A Vietnam Veteran’s View of Burn’s and Novick’s “The Vietnam War”
By Mark Fleming, an activist with Veterans For Peace, chapter #109, Olympia WA
Early into the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS documentary The Vietnam War, my reaction was “if only…” If only the United States had recognized that Ho Chi Minh led a genuine independence movement based on the same ideals that drove America’s own war for independence. If only US leaders had seen the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu as a warning of Vietnamese determination. If only President Kennedy had the political courage to follow the advice of military and civilian advisors who understood that America could not defeat Vietnamese resistance and who recommended reducing the US commitment to an anti-Communist war, that had little or no support among the Vietnamese people.
The Vietnam War lays out the early history of America’s involvement in Vietnam well. The documentary also speaks about Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary violence, juxtaposing it with stated reasons for US intervention, including Cold War politics and posturing, protecting persecuted Catholics, keeping “a domino from falling”, and plain old, American good will. Once past these implied equivalents, Burns/Novick never look back to the war’s historical antecedents.
The remaining episodes present the details of the war—what happened, when things happened, who said what, and what was it like for a variety of individuals—but those episodes rarely recognize the flaws which were a major contributor to US failure in Vietnam. I did not see any explicit recognition that fighting to defend their country against a foreign invader strengthened Vietnamese resistance and enabled the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and National Liberation Front (NLF) to perform mind-boggling feats of logistics and effective military operations against its far more powerful foe. Instead, it offers the gloss of a “well-intentioned effort” “by decent people acting in good faith” that became a “tragedy”.
What the documentary does show is that the US made no progress against the NLF in the early years and did not know what to do against such determined resistance. One enduring image in the film is the big reel-to-reel tape recorder playing Lyndon Johnson’s bewilderment and frustration about the war and options that ranged from bad to worse. The only available option anyone could come up with was escalating the violence, including more combat troops, “free-fire zones”, massive artillery and aerial bombardment, and assassination programs such as Operation Speedy Express and the Phoenix Program.
About halfway through the series I began to think that its purpose was to anesthetize the viewer to the whole affair or maybe just blow us away with a fire hose of information. By this time the viewer had seen hours of battles, bombs dropping from aircraft, and heard from many of the participants—the many individual tiles that make up the mosaic of this story. All of this is compelling cinematography but leaves the viewer with little or no analytical context. Ken Burns has said that there is no single truth about the Vietnam War; he leaves that to the viewer. But it is difficult for me to escape the fact that my country fought against Vietnamese independence. Knowing that, I cannot escape the truth that America (and I) fought on the wrong side of history in Vietnam. Everything else is interesting but beside point.
By the time the documentary reaches 1968, the deadliest year of the war for US soldiers, I was struck by the fact that it was taking place 14 years after the Vietnamese won their first war of independence against the French. Once again, I kept thinking “if only…” and “what if…”. Fourteen years after defeating the French colonists, the Vietnamese were still fighting for their independence against a foreign power. My takeaway is that my country added another decade and a half (in 1968) violence and destruction in Vietnam. As we all know, the final toll was 20 years of violence and destruction. Violence may well have followed Ho Chi Minh’s likely electoral victory in 1956 but it would not have continued for two decades, killed millions, poisoned much of southern Vietnam and spread into Cambodia and Laos. If I knew less about the war and its history, I would have difficulty remembering what little of the war’s antecedents were presented in the film’s early episodes.
Like the war itself, the later episodes of The Vietnam War felt to me like an uncomfortable, tedious, and disturbing presence. It just seemed to go on and on, becoming unbelievably worse and worse. The documentary also shows Richard Nixon for the liar and scoundrel that he was. Certainly nothing new there but hearing him straight out lie to Lyndon Johnson about torpedoing the 1968 Paris peace talks should forever enshrine Nixon in the pantheon of American traitors.
The most disappointing aspect of the documentary is its presentation of the anti-war movement in the US. Images of rowdy, violent demonstrators are contrasted with GI’s desperately battling NVA and NLF forces. When not demonstrating, long-haired youth are shown enjoying their freedom during the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco and a few years later at Woodstock. The documentary respectfully but superficially presents the anti-war veterans’ march on Washington in 1971 but other anti-war demonstrators come across as privileged, self-centered and out-of-touch with America. Perhaps the most egregious distortion in The Vietnam War revives the myth of anti-war hostility toward returning soldiers and veterans. Although those stories were debunked in Jerry Lembcke’s The Spitting Image, the myth remains well-established in America’s memory.
The documentary concludes with scenes of Americans coming together at the Vietnam Memorial with the idea that perhaps, somehow, we can resolve our differences about the war and come to some final reconciliation. I found the scene of newscaster David Brinkley standing in a field of tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery more compelling. His statement that perhaps future presidents considering war as an option would come to this place and remember Vietnam. When I thought of Iraq and Afghanistan I wanted to scream at the screen. Vietnam’s most important lesson seems long forgotten in the 21st century.
The Vietnam War is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to know the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. It’s greatest strength is that it offers much information about the war that may not be common knowledge among Americans and allows viewers to come to their own conclusions. The Vietnam War, however is not neutral. It offers its own conclusions that easily fit within the canon of American Exceptionalism and shields the war’s lies, distortions and deceptions behind the bravery and determination of the soldiers sent to fight the war as if to suggest that such bravery and determination could not have been wasted in a fruitless effort. With that overarching message, it is easy to understand how the United States has continued to live up to Martin Luther King’s 1967 description of the US as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”