Dec 11, 2017
The American war on Vietnam started in the McCarthy period with the drumbeat of anti-communist propaganda; it finished 21 years later when the U.S., wracked in social upheaval at home, was forced to admit defeat in Vietnam. Vietnam, itself, was in ruins.
In 10 episodes, covering 18 hours, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created an emotionally wrenching account of that war and of that time. Their PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War,” combines film footage taken inside dozens of battles in Vietnam; TV news broadcasts of the time; and interviews with the war’s survivors – Vietnamese and American, soldiers and civilians. The interviews, most with relatively ordinary people, are often horribly vivid, with memories that remain personally devastating. Finally, there are audio tapes of private discussions between presidential advisers and three of the U.S. presidents who presided over that war (Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) – tapes that are not only revealing, but show the total cynicism of those who directed that war.
The wars in Vietnam were marked by the determination of generations of Vietnamese to have “independence,” and of landless peasants to have land. Some of them speak in the film: former fighters in the Viet Minh, or soldiers in the North Vietnamese army, or guerillas in the Southern National Liberation Front (NLF); or women and girls who, by sheer labor power, dug out routes to transport troops and weapons from the North.
The Vietnamese fought, first, against the French colonial army; then against the Japanese during World War II; then against the French who returned. By the end of the French war in the mid-1950s, the U.S. was providing 80% of the money for the war French troops were waging. The first episode of the documentary touches on this “pre-history,” but the remaining episodes focus on the direct U.S. war.
Basing itself on the arbitrary 1955 division of Vietnam, north and south – the map that big power diplomacy contrived after the French defeat – the U.S. poured money, material and “advisers” into the southern part of the country. The U.S. used a puppet regime, resting on the old landlord class and many of the same upper class Vietnamese who had been part of the French colonial structure. And the U.S. organized, funded and directed an army (the ARVN) that was forcibly conscripted from the southern peasantry.
Nonetheless, the main force supporting the southern regime was not the ARVN, but the U.S. military, with its enormous air power and, eventually, with hundreds of thousands of “boots on the ground.” Before the U.S. finally pulled out the very last one of its forces in April 1975, 2.7 million U.S. service people would rotate through Vietnam.
The Awful Reality of War
To watch Burns and Novick’s “The Vietnam War” night after night, as it was presented on most PBS stations, is to be struck by the terrible horror of war, so unremitting it becomes almost ordinary.
Three million Vietnamese, north and south, were killed, as were 50,000 Cambodians, and 58,000 U.S. troops. To deny cover to the NLF’s guerilla forces, vast tracts of land were sprayed with Agent Orange and other defoliants, rendering land useless for agriculture and permanently disabling tens of thousands of Vietnamese, as well as U.S. soldiers. In the south, 75% of villages were destroyed, either by bombing, including with napalm, or by the deliberate torching of huts and land. Almost all the north’s infrastructure – including its harbors – was laid waste. Such statistics, put onto a screen against the backdrop of battles in which 60 to 70% of the forces on both sides die within a few days, take on some of war’s awful reality.
When the U.S. finally left Vietnam, it left behind a territory in which survival was barely possible.
U.S. Soldiers: From Patriotism to Despair to Protest
Burns and Novick present the evolution of U.S. soldiers who, through their experience in the war, became aware that officers lied, that politicians were morally corrupt, that patriotism was crap. Some of them, bitter when they came back, began their own protests of the war, like those who threw their medals back at the White House. Some, still in Vietnam, “fragged’` (killed or otherwise attacked) officers who attempted to send them back out in the field. Many drugged themselves with heroin or alcohol or marijuana. Some killed themselves.
A former U.S. marine, John Musgrave, recounts the awful distress he felt the first time he killed someone. “That was the last time I killed a human being,” he says; adding, “after that I killed only gooks.” “Gooks” was the racist term imprinted on the brains of new recruits. All wars try to dehumanize the enemy. But, as the Marine training films show, the U.S. did it in a very overt, organized and direct way. New recruits were literally brainwashed, prepared for a job they did not yet know they were going to do: kill not only soldiers, but civilians, old men, women, children; destroy their crops, their animals, their villages. Musgrave, who went to war patriotic, came back a wasted human being, dependent on drugs and alcohol. He eventually became one of those returned soldiers who used their status as vets to denounce the war.
Class Divisions in War and in the Protests
The film shows some of the growing civilian opposition to the war – demonstrations, civil disobedience, active disruption of the draft, picketing of politicians. But Burns & Novick only hint at the impact of the growing black revolt, and of the urban insurrections wracking U.S. cities, which, in fact, finally played the key role in the decision of the U.S. state in 1969 to begin to extricate itself from that war.
You get a vague sense in the film of the profound gap between a “peace movement,” much of which was based among middle-class students, most of whom could avoid the draft, and the soldiers, most of whom came from the laboring parts of the population that could not escape it. Without clearly and directly saying it, the film demonstrates the class divisions in American society, which determined who went to war and who did not; class divisions reinforced by an institutionalized racism that guaranteed black draftees would be placed disproportionately into combat units and disproportionately killed.
There is a stark moment late in the series when a woman who had been active against the war as a student speaks about her later shame, remembering the moral condemnation she and others once aimed at returning U.S. soldiers, treating them as though they were responsible for the war.
Tet: The Beginning of a Very Long End
In the January 1968 Tet Offensive, the northern army and the southern NLF guerillas carried out a coordinated attack on every important city in the south – including Saigon – holding some for days. Ultimately, the NLF and the northern army had to withdraw after suffering enormous losses. But Tet demonstrated their ability to live in the population, even while it demonstrated the hollowness of the ARVN, the puppet Vietnamese army the U.S. had created.
When the U.S. finally completely left Vietnam in 1975, it did so under the same negotiated settlement its leaders had already discussed among themselves in 1969 after Tet.
But for six more years, the U.S. carried out the most terribly destructive part of the war: deadly bombing north and south, bombing and invasions of Cambodia and Laos. After Tet, almost two million Vietnamese would die, 50,000 Cambodians, almost 31,000 U.S. troops – ground up in a spectacular demonstration of what happens to any country which tries to make its own way in a world controlled by the imperialist powers.
The War Was No “Mistake”
The film shows the corruption of the U.S. political class and military leaders who carried out the war. Starting with Kennedy, we hear them in discussions, noting that there is no “end game” to this deadly war they will continue to carry out, decimating a population.
But Burns & Novick offer no explanation for why the U.S. continued the war – other than the inertia of political leaders once they made a decision. And there certainly is no real explanation for their decision to go into that war. Burns & Novick even assert, in the first episode, that “America’s involvement in Vietnam ... was begun in good faith by decent people, out of fateful misunderstanding” – in other words, “a mistake,” as the war in Vietnam has long been portrayed.
After World War II, when the French and Dutch and Portuguese were driven out of their Asia-Pacific colonies and when the Chinese revolution drove out the Chiang Kai-shek regime, leaders of the U.S., having become the most powerful of the imperialisms, decided they would “draw a line in the sand,” first in Korea, then in Vietnam. Unable to “win” in Vietnam, they could at least devastate it, to make victory seem so bitter as to make the struggle not worth the price the U.S. extracted.
In effect, the Vietnamese were made the terrifying example of what can happen to a country which seeks to make its own way in a world dominated by imperialism.
This political reality is nowhere to be seen in Burns and Novick’s documentary – only the worn-out idea that the Vietnam war was a mistake, the same one made over and over again from Truman to Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon to Ford.
Like so many other documentaries, “The Vietnam War” avoids the political, economic and social issues behind the war, the main one of which is that the war was an inevitable product of capitalism – just as wars in the Middle East and Africa are today.
But the documentary does give a feeling of the terrible every-day reality of that war, of what it did to generations of people in Vietnam and in the U.S., and of the courage some of them have now, speaking of what they lived through then.