The Vietnam War
A Massive Work of Storytelling on PBS
This article is featured in Creativity Is Contagious: Brands and Culture for the Common Good, Sally-Ann O’Dowd’s e-zine exploring consumer sentiment: In a divisive world, people expect brands to take ethical stands. The multimedia, video-infused publication likewise explores the healing power of storytelling, such as The Vietnam War, the widely acclaimed PBS documentary.
My first memory of The Vietnam War is from 1976, three years after the Paris Peace Accords that led to the withdrawal of U.S. troops. I remember feeling worried about my oldest brother, Tom, as I walked into Mr. Talarico’s third-grade class at St. Jude Elementary School in Fort Wayne, Ind.
The evening before, my parents must have been talking about the war, which had raged on between the Vietnamese factions until 1975. Tom had had a draft number in the 300s but the U.S. government ended the draft his senior year of high school. If the draft had continued, his relatively high number would likely have kept him from going to war. Nevertheless, the country was still suffering from a gaping wound; my parents – Ruthie and Jerry, a highly decorated Naval officer in the Pacific Theatre during World War II – must have been expressing “what if” concerns that night. Not fully understanding as an eight-year-old, I took a vague sadness into the classroom the next morning.
I carried that memory into a keynote session at the Global PR Summit hosted recently by PR trade The Holmes Report. One could hear a pin drop as Don Baer, worldwide chairman and CEO of communications firm Burson Marsteller, interviewed Lynn Novick, who co-directed PBS’s The Vietnam War documentary with Ken Burns, known as America’s foremost documentarian since directing the 1990 documentary The Civil War.
Paul Holmes in his introduction saluted the film as a massive work of storytelling, the zeitgeist term driving today’s brand marketers aiming to get the attention of stimulus-saturated consumers. Moreover, Holmes celebrated Novick’s role because he specifically wanted our audience to know more about the woman behind the 10-episode series that was 10 years in the making.
By choosing Baer as the interviewer, Holmes and his production team guaranteed our audience a privileged and intimate understanding of the creative process that transformed thousands of pieces of archival material and fresh content into a historically accurate yet gut-wrenching tale of horror. Journalists, who cover history as it happens, had unfettered access unlike those covering WWII. “Reporters just had to agree to military guidelines so as to not compromise military operations,” says narrator Peter Coyote in Episode Three. “More than 200 journalists would die covering the conflict in Southeast Asia.”
Rewind the Tape
“What is going on there?” asked Baer, launching the interview with a clip from Episode One, where protesters and police wrestle in reverse and missiles fly up into the sky.
“We debated the intro for a year, and thought that a soliloquy of people was a snooze,” Novick said. “We wanted the beginning to put people off their equilibrium. People who lived in the era know the footage; backwards motion would give everyone a new perspective. It was our way of saying, ‘We’re going to explain it from the beginning.’”
“You’ve told the story of Vietnam like a work of fiction,” Baer said, referencing The Sorrow of War, a 1990 novel by Vietnamese writer Bảo Ninh, which tells the story of a soldier who begins to think about his past while collecting dead bodies after a battle. “How do you arrive at a compelling narrative in a documentary where everything is fact-based?”
“Every good story has characters,” she said. “We conducted about 100 interviews for an 18-hour documentary. For every one interview you see, we interviewed 10 people. It’s a nuanced story of our common humanity and our common inhumanity.”
Prepping people to relive painful experiences on camera is the opposite of corporate media training during which spokespeople rehearse key messages and practice bridging techniques to get back on point should conversation veer off course. But one tenet of good storytelling is authenticity – whether it’s a war film, an interview with a lifestyle journalist or a piece of branded content. The point of view must ring true. “As preparation, we dance around our subjects’ experiences in a peripheral way,” Novick said. “We ask them, ‘Will you be able to talk about this?’”
Baer, as one of the most influential people in the industry, offered a teaching moment, referencing the power of multimedia to bring forth a fresh point of view. “Words matter in communications but there’s so much more to storytelling. In the documentary’s case, we see the orchestration, the bringing together of different pieces, the footage, the music.” Indeed, the soundtrack consists of a two-CD compilation of songs from the war era and an original score written by Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose eerie sounds darken the emotions of the people on camera. Baer and Novick showed clips from various episodes as illustration.
What a Sissy
Episode 7 features Tim O’Brien, who was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. He is the author of several Vietnam-themed works including The Things They Carried about foot soldiers during and after the war.
“I was in Fort Lewis Washington, and Canada was 90 miles away,” he says in the film. “I asked my mom and dad for money; I asked for my passport, which they sent no questions asked. I kept all of this stashed in civilian clothing in my footlocker thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll do it.’ There was this maybe thing all through training as Vietnam got closer and closer and closer.
“What prevented me from doing it, I think, was pretty clear and stupid. It was a fear of embarrassment, a fear of ridicule and humiliation, what my girlfriend would have thought of me…the Kiwanis boys and the country club boys in a small town and the things they’d say about me – ‘What a coward, what a sissy for going to Canada’ – and I would imagine my mom and dad overhearing something like that.”
As protest footage rolls in the background, he continues, “The nightmare of Vietnam for me is not the bombs and the bullets,” he says, the scene nearing and end. The camera zooming in, he contorts his face, scratches his left cheek, begins to cry and looks down. “It’s that failure of nerve that I so regret.”
Hal Kushner, a medic who was held in captivity for five years by the Viet Cong, recounts going crazy. “The fall of 1968 was probably the toughest time we had,” says Kushner, dressed in a jacket and bowtie for the filming. “Our daily life was a continuing struggle for survival…We were sick. We were very sick.
Coyote jumps in with his narration: “13 Americans would die during Captain Kushner’s time in jungle prison camps in South Vietnam. He was a doctor but had no medications, no antibiotics, no saline solution with which to treat his comrades. All he could do was bury each in a bamboo coffin and make sure the spot was marked with a heap of stones dabbed with Mercurochrome.”
“We had nothing to eat.” It’s Kushner talking again. Footage of a camp, dark at midnight, rolls slowly. Reznor and Ross’s music plays quietly in the background: Killing is foreshadowed.
“I thought I was just going insane. So we were sitting around this little fire and I saw the camp commander’s cat… someone suggested, ‘Let’s eat the cat.’ So we killed the cat and cut the head off and we cut the paws off. We had this little carcass of about two pounds. And one of the guards came down and we told him it was a weasel and we threw a rock and killed it. And then he looked around and someone had neglected to hide one of the paws. And he knew instantly it was the camp commander’s cat. And things got very serious.
“They lined us up and said, ‘Who did this?’ Nobody said anything. I thought they were going to kill us, just execute us.
“One of the people who was the ringleader said he did it, I said I did it as well, then we all said we did…The guard kicked [the ringleader] to the ground and beat him unmercifully. They hit me in the face and tied me with commo wire [Vietnam War slang for skin-cutting communications wire] to a hooch [hut] with the carcass of the cat draped around my neck. I was so crazy I thought, ‘Maybe they are going to let me eat the cat.’ But they made me bury it, and the man they beat very badly died two weeks later but to me the tragedy was we didn’t get the cat.”
I was spell-bound listening to Baer and Novick in conversation. As the publisher of a multimedia e-zine about another gruesome tale – the 2015 attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – my collaborators and I told a story in words, images, video and music. “Creativity Is Risky: Free Speech in a Charlie Hebdo World” is a 38-page digital and print magazine exploring historical and current threats to free speech in the context of 11 journalists murdered by two members of Al Queda.
When the floor was open for questions from the audience, I took the mic and said to Novick, “I know the late nights when you’re alone and thinking about your subject matter. Can you tell us about your cathartic pain?”
“If you’re human, you’re going to feel it,” she said. “People give some of their weight to us. You can’t make sense of the murders of journalists but the story is part of the healing process. But for us, it’s never as hard as what the characters went through, such as Tim O’Brien.”
Novick talked about a woman editing footage of Kent State, where four unarmed anti-war protesters were killed by the Ohio National Guard, and the My Lai Massacre, the mass killing of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by American forces. The U.S. estimates that 374 Vietnamese men, women, children and infants were murdered in My Lai, whereas the Vietnamese government estimates 504 deaths including people killed in My Khe. Some women were gang-raped, their bodies mutilated.
“She was sobbing,” Novick said. “We told her to go home and be with her kids.”