Watch the cathartic Vietnam documentary

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The Vietnam documentary that aired on PBS over the last two weeks — 18 hours, Ken Burns executive producer — is getting trashed by the left. The critics say that the documentary is killing history (in John Pilger’s words), that it misrepresents our leaders’ intentions as good, that it fails to humanize the Vietnamese, and fails to convey the scope of American atrocities/destruction. Close friends of mine won’t watch it. “I’m afraid too much emphasis will be placed on 55,000 Americans, important as they are, and not enough on 1.5 million dead Vietnamese,” says James North. My wife says  she already knows the story. (Her first husband was a C.O. in Vietnam and his exposure to Agent Orange surely shortened his life.)

I don’t care. When I flipped the station to PBS in recent days, I found myself rooted to the spot for the next 90 minutes, screaming at the television, at Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara and Nixon and Kissinger. I was completely caught up in the everyman human dramas that Burns and co-director Lynn Novick established: What journey is Carol Crocker, from Saratoga Springs, setting out on after her beloved brother, Denton “Mogie” Crocker, is killed at 19? How will Bill Earhart come to terms with the fact that he traded C Rations for sex with a Vietnamese woman along with two buddies in Hue in 1968?

I am aware that Burns is an extremely conventional narrator, most interested in white men; I don’t care. The sequence of events is artless and predictable, and the narration is absent sensibility, and I don’t care. I know this is not a scholarly history, or a politically or intellectually rigorous one, and I don’t care. I know that the documentary is indifferent to History with a capital H. I observe the documentarians’ racist choices; Kent State is lingered over, Jackson State gets a line; and I shrug. I wish that there had been a real effort to humanize the Vietnamese victims of our imperialist aggression– the effort feels forced– and I still don’t care. I watch the filmmakers fall in love with John Kerry and fail all the stories that Bao Ninh, a Vietnamese novelist, begins to open to them, before the jump-cut– well, too bad.

Bao Ninh

The majesty of this documentary, and it is majestic, is its visual impact: all the clips that the producers have dug up and sampled. The viewer is experiencing a central event of American history “as it happened” — that cathartic illusion, with moving interventions by Tim O’Brien and Earhart and John Musgrave, along with a second string of Vietnamese voices, notably Ninh.

No, it’s not the left forum, no it’s not “honest” about the ultimate causes of this suffering, or even who experienced most of it. But this is what a mainstream American production is going to do, and it does it well.

The power of this show is to demonstrate the folly of occupation and the horror of American war-making to people who don’t really know the history–myself included. I believe the critics are failing to recognize the visceral impact of this documentary as a movie. To quote my politician/contractor friend who lives in my small town and urged me to watch the documentary in the first place, 5 episodes in: “Can’t imagine the hate the Vietnamese had for us and the French. Can’t imagine living through that shit in any capacity. The USA is a monster with its history dripping in fucking blood.” That’s the message. Kudos to Burns and Novick.

Assassination by South Vietnamese general of alleged spy in 1968, Saigon, AP photo.

My jaw has been on the floor as the documentary unfolded iconic images of the war that I’d never comprehended because I’d been too young. The famous assassination of the alleged North Vietnamese spy on the street in Saigon by the South Vietnamese general, captured in the AP photo (above). Walter Cronkite’s broadcast after Hue–“it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate”–that helped change American attitudes. The destruction of Lyndon Johnson by the war. The My Lai massacre in 5 minutes of images… The horrifying story of Nick Ut’s photograph of napalm victim Kim Phuc in 1972 that was sent out on the wires notwithstanding her nakedness and undid the last meaningful supports for the war here. Jane Fonda’s visit to Hanoi… John Kerry’s testimony, the veterans’ medal toss at the Capitol…

These moments are told in brief and predictable chaplets of film, but they are told well.

As for the catharsis of this broadcast: Every moment of this documentary, however skewed to the American point of view, reminds us of the staunch refusal of a people to be subjugated even as their sons are annihilated, and of the murderous and passive arrogance of American leaders, their indifference to countless young people’s lives being snuffed out because their own political futures were at stake. And of course a majority of Americans supported those leaders even in 1972.

These are vital lessons. They shine a light on Iraq and Palestine and Iran– and Bush and Obama and Trump.

So have at it, critics. You are surely right about this documentary and still I watched, to learn about my country and history in a rudimentary and dramatic manner. I’m even going to catch the episodes I missed.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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40 Responses

  1. Philip Weiss
    October 1, 2017, 1:31 pm

    Thank you for that comment. My wife’s first husband, Brennon Jones, played a large role in the making of that documentary.

    • jsinton
      October 2, 2017, 1:12 am

      Hearts & Minds was a real triumph. They show it from time to time on TCM.

  2. David Nelson
    October 1, 2017, 1:47 pm

    I watched all 10 episodes and have them on my DVR and have watched some episodes a second time. It’s embarrassing how little i actually knew about the Vietnam war (and to give weight to the critics–how little i still know). I was born in 1973, so coming into consciousness about Vietnam was a lot like walking into a movie with 10 minutes left after all the important events had happened. And that really was my knowledge of the war, movies that provided a bunch of sound bytes and images that are several degrees removed from the horror of it all. “It was a police action” “It was a political war” “They didn’t want to win” and of course the girl with napalm on her skin.

    After watching this documentary, i didn’t come away feeling any sort of sympathy or innocence for the American side. Just a feeling of disgust and realizing we haven’t learned a damned thing since, other than perhaps controlling the message “better”.

    The Crocker family story with Moghie telling his family that if he were Vietnamese he’d be fighting for the North. If American “leadership” had any sincerity about our professed ideals, how different our foreign policy would look and how much tragedy would never occur.

    They kept bringing up Westmoreland’s strategy of body count and crossover, the point where the number dying for the North was greater than the rate at which the NVA and NLF could replace those numbers. So morbid, but made clear to me the “logic” of what was going on in movies (and battles) like “Hamburger Hill.” For the Americans, the war wasn’t about real estate, it was all about making “contact” with the NVA to waste them. If that doesn’t convince everyone that the American political class is populated by a bunch of ghouls, there is no hope for us.

    If there was a protagonist at all at the top, he was Ho Chi Minh. That’s the main takeaway for me from the documentary, that Ho Chi Minh was Vietnam’s right and legitimate leader, a national hero. The rest of the documentary underscored how infantile Americans are with our Red Scare and the horrible things we do to make it all go away. We kill millions all because we can’t stop pissing in our pants.

    • Citizen
      October 1, 2017, 6:01 pm

      Re: “After watching this documentary, i didn’t come away feeling any sort of sympathy or innocence for the American side.”

      Not even for all those 19 year old American conscripts? Thanks, buddy.

      • David Nelson
        October 1, 2017, 9:51 pm

        No sympathy at all for the political or geopolitical motivations for the war, no innocence at all for the political and military leadership responsible for designing and orchestrating the war. That’s what i was referring to as the American side. i phrased it poorly as American soldiers clearly fall within that phrasing. Sloppy language that should have been more precise. The impetus for that statement however came from reading comments (elsewhere) from those critical of the documentary arguing that there is much cleansing going on and that it should have been sharper in its explanations of American motivations and actions.

        For the young conscripts and even young volunteers, my natural impulse is to see them as victims themselves of the ‘American side’ in this war. So many times while watching i had to rewind because i got lost in thought and emotion imagining what it must have been like to have something like this forced into one’s life, trying to imagine the fear and horrors felt by every one involved, the children, the villagers, the soldiers, everyone, wondering what i would’ve done but knowing that at 18 i didn’t have the savvy to pierce through all the lies on my own and so in all likelihood would have gone to Vietnam to accept my fate.

        I have sympathy that you were forced into it, you made sacrifices that i can only imagine but are only too real for you, i know and understand that you and your fellow conscripts were not driving this war and i apologize that what i said looked like more of the blaming bs and hate you faced when you got back.

  3. joemowrey
    October 1, 2017, 5:13 pm

    The problem with such heartfelt reactions to this documentary is that the documentary’s content is suspect, in the extreme.

    This, from an article at CP pointing out that the documentary lies about the very basis for the war.

    “Framing the US attack on North Vietnam as “retaliation” in this PBS documentary, which purports to tell truths about this horrific war, is a fundamental, serious, and consequential defect, one which must raise the question of why, after all these years — and when the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin “incidents” has been known for years — Ken Burns and Lynn Novick would engage in this kind of (albeit strangely belated) pro-war propaganda. (Or is it better understood as indoctrination.)”

    How can anything else the film portrays be taken at face value? Every “fact,” every nuance, would have to be fact checked before any legitimate response to the film could be made.

    https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/19/getting-the-gulf-of-tonkin-wrong-are-ken-burns-and-lynn-novick-telling-stories-about-the-central-events-used-to-legitimize-the-us-attack-against-vietnam/

    It’s sort of like responding to the movie Exodus. Sure, there is probably some truth in that film. And as a piece of fiction, it is a very moving film experience. But how do you separate fact from fiction in a piece of propoganda?

    Burns is a great story teller and film maker, but it is a mistake to label any of his films as true documentary or true history. His use of falsehoods and lies reduces his films to cheap entertainment and propaganda.

    • Mooser
      October 2, 2017, 12:39 pm

      “and when the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin “incidents” has been known for years”

      Yes it has, and the “Turner Joy”, lovingly restored, is anchored securely at the Port of Bremerton, Washington State, as a tourist attraction.

  4. Citizen
    October 1, 2017, 6:04 pm

    Phil: “I’m even going to catch the episodes I missed.”

    Me too. I’m a Vietnam Era veteran. I was a teenager my whole time in the US Army.

  5. JWalters
    October 1, 2017, 8:47 pm

    It’s possible that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick pushed the truth as far as the oligarchy would let them go and still get on the air. After all, PBS is under lockdown by the war profiteering oligarchy. The PBS Newshour NEVER discusses the most obvious crimes and atrocities of Israel. They are totally on board with the flimsy conspiracy theory about Russia-gate, and pay no attention to the glaring Israel-gate.
    “The Slimy Business of Russia-gate”
    https://consortiumnews.com/2017/09/28/the-slimy-business-of-russia-gate

    • joemowrey
      October 1, 2017, 10:46 pm

      I think lying about the Gulf of Tonkin incident goes well beyond pushing the truth.

      • James Canning
        October 2, 2017, 1:16 pm

        Indeed. LBJ wanted a pretext for a vast expansion of the Vietnam war. Lyndon Johnson was quite ready to deceive the American public to accomplish this objective.

  6. JosephA
    October 1, 2017, 9:47 pm

    This conversation reminds me of a pretty amazing book by the historian William Blum: https://williamblum.org/books/killing-hope

    He covers Vietnam in Chapter 19. I have found his books to be incredibly accurate and helpful for understanding world events and US foreign policy far before my time on this earth.

  7. DaBakr
    October 1, 2017, 10:35 pm

    Astounded I agree with PW? Not really. My brother-in-,law served from 67-68 in intelligence (thank goodness he passed the iq tests to bypass basic service. he was the guy we all saw the young unknown Harrison Ford playing in apocalypse now.
    He’s a nice Christian surfer boy who converted to Judaism I suspect mostly for love of my sister. But he is as anti-war as they come. He was in Van Tuong, keh san, and in Saigon during tet.

    I haven’t seen all 10 yet but I thought to call him and ask him what he thought. He thought it was amazing and horrifying. It brought him right back to tet and his buddies killed but he appreciated hearing front the many Viet cong and NVA and their opinions. John Musgrave seems to be a universal hero if only for his honesty as was Bao Ninh.

    So, I don’t know what the American far right thinks in general of this and I’m not really a big fan of Burns (I met him on a job and thought he was full of himself. And maybe he should be but a bit of a prick) But this film was not the typical burns vehicle. As Phil said, the visuals alone carried more weight then almost any of the interviews. Seeing Not just the photo but the film of the head of South Vietnamese police shoot the Viet Cong (who was guilty of participating in the Tet attack brought it right back to why this was a turning point in the war for the US and the NVA.
    . Anyway, my in law is left but not fringe left like mondoweiss people. He knows the war was a debacle from Eisenhower through Nixon but he, who witnessed the worst and was privy to the lies being told by Westmoreland and others, thought it was as amazing as Phil and showed the war as he had never seen it portrayed before.

  8. jsinton
    October 2, 2017, 1:31 am

    I’m one of those you can put in the “won’t watch/piss me off” catagory”. It goes something like this: When I was a kid, every little town in America had its WWII memorial, listing all those who served. Over the years, they added Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan names to the memorials. When I visited N Vietnam (a lot) some years back, I was struck how you could go to any little town in the north, and they always had a HUGE military graveyard with hundreds, and sometimes thousands of little gravestones. It was easy to recognize, since they all had the same generic memorial creation in the center, like a big pyramid with the North star flag on top, like 10 meters high. It was a shocking reminder for me, knowing my country put them in their graves for less than good reasons. I knew that I would never be happy until we said we were sorry. In recent years, there’s been somewhat of an attempt to come up with a revisionist view, and bring our nation glory out of all that suffering. Kinda like a way to justify our new wars, our support for the Zionists, deny Palestinians their humanity etc. So to me, the failure to atone for Vietnam is a failure of our nation, and it pisses me off. The Burns project I knew could never satisfy me, because he had to play both sides, and I was right as far as I can tell. I’ll never have to watch it. But I will have to watch Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Mali… and it pisses me off.

  9. RoHa
    October 2, 2017, 2:48 am

    Does it mention the 300,000 Koreans , the 61,000 Australians, or the 3,000 Kiwis who also took part in the war?

    (I plead conscientious objection to conscription for that war. Won the case in court, and thus, when I graduated, found myself unemployable in Australia. Had to go back to Britain.)

    • echinococcus
      October 2, 2017, 10:13 am

      Yeah, it’s such a consolation to think we’re under the rule of law.

      • DaBakr
        October 2, 2017, 6:13 pm

        @rh

        Yes, it does mention the Koreans, Australians and others who joined as allies in fighting the nva.
        It also doesn’t touch much on the fairly well known NVA atrocities committed, especially when the NVA tribunal shoved the older ho chi min and his allies to side. It’s very simplistic and juvenile to judge to VN war based on: US-bad, NVA-good. In the mix with all the political maneuvers were millions of people who did not, by any means, want to live in a state controlled by nva, VC, and the Chinese and Russian puppet masters.
        But US power, blindness and South Vietnamese inability to deal with the rampant corruption of the southern yyyiiyï7uiyyuug5

    • Mooser
      October 2, 2017, 1:14 pm

      I had a 1-A draft card in my wallet, and Viet-Nam was beckoning, when they decided to hold a lottery. I could have told them that was no way to get me. My birth-date drew 314.

      • RoHa
        October 2, 2017, 8:54 pm

        Conscription was by lottery in Australia as well. The only time my number came up in a lottery, the prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to Vietnam. Return ticket not guaranteed.

      • Mooser
        October 3, 2017, 11:52 am

        Me too. I never win anything!
        And the years-long threat of conscription suddenly disappearing had a weird psychological effect on me, somewhat akin to the one which drove my Dad to stockpile cases of liquor in the attic. “Dad”, I said, “Prohibition is over.” With a haunted look he replied “But what if they bring it back?”

  10. eljay
    October 2, 2017, 7:21 am

    … “Can’t imagine the hate the Vietnamese had for us and the French. Can’t imagine living through that shit in any capacity. The USA is a monster with its history dripping in fucking blood.” …

    Can’t imagine the hate the Palestinians have for us. Can’t imagine living through that shit in any capacity. Israel is a monster with its history dripping in fucking blood.

    Israel and America: An “unbreakable bond” of “shared common values”.

  11. Stephen Shenfield
    October 2, 2017, 8:23 am

    The film makers made some effort to include Vietnamese perspectives by inserting isolated snippets of Vietnamese speaking, but these snippets have a limited impact because the overall thrust is America-centric — the Vietnam war as an American experience. There should be a companion film focusing on the American war as a Vietnamese experience. That film should ideally be made in Vietnam by a Vietnamese producer, though shown also over here. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese regime may not allow sufficient freedom of expression to do a proper job while the witnesses are still alive.

    I am disappointed that none of those who have yet commented here have paid any close attention to the content of the Vietnamese snippets in the film. The official stereotype is of monolithic resistance superhuman in its endurance, heroism, and willing self-sacrifice, and yet many of the Vietnamese speakers say things that undermine this stereotype, which dehumanizes the Vietnamese in its own way. The willingness of American opponents of the war to accept this stereotype shows not only their political naivety but also their lack of interest in digging deeply into Vietnamese experience. Ultimately it all comes down to the same old America-centrism.

    Some Vietnamese speakers raise the question of whether the country could have been reunited by non-military means or if war was unavoidable whether victory could have been won at a lesser human cost. The most striking case in point was the ‘Easter offensive’ of 1972, which exposed almost an entire cohort of barely trained 16-year-old boys to devastating US airpower (so that of 11 boys in my wife’s class only 2 returned, one missing a leg and the other an eye). I’m damned if I can understand the rationale behind this operation. By 1972 it was quite clear that the Americans were puling out. All that was needed as a little patience. It was not only American politicians and generals who held Vietnamese lives cheap.

  12. JohnDuggan
    October 2, 2017, 9:19 am

    – There were many menorable moments, images and testimonies in THE VIETNAM WAR by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The comments of retired 4 star US Air Force General Merrill McPeak keep coming back to me the most frequently. McPeak, who flew 269 combat missions in Vietnam, would become the Chief of Staff of the Air Force from 1990 to 1994. 

    From the film, Parts 7 & 8:

    Major Merril McPeak was a crack fighter pilot … in early 1969, McPeak was assigned to … pinpoint men and supplies moving on the Ho Chi Minh trail.  “… what we were doing was simple, straightforward, and made sense. We wanted to stop traffic from A to B down this dirt road … We stopped a lot of them, we killed a lot of them. I have enormous respect for those guys. … We ended up having a lot of respect for them.”

    “We did not stop traffic down the trail,” he recalled. “That is a big disappointment for me. … To this day, it irritates me. Now the fact is – it sounds bad now, and I don’t mean this to be  bad – we were fighting on the wrong side. The government in the South was corrupt. And its people knew it. And we knew it. And they didn’t fight very well. I’ll tell you something: those truck drivers fought very well. I would have been proud to fight with them. One of the things you’ve got to do when you go to war is pick the right side, get the right allies.” 
    [Part 7: The Veneer of Civilization. June 1968 – April 1969]

    “The late ‘60s,” Air Force pilot Merrill McPeak recalled, “were a kind of confluence of several rivulets. There was the antiwar movement itself, the whole movement towards racial equality, the environment, the role of women. And the anthems for that counterculture were provided by the most brilliant rock and roll music that you can imagine. I don’t know how we could exist today as a country without that experience – with all of its warts and ups and downs – that produced the America we have today, and we are better for it. And I felt that way in Vietnam. I turned the volume up on all the stuff. That, for me, represented what I was trying to defend.” 
    [Part 8: The History of the World. May 1969 – December 1970]

    • Mooser
      October 2, 2017, 1:20 pm

      ” That, for me, represented what I was trying to defend.”

      By flying bombing missions over North Vietnam? Ho-Kay. Barking mad, but if you tell him, he’ll probably throw a punch. So yeah, you bet, you were defending all that.

      • JohnDuggan
        October 2, 2017, 7:01 pm

        – I was focused on “we were fighting on the wrong side” and “the antiwar movement itself, the whole movement towards racial equality, the environment, the role of women. … we are better for it. And I felt that way in Vietnam.”

        This is not the typical comment of a US Air Force Chief of Staff who also fought in Vietnam.

  13. afmeyers
    October 2, 2017, 11:01 am

    Yes, Burns & Novick ultimately reflect one side’s perspective. How else to reconcile the film’s use of the term “Viet Cong” throughout its 18 hours with its own account of the naming of the South Vietnamese revolutionary forces in the first episode: “The new organization would be called the National Liberation Front: the NLF. The armed wing of the NLF was called the People’s Liberation Armed Forces. But its enemies in Saigon and Washington preferred a more disparaging term. In their eyes, the revolutionaries were “Communist traitors to the Vietnamese nation: the Viet Cong.”

  14. larick
    October 2, 2017, 3:35 pm

    Liberals in the ’60’s were often accused of “yes, but…” non-commital comments about civil rights and the Vietnam war, but I find myself with that kind of response to Phillip Weiss’ comments. Disclosure: I (luckily) applied for and was granted a Conscientious Objector status at the beginning of the Vietnam war escalation in 1965. My conflicting feelings about the Burns’ -Novick doc are that a) I agree with Phil that it does perform an important function, and b) as he points out, this is in the context of extreme paucity of other information coming out of mainstream/corporate media in the last decades on this subject, and therein lies a conundrum.
    The Bank of America and other corporate funders underwrote this doc precisely because it blurs the understanding of cause and effect of the Vietnam war the way say, J-Street obscures the nature of Zionism and the Settler Colonial historical phenomena in favor of cosmetic makeovers, sentimentality, and false equivalences. The “Vietnam War” (Better named, “The American Invasion of Indo-China”) was a direct result of a modern corporate Capitalist class warfare, i.e. a “world grab” that yes, is similar to past imperial impulses, but in its own contemporary form, and very unexamined in corp/popular media.

    As O’connell correctly observes, the Burns doc obscures the fundamental class war that was the basis for American intervention and Vietnamese resistance and ultimately victory over imperialist forces. His piece in CounterPunch (https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/21/ideology-as-history-a-critical-commentary-on-burns-and-novicks-the-vietnam-war/) allows for an understanding that goes beyond (forgive me Phil) “catharsis” to an clear and deeper understanding that can both motivate and provide a more persuasive critique to opposition, now sorely lacking, to the current metastasizing wars the U.S. empire is now forcing on whole regions of the globe, and with less opposition here than ever. By producing this edgy but less than clarifying documentary, he has taken all the resources for any similar Vietnam war critiques that might have competed, off the table. That is the power of corporate media. Burns did the same thing with his Jazz doc; very very mediocre and more severely flawed and barely relevent, but….have you seen any other Jazz doc’s since? Alas.

    • CigarGod
      October 3, 2017, 10:03 am

      The most depressing thing to me is I think we could switch the politicians, students, soldiers and general public of the vietnam era with those of today, and no one would know the difference.

      I suspect I could switch chimps and rats and get the same result.

      • Mooser
        October 3, 2017, 12:39 pm

        “The most depressing thing to me is I think we could switch the politicians, students, soldiers and general public of the vietnam era with those of today, and no one would know the difference”

        Well, when all we’ve got is “soldiers”, no officers, no military-industrial administration, things are bound to go wrong.
        What this country needs is a good strong military officer-military industrial alliance, and then things will go right.

      • Mooser
        October 3, 2017, 1:53 pm

        How did the United States, one of the mightiest countries in the world, end up with a military composed entirely of soldiers, with no officers? It happened after the War on Viet Nam. I’m not sure that’s a good development. I mean, it’s very democratic and all, but without officers, an officer class, and well-pensioned retired officers to keep the revolving door between industry and the military and higher education well greased, can we really expect an efficient military?

  15. Danaa
    October 2, 2017, 4:59 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with Phil’s take on this series. I too was absolutely riveted, even though I knew (from reading, not experience) that much was left out and that some perspectives got the short end of the stick, especially the imperialist machinations that got Americans involved in the first place. It was the totality of the human experience that got me, the utter helplessness by so many in the decision making machinery who knew it was all for naught, yet could do nothing about it. McNamara’s about-face got to me for some reason because I was so comfortable for the first 3 installments fingering him as a villain. How we need a villain! and then suddenly, as if a switch was thrown, he flipped. Actually, more like woke up. I thought of how he lived the rest of his life. His nightmares. The stories he told himself. His descent into political irrelevance. A victim of sudden insight, I almost felt sorry for him, despite his critical role in upping the ante on the military involvement, his serious strategic and tactical blunders, the insistence on “body Counts”.

    Which was the second thing that got to me – those “body counts” as a “measure of success. What that did to those who had to assemble the lists. The tendency to inflate and conflate civilians with soldiers. The bodies themselves. Unknown, shown only as corpses. Mere numbers for military planners. I don’t care what the critics – illustrious experts they all must be – I, as one who wasn’t there when it all happened, found this effective. It connected from then to now. It can’t have not made an impression on those who watched the whole series because it was a theme.

    The Moghe story was indeed powerful, one man’s life. Lost for nothing. So were Mosgrave’s and several others’ commentaries. The veterans on both sides who became philosophers as a way of coming to terms with what happened.

    But more than anything, the series brought to life the absolute senselessness of it all. The military planners gigantic failures completely under-estimating and understanding their ‘enemy”. The misery of the soldier grunts capturing hill after hill just to leave it. Capturing a hill for nothing. Losing half the platoon for nothing. Killing hundreds of Vietnamese in the process for nothing. the Vietnamese holding on – just to make a point that they will hold on, knowing no doubt they’ll lose that hill and take on stageering casualties in the process. It was one Alamo after another for the NVA. It was losing by winning for the Americans tasked with taking these targets. One could go on.

    But there are a few positives too – the Americans who flocked to the streets raging and demonstrating against the war. Whatever else one can say – it was effective. Street action changed the war’s conduct and influenced decisions. There was power in the people.

    But then also the Vietnamese. The unbelievable resistance they put up. It wasn’t just communist ideology or communist brainwashing that drove individuals to help keep the Ho Che Min trail open against all odds. It was commitment to something I can only call “resistance”. Communism, as an ideology does well of course in co-opting the spirit of people. But that should not take away from the spirit those people showed. The many women who drove the trucks down that trail (I didn’t even know so many women participated actively in the war effort for north Vietnam) set against the dearth of women among the American invading army. As we now know, so many years later, the spirit did survive, even communism’s worst excesses, even Drezden like bombing runs. These people were bloody resilient, and that did come through just fine.

    And finally, that last segment, Part 10 – was really tear inducing. After so much has gone down and so many died and so many lives destroyed and a country brought to complete ruin, here we are, 50 years or so later, and Vietnam is a thriving tourist destination. And hard core communism gave way to ca Vietnamese version of capitalism with central planning. No different that countless other countries in the world. The Vietnamese would have nver allowed themselves to be taken over by Chinese. As the showed when they actually fought them later. And more than anything – the graciousness of a people who survived hell, several invasions, civil war and horrific deprivation, yet everyone who visited Vietnam (I know over 10 people now who went on tours of Vietnam as tourist. ) cannot but go one about the warmth, welcoming spirit and good will of the people who live there. They can’t stop raving and all would love to go back. Of course, the country is quite beautiful and the Vietnamese people quite enterprising. But it appears they also have the gift of being able to forgive, even after the appalling cataclysm the previous generation went through.

    The Vietnamese people somehow persevered after endless trials and tribulations. They still have the spirit of a still fiercely independent people. We, in America, did not. We still have the ever hungry Empire beast to feed, the military planners go on making the same kind of strategic mistakes that come from refusing to understand what and who they are up against, we are more torn apart than ever, we are still relitigating a civil war, whose wounds keep opening up afresh. And our young people seem to have turned off. Our music gone to monotone, the songs belted out with more sound effects than heart, and our movies are, well….another time about those. We are an Empire in decline and Vietnam may have signaled just the beginning of the long descent that all Empires must go through.

    These are some of the thoughts I had as I watched each episode, some parts twice. Glad to hear there are many critics, but heck, the series was effective plenty in its own, no-doubt imperfect, way. It may have been too shallow about some facts for some people’s taste, but it was not emotionally shallow, at least for those willing to watch with intent. And it made me think a new about things I haven’t thought about for a long time, if ever. For which I am always grateful.

  16. subconscious
    October 2, 2017, 5:23 pm

    The documentary “Hearts and Minds,” which users “strangefriend” & “Philip Weiss” referred to in earlier comments, can be viewed online:

    or for a version with higher definition options (may require signing in)

    • Citizen
      October 3, 2017, 6:04 pm

      Highlight was when that top US commander said the Oriental mind does not value life. Israeli leaders say the same today, and we are still enabling this crap.

      Another was the distraught father yelling about how the US bombed his family to death, one being his young school age daughter–he had her shirt, yells, here it is! Throw it at Nixon! The area was just a village and rice paddies, devoid or enemy troops, when it was bombed.

  17. Ismail
    October 2, 2017, 5:38 pm

    “I don’t care…”

    Sorry, Phil, you should. This series makes it more difficult, not less, to apprehend the meaning of the war, and it does so by foregrounding not only the US viewpoint but also the psychological one. I heard Burns on Boston public radio saying how proud he was at the overwhelming response he got to the disclosure that responses of US and NV soldiers to the horror they experienced was identical. That is, both Vietnamese and US soldiers get scared, lonely, act with valor, act with cowardice, etc. These trivial psychological truisms – who among PBS’s audience would imagine otherwise? Who would buy into the idea that we are pure and our enemies not quite human? – count as analysis. We are accustomed to discussing policy questions with appeals to presidential disposition – “Barack’s bright and has a great sense of humor what an orator!” – and ignore the war expansion, the deportations, whistle-blower prosecutions, the whole sorry mess. I fear that Burns promotes this turn of mind.

    Imagine a film on slavery taking the same tack. Or on the Iraq war. Apartheid. It’s unthinkable.
    White South Africans and Germans know how to acknowledge their utter and complete responsibility for the horrors they perpetrated. The US (and Israel, for that matter), not so much. The best we can muster is some version of the shoot-and-cry, PBS newshour “on the one hand…” bullshit.

    I don’t doubt that there is history to be learned from this series, particularly by folks who weren’t around when the war was broadcast live. But I worry more about the ideology that’s invisibly included in the history lesson.

    After all, check out the graphic at the head of this piece – the series’ DVD box. Note the very first line of text – “There is no single truth in war”.

    Really?

    PS – As long as we’re telling draft stories, here’s mine. In my second year of college, I began to think about my student deferment. I grew up in lower middle class Brooklyn and many of the guys I went to school with worked in their father’s small businesses or became mechanics or worked retail. It bothered me that these guys were subject to be drafted and I, studying logic and the philosophy of science, was deemed too important to the nation’s welfare to go, as were my buddies in English Lit and sociology. Seemed massively unfair and another instance of the elites dividing natural allies.
    I decided to not apply for a deferment and figure out what to do – jail or Montreal – if I got called (going to war was out of the question on political grounds). My girlfriend wept with anxiety and fear (I didn’t whisper a word of this to my mother, who’d have killed me faster than the VC) and packed a bag in case the Montreal option looked best. I got called, and at my physical, they asked me why I was there if I was a college student. I told them and they referred me to the psychiatrist, a kindly old guy with a Mitteleuropean accent – yeah, really – to whom I gave my lecture about class and war and privilege. He decided I was temporarily nuts and told me he was giving me a 1-Y deferment, the sort of thing you get if you have a broken ankle and need 6 or 8 months to get well enough to die overseas.

    So I went home, trembling the way you do when something terrifying is over, and spent the next 6 months dreading getting that “come on back” letter.

    It never came. Being Catholic, instead of rejoicing that I dodged a bullet, I agonized over whether I was enjoying class privilege anyway by engaging the shrink, and whether or not I should have pressed the issue and insist that I be forced to make the moral choice.

    I didn’t, so sainthood was now out of the question. Being nuts, who knows?

    • RoHa
      October 2, 2017, 9:02 pm

      I was unhappy about that “There is no single truth in war” line as well. It has a smell of (pardon my French) postmodernism about it, a smell of the replacement of truth by “competing narratives”. And anyone who has been in a farmyard knows that smell.

      • Mooser
        October 3, 2017, 12:03 pm

        “There is no single truth in war”

        Of course there is. A single, simple truth. Those who know it can no longer speak it.

  18. JohnDuggan
    October 2, 2017, 7:06 pm

    – Thanks for the great piece Phil.

    While the film has many problems, if I had to make a quick choice of good-bad, yes-no, thumbs up or down – I’d vote “good”, “yes”, “thumbs up”.

    I was not bored. I found it all very interesting.

    Most of my friends from that era have watched it too.

    I too know a few who “knew better” and refused to watch.

  19. WebSkipper
    October 2, 2017, 9:12 pm

    The problem arises when naive people (regretfully, most of us, especially Americans) watch one or two movies or series like this (let’s face it, made primarily for entertainment and profit) and believe they walk away “experts” on the subject matter. Yes, there are those of us who can put it into context with an existing knowledge base, but the naive person is just as innocent and unknowing as we were ourselves at the time. Visionaries like Howard Zinn were well aware of this.

  20. Citizen
    October 3, 2017, 4:12 pm

    Pinger Criticizes Ken Burns’s ‘The Vietnam War’ https://consortiumnews.com/2017/10/03/pilger-criticizes-ken-burnss-the-vietnam-war/

    Imagine, 18 hours long, yet it obfuscates, glosses over how, why, and who precisely drew USA into that war–and this continued with every war since then & those yet to come (with Iran, Syria).

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