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Everything you think you know about the Vietnam War is wrong, Ken Burns says

Burns and his co-director Lynn Novick rewind and retell history in their new 18-hour documentary series, “The Vietnam War.”

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“The Vietnam War” co-directors Lynn Novick and Ken Burns onstage at the premiere Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

If you watch Ken Burns’s new 10-part documentary series “The Vietnam War,” which premieres this Sunday, you might think you know what you’re getting into — but you don’t.

“We’ve essentially been imprisoned by the conventional wisdom about it,” Burns said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka.

To his mind, all of Burns’s documentaries are aimed at answering a common question: “Who are these strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans?” But “The Vietnam War,” which he co-directed with Lynn Novick, consciously and intentionally set out to get perspectives from all sides of the conflict.

That means talking to not just American veterans and politicians, as some documentaries would, but also Vietnamese combatants and civilians from the North and South.

“When Americans talk about the Vietnam War, they just want to talk about themselves,” Burns said. “And it’s really important to understand, now that we’re out 42 years from the fall of Saigon, that we triangulate — not just the perspective that can be gained from the passage of time, but the kind of triangulation that can take place by realizing this is a war with three other countries, one of whom disappeared.”

You can listen to the new podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

It’s also notable who Burns and Novick didn’t talk to.

“The Vietnam War” will tell the stories of people like John McCain and John Kerry, but only through archival footage. From the very start of the project more than a decade ago, they decided not to shoot any sit-down interviews with those politicians, because their well-practiced retelling of the narrative would muddy the waters.

“We are jammed with all these familiar images from Vietnam, and that helps to reinforce a superficial understanding of the war, or ratifies our conventional wisdom,” Burns said. “That’s not good if you’re going to come to terms with what Lynn and I think of as the most important event of the 20th century for Americans. A good deal of the disunion and lack of civil discourse and degraded politics we experience today really metastasized in Vietnam.”

On the new podcast, he said he and Novick set out to tell the story “without a thumb on the scale,” although they do not claim to be objective. Even over the film’s long production time, it was impossible not to notice how recent affairs “rhymed” with the history they were telling.

“It’s about mass demonstrations in cities across the country; a White House in disarray; a White House frustrated with leaks; a White House with a president at the top who’s sure that the news media is making stuff up,” Burns said. “It’s about a big document drop of ‘hacked’ documents, classified material, into the public sphere that’s embarrassing and counterfactual to what’s been said in policy for many administrations; it’s about asymmetrical warfare, where the mighty might of the United States military seems incapable of making a dent; and it’s about a political campaign that allegedly reaches out to a foreign power at the time of an election to try and determine that election.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

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