Burns sees Vietnam War as virus, documentary as vaccination

HANOVER, N.H. (AP) — Filmmaker Ken Burns views the Vietnam War as a virus that infected Americans with an array of chronic illnesses — alienation, a lack of civil discourse, mistrust of government and each other. And he hopes his new documentary can be part of a cure.

“What if the film was just an attempt at some sort of vaccination, a little bit more of the disease to get you immune to the disunion that it has sponsored?” Burns said in a recent interview. “It’s important for us to begin to have creative but courageous conversations about what took place.”

Burns and co-director Lynn Novick had just finished work on their World War II documentary a decade ago when he turned to her and said, “We have to do Vietnam.” The result is their 10-part, 18-hour series that will air beginning Sept. 17 on PBS.

“For me, it was the sense that Vietnam was the most important event for Americans in the second half of the 20th century, yet we had done almost everything we could in the intervening years to avoid understanding it,” Burns said. “As horrible as they are, wars are incredibly valuable moments to study, and I thought what Vietnam lacked was a willingness to engage in that.”

The film brings together the latest scholarly research on the war and features nearly 80 interviews, including Americans who fought in the war and those who opposed it, Vietnamese civilians and soldiers from both sides.