#6 – Minor commentary on Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, "Vietnam War." Episode six (Things Fall Apart — January 1968 - July 1968):
So now the documentary series Vietnam War comes to the turning point, 1968, and Burns/Novick reach a new level of advocacy and propaganda. They might have positioned themselves as kind of bumbling seekers, good-hearted, who only want to see all sides of the story, up until now. But since 1968 is when the US truly lost the war, we see Burns/Novick intervene with a much more strident analysis, and it’s a tired old one.
Let me say that I backed into writing this project of short blog responses to the documentary, starting with the first episode and then realizing that I wanted to say something each time. I will say that there are much better analyses out there, a flood of good writing that unpacks and explains the flaws in the Burns/Novick project much better than I do. As the days go along, I’m figuring out what these blogs are: more of a personal response, a reflection, as well as a reminiscence, since Vietnam was the defining struggle of my generation and my life. I encourage you to read some of this other excellent criticism – while putting up with my thoughts and digressions.
1968 was a year of revolution – not only in Vietnam but in the streets of America and around the world. It was the year that the Civil Rights Movement blossomed into the Black Power Movement, when SNCC and the Black Panthers declared that they did not want into the imperial system, they wanted liberation from it; they were not a minority asking for rights, they were part of a world-wide majority fighting for freedom. Students took over universities – the film’s brief description of the Columbia strike shows only white students, ignoring the Black student leadership and their occupation of Hamilton Hall. Martin Luther King was gunned down and cities erupted across the country – often put down by the very military units that were otherwise fighting in Vietnam. France experienced a major uprising, the likes of which had not been seen since the Paris Commune; Germany, England, other European countries were in flames. And Third World liberation movements were challenging US-backed dictatorships throughout Latin America and Africa as well as Asia. Much of the anti-war movement had moved from asking for a compromise in Vietnam to supporting the goals of the NLF, reunification and the withdrawal of foreign troops. Debates on the left were not about electoral politics but about tactics and strategy to challenge power – whether the foco model, the general strike, the mass demonstrations, or some combination would be the best way forward. Lyndon Johnson gave up in his famous April Fools Day speech, declaring that he would not run for a second term in office. Vietnam’s resistance had echoed throughout the world.
And the Tet offensive was, many would say, the turning point not only in Vietnam but in the worldwide resistance to US imperialism. While American military authorities figured on fighting extended conflicts “in the bush” and in isolated bases in the central highlands, the NLF and NVA generated uprisings and attacks throughout the south, in six cities, 36 provincial capitals, at all US air bases, at every ARVN base. They even fought their way into the massive US embassy in Saigon. Moving from guerrilla harassment to all-out assault, they completely caught the US by surprise. Imagine the planning and coordination this required. In places like Saigon and Hue, the mixture of revolutionaries who were living as civilians, infiltrated troops, and full military units had to be in place without anyone giving away the plan. No one. Not one leak. While on the other side, there was not a single US patrol that was not leaked and known to the NLF. In classic guerrilla fashion, information flows away from the occupier and towards the resistance.
The understanding of Tet brings to light the fundamental difference in world view, in military epistemology, between the Vietnamese and the Americans. For the Americans, it was a hands down victory for US forces. After all, they had killed a record number of “Viet Cong” and had retaken every site that came under attack. The pentagon understands war as simply the application of force and violence. The entire military-industrial complex is built with the goal of hurling hot metal into soft bodies of people we wish to dominate. And our metaphorical cultural practices, like football, recreate that same paradigm – large teams of armored humans march up and down the field, taking territory (yardage) from the enemy. And by those measures, the US always dominated.
But “people’s war” is based on something entirely different: they recognize that war is fought on a military level but also three other important legs: psychological, political, and moral. Of these, the political is primary. They Vietnamese never hid this philosophy of conflict. They published their approach regularly. But the Pentagon deep thinkers, blinkered to the world in front of them, thought of the last three legs as only so much fluff, with the military violence being the real show. As victory sifted through their grasp like sand from a fist, they thundered, “But we won! But we won!” The military, and LBJ, were furious that the media was reporting the news; they would move in future years to throttle the media so the public would be more in the dark about US wars.
After Tet, the American people were finished. They realized that the US could never defeat the Vietnamese. The Pentagon had been crushed on the political, moral, and psychological level. They would never admit defeat but the game was up. This is the origin of the complaint, voiced then and repeated in policy circles every since, that the US actually “won” in Vietnam but the weak-kneed politicians and cowardly civilians had sabotaged the effort. Reactionary journalist Norman Podhoretz whined that “a fickle and spineless public, an unpatriotic anti-war movement, and undisciplined soldiers had ashamed the nation by their unwillingness or inability to do what was necessary to destroy North Vietnam.” Basically, the idea was that a military dictatorship, instead of the messiness of democracy, could solve this problem. They forget the mention that their troops were refusing to fight – were deserting in droves before being deployed, were setting up little AWOL communities in neighborhoods such as Cholon in Saigon, were hunkering down when supposed to be on patrol, and were even fragging officers who were too gung ho. Ultimately, wars end when one side says, “enough,” we can’t go on. The determination of the resistance forces doomed the US war efforts.
Here is where Burns/Novick show their hand as propagandists for the war-makers. They repeat the line, now well established in the series, that evil master Le Duan is pulling the strings in North Vietnam. He is set up as the bad guy. And Ho Chi Minh, Uncle Ho, is the hapless figurehead who plays very little role in planning. That is one propaganda fantasy. The other one is that the liberation forces thought they would achieve final victory with Tet. They were deluded into thinking they could overrun everything and defeat the Saigon government, forcing the US to withdraw. This is actually a more sophisticated version of the Pentagon assertion that the commies “lost” the Tet battles. Somehow these resistance forces, who had outsmarted and out maneuvered the US at every turn, had made a massive miscalculation. It’s an insidious argument and apparently meant to salvage some sense of dignity for the US occupation.
But it was clear then, and well known afterwards, that this was a massive uprising precisely to show that there was no safe rear area, there was no chance for the Saigon regime. The assault was meant to give lie to the claims that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, to demoralize the US. It was to strike a blow on the political, psychological, and moral level. And in that light it was 100% successful. Did some in the uprising hope this was the final assault? It may have been true for different individuals or even groups. But there was no way they were on the verge of a final assault in January of 1968 – and they weren’t so stupid as to think differently. They did not have a provisional president in the wings ready to take power in Saigon.
While they took huge losses, ridiculously high losses, the NLF and NVA forces recognized that these sacrifices would be key to turning the tide of the war. And, while we get moving well-framed portraits of the pain experienced by American soldiers, we only get a few glimpses of the suffering and sacrifice on the “other” side. By keeping the VC forces largely faceless and invisible, Burns/Novick perpetuate the myth of the other as stoic and unfeeling, dying without the deep pain and tragic horror that war represents. They continue to be the “other,” worth wasting with little hesitation.
Another ridiculous claim, made over and over, was that the US was dying to get to peace talks but simply couldn’t persuade those stubborn Vietnamese to negotiate. The side flying daily sorties of death over the country were not, believe me, the peace forces. The Vietnamese were ready, any time, to observe a cease fire and talks.
One thing this episode gives a glimpse of, an aspect that is all too often overlooked, is the role of women. In interviews about the Tet offensive especially we finally encounter a number of women guerrillas, one of whom, Nguyen Thi Hoa, was particularly moving in her account of the battle and sacrifices. One of the only western movies that gives a straight-forward (though entirely American-centered) account of the US waging of the war is Full Metal Jacket, a powerful and disturbing story from Stanley Kubrick. It includes the reality of the Hue urban fighting, the disgusting forced sex and prostitution the military initiated, as well as the women fighters of the uprising.
Part of the purpose of the Tet offensive seems to have been the elimination of Saigon regime officials and military personnel. During the brief time the NLF and NVA held these cities, executions were common. This was pretty brutal and remains a critical war crime committed by the “other side.” While these types of crimes are tiny in comparison to US actions, there is no explaining away the wrong done in Hue in 1968, including over 2,000 executed.
As evidence that the Vietnamese forces were not decimated or thrown off course, they mounted major offensives again four months later, at 119 different targets, and the US lost a record number of soldiers, almost 2,500 in one month.
Yet it is sad to say that even after 1968, even after the vast majority of Americans in our supposed democracy wanted out, there would still be 7 more years of US war in Vietnam, 27,000 more US soldiers killed, and a million more Vietnamese deaths.
#7 – Minor commentary on Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, "Vietnam War."
Episode seven (The Veneer of Civilization – June 1968-May 1969):
So now we come to the bloody year of mid 1968 to mid 1969. After Tet. After it was clear the US was defeated. After the vast majority of people, and soldiers, in America were opposed to the war. It’s difficult to just write dispassionately about this period. So I won’t.
Again, mainly as a personal reflection, I record what came up for me and what I learned or remember. Here are a few points:
First, as Mel Packer has pointed out, the American side in the war is super-whitened. The huge number of casualties suffered by African American, Chicano-Latino, Puerto Rican, and other people of color was one of the great scandals of the war. Black and brown resistance not only hampered the war machine but drew the lines clearly between the operations of colonial domination internationally and at home. I kept waiting for a major chapter on this topic but, for Burns/Novick, it is invisible.
There are plenty of white talking heads – one after another. Then we get those Ken Burns back stories on individual stories, that kind of “aw shuck” corn pone beginning, with some sweet middle America music background lifted from his Civil War documentaries. “Little Jimmy was a sweet guy growing up in Grover Corners, Kansas. . .” and you know they are setting it up for him to be killed. After the ninth or tenth such set-up, I wanted to scream, “OK, we get it. Grown up people were children once.” These sweet stories are primarily, mind you, for white guys.
It would have been better if they had talked to someone like Mike Hastie, an Army Medic in Vietnam, who recently wrote: “I have been somewhat hesitant to watch the Burns film, because I am away from my friends and support group back in Portland, Oregon. When I came back from Vietnam, I was eventually hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for PTSD, once in 1980, and in 1994 after I came back from my first return to Vietnam with three close friends who were also Vietnam veterans. One of those friends was involved in the Phoenix Program, where he was personally pulling the trigger on assassinations. Another friend in our group was involved in radio intercept. Halfway through his tour in Vietnam, he realized he was giving B-52 pilots coordinates in the bombing of civilian targets. When he realized he was involved in mass murder, he walked into the orderly room on his base, and told his company commander that his tour in Vietnam was officially over. Well, they threatened him with a court martial, and even a firing squad, but he stuck to his guns, and told them to go fuck themselves. He was eventually sent back to the US as a psychiatric case, and wound up on a psyche ward at Madigan Army Hospital. His war was over, and he spent the next twenty years drinking heavily, and packing a pistol. He was basically suffering from the LIE of the Vietnam War, and the dismantling of his core belief system. . . To this day, he is a person I have the utmost respect for, because he walked into his orderly room in Vietnam, and told people that he could no longer morally commit murder for corporate America. Now, run this voice through the 18-hour Burns documentary on The Vietnam War. This is not complicated, except for people who are still looking for a noble cause for America's involvement in Vietnam. The LIE is the truth of the Vietnam War. That LIE put me in two psychiatric hospitals, and that is why I dearly love my friend, because he validated me to the core.”
On the other hand, stories of the truck drivers and engineers who kept the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” open, delivering supplies to the insurgency in the south, are powerful to see. Many, such as Nguyen Nguyet Anh, were women and their courage and steadfastness was amazing.
Among the white talking heads, two deserve some attention. Tim O’Brien, author of the excellent novel The Things They Carried, describes his decision to go to war instead of heading out for Canada. He almost left Ft. Lewis for Vancouver – where I was working full time welcoming US army deserters through a hostel, legal support, and ongoing organizing. He realized, though, that he would face rejection and gossip from everyone in his home town. He says that it was a failure of nerve, a failure of conscience, that made him reject AWOL and go to Vietnam. In the book he says, starkly, “I was a coward, so I went to Vietnam.” This is in stark contrast to the many accounts that suggest the resisters were cowards and those who fought were heroes. Burns/Novick intone in the voice over, “What should one do when asked to fight in a war in which one did not believe?” but they should have said, “What should one do when asked to fight an unjust and criminal war?”
The other white guy is Karl Marlantes, former Rhodes Scholar, former Marine, and author of the war novel Matterhorn. Marlantes fancies himself a philosopher of war but for all his apparent subtlety, he is really an apologist for war. He was the one in a previous episode who suggests that violence is part of human nature (a bit of pop socio-biology.” Here he describes the experience of war as “transcendent. . . you are no longer a person; you are the platoon.” I mean, what? Oh and he adds that there is a “savage joy in overcoming the enemy.” He also waxes poetic about those great 19-year-old kids who risk their lives again and again, do what they are told, without complaint. Jesus, Karl, can you please? Do some veterans miss combat because it was the most intense experience of their lives? Certainly. It does not follow from this that we should send youth around the world with lethal weapons so they can have this great feeling of comradeship. Perhaps we should make their civilian lives more meaningful and less alienating so they don’t have to enter the charnel house of battle to find meaning in life. Also: how is he still romanticizing the sacrifice of young soldiers. The military was increasingly in rebellion, refusing to fight, and turning on their officers. This is one of the main reasons the war ended. Marlantes glosses this reality over.
When Burns/Novick get to a discussion of the CIA’s Phoenix Program, the distortion machine really kicks into high gear. You realize at this moment why it has taken 50 years for any official US attempt to summarize the war. Telling the truth here would be too crushing, too much of an expose. The program was one of assassination of civilians who were suspected of supporting the National Liberation Front. The net was cast wide, however, and those targeted for elimination included village elders and those falsely accused. The majority, however, were part of the large third force, civilians who were not loyal to the NLF or Saigon, but who sought peace for their villages. Only the most rabid Saigon drum-beaters were safe. Even for those who were pro-NLF, however, a killing program like this is clearly outlawed by international law. Over 20,000 civilians were killed in this program. More than that, many suspected of not being anti-communist enough were tortured at interrogation centers. This torture, carried out by ARVN troops under CIA supervision, included starvation, rape, rape using snakes, pounding sticks in people’s ears, electric shock to the vagina and testicles, waterboarding, suspension in mid air, beatings with whips, and attack by dogs.
In the hands of Burns/Novick, however, the Phoenix Program was a perfectly reasonable attempt to root out the NLF infrastructure. Of course mistakes were made, they aver, and sometimes innocent people were targeted. But that’s it. Nothing else helping the viewer to understand Phoenix and the loss of any moral authority by the Saigon/US forces.
And they have the gall to follow this with an admission that the Saigon economy had become a parasitic, client state kleptocracy, all dependent on US aid money and goods leaked into the black market. They describe the people uprooted from the land and driven into cities, the explosion of prostitution which especially served the US occupation forces. But, they suggest, South Vietnam was so much more free than the austere north. I guess they mean it was more free for gangsters hustling but it was certainly not free for those in the Phoenix interrogation centers.
In the summer of 1968 people were rising up in cities across the US, Vietnam Veterans were more and more leading the anti-war movement. And it was the summer of the Democrat Convention, which was convened to put a blessing on LBJ’s vice president, Hubert Humphry, as the next president. Peace candidates McCarthy and McGovern provided some challenge but the real struggle was in the streets with around 20,000 anti-war demonstrators. Chicago and federal forces called out, according to Burns/Novick, 6,000 army troops, 12,000 Chicago police, 6,000 National Guards as well as agents from the FBI, the CIA, and military intelligence. The results were a bloody police riot, which I need not recount here. In future years, the cops would be more heavily armed, more fiercely trained, and more militarized under support from Nixon’s LEAA (Law Enforcement Assistance Act).
Like most people from my generation, I can see my own story mapping on to the events described (and distorted) in this documentary. As a student in Ann Arbor in October of 1967, unwilling to simply exist with my student deferment, I joined a bunch of Quakers and peace activists in sending my draft card back to my draft board. As a result, I was reclassified 1A and given an induction date. I appealed the reclassification, pleading my opposition to the war. The attorney assigned by the board (to represent me!) declared that I was a Commie and he hoped I would get drafted. Needless to say, I lost my appeal and had an induction date for March 15, 1968. I was afraid to go into the military (afraid I’d be beat up for my politics; sent to the front lines) and afraid to go to prison. So I went to Canada, as a landed immigrant. After living in Toronto for six months (and agonizing as I watched the Democratic Convention with friends but could not be there), I moved with my pal Bruce to Vancouver.
In Vancouver I became involved with local activism, solidarity work, and of course anti-Vietnam war work. I met Melody there, another US exile activist, and we began to focus on support for those who left the military. We ran a free hostel, developed propaganda on desertion to sneak back into US bases, created fake ID for those who did not qualify for immigration status. . .. basically we did our part. We helped hundreds of young men and women, brave and principled soldiers, who had turned against the war. This included members of the Presidio 27 who were charged with mutiny for a sit-down strike.
While I was still frightened of the idea of going into the military, I could now see that the institution was in crisis, was falling apart, and I could do more work by going back, accepting induction, and advancing our anti-war work from within. Even though organizers were still getting targeted and some were kidnapped to Vietnam and put on point, we were willing to take the risk. Melody and I got married – she and I and her daughter Kristin constituted our own little collective in Chicago. I accepted induction, draft dodging charges were dropped, and I went in as an Army private on November 5, 1969. I did basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. And indeed, it turned out that by being outspoken against the war I was not going to get beat up. I was extremely popular – someone who knew how to resist, where to get lawyers or GI anti-war coffee houses. Being a college boy, I figured I would get sent next to clerk school. But no such luck. I was classified 11-Charlie, mortar infantry, and sent to Ft. Polk, LA for Vietnam training in the swamps. I learned so much there, not only about mortars but about America and organizing and human solidarity, but more on that another time. Suffice to say, I completed my training and then went AWOL (I did not plan to be an organizer in Vietnam). I remained AWOL for seven years, with different networks including the Weather Underground. In 1977, I turned myself in at Ft. Dix and, this being just before President Carter declared a blanket amnesty, I was processed out of the brig in a few weeks.
I notice that, as I follow the chronology of the war in this series, the details of the struggles and debates and joys and heartache of my younger years are coming back. But that’s for another time.
#8 – Minor commentary on Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, "Vietnam War."
Episode eight (The History of the World – April 1969-May 1970):
Oh man, I have to say this series is getting to be a grind. They don’t tell the half of what they should be revealing but still the documentar is super long. Also it’s a grind because the grinding pain of the story, as it lurches relentlessly on, is hard to take. But, this is episode 8 so I guess I can see the “light at the end of the tunnel” (it ends Thursday night).
In this episode, I have to admit Burns and Novick went back and picked up some realities I had complained they were leaving out. There is a pretty gruesome explanation of the kinds of tortures committed in South Vietnamese prisons – by ARVN troops under the direction of the CIA. Over 200,000 South Vietnamese civilians where in prison as well as 40,000 captured NLF and NVA fighters. The documentary does not really detail the “tiger cages” prisoners were held in, their starvation diet, the torture – in places like Con Son Island, in prisons built by US war profiteers Brown & Root and Bechtel. Remember those numbers, 240,000 subject to torture, when you read criticisms of reeducation camps for Saigon officers after the war.
They also, finally, finally, brought some focus (though way too little) to Black GIs and the organized resistance they developed. Taking inspiration from the struggle back home, these troops were the unreliable ones, those likely to refuse an order or even to frag an officer.
I have to insert a quick aside which perhaps relates to this Black resistance and anti-colonial solidarity. When I was a teacher, I went to Hanoi with a group of high school students in 2002. I remember sitting in a café with some older gentlemen who had fought with the Viet Minh against the French, including at Dien Bien Phu. The World Cup soccer was on TV and everyone was glued to the action, Senegal against Sweden I think. Between war stories, they really wanted to watch the game. They old veterans spoke French so we could carry on conversation. One remarked, “Ah, the Senegalese, we fought them in the 1950’s.” “Really?” I asked, “were they part of the colonial forces of France?” “Yes,” one gentleman replied. “So do you hope they lose the soccer match?” I asked. “Oh, no,” they both replied, and one added, “the Senegalese were great mountain fighters. We respected them.” And another smiled and added, “Also, many of them deserted to our side. We made a whole Senegalese brigade that fought the French.” And they each took a satisfied sip of their whiskey.
By mid-1969 the US commitment of troops was at its height, with 40,000 dead, 18,000 still to die before the US got out.
Now we begin to see a number of the veterans who have been telling their stories through earlier episodes turn against the war. Nurses such as Joan Furey who helped stage a hunger strike by staff at the hospital at Pleiku; soldiers who came home and joined the anti-war movement. The myth is that the anti-war movement hated the GIs. But the pictures show, again and again, anti-war veterans leading the demonstrations.
Now that Nixon was president, he had to figure out a way to get out while leaving a “decent interval,” as Kissinger described it, before the Saigon regime collapsed. The strategy called for “Vietnamization” – meaning brown bodies, Vietnamese bodies, would be piled up instead of American bodies. Of course this sounds familiar. The colonial wars of this generation, in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan for instance, follow the same pattern: invasion with overwhelming military superiority, a slow chipping away at US forces through guerrilla warfare, a population at home who sees no way out and begins to call for withdrawal, a Pentagon genius who suggests we should win the “hearts and minds” of the people and “protect” them, a surge of new US troops to prepare for the transition to local control, US forces used to “train” the local government so that they can “learn to govern themselves and handle their own security.” The same patronizing attitude towards people who have taken care of themselves for millennia, the same cover for neo-colonial domination.
A few other points of episode 8 to pay attention to:
The quote from veteran Thomas Vallely: “Part of going to war in Vietnam, I enjoyed it. If you survive it, it’s quite thrilling.” This is the strange and seductive power of combat, that gives survivors a positive memory because of the adrenalin rush and life and death struggle.
North Vietnamese veteran, and novelist, Bao Ninh had a more rational explanation of why they fought, to end the bombing and destruction, the occupation of their country. When the US dropped bombs in a battle zone, they turned the jungle into a sea of fire. (By the way, the word jungle conjures scary images of the “other.” We should call it what it is: a rain forest with a complex ecology, one that was being raped by bombs and agent orange). All soldiers’ lives, Bao Ninh says, are miserable. But unlike the Americans, we were also starving. But the Vietnames fought on. Something new I learned: desertion, or absence without leave, was very common in the North Vietnamese army. Soldiers would slip away and walk back north, visit a mother or lover. Then they would walk back and rejoin their unit – generally without punishment. So much for our image of the stoic and super-disciplined NVA fighters.
This episode also shows a little bit of the tunnel complex that the NLF built throughout the south, the most famous of which was Cu Chi. And it includes the incursion Nixon launched into Cambodia in April of 1970, setting off massive demonstrations around the US. And it gives a brief glimpse into the US troops who committed the My Lai massacre of 500 civilians in the Son Tinh district of South Vietnam. This actually had occurred back in 1968 but it was not exposed until 1969. The documentary claims that Captain Ernest Media and Lt. William Calley plus 23 others were indicted. They don’t mention that only Calley was convicted and, after a short period of house arrest, he was paroled. A failure of military leadership, the documentary intones, had created the conditions that made the massacre possible. In my view, it was not failure of leadership; it was the successful application of Pentagon leadership, its war aims and approach to the Vietnamese, that made the murders inevitable.
Episode 8 attempts to address the massive anti-war movement throughout the country (and the world). Indeed the war was being brought home and the Pentagon minds (who only think in terms of force and domination) could not grasp what was happening. Huge mobilizations were held throughout 1969. The war went on. College campuses ad work place became sites of massive demonstrations. The war went on. The majority in the country and even congress favored withdrawal. The war went on. What should be done?
Burns/Novick resort again to some pretty sophomoric editing tricks here (sorry, I don’t mean to diss our sophomores). After a bit of Woodstock rock festival, they cut between Woodstock scenes and war scenes; corny, right? Then they speed up the film. So now it is silly fast Woodstock shots and silly fast war shots. Does anyone understand the point here?
They include some heartbreaking coverage of the Kent State demonstrations after the Cambodia invasion, in which the National Guard troops wheeled and fired into a group of students, killing four, wounding nine. Then there is the infuriating side-mention of the Black students cut down at Jackson State in Mississippi – which is always given less play than the white deaths at Kent State. I have to give honor and respect to people like Laurel Krause, whose untiring work to keep her sister’s memory alive has never let government authorities put the atrocities “behind them.”
Burns/Novick take a side trip to mention the Weathermen (later the Weather Underground) in order to claim that the dip into violence in the movement set back the cause of peace. The throw in a little out-of-context quote from Fred Hampton criticizing Weather street actions, a criticism of one demonstration that does not point out the long and close solidarity relationship WU and SDS had with the Panthers before and after 1969.
But I can’t really unpack and contest every detail about this question of violence and the anti-war movement of the 60’s-70’s. I would like to say a few things about violence in general, however. Walter Benjamin pointed out that in modern society the state is the only body that has the right to “legitimate” violence. That is, state actors (cops, soldiers, guardsmen) can apply violence and do apply it, every day. And that is considered OK unless it “goes too far.” Those not covered by state office never have the right to apply violence. Otherwise, of course, there would be anarchy or endless vigilantism, etc. But if state actors are applying violence widely and wantonly, slaughtering people in Vietnam, raiding and shooting Black Panther offices, shooting down students – then the question of who gets to use violence comes into question. A peaceful movement that is constantly attacked finds ways to counter state violence, especially as those state actions are illegitimate. This happened with the ANC in South Africa, who followed the passbook demonstrations with the formation of MK, the Spear of the Nation guerrillas.
Certainly democratic and peaceful means are more desirable. But what happens if the state acts as a repressive force and continues to slaughter, up to 1,000 people a day. Do we continue to write congress, create even bigger mobilizations? Do we have democracy or bourgeois democracy? Can the people make changes peacefully? They peacefully voted in a socialist government in Chile (a part of the US broader sphere of power) and the US simply crushed the government militarily. The Black Panther Party sought fundamental changes and faced military assault (if you don’t know, look up Cointelpro). Without going into what this group or that group decided to do (and you would be surprised to know the broad range of organizations who began weapons and martial arts training).
While Weather Underground did a handful of bombings (not terrorism; maybe extreme vandalism) during 1969 and 1970, during that same period there were literally hundreds of bombings and fire-bombings carried out across the country by people trying to end the war. Reserve Office Training Corps building on campus were burned down at the University of Kentucky, Kent State, Washington University in St. Louis (2 buildings actually), and Case-Western Reserve Cleveland, Tulane in New Orleans, Ohio State and Ohio University, to name a few.
Were the people doing these attacks wrong? Are urban uprisings wrong? Simple judgments on such questions are easily dropped from a place of privilege and comfort. Government agents – from military personnel to intelligence agents to FBI to police and so on – were committing violence to thwart and crush popular will. And everyone doing this killing and repressing was drawing a government paycheck. They were killed, 500 people at My Lai, 6 at Kent and Jackson, and were not punished, at all. No one in the opposition was getting paid. Anyone in the opposition who went “too far” faced prison or worse. But the issue was not a conversation – it was about power, who has it and who should seize power. Black power, Red power, Chicano power, women’s power, gay power, people’s power, peace power. Activists realized they had to apply force to confront power. Everyone was fighting to know what to do. Everyone tried something different. We all succeeded to some extent; and we all lost many struggles – which is why our government continues the endless war we are in today.
I teared up plenty of times during this episode, including when they shared Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young at the end:
Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drummin’
Four dead in Ohio
The line that stuck with me this time was this: “We’re finally on our own.” If you weren’t there, you may not understand what that line felt like. We realized that we are not in our family, we are not part of the state, we are not inside the system. We are, at last, on our own. A frightening and exhilarating responsibility. Each of had to ask ourselves, in the words of Mary Oliver: “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” You will have to ask yourself in future years (if you survive), what did you do during this genocidal war? Will you be able to face yourself? What will you tell your grandchildren?
#9 – Minor commentary on Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, "Vietnam War."
Episode nine (A disrespectful loyalty – May 1970-March 1973):
By this time in the narrative, the war was well lost by the US and it is only the scheming by Kissinger and Nixon that kept it going – for their own political ambitions. So-called Vietnamization, coupled with massive bombing, was designed to get the US out while propping up the Saigon regime just long enough that Nixon could claim we did our best but the incompetent South Vietnamese lost. The war at home was in full swing and the Burns/Novick account gives a pretty surface description of the events.
Throughout the period of 1970 to 1973 resistance reached an all-time high. Police violence against demonstrations also increased. In one demonstration in Washington D.C., 12,000 people were arrested. By far the most dramatic transformation of the resistance was the involvement of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), which was ballooning in size. Demoralization and resistance had increased so much in Vietnam that many units were considered unreliable to send into action. GIs widely used weed (a good idea, I would say) and it is estimated that 10% o them were addicted to heroin (this is a larger number than Burns/Novick claim but well supported. Back home, the anger came out. Some of the most moving footage of resistance was the vets throwing their medals over the fence to the US Capitol. Not shown were the extensive Winter Soldier hearings, in which veterans told what had really happened in Vietnam, not just asking for pity but apologizing for their actions. And so many other events were left out, for instance the War Crimes Tribunal convened by Bertrand Russel in Sweden and Denmark. Jane Fonda receives the customary slap down for suggesting the bombers committed war crimes but she was right. Apparently terrorist bombings are OK if committed by people in uniform, flying giant flying machines manufactured by Boeing and dropping cluster, high explosive, and napalm bombs.
In “free fire zones” south of Saigon or devastated landscape in the DMV, the US was dropping more tonnage of munitions than in World War II. For some reason Burns/Novick seem to be mesmerized by the film shots of bombs falling, rolling gently over, then hitting the rain forest and bursting into horrendous flame. There is something aesthetic about it, dramatic. It is the money shot of war porn. And with repetition the viewers, like the pilots themselves, become numbed to the horror of it. This practice, hurling ordnance into the jungle, strikes me as a common trope of colonialist violence: attacking the “other,” destroying the invisible enemy, killing in the name of civilization.
I am reminded of a scene from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in 1899, when the narrator is steaming down the African coast:
“I left in a French steamer, and she called in every blamed port they have out there, for, as far as I could see, the sole purpose of landing soldiers and custom-house officers. I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you—smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, ‘Come and find out.’ This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam . . . The idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion. . . . Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives – he called them enemies! – hidden out of sight somewhere.”
That’s what colonial war amounts to. Incomprehensible. Firing into a continent. Henry Kissinger’s grand plan was to increase the bombing to buy time for the US exit. Nixon sought to mobilize white people, including many white workers, the future Trump base, as the put upon and angry “silent majority.” And he cynically used the American prisoners of war as a rallying point for a narrowed war goal – we will fight until we get our 500+ POW’s back. The culmination of this brutal strategy would be the Christmas bombing of 1972, with round the clock air strikes on the civilian populations of Hanoi and Haiphong, killing upwards of 2,000 more Vietnamese. During this attack, the North Vietnamese shot down fifteen B-52s and captured 45 new prisoners of war. (See Nick Turse’s expose of the number of civilian casualties that Burns/Novick cover up. It’s a damn shame they did not speak to Turse.)
The other slimy actions of Nixon and his Attorney General Mitchell and his adviser John Erlichman and the plumber crew of Cuban anti-communist terrorists in CIA employ need no recapitulation here. The crumbling of the unity of the war-makers is also well known, from the defections of intelligence officers such as Daniel Ellsberg who released the secret Pentagon Papers to the growing anti-war sentiment in the Democratic Party establishment.
Let me finish with a few comments about the peace talks in Paris that finally negotiated an end to the war. I have mentioned that it is odd that Burns/Novick frame the talks as something the US always wanted and the communists resisted. This is a fiction that is just sloppy history. The US had lost its war and the NLF and North Vietnamese side simply insisted that this new reality be acknowledged, if not explicitly at least in the actions proposed. The Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) of south Vietnam was the shadow government the NLF set up in 1969; that formation, along with the Third Force, south Vietnamese who were not NLF but opposed the Thieu government, was much more popular than the official Saigon government.
Burns/Novick try to capture a few points about Nixon’s sudden quick thaw of relations with China and his visit there in 1972. The real story is more sordid. We know Nixon’s cynical motivations but let’s give some attention to the cynicism of the Chinese. After the Vietnamese had borne the brunt of invasion from the US for eight years, now the Chinese leadership saw an opportunity to strengthen their position against the Soviet Union by creating some alliance with the US and undermining material solidarity for the Vietnamese. Indeed, during the Cultural Revolution, some Red Guards had stopped supply trains that were crossing China from the Soviet Union towards Vietnam, explaining that these supplies were “revisionist.” The Soviet Union had its own bad faith. While they supplied industrial and war materials to the North, they also made deals with Nixon and threatened to stop shipments. When the US mined Haiphong harbor, threatening to blow up Soviet merchant ships, the Soviets did not raise a major complaint. This opportunism from both apparent allies is one of the hard stories of this period. The socialist bloc, far from being monolithic, represented different paths and different interests. We in the US felt most strongly that the Third World struggles, the anti-colonial struggle of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (as well as inside the US) were the most important front to support, not the “big powers” of socialism. And, if you didn’t know, China would invade Vietnam later, in 1979, only to be beat back as had all the other invaders been.
A few other things they left out about the Paris peace talks. The Nobel Prize was presented jointly to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973 for finally ending the war. Kissinger, the architect of the Christmas bombing as well as the coup in Chile and so much more, instead of being put on trial happily accepted the prize. Le Duc Tho refused it, first because the war was too gruesome to celebrate even in its ending and second because the US was continuing to violate the terms of the agreement.
Burns/Novick also leave out the women in Paris. The lead negotiator for the National Liberation Front was Nguyen Thi Binh, a member of the NLF central committee, vice chair of the South Vietnamese Women’s Liberation Association, and foreign minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. When the peace agreement was signed, my friend and leader and sister-in-law Bernardine Dohrn wrote the following poem, which has always remained one of my favorites.
The women joined the Circle
gliding across perfumed Parisian carpets
walked to the calm measure of rice-pounding rhythms.
Thi Binh came victorious her flesh torn and blistered singed hair skin coarsened from prison lye, barelegged work in the deltas.
She covered her mudcaked body with crimson ao dai dipped in the blood of women warriors sacred red.
They saw red.
Her enemies described their own fear: ”a fishwife.” Shrill cries of her countrywomen rise from the ancient soil
I shall not resign myself to the usual lot of women.
The cochin women sat in high circles crouched in caves hidden in mangrove forests, taking careful aim.
Her graceful hands with nails ripped out held the pen; she made a sign.
The moon turned scarlet.
Now the children can be born.
In 2002, while on a trip to Vietnam with high school students, I had the honor of meeting Madame Binh and I gave her a copy of this poem. A circle completed.
#10 – Minor commentary on Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, "Vietnam War." Episode ten (The Weight of Memory - March 1973 - Onward):
The last in this series and not much is added. This is the period after most US troops were withdrawn and it was only a matter of time before the Saigon government collapsed. A probing offensive in the northern part of South Vietnam in early 1975 turned into a rout as ARVN troops and tens of thousands of civilians took to the roads in a panic. By April Saigon itself was the only remnant of the American created South Vietnamese entity. The pictures of Americans flying from the roof of the US embassy, of civilian and military Vietnamese who had worked for the Americans pushing into the embassy, are well known.
They share some harrowing stories of those last weeks but cover up plenty of others. For instance, the “baby lift” of hundreds of orphans and children who were herded on to US transport planes. Apparently as a gesture of wanting to save innocents from the evils of communism, this mass evacuation often drew in kids who were not even orphans. Filmmaker Gail Dolgin made a powerful documentary that told the story of one of these kids, Daughter from Danang.
Burns/Novick continue to try to present “balance,” with a few powerful comments from NVA and NLF veterans but of course most from Americans – this is after all an American version of the story. We get some limited treatment, and some typical US propaganda, about Vietnam after the war and the “boat people” who left – many of whom were forced to languish in refugee camps all over Asia as the US refused to take in their own allies. It was veterans, in fact, who began the process of reconciliation – often going on their own trips back to Vietnam, some helping build peace centers, supporting children suffering the effects of Agent Orange, and seeking to make amends. For US veterans of the military, as well as veterans of the anti-war movement, visits to Vietnam have always felt like a pilgrimage – a return to a sacred place.
I wondered: How would Burns/Novick end this marathon project? They certainly included the idiotic statements of those who still worship war, such as US Intelligence Officer Stuart Herrington who asked, “Was it worth it?” Well, he intones, “We answered the call. Was the cause worth the effort? It doesn’t take away from the rectitude of the cause.” What the hell does that mean? We killed 3,000,000 Vietnamese, 58,000 Americans . . .. where’s the rectitude?
But Burns/Novick put in their own final observation, perhaps trying to cover with poetic phrases the very dishonesty that is at the root of colonial war. “The Vietnam War was a tragedy,” they say, “immeasurable and irredeemable.” (I think it pretty much is measurable and redeemable, but wait, they say more). “But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it, stories of courage, perseverance, understanding, forgiveness, and ultimately reconciliation.” So that’s it. Don’t try to understand the overall crime of it. Focus on the compelling and touching individual stories.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the stories. I thought Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Memorial was brilliant. It lists, in order of their death, all the Americans who died in Vietnam. Of course I would like to see the names of the Vietnamese killed, soldiers and civilians, but fat chance of that, and the wall would extend from Washington DC all the way through Virginia. It is beautiful and moving. I cried like everyone else. They begin and end the episode with Tim O’Brien reading that brilliant list of things the GIs had with them, from actual stuff in their packs to larger burdens. It’s sweet, with subtitles under shots of many of the speakers from the series, a kind of “where are they now” update. The O’Brien reading is from his book, The Things They Carried – a powerful novel of the war which I have taught in high school and grad school. But, as Viet Thanh Nguyen has pointed out in his great treatment of war and memory, Nothing Ever Dies, it is another American book about the war with no Vietnamese characters actually in it.
What is my final thought on the series? Again, I was irritated every night but also felt compelled to take in every minute of it. I was critical and tried to drop at least some counter-narrative. I started to see other, more in-depth, analyses showing up in social media. I noticed that many from my generation were all stirring, re-connecting and remembering the sacrifices made, the lessons learned.
As soon as the war ended, we knew there would be a “war to explain the war.” Those who value peace, those who reject the verdict of slavery and colonialism as the last word on world order, those who imagine a world of peoples living together without invasion and empire have had to battle the lies and distortions that the war-makers began pumping out from the beginning.
Indeed, a major problem the Pentagon and ruling class faced after the Vietnam war was that Americans were reluctant to go into another one. Getting our butts kicked had slowed down the desire for new adventures. Indeed, Reagan’s incursion into Grenada, a nation of 90,000 people, seemed just the no-doubt winner that could be served up to show that perhaps we could start invasions again. And in 1991, when George Bush Sr. successfully invaded Kuwait, driving the Iraqis out, he crowed, “By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” Yes, that darn Vietnam syndrome, the idea that we should not pursue imperialist wars, had to be driven out, and Americans’ short-term historical memories certainly helped.
Burns/Novick have contributed to these lies by the way they framed the series. Just to be clear: US involvement in Vietnam was not a matter of bumbling, it was not good-hearted efforts that went wrong. You don’t kill three million people without a whole lot of murderous firepower expended.
But I think there are other, subtler ways that our war culture attempts to colonize our minds. While we might agree that the wars the US initiates are wrong, we worship the warrior. “Thank you for your service,” we say. “We know you suffered but you fought for our freedom.” And when we say that, we are encouraging the next generation of kids to sign up for the military.
I would like to offer a different greeting: “We apologize for sending you into a senseless war.” We’re sorry you were armed to kill people in South Asia and the Middle East; we’re sorry that, as a result of these ill-conceived incursions, more people have joined jihadist groups, more bombings and attacks have occurred in Europe and will likely hit us here in the US. How could you know? You don’t make policy. But we are sorry you were used as a pawn in their game.
And, while many Americans have died, we need to refuse to make their death into a consecrated justification for sending more into war. The charge of dishonoring the dead is basically the last attack the war-makers can hurl. They don’t even pretend to defend the war aims – since they have all backfired. So all we have is honoring the dead and sending more into their deaths. This is a gruesome death-worship syndrome.
We can’t just end a review of the American war in Vietnam with some crap about “individual stories of courage, perseverance, understanding, forgiveness, and ultimately reconciliation.” We have to face the American obsession with fighting the hated “other,” the racism of needing to crush the what Vijay Prashad calls the “darker nations.” This is America unable to face its history – based on theft of native land and enslavement of Africans – and fighting its own shadow self, its original sin.
We can do better. We can be better. And the Vietnamese have generously taught us the lessons that might yet redeem us.