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Vietnam documentary leaves out context, America’s global war on communism

Media Analysis
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Too many people either thought the Vietnam documentary was the best thing ever and that critics were ideologues, which is Phil Weiss’s position, or else they were ideologues who came to the documentary expecting the worst and didn’t let the reality alter their opinions much.  How fortunate for both sides that I fall in the middle.  Seriously, it was definitely worth watching– I saw maybe 80 percent and will check out the book from the library to get the rest.  However, it was flawed in some important ways and Phil Weiss’s  “I don’t care” is a silly response to the criticisms.

I expected a centrist liberal production which would take the safe centrist liberal line, which is that the war was a tragic mistake by well intentioned Americans.  This turned out to be the case– they started out by saying that.  But to some degree they then undermined that narrative showing how much lying went on.  I missed the Gulf of Tonkin portion and will have to read the book and then some other accounts to see if that was as misleading as some critics said.  The biggest problem for me was the lack of context.  Yes, the war was justified as a response to worldwide communist expansion.  So there should have been some portion of an episode mentioning what we did during the Cold War era in numerous other places including Iran, Guatemala, Latin America in general, Indonesia, and sub-Saharan Africa, both during and after the Vietnam War.  It is not a pretty story.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was also seen as part of the Cold War conflict for a time.  And after the Soviet Union collapse, we continued to act like an Empire.  Vietnam was not an aberration.

We also badly need an honest PBS account of our history in Korea, which began after World War II and in many respects is similar to Vietnam.  It started out as a guerrilla war complete with massacres in South Korea before the official war began.  And I suspect most Americans have never heard of just how murderous our bombing campaign was, though the mainstream press has been mentioning this more in recent years.

The other thing I expected was the standard centrist liberal line on atrocities.  In other words, some handwaving at burning villages, Morley Safer’s famous report, and a lot of focus on My Lai as an isolated atrocity where one American unit went crazy.  But the Burns documentary was much better than that.  In general the documentary did a decent job reporting the atrocities of both sides.  It was America-centric and flawed– My Lai still received disproportionate attention compared to the larger issue because My Lai came as such a shock to the American self image and is iconic in a bad way. But Neil Sheehan was on the documentary pointing out that if the massacre had been conducted with bombs and artillery it would have gotten no attention at all, because that level of killing with those weapons happened all the time.

And they had a segment describing Operation Speedy Express.  This was not an isolated massacre by half crazed soldiers.  It was General Julian Ewell ordering his Ninth Army Division to pacify the  Mekong Delta by compiling a massive body count.  And they did, reporting nearly 11,000 dead, the majority of whom were unarmed civilians.  Nobody was held accountable.  This was mass murder as policy, not something that could be blamed on a second lieutenant.  I am closely paraphrasing Newsweek reporter Kevin Buckley (as reported by Nick Turse at the Nation), who first uncovered this story and was allowed to report on it in much abbreviated form in the magazine. The editor refused to publish more, stating to Buckley that doing so would feel like piling on in the aftermath of the coverage of My Lai.

In the lingo of the Nakedcapitalism bloggers, that’s our “famously free press” doing what it does. I learned  the details in Phillip Knightley’s history of war correspondents, ” The First Casualty”.  The Burns documentary did a brief account of the operation, which was something I did not expect, but echoing the usual mainstream approach gave more attention to My Lai because that had the greater impact for Americans. But Speedy Express is more truly representative of the American war at its worst.

Other examples of good reporting are Jonathan Schell’s short book, originally a New Yorker article, on the destruction of Quang Ngai province and Sheehan’s report on the destruction of some fishing villages, also in Quang Ngai, where he estimated up to 600 civilians were killed.  These were not My Lai style massacres, but the normal operation of the war, and the deaths were inflicted via bombs and cannon and were not the face to face atrocities that Americans find so shocking.  We are only shocked by civilians killed by bombs or cannons when our enemies do it.

The Burns documentary also covered the Tiger Force atrocities and to some degree the killing of civilians in the bombing of the North.  My impression, though, is that the torture of American Prisoners of War got more attention. That should obviously be covered too and I thought they did a good job.  But more should have been said about the bombing.

Rounding out the atrocity coverage, the Vietnam documentary did discuss the torture of prisoners in South Vietnamese prisons and mentioned the number held– 200,000.  On the communist side they found North Vietnamese willing to admit the communists massacred innocent people at Hue, something the government has denied.  They discussed the people sent to reeducation camps after the war, stated there were some massacres, but not as large as some predicted, and that hundreds of thousands of boat people died.

And on the subject of communist atrocities, one criticism from the left seems wrong to me. The criticism is that Burns portrays it as a civil war when it was really a war of liberation against a puppet regime set up by the Americans.  Why can’t it be both?  A quarter million soldiers from the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) died fighting the communists. As noted, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died fleeing the regime in boats.  The communist side murdered Vietnamese civilians they claimed were collaborators.  Communist governments are repressive and it is hardly surprising that some Vietnamese hated communism and did not want the communists to win.  In no way does this justify the American involvement, but it is wrong to deny that many Vietnamese fought against the communists or didn’t want to live under their rule.

My biggest complaint on the atrocities is the one Nick Turse gave at the Intercept: “The Ken Burns Vietnam Documentary Glosses Over Devastating Civilian Toll.”

Why didn’t Burns with his massive budget interview civilian survivors of American military campaigns?  Turse had no difficulty doing this.  If Burns were to do a ten part series on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, could you imagine him not doing numerous interviews with Israeli family members of people killed in terrorist attacks?  How could you not interview a large sample of Vietnamese civilians the way Turse did?  Phil Weiss doesn’t care. Phil liked the documentary and doesn’t care that it should have been better.

Our standards are too low– we see a documentary that meets the minimal standards of fairness any piece should meet and it is so much better than the average swill we get that we think it is a work of unparalleled perfection.  Well, no.  It wasn’t terrible the way some lefties say, but it could have been better.  Perhaps it was as good as it could be and still be aired on PBS.

Donald Johnson

Donald Johnson is a regular commenter on this site, as "Donald."

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11 Responses

  1. Citizen on October 3, 2017, 1:23 pm

    Anybody know how they documentary handled the Gulf of Tolken incident? I missed it.

    • larick on October 4, 2017, 8:35 pm

      Gave some details but very imcomplete. It didn’t reveal as has been done elsewhere that some of the initial reports to the Pres. were purely about the Vietnamese torpedo boats actually firing at the U.S. destroyers that was later corrected, but the military never relayed those corrections to Pres. J. See Gareth Porter’s “Perils of Dominance”. 1st class historian on the subject who also does great journalism on the greater M.E.

  2. Citizen on October 3, 2017, 3:55 pm

    Pinger Criticizes Ken Burns’s ‘The Vietnam War’

  3. wfleitz on October 4, 2017, 9:02 am

    “If Burns were to do a ten part series on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, could you imagine him not doing numerous interviews with Israeli family members of people killed in terrorist attacks”


    I think the better analogy here would be interviewing Palestinian families ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias or Palestinian families wiped off the face of the earth by US made weaponry.

    If you want better historical reporting on Vietnam skip PBS and check out the work of John Pilger.

    • WebSkipper on October 4, 2017, 11:00 am

      The 1974 movie “Hearts and Minds” is terrific. Available on YouTube.

      • larick on October 5, 2017, 10:56 am


  4. WebSkipper on October 4, 2017, 10:57 am

    What’s important to realize is that this is not so much a war on communism as it is a war against all things non- or anti-capitalism. The priority is PROFITS, and anything that might interfere with maximum profits is to fought mercilessly and relentlessly. Even to the death.

  5. afmeyers on October 4, 2017, 5:50 pm

    There is one more lesson to be learned from the Burns-Novick documentary “The Vietnam War”: while giving voice to all sides, it ultimately reflects 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.” And FYI i’d suggest viewing the documentary “Hearts and Minds” as well.

  6. larick on October 4, 2017, 8:59 pm

    Pilger’s piece is far superior in its depth and analysis than this one, sorry to say. See also Chuck O’Connell’s piece in Counterpunch in which he points out several things that are “details” or “mistakes” like the whole U.S. invasion and utter destruction of Indo-China were “mistakes” by “men with good intentions” that Burns would have us believe. O’Connell points out that both the NLF , always referred to with the slur “Viet Cong”, were fighting against a U.S. backed regime that represented peasant farmers against a rapacious landowner class that had served them up to the French and were ruthlessly exploiting them during this period.
    So the Hanoi gov’t and the NLF were very much about “land reform”, which is the sine qua non of all revolutionary movements in agricultural societies. Burns in breathtakingly subtle in his propaganda (that is Exactly what it is) in the 2nd episode, describes an interviewee as someone whose mother was killed in the “vicious Viet Cong land reform”, offering not a wit of evidence or further explanation. We’ll let’s say she was, but what did “land reform” mean to millions and millions of Vietnamese peasants? He never ever mentions land reform in his description of the NLFor the N. Vietnam government! How do you leave out the core political objective of a gov’t which the CIA said in 1954 would have won 80% of the vote, and which also explains why the entire American invasion was doomed: the vast majority of Vietnamese were completely opposed to who the S. Vietnamese were. Not ever referring to this leaves Americans just as ignorant about this war as when they sat down to watch the doc.

    Do you think Bank of America was uncomfortable with the U.S. atrocities? Sure. Do you think they were Thrilled that the fundamental questions were never laid bare, so that people have no better understanding of Iraq, Afghanistan, et al and will not be indignant at the slaughter, because they see the Viet Cong as just “the other guys”, with no insight into why the U.S. was fighting Communism in Asia.

    The euphemistic bromides that Burns indulges in are rampant, and the simple fact of “class”, so profoundly important to this conflict, is absent. Again, as I’ve said in an earlier post, the tragic murder of 2-3 million souls and the betrayal of American men and women will remain a crime of greater proportion than this country realizes, but Burns has been paid well to obscure cause and effect.

  7. DaBakr on October 8, 2017, 1:10 am

    I have always tended central in most political issues and agree with the authors take on burns documentary. . ( I also wrote earlier I could relate to shone aspects of PW take)… That it could been seen by either side as uncovering their perception, both ARVN and NVA. And it would have been great if burns was able to devote more time to civilian survivors both north and south. I believe burns was able to skirt the issue for both time constraints and by using the large number of civilians that comprised the Viet cong versus civilians that had either southern or neutral proclivities. Obviously only burns can answer that but it’s not necessary to dismiss his accomplishment based on a centrist (some say biased others say broad) position. The main point is there was no obvious intention to mislead the viewing public.

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