Ken Burns views the Vietnam War as a virus that infected Americans with alienation, a lack of civil discourse, mistrust of government and each other. And he hopes his new documentary can be part of a cure.

“What if the film was just an attempt at some sort of vaccination, a little bit more of the disease to get you immune to the disunion that it has sponsored?” Burns said in a recent interview. “It’s important for us to begin to have creative but courageous conversations about what took place.”

Burns and co-director Lynn Novick had just finished work on their World War II documentary a decade ago when he turned to her and said, “We have to do Vietnam.” The result is their 10-part, 18-hour series that will begin Sept. 17 on PBS.

“For me, it was the sense that Vietnam was the most important event for Americans in the second half of the 20th century, yet we had done almost everything we could … to avoid understanding it,” Burns said. “As horrible as they are, wars are incredibly valuable moments to study, and I thought what Vietnam lacked was a willingness to engage in that.”

The film brings together the latest scholarly research on the war and features nearly 80 interviews, including Americans who fought in the war and those who opposed it, Vietnamese civilians and soldiers from both sides. Burns and Novick have been showing excerpts around the country in recent months, including at Dartmouth College.

“I think this will be for a general American audience a kind of revelation, a cascade of new facts and new figures, and I don’t mean numeral figures, but biographical figures that will stagger their view of what was, and hopefully get everybody, regardless of political perspective to let go of the baggage of the superficial and the conventional,” Burns said.

Having been blamed for the war itself, many soldiers were understandably reluctant to share their stories, the co-directors said. But Burns said there was one challenge he didn’t face this time.

“One of the great tasks for us … was how to cut through all the nostalgia and sentimentality that had attached itself to the Civil War and World War II,” he said. “There’s no such problem with Vietnam.”

After watching the Dartmouth preview, U.S. Army veteran David Hagerman said he can’t wait to watch the series.

“It was powerful,” said Hagerman, who spent his nine months in Vietnam running a treatment center for soldiers addicted to heroin. He said coming home in 1972 was traumatic.

Arriving at the airport, “the reception I received was so negative and so powerful that I walked into the nearest men’s room, took my uniform off, threw it in the trash, and put on a T-shirt and a pair of pants.”

Burns acknowledges that many of the themes are uncannily relevant to the present.

“If I backed up this conversation and said, ‘OK, I’ve spent the last year working a film about a White House in disarray obsessed with leaks, about huge document drops into the public of classified information … about a deeply polarized country, about a political campaign accused of reaching out to a foreign power during an election, about mass demonstrations across the country,’ you’d say, ‘Gee, Ken, you stopped doing history, you’re doing the present moment,’ ” he said.