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Emmy Voters: It’s Time to Brush Up on Your History

When the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced the nominees for the 70th edition of the Emmy Awards last month, it wandered, perhaps unwittingly, into the latest season of America’s history wars. 

The voting members of the Television Academy may not have known that by nominating Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, directors of the epic 18-hour film The Vietnam War for prizes in documentary filmmaking, they were effectively kicking a hornet’s nest of history, but they should know by now. 

Professional historians have been laying down a steady stream of critical fire since The Vietnam War first aired on PBS last September. Now, based on those critiques, church and veterans organizations have been mobilizing to campaign publicly against Burns’s and Novick’s (and screenwriter Geoffrey Ward’s) Emmy chances. On July 24th, for example, Veterans for Peace ran an ad in Variety that aims to bring attention to the film’s many historical flaws.

Of course, going to war over history is nothing new in the United States. Like some of those anthology television series (think “Fargo” or “American Horror Story”) in which one discrete story line is covered each season, America’s history wars seem to break out with some regularity, each one distinct from the last one, yet somehow familiar.

In the 1990s, as the 50th anniversary of the Second World War’s end approached, the country divided over the history and memory of that war; the battles were won mostly by ideologues and lost by scholars. The Smithsonian Institution’s plan to use a National Air and Space Museum exhibition of the Enola Gay – the plane that dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima – primarily as an opportunity to interpret the dawn of the Atomic Age was beaten back by hawks who wanted only one (contested) narrative of the plane’s history on display: that the dropping of the Bomb won the war. Congress threatened the Smithsonian with funding cuts, the museum director resigned, and historians emerged feeling bloodied and discouraged: their opponents may as well have shouted “Fake History!” at them and their research.

Fast-forward to 2017, and the history wars came roaring back with the autumn broadcasts of the Burns and Novick film, marking fifty years from the peak of the war’s escalation. For historians and other critics, the PBS juggernaut – which included repeated screenings and, for unsuspecting teachers, free DVD sets, lesson plans, and discussion guides for kids over the age of six – resembled a carefully coordinated, state-sponsored program of indoctrination. That the directors benefited from millions of dollars in support from the Koch brothers, Bank of America, and the Pentagon (among others) only enhanced suspicion that a particular agenda lay behind the film’s message and rollout.

It would not have been difficult for the nominating members of the Television Academy to find critical reviews of the film series, because there were many, and all appeared online. Leading Vietnam War scholars Christian Appy and John Prados blogged every episode, as they aired. Vietnam veterans-turned-university scholars Andrew Bacevich and Jerry Lembcke wrote scathing reviews, criticizing the filmmakers for failing to address fundamental questions about why the United States went to war in Vietnam and why it stayed in (Bacevich) and, instead, offer “misleading comforts” (Lembcke) to American viewers. Maurice Isserman, meanwhile, slammed the film for its cartoonish portrayal of the antiwar movement. All of these reviews were published during the film’s first airing in September.

In recent months, as the film series has been re-broadcast over and over again, a deluge of critical reviews has fallen, as if in a monsoon season, on the film’s awards prospects. Television Academy nominators are less likely to have been aware of many of these reviews, which published in less accessible academic journals. Most notably, Diplomatic History, the leading journal on the history of American foreign policy, published in its June 2018 issue a roundtable on the Burns and Novick film, to which ten scholars contributed devastating reviews. 

To be sure, most of the scholars who have reviewed the film have found plenty to like in the individual stories of American and Vietnamese veterans, and the visually arresting images – from both archival and recent footage – have won praise, too.

But even as the film brought in new voices – including Vietnamese participants – it still traffics, the historians say, in tired stereotypes of veterans, antiwar activists, and the South Vietnamese, while the North Vietnamese are reduced to caricature. Despite the filmmakers’ claims of having captured the diversity of the war experience, only one American woman veteran was interviewed, and far too few Americans of color or from the working-class (considering the disproportionate fighting burden carried by those populations) made the final cut. As scholars Heather Stur and Nu-Anh Tran note, even the inclusion of some Vietnamese voices into the same old “maddeningly unimaginative” and “well-worn story” represents a frustrating missed opportunity to present a more nuanced history of the South Vietnamese side of the war to the American public.

Worse, as historians Michael J. Allen, Judy Wu, Edwin Martini, and others have noted, the film fails to address vital questions of “moral and historical accountability.” Burns and Novick promised that the film would bring healing and reconciliation, at least to American viewers, but what kind of healing can be achieved if the filmmakers “cannot or will not,” as Allen asks, “say why Americans wage war so often and so violently, or reflect on how to prevent such violence?”

As the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen has noted, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory…” Later this summer, Television Academy voters will have to decide whether or not to confer on Burns, Novick, and Ward a level of legitimacy which will guarantee that The Vietnam War is regarded as the definitive film history of that ugly chapter in American memory or not. The Academy’s voters would do well to be aware of their place at the center of this history war and look to non-partisan experts, to the historians who have provided careful analysis of the film, before casting their votes.