U.S. Huey helicopters fly in formation over a landing zone in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, date unknown.AP Photo

Vietnam’s War Remnants Museum sits in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, right next to Independence Palace, the place where, in April of 1975, Saigon finally fell to North Vietnamese forces and the Vietnam War came to its official end. The museum features a queasy collection: Among its exhibits are photographs documenting the effects of toxic chemical defoliants—napalm, white phosphorous, Agent Orange—on soft human bodies; treatments of the My Lai massacre; collections of weaponry including, in the grounds of the museum building, bullet-riddled planes. There’s a reproduction of the torturous “tiger cages” the South Vietnamese government used to hold its political prisoners. There’s a guillotine that was used to execute those prisoners. Most strikingly, though, there is, in one corner of the museum, a series of jars. Each contains a human fetus, preserved in liquid, deformed by chemicals used to wage a war that found so many ways to kill.

Every museum is guided by a purpose beyond convening and collecting and remembering; the War Remnants Museum, explicitly, is dedicated to outrage. You could classify the entire project as physical evidence of the adage that history is authored by the victors; you could treat it, as well, as an object lesson in the workings of propaganda, with the objects in this case being starkly literal: The museum used to be called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, and is still commonly referred to, among the Vietnamese, as the Museum of American Atrocities. You could also read the institution, however, as a broader argument that, when people talk about “never forgetting,” the exercise should concern the emotions as well as the intellect, the moral memory as well as the visceral. The exhibits selected to be displayed in the museum are intended not only to document, but also, it very quickly becomes clear, to sicken and shock and shame. They succeed.

I visited the museum during the year I spent living in Vietnam—in Cần Thơ, in the heart of the Mekong Delta in the far south of the country. I taught English at the university there, which was founded in 1966 and which was formerly associated with the American and ARVN military effort (Cần Thơ, on the banks of the Hậu River, served as a hub for U.S. naval operations in the Delta). I shared a small house with a fellow teacher a short distance from the university’s main campus; it was part of a complex that had housed American and South Vietnamese officers during the war. The conflict is known by different names depending on who is doing the remembering—the American War, the Resistance War Against America. In Cần Thơ, the war persists, not only through monuments and museums, but also through the more vaporous workings of time. Another teacher at the university would be promoted no farther up the academic ladder, he once told me matter-of-factly, because his uncle had fought with the Americans, and these things are not forgotten. History is never history.

The way the past lives in the present—the way it can be remembered or dismissed, made visceral or monumental, urgent or tucked neatly away—is one of the broad themes of The Vietnam War, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s expansive and singularly sensitive documentary about the struggle that changed everything and ensured that so much would stay the same. Americans, for our part, tend to be driven by a stubborn impulse to move forward to the next thing, as quickly as possible—to remember the past, certainly, but also to polish it, sanding the rough edges so thoroughly that what remains can only be gleaming and gaunt. When it comes to war, in particular, we often resort to the soft insults of easy flattery: Soldiers shed their complicated humanity to become uncomplicated heroes. War’s cruel privations melt into gauzy tributes to sacrifice and patriotism. Swaths of people transform, via history’s airy alchemy, into “the greatest generation.”

The real stories in all that, the human stories, the difficult and the awkward and the funny and the wrenching and the weird, often get lost among all this insistent monument-making. Tales are mistold over time or, worse, simply forgotten—a cosmic game of Telephone without the funny joke at the end. Soaring heroes. Evil villains. Glinting plaques with lovely words. We Americans are, as a populace, extremely fond of marble.

There is very little evidence of those hagiographic impulses, however, in The Vietnam War. Burns and Novick use to their great advantage the fact that, for this film, so many of the history-makers—the soldiers, on both sides; the policy-writers, the protesters—remain alive. This is an oral history above all, and that renders the documentary pulsingly and painfully and productively alive. Its poster, an image used at the start of each of The Vietnam War’s 10 episodes, features a revealing visual trick: On the one side an American soldier, gun in hand, caught in silhouette against the brilliance of a humidity-blazoned sunset; on the other a Vietnamese civilian, against the same sunset, in the upside-down. It’s fitting: This is, first and foremost, an American film about the American side of the conflict. Yet as so many critics have noted, The Vietnam War is exceptional as a work of history and a work of art in large part because of its inclusion of Vietnamese voices—people who fought both for the North Vietnamese and alongside the Americans.

Th poster for the new documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War (Courtesy of PBS).

What’s also striking about the film is how alike it is, in its logic, to the exhibits of the War Remnants Museum. There is, simmering below the traditional aesthetics of documentary production—talking-head interviews, crackly TV footage, voice recordings of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, still photos made dynamic via the Ken Burns effect—a sense of grief. It is profound, and it is pervasive. After all, this was a war,  the documentary’s narrator, Peter Coyote, says, speaking from the American perspective, that was “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculations.” Later, the film quotes Lyndon Johnson—who made decisions about  U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the film repeatedly argues, based on self-interested political expediencies—lamenting, “I feel like a hitchhiker caught in a hailstorm on a Texas highway. I can’t run, I can’t hide, and I can’t make it stop.” Even Johnson, the leader who was making it all happen, felt, revealingly, that the “it” was out of his control. His sense of inertia and despair would soon expand throughout the U.S., metastasizing and giving way to an expansive political nihilism that remains with us, in various forms, today. And so the air of melancholy that infuses The Vietnam War, from its plaintive musical score to its insistently lingering images of violence and death and trauma, is fitting. Burns is sometimes criticized for making films that are too sweeping, too tidy, too everything-for-everyone in their posture and their ambition. One might reply that in times like these, to be ideologically ecumenical—to believe that there is a tent, still, big enough to accommodate all of us—is its own form of radicalism. And while The Vietnam War is a comprehensive history—while, indeed, its aim seems to be to serve as the foundational text in the canon of the Vietnam War—it aims, at the same time, for the gut. Pain as empathy. Pain as memory. It succeeds again and again.

Burns and Novick make a primary character of Denton Crocker Jr.—Mogie, everyone called him—a talented and idealistic and patriotic teenager who, feeling determined to do something meaningful with his young life, enlisted at the very start of the war. Mogie is spoken of, in the film, rather than spoken to—there’s a long scene featuring footage of the video message his family sent him for Christmas, and a reading of a letter he sent home that includes the line, “Someday I may tell you the whole story if my nerves aren’t completely gone by then.” All this foreshadowing—all this absence—makes it no less crushing when we learn that Mogie Crocker was killed in action on June 4, 1966, one day after his 19th birthday.

The documentary is a form that can become, if the filmmaker isn’t vigilant about it, soporific. The Vietnam War, though, runs the opposite risk: It threatens at times to become, in its frank treatment of history’s human agonies, too hard to watch. It is, in many ways, a horror movie. There are no mangled fetuses to see here, preserved in jars and daring you to look. Instead, there is story after story of man’s inhumanity to man, played out in a setting in which inhumanity is the whole point. War may be a failure of diplomacy; it is also, however, a failure of empathy. Burns and Novick highlight both kinds of failure at the same time. Their film depicts people caught in history’s vice, struggling to retain their humanity even as war tries to strip it away. A soldier, in an interview, recalls half-heartedly flicking a Zippo to fulfill an officer’s orders to burn down a village.The flame didn’t spark, the soldier recollects, and he walked away, leaving the thatched roof—and the home it covers—intact. Joe Galloway, a UPI reporter who covered the war, remembers the death of Jim Nakayama from Rigby, Idaho: Galloway tried to pick him up, he now recalls, but Jim's legs had disintegrated. “I could feel those bones in my hands,” Galloway says.

Tim O’Brien, the author and Vietnam veteran, is also a repeated interview subject in the documentary, and it’s fitting: The film shares an aesthetic sensibility with O’Brien’s several books about the war. O’Brien—in The Things They Carried most especially—is interested in the human details, in the tiny spaces that bend and stretch, serenely and grotesquely, into “history.” They carried their boots. They carried their cigarettes. They carried their memories. They carried the hope that the bullet would miss its target one more—just please God one more—time. The Vietnam War closes with a cinematic visit to Maya Lin’s memorial, in Washington, D.C.: black marble, smooth save for the names of the dead carved into its side, stretching into the distance. You can’t see it all at once; this is the point. But the point, also, is this: Lin’s monument is most striking not as a visual symbol, but as a visceral one. It is meant to be touched. It is designed for the placing of hands, the tracing of fingers. It, too, is meant to be a thing that is carried.  

The Vietnam War, as it happened, though several years in the making, first aired in the U.S. during a time when history and its meaning were—are—very much on the minds of Americans: Its first episode premiered on September 17, just a month after white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. This documentary arrived during a time, in other words, when Americans are rightly thinking not just about history itself—the way it insinuates itself on the lives of the present day—but also about the ways history should be made to live and breathe. Museums. Statues. Memory. Context. Warning. Wisdom. Shame. How should we think about all those things—how should we remember in a way that is meaningful, a way that is wise? How can we ensure that “never forget” is not merely a cliche, but a moral imperative?

One answer: Embrace the pain. Accept queasiness as one of the costs of empathy as it extends across the ages. “Even now, as I write this,” Tim O’Brien wrote of the war, “I can still feel that tightness. And I want you to feel it—the wind coming off the river, the waves, the silence, the wooded frontier. You’re at the bow of a boat on the Rainy River. You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared, and there’s a hard squeezing pressure in your chest.”

I want you to feel it. The wind, the waves, the silence, the terror. In Cần Thơ, despite all the years that have passed since the war, officially, ended—all the children who have been born, all the buildings that have been razed and built again, all the wild mangroves and fruit orchards that have been made green and lush once more—the war’s pain aches, still, like a phantom limb, and this is its own form of tribute. This, too, is a mechanism of memory. It hurt. It hurts. It will never stop hurting. In Huu Tiep Lake, a small body of water in the heart of residential Hanoi, there sits the wreckage of a B-52 that was shot down on that spot in 1972. It was never removed. Instead, the plane’s torn metal sits there, among the fruit sellers and afternoon-strollers and, occasionally, the family of ducks that calls the lake home—an improvised but permanent memorial to the history that lives, still, among us.

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