Doug Rawlings:

“This Is War.  This Is What We Do.”

This nightly trek to the TV screen is getting exhausting. Of course this medium that we have allowed into our homes these past five evenings, that we have chosen to bring us back into those years, is primarily visual, but it is the auditory barrage that is beginning to take its toll.  The choppers, the 155’s, the constant ripple of machine gun fire, and then woven through it all the music that held us together through the chaos of growing up in war.  

Tonight it was Jimi holding forth —“Are You Experienced?” — a song that I did not associate with Vietnam, quite frankly, but now makes perfect sense. Oh yeah, we were experienced.  Fighting in the war and fighting against it, risking our lives and our futures, men and women alike stepping out of our comfort zones to confront the demons in the Pentagon and the White House who were intent on wasting us for their gain. It was indeed our “experience” that terrified them.  We were going to come back from the jungles and the streets and the college campuses to haunt these bastards for the rest of their days — McNamara shuffling out of power, discarded by the war mongers, represented the harbinger of times to come. Damn, we almost did it.  We shook them to the core. Their children were looking them in the eye with a newfound spite.  And the arrogant sons-of-bitches couldn’t quite fathom that the real power was indeed out in the streets.  

Granted, this episode is serving as a prelude to the game-changer in Vietnam — the 1968 Tet Offensive — but I also see it as the game-changer back home. As someone said during this hour, the anti-war movement had moved from protesting the war to stopping it. And then the episode eerily closes with the Stones’ “Paint It Black” speaking volumes — you want to paint it red, white, and blue, do you?  Well, fuck you. We are going to paint it black; we are going to close down business.  Damn it, we came close.

Another take away from this episode comes from the guy who has had the most air time so far — Musgrave, the Marine from Missouri. What makes him perfect in his role as a kind of  “Greek chorus” is his almost boyish, gee-whiz look: let’s face it, folks, he says as he seduces the camera, this is Racism 101.  Gooks, dinks, slopes, whatever, they were subhuman.  Yes, there it is — one of the core realities of this godforsaken war was its inherent racism. Remember Muhammed Ali’s powerful rallying cry: “I ain’t going.  No VC ever called me a nigger.” Racism at home was his real enemy, and he knew it; he was not going to have any part in exporting our brand of racism to another country. 

And, whoa!, what is this? An army reporter sitting comfortably on a couch intones this observation: yes, I witnessed atrocities committed by American troops.  Specifically, he was referring to the infamous Tiger Force carrying out what were probably Phoenix Program orders.  To kill everything that moved — men, women, children, livestock. Perhaps as this episode is laying groundwork for the Tet Offensive, it is also preparing us for March 16, 1968 when the Americal Division slaughtered 504 Vietnamese villagers in My Lai. Is the American audience ready for this revelation?  Sure, we saw the ditch with the bodies stretched out on the cover of LOOK MAGAZINE back in 1969, but to see it again…. 

I suppose we can fault Burns and Novick for not lingering as long as we think they should over these truths of the war — its racism, its mind-boggling brutality, its increasingly genocidal momentum as our desperate need for “victory” begins to become sickeningly macabre. Its use of chemical and biological weapons. Its parade of war criminals in grey flannel suits. But the very reference to these diabolical forces at play makes me feel that maybe, just maybe, this grand cinematic exercise is not going to be the total whitewash many of us thought it was going to be. For me, the jury is still out.

Here’s a poem I wrote in the early eighties as I heard about  a monument being built in DC in “our honor.”  I have since been to The Wall many times, and hold Maya Lin in the greatest regard for her masterful work, but, still, the notion of war memorials gnaws away at me…..


Corporate America  

be forewarned: 

We* are your karma  

We are your Orion  

rising in the night sky  

We are the scorpion  

in your jackboot


Corporate America 

be forewarned: 

We will not buy 

your bloody parades anymore  

We refuse your worthless praise  

We spit on 

your war memorials 

Corporate America  

be forewarned: 

We will not feed you  

our bodies 

our minds 

our children 


Corporate America  

be forewarned: 

If we have our way  

(and we will) 

the real war memorials  

will rise 

from your ashes 

*The “we” in this poem are the Vietnam Veterans who have come home from the dark side of the empire to say: No More War


Michael Uhl:

The episode might be titled the US Marines vs. the NVA.. the almost conventional combat which was concentrated along the DMZ.. There’s some justification for this emphasis, in that – while not conventional in the sense of fixed battles for the most part, and not about – as was stressed – gaining and keeping “real estate,” the Marines suffered a disproportionate number of casualties.  This was consistent with the tooth to tail ratio which B/N states as 20%.  The ratio I’m familiar with – i.e. combat to support troops – is actually 10%.  But, again, the guerrilla tactics of the NVA – who “knew the ground”, the well executed ambushes, the fading away after the fire fights, were not in any classic sense conventional combat.  There is the one case where the NVA held on to the real estate, but then withdrew under the withering air and arty strikes.  Hanoi had manpower and was willing to use it to maximum effect, even at the horrific cost of so many killed and wounded.  One wonders how the NVA veterans have processed this sacrifice.. well, Bao Ninh’s bitterness gives us one reading against the grain of the more sanguine commentary of the film’s other combat vets, most of whom, I think, were officers.  I remember hearing one comment from an old NVA commander in Hanoi about how there was no ptsd among the Vietnamese veterans… I don’t buy that.

Returning to the concept of conventional war, and the intense combat along the DMZ.. The conditions for conventional war did not exist, given the imbalance of fire power between the two antagonists.  Yes, the NVA had their big guns dug in near the border, but the lack of air power, the napalm, and even the greater intensity of US artillery, gives particular weight to the significance of the comment one NVA officer made about, “You owed the air, we owned the ground.”  On the ground the Marines were out-maneuvered by the NVA.. and were being sacrificed by an officer corps who did not grasp the real conditions of the battlefield… where, again, the NVA owned the ground.
I was struck by the fact that the number of US killed B/N report at this stage, assuming I got this right,  is about a third of the number of those who appear on the Wall.  So, the emphasis on the ‘marine war’ provides the kind of rousing battle scenes Howie picks up on, but ignores what’s happening in the rest of the country, where some poor schmuck at the sweet end of the tail is blown away by an incoming round in the “rear;” the point, of course, is that there was no ‘rear.’  And, keep in mind, that two thirds of the American KIA’s are yet to come.
I agree that most GIs probably did not commit atrocities, nor did all officers – certainly junior officers like me who were not integrated into the military establishment – “encourage or not discourage atrocities,”  On the whole, however, I would indict the officer corps for “dereliction of duty,” “failure to report war crimes,” and right on down to the most barbaric forms of encouragement to create the conditions in which atrocities were both encouraged and inevitable.  The case of LTC Hank Emerson is cited by B/N where he offered a case of whisky to the first troop who would bring him the severed head of a Vietcong.  They then display the severed head.  [How did that play in Middle America, I wonder?] The filmmakers suggest one somewhat benign nickname for Emerson (I can’t recall what).  But when I was organizing vets in 1970/71 to testify publicly about American war crimes, a couple of our witnesses who’d served under Emerson called him “Hatchet Hank,” because he allegedly carried a tomahawk into battle.
On the atrocity/war crimes question, we need to give more emphasis to the work of CCI/Winter Soldier to emphasize that it was veterans themselves, coming up, who attempted to convince the American public that it was the “tactical field policies,” search and destroy, free fire zones, systematic torture of “suspects,” indiscriminate H&I artillery fire and air strikes, forced removal of populations, defoliation, and so on that created what Robert Lifton later characterized as the “atrocity producing environment” in which GIs operated.   Atrocities were widespread, we charged.  They resulted from policies designed at the highest levels of the government and Pentagon.  GIs, while they executed them, did not create them.  War crimes policies were SOP.  My Lai was just the tip of the iceberg.
Howie Machtinger:
Episode 5: This Is What We Do

Maybe I am going soft or getting lost in the fog of Burns/Novick but I found this episode somewhat intriguing.  The NVA and the NlF are depicted as redoubtable fighters.  And the battle scenes continue to pack a punch.  The diversionary pre-Tet strategy of the NVA and NLF in the ‘border war is clearly laid out. The surprise of the Tet offensive is set up nicely (if not particularly originally) by LBJ’s short-term “Success Offensive”.

The implication of the Episode is that atrocities are part of war and that successful soldiers adapt.  But a disquieting undercurrent to this notion also present.  If war leads to not only atrocities, but ’embracing’ that part of it; doesn’t this perspective unsettle the narrative of idealism and American innocence.  Musgrave, the putative star of this epic, notes that captured soldiers did not survive long enough to become prisoners. Then there were the murderous Tiger Force egged on by their superiors.  And the orders to”shoot anything that moves” in a so-called free-fire zone.
And as B/N show there were soldiers like the army reporter who tried to report the gang rape and murder of a Vietnamese woman, or the soldiers who resisted orders to burn down huts.  B/N show a failure of the officers to discourage (and sometimes encourage) acts of revenge that were criminal.  The officers functioned to normalize atrocities and war crimes.
In typical style, B/N back away from the implications of what they have shown, leaning on speculations about human aggressiveness or concluding on a notion that yes, Tiger Force acted as criminal murderers, but this was an aberration.  It isn’t necessary to condemn all soldiers to see that civilian casualties and worse were not only tolerated but endemic to an overall strategy that could not distinguish friend from enemy.. We know from countless testimony from both Vietnamese victims and American GIs that atrocities happened a lot even if most soldiers did not participate. What sort of standard is that?   It would have taken some courage to try to tackle these questions honestly but the narrative is too interested in overturning the supposed popular view that all soldiers were baby killers and too afraid to alienate an American audience to go there?
Similarly there is a lot of material around the endemic racism in the American military.  The listing of racist terms (often with origins in other problematic American interventions, as in Nicaragua) drilled into GIs in basic training is compelling.  Musgrave admits that he didn’t kill Vietnamese, but ‘gooks’, RACISM 101 as he says.  And so on.
But again B/N back away from the implications of what they show.  The list of racist terms is immediately followed up by a false equivalence: that Vietnamese referred to ‘American invaders’, ‘American imperialists’, and ‘American bandits’; defensible epithets and lacking the racial animus of ‘gook’, ‘slant’ or ‘mama-san’.  Anti-colonialism is a different sort of motivation than deep-seated racism.
There was too much complaining about American arrogance to define Saigon purely as a ‘puppet’ government, but what is a more accurate description; certainly not calling it an independent state, as B/N sometimes aver; one so wholly dependent on American everything? Do the Saigon elections really represent tentative moves to democracy?
The  description of the Pentagon demonstration in the fall of 1967 is the only time in the doc that antiwar militancy is not condemned.  In fact one of the slogans of the period was “From Protest o Resistance” manifested not only in DC but in Stop the Draft Week in Oakland, CA, and in street demonstrations in New York and elsewhere. Why are there no iconic pictures of protestors placing flowers in the rifles of the soldiers guarding the Pentagon?
While B/N debunk the notion that the antiwar movement was a tool of international Communism, they only mention in passing the CIA and FBI illegal attempts to subvert the movement.  This is a big deal in what is supposed to pass as a democracy; isn’t the military supposed to be fighting for our right to protest?  And LBJ is as uncomprehending of the domestic opposition he is of the Vietnamese opposition.
What was John McCain’s target in Hanoi when he was shot down?  I’ve heard various stories; a textile factory is one suggestion.  Why are B/N disinterested in whether he was bombing a civilian target in Hanoi?
Finally, B/N consistently assert that Hanoi inflexibly turns down LBJ’s peace initiatives. Though they generally skewer LBJ, this lets him off the hook as part of a narrative which continually demonizes Hanoi.  Below is a short history of what went on around peace negotiations in 1966-67 drawn from “A Special Supplement: Vietnam: How Not to Negotiate” by Theodore Draper in the May 4, 1967 New York Review of Books:
 On or about December 4,1967, Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rapacki sent back word that Hanoi had agreed to unconditional talks on the ambassadorial level in Warsaw, and Washington was asked to send a special representative for this purpose. Before the talks could be held, however, the American bombing offensive was suddenly stepped up and this initiative did not go forward.
Early in January 1967, however, the Hanoi leaders apparently made an attempt to remove the four points (mentioned in an earlier post as Prime Minister Pham Van Dong’s 4- point program) as the main source of confusion and disagreement. In an interview with NY Times reporter Harrison E. Salisbury (ho had earlier verified reports of civilian assaults caused by US bombing) on January 3, Premier Pham Van Dong referred to them as matters for “discussion” rather than as “conditions” prior to negotiations. At the same time,  UN Secretary-General U Thant made known his view, after two weeks of behind-the-scenes probing, that the only thing which stood in the way of peace talks was the question of unconditional cessation of the United States bombing of North Vietnam.
Through Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, the North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh made known that “if the bombings cease completely, good and favorable conditions will be created for the talks.” That this was intended by Trinh as a response to the President was shown by the following remark: “President Johnson said he was only awaiting a sign. Well, he’s had the sign.”
At the core of the American case, making meaningful negotiations difficult, if not impossible, was the concept of “reciprocity.” But—and this was the critical question—what could “reciprocity” mean between a strong, rich power like the United States and a weak, poor power like North Vietnam?

In February 1967, for example, the United States and allied foreign forces in South Vietnam numbered: United States, more than 400,000; South Korea, 45,000; Australia, 4,500, New Zealand, 360—a total of more than 450,000. The North Vietnamese forces in the South were estimated at about 50,000. President Johnson’s proposal of February 8 amounted, in effect, to freezing the forces on both sides in the South in return turn for a cessation of United States bombing in the North but not in the South. By stopping all movement to the South, which was undoubtedly what would have been required, North Vietnam could not even have maintained the forces which it already had in the South because it could not provision them by plane and ship, as the United States was able to do. Just as the United States felt that it could not accept any offer which might discourage or demoralize its South Vietnamese wards, so the North Vietnamese leaders doubtless felt the same way about their own troops and protégés in the South.

President Johnson, it should be noted, did not offer a military truce or ceasefire in the South in exchange for halting the bombing of the North. Thus, morally, numerically, and materially, the proposal of February 8 was palpably unequal because the sides were so unequal.

The United States was, in effect, doing what General James M. Gavin (Ret.) warned against in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 21—using the bombing of the North as a bargaining instrument. The bombing had been initiated in February 1965, primarily to bolster the South Vietnamese government’s faltering morale. At that time, according to Secretary of Defense McNamara, North Vietnam’s regular troops in the South had numbered only about 400, and the bombing could not have been justified on the ground that it was necessary to interdict their lines of communication with the North.  First came the bombing, and then came an escalation of the war on both sides, which provided the major justification for the bombing. In February 1965, the bombing of the North represented a desperate United States effort to save the South Vietnamese forces from defeat; in February 1967, it represented an offensive effort to bring about North Vietnam’s defeat. After two years of bombing which had unilaterally changed the pre-1965 rules of the war, the North Vietnamese and United States conceptions of “reciprocity” were understandably different. North Vietnam could not stop bombing the United States in exchange for a similar courtesy on the part of the United States in North Vietnam. The price the United States demanded was in South Vietnam, where the advantages and disadvantages on both sides were so different that the concept of “reciprocity” was far from the simple numerical arrangement that President Johnson proposed on February 8.