“Take this here rifle and a helmet and go kill some Commies for Christ.”
Ask veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ask veterans of the American War in Vietnam. You’ll hear that motivation over and over again.
Our system isn’t broken. It’s working perfectly for the elites running the show. Get ’em when they’re young; don’t invest in better options for service; surround them with militarism all their lives; keep a bogeyman always at the ready. And even losing wars make money.
The coverage of the ‘Tonkin incident’ is pretty good, importantly noting that LBJ had William Bundy draw up a Congressional resolution before Tonkin, that the first attacks on American shipping were provided by prior attacks on North Vietnam and that there was no second attack.
The NLF and the North /vietnamese are continuously able to adapt to the US firepower advantage; ‘grab them by the belt buckle’ so that the air power and artillery advantages would be neutralized.
Things That Make Me Wonder:
The use of napalm (or nape as someone puts it) is vividly described (through reporter Galloway’s eyes–‘hell come to earth’ when American soldiers are accidentally hit. What sort of weapon is this–is it a legitimate weapon of war? And yes Vietnamese were the main victims.
What does it reflect abut the war that the other side’s intelligence is much better than US intelligence?
There are so many speakers about each battle (soldiers, CIA agents, reporters0, but when it come to the SDS march on Washington (and this is typical of the documentary) as a whole), there is only one speaker (Bill Zimmerman).
When soldiers reply to Morley Safer that they have no regrets for burning down village huts, how does this register with the overall take on American soldiers as gallant?
Why isn’t Daniel Ellsberg interviewed about Tonkin when he was on the receiving end of dispatches to Washington?
The teach-ins are described, but Zimmerman makes a point that pro-war people were shouted down. I attended the teach-in at Columbia as an interested spectator and while iI remember much passion, the most striking thing as the inept, rhetorical presentations of the State Department spokespeople who were invited speakers. They organized as many people against the war as did the anti-war speakers.
There is not much of an explanations of how LBJ’s perception of the Soviet role from instigator to possible helper.
It is asserted that the other side is dismissive of Johnson’s offer for peace negotiations, but there is no mention of Premier Pham Van Dong’s April 18, 1965 4-point program which was rejected out of hand by Dean Rusk.
I don’t get the fascination with Mogie Crocker who seems to have an over-active fantasy life which is passed off as idealism. In one part there is an implied equivalence with Le Minh Kue whose motivation stemmed from having her village bombed.
John Negroponte is interviewed without noting his own role as a hawk who later on saw Kissinger as too compromising.
Here comes the dread again. Having been fed on the misty legends of the Battle of Ia Drang Valley over and over again through basic and AIT, when I “arrived in country” in July of 1969, and then choppered up to LZ Uplift in the central highlands, I fully anticipated being overrun by hordes of NVA at any moment. We weren’t. In fact, we were confronted by the NLF (out of respect for the Vietnamese, I now use that term instead of VC, which we used all the time. Not to mention the term “gooks”). Still, I was not prepared for the footage of that battle last night.
I was with the 7/15th Artillery, attached to the 173rd Airborne, essentially spending the bulk of my time at LZ’s and then one firebase. As the Airborne guys filtered back in “behind the wire” every morning, I pitied them — man, I thought, I’m glad I wasn’t them. But pity is self-serving. And self-indulgent. What I felt last night was true compassion — I put myself into their boots and quaked with fear. And also anger. The Ia Drang was a true FUBAR (fucked up) — outnumbered by a factor of at least seven, these guys were decimated. And I get so tired of the military trying to pull something grand out of a self-made disaster — bad intel and arrogance (“itching for a fight”) cost the lives of many and the souls of those who survived. Want to know where PTSD comes from? There it is. And what do we hear last night? How brave “my men” are. Not how their lives, if they survived, will be broken forever. And, of course, in case you didn’t get the message the military wants you to hear, prior to covering the battle we have a mother reading from “Henry V” the famous speech on St. Crispin’s Day that stirs up the “brave band of brothers” image that many think all of us carry with us after surviving an attack.
But then I have to give credit for an interesting choice of music underscoring the scenes last night. Episode Two began with the haunting, abstract, probing trumpet of Miles Davis as we pondered the implications of history. Episode Three starts differently. Bob Dylan is singing in the background: “My name it means nothing,” implying for me the ultimate truth of being a soldier — you are, first and foremost, an “asset” to be deployed. JFK, LBJ, McNamara and other “leaders” ad nauseam talk of numbers — “give me 50,000;” “no, I want 100,000” (oftentimes throughout the documentary delivered via a tape recorder). Wait a minute. We are not Christmas toys to be played with (that’s Kurt Vonnegut’s metaphor); we are human beings with loved ones aching for our safe return.
And then later on we hear the plaintive voice of Buffy Ste Marie measuring us all against her “universal soldier.” Her anger grows in that song in proportion to ours. And Phil Ochs saying it as it is: “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.” I was fully expecting to hear one of our favorites of the day: the Animals singing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” That kind of lyrical pushback to the cold, calculating militaristic account of that war is much appreciated.
And, finally, finally, someone really does pull the curtain open on the travesty of the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” that propelled us into full-scale war. Kudos to the documentarians for that one. Once again, it comes down to posturing by presidents concerned about their images and ultimately getting reelected. Was it a coincidence that the August retaliation that showed how “strong” LBJ was came before an election? I think not.
On a personal note, as this episode unfolded I heard names of places I have not really thought of in decades — An Khe, Pleiku, Qui Nhon, Bien Hoa — that I stepped through on my journey through that war.
Two other passing thoughts: 1). Was it a mistake or a calculated design to name this episode “Crossing the River Styx” after a passing comment from a soldier or a politician when, really, it should have been “Crossing the Rubicon” — Caesar’s infamous remark as he brought Rome deeper into their war? Perhaps the Styx boundary, separating us from hell, is more appropriate. Interesting choice. 2). The running commentary of Bill Zimmerman is appreciated as he chronicles his own personal journey through the anti-war movement (demonstrating in front of Dow Chemical with forty people and then a year later joining thousands in protest against the war). I am sure my friends who were in SDS want more coverage of their heroic stance against the war, but Zimmerman’s voice, so far, is a needed thread that young people today might need to help them weave the resistance into this narrative of war. Let’s hope he is joined by others as the documentary continues on.
So, yes, I join with many of my fellow VFP members in our reservations about this documentary. But, as we also know, this work is providing us with an opportunity to further deepen and enrich our country’s realization of how devastating the American War in Viet Nam was, and is, to us and the Vietnamese people. And, I might add, there are some amongst us whose participation in this conversation fifty years after living through it is taking its toll. Please be conscious of that.