Filmmaker Ken Burns turns eye to Vietnam War

Hal Kushner, an Army doctor, had been a starving prisoner of war in Vietnam for weeks when he and his desperate comrades decided to catch and eat the prison commandant's cat.

They tried to conceal their deed but were caught before the meal. Kushner was beaten and tied up, and the cat's carcass was draped from his neck. Tragically, he recalled, he and his buddies never got to eat the cat.

The scene, as related by Kushner, is one of the most poignant in a 10-part documentary by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, "The Vietnam War," that is set to air on PBS in September.

The film is the most ambitious for Burns, who is renowned for his documentaries on the Civil War, jazz, baseball and World War II, among others. It covers the war from its genesis, starting after World War I, and examines the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was completed in 1982, and the years beyond.

Burns and Novick, who are scheduled to speak at the memorial on Monday and will be the grand marshals in the Memorial Day parade, paused on the Mall on Sunday to talk about the war, the Wall and the film.

The documentary covers the war from all sides, folds in the antiwar protests it sparked, and includes the assassinations, racial unrest and social divisions that tortured the country in those days.

It covers the American massacre of civilians at My Lai, and the enemy's massacre of civilians at Hue; the killing of American students at Kent State and Jackson State; and the veterans who threw away their war medals at a demonstration against the war outside the U.S. Capitol.

The film discusses the controversial Agent Orange defoliant, the visit to Hanoi by the actress and antiwar activist Jane Fonda, and the release of the Pentagon Papers.

It features, among others, soldiers, Marines, nurses, pilots, POWs, protesters, "deserters," anarchists, veterans of the South Vietnamese Army, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army.

An American pilot, later the Air Force chief of staff, says the United States was fighting on the wrong side.

A war protester tearfully apologizes for the things she said about those who were fighting in Vietnam.

And an American soldier says he lost a part of himself when he beat and strangled an enemy soldier while battling hand-to-hand in a tunnel.

"War awakens a savagery in people," Nguyen Ngoc, a North Vietnamese army veteran, says in the film. "I was in the jungle a long time, and animals aren't that savage."

Yet Viet Cong veteran Le Cong Huan says: "I witnessed Americans dying . . . I saw them crying and holding each other. When one was killed, the others stuck together . . . I witnessed such scenes and thought, 'Americans, like Vietnamese, have a profound sense of humanity.' "

As Burns and Novick sat on a bench Sunday not far from where people in T-shirts, ball caps and biker vests walked toward the black granite wall of the memorial, Burns said, "Human beings seem incapable of avoiding wars."

"We understand, once they've been fought, their terrible cost," he said. "Vietnam permits us . . . to have a really frank discussion of not only what happened in Vietnam but what happens when Americans go to war."

Burns and Novick and their team worked on the documentary for a decade. They made several trips to Vietnam. They filmed interviews with 100 people and examined 100,000 still pictures and 5,000 hours of archival footage. In the process, they got to know the stories of some of the 58,000 veterans whose lives were claimed by the war and whose names are etched in the wall.

"It's a profound experience coming here, even if you don't know anybody [on the Wall], to see all those names," Novick said. "I don't think either one of us, or anyone else, will ever forget the first time you see it."

"I think what Maya Lin said, when she designed the Wall and tried to explain what she was trying to do, is still true," she said.

She paraphrased the words of Lin, who designed the memorial, saying that you see yourself reflected in the names on the polished surface, "but you can't go across into the other world with them."

It's an "extraordinarily profound act of art and memory that is an act of genius and a place we need as a country," Novick said.

"The Vietnam War" is set to the music of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Yo Yo Ma, among others, as well as the sound of explosions, screams, machine-gun fire and throbbing helicopter blades.

On Sunday, the Wall was crowded with visitors, memorial wreaths and bouquets of flowers. Someone had left an old pair of jungle boots. And at one spot, leaning against the Wall, was a flier telling the story of Navy pilot George Francis Talken, who on Aug. 2, 1969, was waiting to land on his aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, after a mission.

Seventeen miles from the ship, his plane disappeared from radar.

His body was never recovered.

Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” premieres Sept. 17 on PBS stations