers is you survive one day. You expect to be killed the next. It doesn't end. It's never over. And it's just, once the battles really start for these soldiers, it's - they're just constantly under fire or constantly under threat of infection or something.

One of the stories that you tell, you tell through audio postcards. And this is the story of Michael Holmes who was from the Ozarks. His parents ran the general store in his small town. And you have some of the audio postcards that they sent back and forth on tape.

And so I want to play an excerpt of a postcard that the parents send to Michael. And then one that he sends to them from Vietnam. And I should mention that this excerpt includes some of the narration by Peter Coyote.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE VIETNAM WAR")

PETER COYOTE: In Williamsville, family and friends gathered to listen to Michael's reports from Vietnam and to fill him in on what was happening back home.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Were all down here at your dad and mother's tonight. And we thought we'd all say something for you. And you could hear our voice and feel like you's back home. And we're looking forward to...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hello, Mike. I've been doing a lot squirreling lately and killing quite a few. All the old arks really look beautiful this time of year. Looking forward to seeing you.

JERRY: This is Jerry (ph), Mike. I think Ricky (ph) and Carol (ph) broke up, Mike. Ricky - he's really prowling now.

GLENDA: Mike, this is Glenda (ph). I got a boyfriend, and his name's Danny (ph). And...

GLEN: Mike, this is Glen (ph). All these other boys been talking about hunting. I'm going to talk about girls (laughter) - girls and fast cars. Gene (unintelligible) got him a new Bonnibelle (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Michael, this is mother. The picture you sent us was real good. It looked just like you. I even liked that moustache, and I didn't think I would. You know, we miss you a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is your dad talking. We think that you'll be OK. Just don't be nosing around where you don't have any business and get hold of a booby trap or something. It's about the end of this tape. So goodbye for now.

MICHAEL HOLMES: We burned down a whole lot of hooches today of these people who don't cooperate with us, you know? I don't really understand it because if they are, you know, not VC and we do that to them - you know, treat them bad - then they're going to turn VC. The Army does everything backwards.

GROSS: That's Michael Holmes' family sending him a postcard from the Ozarks to Vietnam and then Michael Holmes sending an audio postcard back from Vietnam to his family.

So after he sends that audio postcard that we heard, he's injured when a bomb hits his vehicle. And three of his buddies die in that blast. He sends another audio postcard saying, don't worry about me. Two more Purple Hearts, and I might get out of the country altogether. And a couple of months later, he's killed. It's very moving to hear these audio postcards and then to find out what happened to him. Do you know how you got access to this? Where...

NOVICK: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah.

NOVICK: Well, you know, we get lucky sometimes. Sometimes we have to look really hard to find something like this. This one sort of fell in our lap before we even really started active production. Ken and I were traveling around the country promoting "The Tenth Inning" film, which came out in 2010. We had said - I think we were asked at a screening, what's your next project? And Ken said Vietnam. And a woman came up to us afterwards and said there's a family in my hometown whose son was killed in the war, and they have these audio tapes. Would you be interested? And we said, yes. My God, that would be incredible.

And so she put us in touch with Michael Holmes' cousins who had these tape recordings. And we were able to get them digitized. And there is many hours of tape. And we listened to all of them. We had them all transcribed and had to distill down to, you know, a very short amount of tape.

But really the essence of what you hear - one of the things that's remarkable is the change in his voice - the sort of early optimism when he gets there. It's kind of fun. It's sort of an adventure. It's far away from home. It's not that bad. And then he begins to see what's going on in the war. And then after he's wounded, he sounds like a different person. And you can just imagine for his family getting those tapes what that must've been like.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us my guests are Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the creator of the new PBS series "The Vietnam War." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. They're the creators of the new PBS series "The Vietnam War." They also did "The Civil War" series and the series on World War Two and the documentaries about baseball and jazz.

So Ken Burns, you were of draft age during part of the Vietnam War. When you became draft eligible, the lottery was in effect where you'd get a number and when your number was up, you'd be called to serve. Did you want to serve? Were you afraid of being drafted?

BURNS: I was terrified. I can still remember the fear of it. I can still remember all the things that led up to it. I mean, the Cuban Missile Crisis followed by the Kennedy assassination sort of - and personal stuff - my family, my mother dying of cancer. I didn't have a childhood. I watched the news and read the papers. So Vietnam, I felt I knew something about. Later discovered, starting this project, I knew nothing. But all the way through it, it was just an increasing anxiety and dread.

And by the time that I was 18 going off to college, I was collecting letters for conscientious objector status that I knew wouldn't happen. And then just praying that the number would be high, which it was. But it was also at a time when Nixon had already drawn down a lot of people. They weren't going to draft that many people. In fact, the year that I went, I don't think they drafted anybody. And it was 224.

It's funny, though, Terry, the way history can get confused. For all of my life, I thought it was 313. And I had, in the course of the research for this project, our extraordinary team say, nope (ph), it's this. And that begins to tell you of the - I remember sitting on the stoop of my dormitory when the list came out and just having this gigantic weight lift off my shoulders. But even then, as someone who was going to be a future historian - or a filmmaker interested in history is a better way to put it - I still couldn't get the facts right.

And I think I'm glad that we worked on this because we went in - both of us - with this kind of arrogance about it and immediately had that blown out of the water. We realized we knew nothing. And I think what we're getting back - even just the feedback of the first few episodes have been people saying I had no idea. I was there. I had no idea. Our veterans tell us this. Our scholars tell us this. And now the public is saying I had no idea.

GROSS: I find myself wondering how the world will be remembered after the generation that fought in it and the generation that protested it have died. We're really lucky you've done this film while the people who fought and the people who protested are in their '60s and '70s, so they're still very interviewable (ph). But that's not going to be so for very much longer. Do you ever wonder about that, too? How will the war be remembered a generation from now?

BURNS: We worry about that all the time. In fact, that propelled us into our World War II documentary because we were losing a thousand veterans a day of - American veterans a day. And we just realized no matter how good the historians, it will still be abstracted. And to be able to get on to tape their recollections, the - be present for express memory.

Sometimes express memory for the very first time is one of the great privileges of a documentary filmmaker. And the case was true in Vietnam. And we do worry that unless we have the archive of oral histories, that we will tend to connect the dots a little bit more abstractly. And that's not really good when it comes to war, as you can hear from the tapes of Michael Holmes.

GROSS: So since you did the Civil War series, I have to ask you for your take on the controversy now over Confederate statues and whether they should remain in public places or be removed. Ken?

BURNS: You know, at the end of "The Civil War" series, Barbara Fields, the distinguished scholar from Columbia University, said that the Civil War is still going on. It's not only still going on, but it could still be lost. And one felt that not only the Civil War was still going on, but even World War II with all of this pro-Nazi stuff that was sanctioned. The monuments is an age-old question. And we really have to face it as Americans. But we can't let the pendulum swing too extremely. If these monuments were put up in the 1880s and 1890s, they're just monuments to the reimposition of white supremacy after the collapse of reconstruction in the South. If the Dixie flag - it's not even the flag of the Confederacy. It's a - one battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia gets stitched into a Southern state flag after 1954, i.e. after Brown v. Board of Education, I think you can make a very simple and definitive judgment. Tear it down. Take it out. Unstitch it from those flags.

After that, you've got a little bit of things in which you have to go step by step. And then I would say, rather than destruction, which sounds very Soviet, that we need to expand our lens of history and add context. We didn't have an American history that included African-Americans even in the narrative of the Civil War, even though that's why it was fought - over slavery. Now we have that built in, baked into our narrative. We need to pull the camera back and expose a much wider field of view.

GROSS: I want to quote something that the media critic James Poniewozik wrote in The New York Times. This was in a review - a very positive review - of your series, "The Vietnam War." He wrote, (reading) the saddest thing about this elegiac documentary, maybe the credit it extends its audience. The series "The Vietnam War" still holds out hope that we might learn from history after presenting 18 hours of evidence to the contrary.

BURNS: I think it's a beautiful sentence. And I will hold to my optimism. I think history has made me an optimist, despite the fact that it shows you that human nature doesn't change, that the same venality is present. The same abstraction of war is present. The same greed is present. But so is also the same generosity and the same love. And war is human nature on steroids. And so it's a - it's an eminently studiable thing.

And we assume it is just all negative, but in fact, the free electrons that war gives off in all the instances that I've tried to tackle it reveal as much about the positive sides of human nature. And maybe the reason why we - you know, none of us are getting out of this alive, Terry. And we could reasonably be assumed to be huddled in the fetal position but we don't. We raise families and we plant gardens and we write symphonies and we try to make films and talk about history. And maybe there's something that comes from that that sticks.

NOVICK: We spent a lot of time with the veterans in the film. And we were with one of them yesterday, Mike Keeney (ph). And, you know, he has often - and we have definitely learned from him a great deal. The soldiers know the lessons. The people who were there, they know what it's like. They know what happened. They know the cost. It's the leaders. And it just - it's hard to hold on to these lessons. We learned the lessons of Vietnam. We vowed not to fight another war like that, and we didn't for 25 years - and then we did.

And it's sort of the sense that you have to keep on relearning it. It's not that they're not learned, it's just that they're hard to hold onto without that sort of visceral experience of it. You have to have lived through it, in a way, maybe because we do abstract it. It's kind of saying - it's so easy to just think about war as this game. And through telling the story, we hope to, you know, hold on to those lessons for another generation.

GROSS: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, thank you so much for talking with us.

BURNS: Thank you.

NOVICK: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are the creators of the 10-part documentary series "The War In Vietnam" (ph), which is now being shown on PBS stations. After we take a break, David Edelstein will review the new documentary "Trophy" about the complex relationship between big-game hunting and wildlife conservation. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTI SMITH'S "WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.