VIEWPOINT: Looking Back at the Vietnam War, the Burns/Novick documentary

VIEWPOINT: Looking Back at the Vietnam War, the Burns/Novick documentary

Veterans for Peace Full Disclosure Campaign

The documentary, The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick has just completed its showing on BBC 4. Discover Society asked Veterans for Peace Full Disclosure for their view on the documentary. They have previously written for us in Issue 21, June 2015, on commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the US war in Vietnam.

We, in Veterans For Peace’s Full Disclosure Campaign for an Honest Commemoration of the American war in Vietnam, looked forward to the Burns/Novick (B/N) 18-hour documentary with some ambivalence.  On the one hand, the documentary would surely revive discussion of the war and bring new people into an important conversation.  On the other, they concluded their Op-ed in the 2017 Memorial Day edition of The New York Times:

But if, with open minds and open hearts, we can consider this complex event from many perspectives and recognize more than one truth, perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.

With the grandiose aim of reconciling deep differences in the Trump era which they trace back to the struggle over the war, they abjure discussion of the meaning of the war, seeking refuge in a banal attempt at national reconciliation based on respect for the courage and patriotism of both those who carried out the war and those who opposed it.

In the event, the documentary led to complicated responses, not exactly what we’d expected and also not yielding much reconciliation.   This was neither a Pentagon history nor an antiwar one. Emotionally its heart lies with the US soldiers.  Their betrayal by duplicitous politicians and heedless military leaders emerges as the war’s most tragic outcome.  As historian Christian Appy pointed out in his blog,  “American soldiers, veterans, and their families get the first and last word of almost every episode and are granted the lion’s share of moral and political authority by a host of editorial decisions.”  In idealizing American GIs, B/N seem unable to distinguish youthful idealism from fantasy or macho.

While the cost to the Vietnamese of the war is duly noted: “After thirty years of war, much of Vietnam lay in ruins. Three million people were thought to have died, north and south,” the passive construction deflects responsibility from the Americans for the vast majority of the destruction.  This is one example of the plethora of false equivalences between US aggression and Vietnamese resistance.  that plague the documentary.

B/N’s initial framing that the war “”was begun in good faith by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation” exposes the limitations of their perspective, but is soon enough undermined by their own documentation of the consistent duplicity of American leaders from the Presidents on down.  It is also clear that there were multiple opportunities to avoid conflict:

1. In 1919 with Ho Chi Minh’s appeal to US President Woodrow Wilson to extend his call for self-determination to peoples outside Europe.

2. In 1945 and 1946 when President Truman ignored appeals from Ho Chi Minh as well as members of the US World War II agency Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and others -who had worked with Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh against the Japanese—to support Vietnamese independence from France.  Instead the US opted to support and egg on French attempts to restore its Southeast Asian empire.

3. In 1954 and 1956 when President Eisenhower and Secretary John Foster Dulles undermined the Geneva Peace Accords and prevented nationwide elections in 1956 (the US role in this is downplayed in B/N).

4. In 1960 and 1964, when the US, ignoring the longstanding resistance of the Vietnamese to Chinese domination, decided to escalate US involvement.  B/N are forthright that the President Lyndon Johnson used events in the Bay of Tonkin as an excuse for the US to go to open war, with LBJ having ordered advisor William Bundy to draw up a Congressional resolution even before the events inTonkin Bay.

5. In 1969 after Richard Nixon ran as a “peace candidate”; instead of acknowledging American defeat, Nixon and advisor Henry Kissinger extend direct American involvement with the strategy of Vietnamization–US air power in support of South Vietnamese ground troops—in a vain attempt to achieve a cynical “peace with honor”.

B/N accept the Cold War framing of the conflict.  To quote Appy once more:

The historical framing of the subject as a Cold War struggle in which the United States, acting on behalf of the “Free World,” intervened in a civil war to contain the spread of communism.

While that lens helps us understand the official American justification for war, it does not adequately explain the war itself, the Vietnamese experience, or the reason for U.S. defeat (a word the film’s narration avoids, preferring “failure” or “tragedy” instead). In the eyes of the Vietnamese victors—as for hundreds of millions of people around the world who sought to free themselves from colonial domination in the aftermath of World War II—the United States was not defending freedom and self-determination in Southeast Asia, but was waging an imperialist war of counterrevolution. The communist-led forces in North and South Vietnam did not think they were engaging in a civil war, but in a war of national liberation to achieve reunification and independence.

The key symbolic map did not feature a red tide of communism spreading over Asia and Africa, but showed instead all the new nations recently liberated from colonial rule: India, Kenya, Senegal, Algeria, Ghana, and dozens of others. For them, the Americans were simply a new version of the old colonialists, or neocolonialists, who would seek to impose their authority by proxy.

The Cold War framing allows for the sanitization of US motives despite the horror to come and facilitates the focus on the courage and patriotism of US soldiers in battle (though only 10-20% of American soldiers actually engaged in combat).  Again Appy:

Greater attention to the gigantic American bases in rear areas would have graphically illustrated the imperial scale of the U.S presence in Vietnam. By the late 1960s, the largest bases featured swimming pools, clubs, American TV shows, Vietnamese women who served as “hootch maids,” and PXs stocked with everything from the latest stereo equipment to perfume.

For B/N the war was a tragedy, but exactly why isn’t entirely clear.  Using their “multiple truths” as a dodge on making any moral judgments, they do not distinguish between fundamentally different critiques of the war:

(a) The war was morally wrong, an unjust invasion, a colonial or neocolonial war, a racist war heedless of civilian Vietnamese casualties (a view beyond the pale for B/N).

(b) It was misguided in its misunderstanding of the world and the situation in Vietnam (perhaps the actual view of Burns & Novick) and thus begun ‘in good faith’.

(c) It was fought wrongly or stupidly (the view of many of the American interviewees), so its lesson is how better to fight the next American war.

The few representatives of a civilian antiwar perspective aren’t allowed to speak with any passion about the war’s immorality.  Martin Luther King’s opposition to the war is sanitized; these words don’t appear:  “The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions.” Or “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.” (April 4, 1967: “Beyond Vietnam”)  In fact, the main representative of that perspective in the documentary claims without substantiation that in 1966, “the antiwar movement shifted from a moral movement to a self-interest movement driven by people who didn’t want to go to war.”  In general B/N exhibit little interest in the unprecedented antiwar movement’s dynamics, except in its supposed hostility to American GIs.   How such a movement gained traction; what were the arguments over demands, strategy or tactics; none of these questions interest B/N.

Because B/N’s goal is to rehabilitate and honor the American GI, they have trouble dealing with anything that might undercut that goal.  We know from testimony of both Vietnamese victims and American GIs that atrocities (from mass rapes to massacres of civilians) happened on a grand scale even if most soldiers did not participate. Though B/N acknowledge the criminality at My Lai, they tell us that such massacres were “not policy or routine, but not aberrations either.”  The criteria for success for the US military was measured by ‘body counts’, and the rules of engagement called or ‘free fire zones’, the dropping of more bombing tonnage than during World War II, the widespread use of napalm, fragmentation bombs, and Agent Orange.

How is that not policy?  It would have taken some courage to try to honestly tackle the conflicted role of the American soldier or how the antiwar movement might oppose a war while maintaining sympathy for its direct perpetrators (however manipulated or brainwashed), but the narrative is too interested in overturning the supposed popular view that all soldiers were ‘baby killers’ and too afraid to alienate an American audience to go there.

In a world teeming with armed conflict, B/N’s valorization of the American warrior is too much in synch with the current sacralization of the US military.  We have an executive branch teeming with military men, sports and culture permeated with military imagery, and a delimited political conversation where the White House press secretary blandly asserts “if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.’   One of the deepest flaws of the documentary is how, rather than pushing back against this militaristic idolatry, B/N add their own spin to the adoration of the military.

 

The Full Disclosure Campaign is a Veterans For Peace effort to speak truth to power and keep alive the antiwar perspective on the American war in Viet Nam. It represents a clear alternative to the Pentagon’s current efforts to sanitize and mythologize the Vietnam war and to thereby legitimize further unnecessary and destructive wars. Further discussion of the Burns/ Novick documentary can be found here

The Full Disclosure Campaign for an Honest Commemoration of the American War in Vietnam just posted the 2018 Commemorative Calendar of 1968 Vietnam-related events. The calendar provides lots of events worth commemorating this year.  It is also a fundraiser.  We are asking for donations of at least $5 for each download. Here’s the link.

2 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    December 06, 2017

    This is the exactly right review of this American-focused documentary. The problems start with the titling of the series ‘The Vietnam War’. From the perspective of the people in Vietnam who experienced it, it was the American War. Travelling from north to south in the country some 30 years ago I noted how there few, if any, American efforts in reparation. In the town of Hue, for example, what has previously been a religious centre, most of the reconstruction had been undertaken with French support. And of course the legacy today in the country is of the millions of gallons of defoliants poured over the forests of the country. https://edgeofhumanity.com/2017/01/11/agentorange/

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  2. Avatar
    December 11, 2017

    Yes the critique and Geof’s comments are spot on. This small peasant nation did defeat the world’s super power. The defoliant akas 245T /Agent Orange was known to be both an ecodicide and teratogenic and was opposed as such. In a bombing pause I visited Hanoi, organising a survey of refugees to explore its impact. In my naivety I never thought that the some would have been under the sprays as many as nine times. Our respondents reported malformed newborn babies and animals and the complete destruction of their crops. So while the Air Force flew under their banner of “Only we can destroy the forests” they committed both eco and genocide, but the US ground troops were also affected and they too fathered babies with severe malformations.

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