What’s Goin’ On? Some Reflections, Personal And Political, On The Burns/Novick Documentary On America’s War In Vietnam

09/24/2017 12:19 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2017

I started posting blogs on the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, "Vietnam War" last Sunday. These are just the ruminations of a veteran – yes I was in the military during Vietnam, as an anti-war organizer and then AWOL resister; but more importantly I am a veteran of the anti-war movement, those who fought on the right side. There are many excellent analyses and critiques out there, and I’m glad to see them. Mine are a little more rambly but I try to open up some serious questions.

Episode one: (“Déjà Vu” - 1858-1961)

This documentary series (10 videos, 18 hours) is frustrating as expected. Fascinating because they have hella good archival footage. A little Trumpian in its "analysis" -- there were terrible deeds done by both sides (you know, the Nazis and protesters in Charlottesville). Yes, the invaders and the resistance both did terrible things.

And of course, the absolute innocence he ascribes to the Americans. Gee, we were so naive, we were so well-meaning, we went 7,500 miles across the ocean with the most advanced bombs, munitions, and guns because, gee, we thought we'd help out. How about documentary film-making skill? Two big fails in episode one.

· Who ever had the idea that it would be cool to run a bunch of footage backwards in the opening section to show, you know, that gosh it would be great to turn back the hands of time. This is a move that you might see in a high school video project, a move that a good teacher would probably suggest was just silly.

· And while they recounted the long history of French colonialism, Japanese invasion, and Viet Minh resistance, did they really have to cut in commentary and footage of the war in the late 1960's? Is our attention span too short to watch the historical part? And, Karl Marlantes . . . really? Oops, I only said two. So I’ll stop there.

Episode two (Riding the Tiger, 1961-63):

My first thought: Yes, please do watch this series; it is totally worth watching it. I don’t know why so many people on FB declare their criticism of a piece by saying they won’t watch something. Check it out, especially if you are younger than 70. There is much for you to learn. And there is plenty to criticize. For this episode, I watched on line so I could include “explicit language.”

Great music. #2 starts with “So What?” by Miles Davis

The whole series is suffused with a feeling of white innocence, white privilege not only in the framing of the story but just in the way the script is written. It is really a missed opportunity. It was a white man’s war fought by thousands of Black and Brown conscripts against Asian peasants. And yes many white youth were drafted too, which proved fatal to the war plan – too many were getting beaten down. But all of these brutal realities are softened. So many white talking heads in the interviews. Even the guy who describes the power of the Black freedom movement in the early 60’s – it’s a white guy.

They now frame Le Duan as the bad guy, the counter to a more avuncular Uncle Ho. Perhaps in time Ho Chi Minh will be defanged in American mythology the way they tried to turn Martin Luther King into a harmless man with a dream – instead of the revolutionary activist he was. As for Le Duan, read his work.

The key to the US defeat was of course people’s war – a combination of broad organizing and guerrilla resistance. This approach has been used to eject invaders since forever (viz. American revolution). The invader is dogged day and night, small ambushes, hit-and-run. They find themselves walled up in safe fortifications, unable to move. The US and its Saigon allies responded with “search and destroy” missions which were utter failures. Then they implemented “Strategic Hamlets” (villages caged in by barbed wire) Burns/Novick describe as ineffective but not what they really were: prison camps. The British tried this first, in Malaya, always to rob the guerrillas of their base, to dry up the sea that the fish swim in. But it is a genocidal, hateful policy that is self-defeating as it creates more enemies.

The story of Ap Bac is itself reason to watch Episode 2. This 1963 battle was a moment when the National Liberation Front (NLF) forces switched tactics, fighting a pitched battle at a location and time of their own choosing. It was a defeat for the Americans and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and it’s something to understand. Quite a bit of footage brings you close to this moment – including yes interviews with NLF cadre.

Another typical theme of the western point of view is emerging: the incompetence of our puppet forces. Those darn ARVN troops, they wouldn’t fight. They were cowardly, corrupt. This is such a racist perspective. “What’s wrong with them?” lament the invading Germans about the Vichy French (collaborationist) forces. “They don’t fight well, even when we tell them where to attack.” It’s an old story. Those darn Iraqi army forces, those darn Afghans. We send advisers, trainers. They just don’t know how to fight. They are corrupt. Why do the enemy, those who reject the blessings we are bringing to them, fight so well, so heroically? You will find ARVN-blaming throughout this series. So that’s the formula: well-intentioned Americans (“we had to kill the Vietnamese to save them”), cunning evil guerrillas, and corrupt, incompetent friends of the Americans. Expect to hear that version for the next 8 episodes.

Episode three (The River Styx: January 1964 – December 1965):

Again some pretty good music Bob Dylan – “God on our side,” Phil Ochs, Rolling Stones.

This episode goes into the relentless escalation of US attacks, including destruction of villages, crops and foliage in the South, horrible “Rolling Thunder” bombing in the North. And each attack only pushes more people in the south to join the resistance and more in the north to head south to confront the Americans.

It gives pretty good account of the “Gulf of Tonkin” incident, a faked confrontation where the US claimed its destroyers off North Vietnam were attacked (they weren’t) – which became the excuse for congressional approval of an open-ended air war. We get a small sense of William Westmoreland the general overseeing the US military and (General) Maxwell Taylor, the US ambassador. They oversaw eight coups in the South Vietnamese government in 1964, trying to find the right puppet to support the US war aims.

While I have heard the complaint that the documentary is too “American-centric,” I was surprised at how many Vietnamese discussants there were, including those from North Vietnam and the NLF. It is still galling to hear the narrative describe US aggression as reluctant, innocent, and of course with the best of intentions. The “innocence” narrative runs through the whole series. But no, the Americans were not innocent. It took strong and diabolical commitment to keep the war going and to escalate the killing. The shots of the president’s cabinet meetings, a bunch of white men including LBJ, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, John McCone – a real rogue’s gallery, and the ones who should have been put on trial.

While small guerrilla actions were the bulk of the resistance, the documentary gives a pretty good account of the battles at Binh Gia (December, 1964) and Pleiku. The suffering, the slaughter of human life, is heartbreaking, especially when intercut with those shots of Johnson’s war cabinet.

A few other points:

· It shows the first combat marines landing in Vietnam. Incredibly, they lined up LST (tank landing ships) from World War II to storm the beaches at Da Nang, where there was no resistance. This is perfect optics to point out how the US military is always fighting the last war.

· We are reminded what it meant to have a free (at least freer) press in the US. While the New York Times, United Press, CBS, et al were cheerleaders for the war for a long time, they at least sent reporters to do independent observation. Morley Safer’s television reports of Americans burning villages in August of 1965 turned many against the war. People like Joe Galloway of UPI, Gloria Emerson and Neil Sheehan of the New York Times had their eyes opened and insisted on reporting what they saw. The Pentagon since has realized this as a problem for them and vowed to ban reporters from free access to war zones. Now the only reporters allowed are “embedded” (in bed) with US units and only show the American POV.

· Personal note: The documentary shows the first teach-in (taking its name from the sit-ins in the south) at University of Michigan in 1965. I was there, a college freshman slowly budding radical, about to join SDS. I remember after a talk by SDS president Carl Oglesby I was standing near him. A young woman came up and asked: “So how do we get out of Vietnam? Bring in the UN? Negotiate.” He responded: “It’s easy, easy as falling off a skyscraper.” The bluntness and simplicity appealed to me. Later that year, the Marine recruiter set up a table in the Fishbowl, a crossing point between classes. A small group put a sign behind the table saying, “War criminals.” This caused an uproar and the fishbowl was filled with people arguing, a great political education. The protest group was the “Committee to Support the NLF,” led by Stan Nadel. That was quite a radical and far-out position for students to take. I was learning more and more about Vietnam.

· Personal note 2: In one part of the documentary, you see a group of GIs about to go into combat, singing lustily, “Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die.” I myself was drafted and ended up going into the army as an outspoken anti-war GI. I remember well these morbid and brutalizing songs and cadences. Some were foul-mouthed and racist – designed to turn regular civilians into killers. Some were just sad or scared, like this: “Vietnam, Vietnam. Late at night when you’re sleepin’, Charlie Cong comes a-creepin’ around, in Vietnam.”

· This episode has a long, gruesome account of the battle in November 1965 in the Ia Drang valley as well as the attack on the helicopter base at An Khe. Note that the US forces have all the air power, from fighter bombers to B-52s, all the large artillery. There’s a concept in martial arts called “hugging the belt,” where you get close enough to your opponent that they can’t get the full power of a swing into you. The NLF and NVA used hugging the belt in battles like this. They had to get right up on the Americans and ARVN, like 30-40 meters away, so the US air strikes would not hit them.

As an aside: note that Trumps national security adviser (war adviser) H.R. McMaster has garnered a reputation as some kind of pentagon intellectual, since he wrote a book on Vietnam, supposedly unpacking why the US lost, and how they could have won. I read the book. Not too bright a light; no particular insights. His big idea is that if the generals had not been held back by the civilian officials, had been allowed to go all in for “victory,” they could have won. The only problem is that everything the generals wanted, from naval actions to B-52 carpet bombing to destruction of the countryside – all of that was actually done and failed miserably. They did not drop nukes, I guess, so that may be McMaster’s unspoken proposal.

About to watch episode 4 tonight.

Episode four (Resolve: January 1966 – June 1967):

This episode of the series gets really ugly. By 1966 it was clear that the NLF had the loyalty of three fourths of the south. With support from northern troops, they had the initiative everywhere. One thing Burns/Novick do not discuss is the language differences between north and south – they have deeply different accents and ways of speaking. This could make an infiltrated northerner easy to pick out in the south. However, many thousands of people from the south had moved north during the Geneva division of the country; and many northerners (many of them Catholic) had moved south. So someone with a north accent may in fact be an anti-communist migrant; and southern cadre who had moved north could then return and blend in.

A few more points that stood out:

· While the Johnson administration tried to keep everything secret, Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas began hearings on Vietnam, bringing the very debate that LBJ feared into the public; people like Fulbright and Wayne Morse of Oregon showed a ton more backbone than any senators we see today.

· During this period, the South Vietnamese government was led by two generals, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky. A few other countries contributed soldiers to the “international” effort – Australia, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea (ROK – South Korea). The ROK troops were known to be particularly brutal in killing Vietnamese civilians.

· This episode shows the US trying to find a metric, a way to measure success. Since there was no front, no territory to win or lose, they settled on body count. It was a war of attrition and the US hoped that they could kill more “enemy” than could be replaced. In order to boost body counts, US troops slaughtered civilians and counted them as “enemy dead.” They created 3 million refugees, one fifth of the population. I hope this series digs in to the horrors created by the Tiger Force, I hope they interview Nick Turse on the truths he uncovered (in his book, Kill Anything that Moves) when he found the records of US war crimes investigations in the National Archives (they documented hundreds of such crimes, none were prosecuted).

· Finally they are showing some of the Black opposition to the war, led by SNCC and Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, and finally Dr. King. His memorable speech denouncing the war came exactly one year before he was assassinated. They also show a glimpse of the University of Chicago strike (it happens I was there too, filing a report for the Michigan Daily, which was done by reading my story over the phone to someone typing at the other end).

· Burns/Novick make a major effort to paint the US soldiers as hapless, good-hearted. One pathetic scene shows GIs handing out candy to kids (the classic gesture of colonialist patronizing) while a voice-over suggests that our boys were really nice to the little people they encountered. Ugh. But read between the lines and there is another, harsher story: so many troops (especially those who joined up, who came out of West Point, who were itching for war) began with fantasies of conquest and glory. Many of the individual stories show young recruits eager for war. This is hard to say but losing might have been the best thing for their souls. A winning imperialist army is all raping, pillaging, slaughtering. When the Vietnamese put a whuppin’ on us, we began to think about humanity, the meaning of life, and why the hell our leaders were sending us there. Yes, a losing army is more humane.

· What was good-hearted in American soldiers was the massive resistance that GI’s put up when they got back, the VVAW (Vietnam Vets against the War). This was not just “poor me” politics but a cleansing admission of guilt, a confession of the horrors and war crimes the US was committing. The Winter Soldier hearings were the most bruising exposes of the war ever seen. The myth created by the war-makers was that the mean old anti-war movement hated the troops, spat on them coming home (Jerry Lembcke wrote a book, Spitting Image, exposing this as a lie). The truth is that the GIs were key to the US giving up: not only did they protest when back home but they flat-out refused to fight. Sent out on patrols, they hunkered down a few hundred yards out and then came back. Generals and politicians can’t fight wars of the working class won’t fight.

Again, I repeat that I believe everyone should watch this important series. You can criticize it (I criticize it) but there it is, a treasure trove of footage, and you learn plenty while you also have to keep a critical eye. I think we would have come out of this war much healthier if we had prosecuted ground level war crimes and sent major generals and politicians to The Hague to be tried before the International Court of Justice. Failing that, we can only wish America would take an honest look at this war instead of producing an extended apologia. As my friend Peter points out, the old saying is that “history is written by the winners.” But in this case it is being written by the losers. So keep your eyes open.

Episode five (This is what we do – July 1967-December 1967):

By this episode, the series becomes a grind – which is not a surprise because the relentless grind of the war is reflected on the screen. Some things came as a shock. By mid-1967 15,000 Americans had died. The sentiment against the war was high, becoming the majority. Senate hearings and the media were exposing the lies. And even the top policymakers realized that they couldn’t win. But then you realize that 43,000, forty-three thousand!, more GI’s are going to die before the US limps out. Almost 3 times as many as those already slaughtered. And millions, literally millions, of Vietnamese and Southeast Asians.

As usual, the documentary goes pretty soft then it should be telling a sharp, critical story. They mention major Black uprisings in US cities – Detroit and Newark in 1967 – but just in passing. They actually do mention the Tiger Force – utterly genocidal killing teams – but only as a kind of aberration, not a reflection of the core mission.

The footage in 1967 shows a series of military actions which were disastrous for US troops. There were heart-rending stories of individual soldiers – pinned down, walking into traps, wounded and bleeding. A horror show. Burns in this episode features footage of US prisoners of war, including John McCain who was shot down on a bombing run over Hanoi, parachuting into Truc Bach lake. He certainly looks unhappy after his capture. If he had not been shot down, of course, he would be swaggering around his air base, bragging about how many “gooks, slopes, and dinks” he “smoked.”

As bad as I feel for these GIs, and I’ve worked with plenty of GIs and veterans, I can’t help but come back to the question of individual responsibility, the fact that you must own the moral choices you make. I understand that once you’re in a war zone, there is all kinds of shit you might do just to survive. But ultimately in this short time you have on earth, you have to decide what is your bottom line. So yes blame the big brass upstairs. But everyone is responsible for their actions. That’s the Nuremburg principle and any moral system ever devised. I’m kinda alone in this position. Most of my lefty friends say, “blame the politicians and generals, not the privates.” To me that is patronizing, denies agency and moral dignity to poor people. We spend a lot of time talking about poor vets, poor guys (and women). But let’s remember the people on the “other side” who have PTSD and also no house left, killed relatives, after our “service” over there. The veterans of Vietnam war did something much more radical: they fessed up, described war crimes, and demanded an end to the war. To me, the vet-victim narrative plays into a militaristic foreign policy.

While I’m pissing people off, let me suggest another thought experiment. Imagine if Ken Burns were German and making a documentary about World War II. You know where I’m going with this. Imagine how he would soft-pedal the fundamental criminality of the invasions. He could tell moving stories of young men who joined the Wehrmacht with dreams of glory on the battlefield, with the desire to be heroes. Then they found themselves tied down in the Russian winter, hungry, under attack from all sides. He would point out what a tragedy it was. He would show bad things the Russians, the French resistance, and others did. He would mention the concentration camps and gas chambers but those were of course an excess, a bad thing, but most soldiers were honorable. This would be ridiculous, right? The genocidal war must be named. Of course there are differences between US action and German, but only of degree. You decide where to draw the line. The honorable thing the Germans did after World War II was a deep cleansing, a complete repudiation of the war aims and ideology. Well, not completely complete as we see today, but so much better than the US response to their defeat, which has been to minimize the crime, complain, and even act the victim.

Burns also works in broader philosophical justification for the horrors that the war brought to Vietnam. He has Marine veteran Karl Marlantes explain that we are by nature killers. Yes, human nature is at fault. The military, he explains, is just a “finishing school” in empowering humans to kill. This Hobbesian nightmare – nature is bloody, tooth and claw – has always been trotted out to explain away atrocities. Again, I can imagine Burns’ imagined documentary about Germany in World War II featuring a grizzled veteran explain that all that killing was, in part, the result of some inborn human nature. Perhaps he would cut to some footage of lions fighting. In fact, there is no “nature” to blame in this. We look around at our world, see violence and competition, and imagine that is inborn. But plenty of societies have lived peacefully, have cooperated lovingly. No, the violence is created by governments and ruling classes – not some invisible force.

The series is hard to watch. Partly because of all the horrible things it shows. Partly because if the irritating Burns/Novick take on these things. But it brings important reminders of what it was to grow up and live during this time of the US war in Vietnam. It was the context, the choking fog, the nightmare that hung over every aspect of life. When I graduated from high school and posed smiling with my family, thousands of people were slaughtered that day; the day I first had sex, thousands of people were killed that day; the day I first enjoyed making love, thousands more were killed. More explosives were dropped on Vietnam than were expended in all of World War II and those bombs echoed back to our lives. The media sells us a light-hearted vision of “the 60s” (the core of the 60s was really from 1965 to 1975), of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. But it was all in the context of this terrible war. There was lots of sex, but it was doomsday sex (“we’re all going to die so let’s jump in bed”).

Not to end on such a downer note. There was also redemption. There was heroism. There was resistance. There were beautiful young soldiers who found the strength not to fight. There were gestures of love across borders. And ultimately, remember, the war machine was brought to its knees. OK, so the series is half over. Take a deep breath for the next nine hours of this documentary.

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