Veterans’ Group Says ‘No’ to Emmy for PBS Vietnam War Series

A national veterans’ organization is weighing in on this year’s Emmy awards with a full-page ad in Variety, saying Ken Burns and Lynne Novick’s "Vietnam War" series does not deserve a "Best Documentary" award.

Veterans For Peace (VFP), headquartered in St. Louis, with 175 chapters in the US and six overseas, will run the Variety ad prior to the awards on September 17, to generate discussion about the series and the lasting impact it will have if "crowned with an Emmy."

The ad says that because "The Emmy Award is a powerful recognition of truth in art," Emmy judges are asked to consider whether, "In this war-torn world, what is desperately needed – but what Burns and Novick fail to convey – is an honest rendering of that war to help the American people avoid yet more catastrophic wars."

The ad identifies what it considers the fundamental flaw of the PBS series: Burns and Novick "assert at the beginning that the war ‘was begun in good faith by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings.’" Questioned about this in a New York Times interview, Burns admitted that might have been "too generous to our leaders," but he stuck by it.

VFP’s ad quickly responds to that "generous" remark, saying, "Even a cursory reading of the Pentagon Papers disclosed by Daniel Ellsberg," (inexplicably missing from this history) "demonstrates the falseness of this claim of American innocence." The painful truth, according to the ad, is that the United States "rained incredible violence on the Vietnamese people merely to replace France as the dominant power in Southeast Asia."

Acknowledging that Burns and Novick were "justifiably critical of American presidents and military leaders" the veterans say the filmmakers, "mainly focus on the harm to U.S. soldiers" and "reinvigorate Cold War myths that the Vietnamese anti-colonial struggle was merely an extension of Soviet and Chinese communist expansion."

Another shortcoming in last fall’s series was it paid far too little attention to the millions of civilian deaths the US caused in Southeast Asia, skips over the millions of people still suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and ignores some 700,000 tons of unexploded ordnance still lurking in the fields of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, still killing and injuring today.

Many VFP members have firsthand knowledge of the broad antiwar movement, some as participants in the active-duty G.I. resistance where they conducted peaceful protests, sabotage and outright mutiny, and some in the civilian peace movement after their military service. Nowhere in 18 hours of programming does the GI resistance movement merit mention and "instead of honoring the civilian peace movement for its accomplishments, activists are generally belittled as self-interested and self-indulgent, with stress on its supposed deep antagonism toward American soldiers," the ad protests.

VFP concludes its ad, just above an iconic photograph of protesting G.I.s holding a banner emblazoned with, "We won’t fight another rich man’s war," by saying that if the Burns/Novick series is "crowned with an Emmy, this defective history of the Vietnam era will become required viewing for generations of young Americans – a seductive, but false, interpretation of events."

VFP is accepting donations to help pay for the ad at this link.

Mike Ferner is a former president of Veterans For Peace and author of Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq.