Chuck Hagel: Lessons in Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary apply today

September 17, 2017 GMT

WASHINGTON — Americans can find lessons that apply today in filmmaker Ken Burns’ new project “The Vietnam War,” former Defense Secretary and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel said after seeing much of it.

“We’re at a point in our country today, in a very dark place that’s not unlike where we were in Vietnam,” he said. “Many similarities. In fact, I think it’s worse today in many ways.”

Hagel served in Vietnam alongside his brother before going on to represent Nebraska for two terms in the U.S. Senate.

He praised what he has seen of the 18-hour documentary that Burns co-directed with Lynn Novick. It will air in 10 weekly installments on PBS starting tonight.

“It is the most complete, compelling and honest telling of the Vietnam War story,” Hagel said. “It is really one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen.”

Hagel was among those at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts last week for a preview and participated in a panel discussion afterward that included Burns, Novick and two fellow Vietnam veterans — former Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The panelists agreed that the film might start conversations that could begin to bridge rifts the war started, as well as offer cautionary lessons for now.

In an interview with The World-Herald, Hagel said the series examines many aspects of the war and those involved, including Americans who served in uniform, anti-war protesters back home and the North Vietnamese.

Hagel noted that he served on the PBS board and said he had some role in ensuring the project would move forward. He’s back on the PBS board today.

As the series concludes, a new book will be coming out that tells the story of Hagel and his brother and their time in Vietnam. Hagel also is set to speak at an event marking the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Hagel said that while Burns sought the counsel of high-profile veterans such as himself, he intentionally left most of them off the screen in order to focus on individuals whose stories have never been heard before.

Viewers should come away with a more complete understanding of what happened, why it happened and the consequences that followed, including the revelations of dishonesty about Vietnam from the White House on down, he said.

“That changed the entire culture of our country,” Hagel said. “That changed every institution in our country.”

The documentary includes unvarnished, gut-wrenching footage from the battlefield that can be tough to watch.

“That ain’t movies, that’s real stuff,” Hagel said.

Hagel, who was an outspoken critic of President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq War, said the country has continued to make some of the same mistakes in Iraq and even Afghanistan and that our political leaders can learn something from Burns’ project.

“Leaders have to understand that there are consequences to war and, unfortunately, there are many unintended consequences to war,” Hagel said. “It never goes the way you think it’s going to go.”

During the panel discussion, McCain said it’s the right time for the documentary, “particularly since we are in such turmoil in the world today.”

He said the takeaways from the documentary were making sure military and civilian leaders are honest with the public, and avoiding a draft that relies on the lowest-income people to serve.

McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war, was greeted at the screening with a standing ovation, a tribute to his ongoing battle with brain cancer.

The Arizona Republican spoke of frequent visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, a monument etched with the names of more than 58,000 dead soldiers. “These young men died because of inadequate or corrupt leadership — we must have leaders who can lead and be able to give them a path to victory so we will not sacrifice them, ever again, to a lost cause,” McCain said.

Kerry agreed, listing as the lessons applicable to today: “Knowing what we’re doing, being honest with our people, making war a last resort, exhausting diplomacy — these are all relevant to every choice we face.”

Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator, also served in Vietnam, where he lost a leg.

As a senator, Kerrey worked on normalizing relations with Vietnam, including pushing legislation that laid the foundation for the first independent, private university in Vietnam.

He attended last week’s preview and praised the project for having the perspective of not just Americans but also the Vietnamese.

“It’s a very well-told story,” Kerrey said. “I think it’s going to be important for the people of America who get the chance to watch it.”

He predicted that it will prompt a more emotional and potentially divided reaction than Burns’ much-heralded previous project about the Civil War.

“It’s not as pleasant as the Civil War because when they did the Civil War series all the participants were dead,” Kerrey said. “And now there’s enough of us alive that the memories are still pretty fresh.”

This report includes material from the Washington Post.

joe.morton@owh.com, twitter.com/MortonOWH