Photo: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library Audiovisual Archives/PBS

Doug Rawlings:


“Things Fall Apart”

485,600 American troops in Vietnam at the beginning of 1968; 510,000 at its close.

As any American veteran watching this series must be doing, I am guilty of — waiting for the episode that tries to encapsulate “my year in country.” That will probably be Monday night as 1968 dissolves into 1969 (I was there from July 2, 1969 to August 9, 1970). So I was totally unprepared for the chopper crew chief’s crazed voice suddenly shouting out “LZ Two Bits.”  Holy shit, that’s where I spent the last half of my thirteen months, as we labored to turn that LZ into a firebase (we started that during Tet 1970).  And with Janis Joplin’s voice crackling in the background.  Too much.

But then I settled in and watched, listened to, breathed in the utter turmoil of 1968 (I was graduating from college) as MLK is assassinated, as LBJ quits his party, as RFK is gunned down, as the cities erupt (including Rochester, NY, my hometown and Cleveland, Ohio, where I went to college). But, again, I was able to pretty much wrap myself in a cocoon of received language, as all of this footage was pretty much familiar to me.  I was safely distanced from my feelings.  Until the battle of Hue came on the screen. Not because I experienced anything close to this city fighting —  hell, I was never even in Saigon or any city for that matter — but because the “documentary’s” trajectory is advanced by intensifying the story of one young Marine, Bill Ehrhart, whose youthful patriotism had been alluded to earlier. 

In 1976, Bill and Jan Barry put out an anthology of Vietnam veteran poetry, DMZ, that includes some of my poems. Over the years I have corresponded with Bill and another poet from the American war in Vietnam, Dave Connolly from Southie, who also published my poems. Both were approached by Lynn Novick to be interviewed.  Dave said no, but Bill said yes. I respect both men’s decisions. Dave has written that he thought the project was going to be too flawed from the get go, whereas Bill has written that participating in it was worth the risk, that lending his voice to the narrative would at least awaken the American public to the realization that many American veterans are still grieving over what they did over there. 

Bill was heavily involved in the fighting in and around Hue, being wounded but eventually choppered out, not because of his wounds, but because “his time in country” was up.  He reflects on how minutes after leaving the street fighting he was flying over what seemed to be a tranquil countryside of rice farmers tending their paddies. He also painfully recounts how he joined his squad in taking advantage of a Vietnamese woman in the midst of the killing — as an 18 year old kid, egged on by pressure from his peers, to even further deepen the moral depths he had sunk into.  As Bill looks into the camera, we get the sense that he will never fully come to terms with what war had done to him. Moral injury rears its ugly head yet again.  I only hope that the film will, in future episodes, also show what Bill did, and has done ever since, to lend his voice to the anti-war movement over the years.  Both he and Dave have used their remorse as powerful weapons against what the poet Robert Bly calls “Americans’ fantastic capacity for aggression and self-delusion.”

Although Bill’s personal account helps shake up the audience on one level, Burns and Novick make a serious mistake on another.  They provide visual imagery and “confessions” from NVA officers about a mass grave outside of Hue that point to a horrific massacre of civilians by NLF and NVA forces. Yet they do not mention the March 16, 1968 My Lai and My Khe massacres of civilians by American troops.  Perhaps they are waiting to “cover” that abomination until their episode about 1969, when it was revealed to the American public, but, still, not even providing a reference to it at this juncture can only make the film makers complicit in Bly’s “self-delusion.”  

Finally, the episode comes to a close with a homecoming narrative from a young black Marine named Harris; the guy trying to hail a cab to Roxbury.  He is the veteran who tells of his correspondence with his mom who is convinced that her son will survive, while he tells us that “death was stalking him.”  He does survive. He arrives at Logan Airport in Boston, in his uniform in 1968, to be shunned by taxi cab drivers at the airport.  A police officer has to stop a cabbie and tell him to pick this guy up.  Now at this point I was fully prepared for a story intended to reinforce the myth that returning soldiers were routinely spat upon and reviled by hippies and such. Not so.  Our aging veteran looks at us, tweaks his bowtie, and says that that cab driver did not want to “take a nigger into Roxbury.“  It was too dangerous. Later on, the same Marine tells us that he refused to lift an M-16 against his fellow citizens as the National Guard was called out to “quell riots” in his hometown. To me, the virulent racism gripping this country in 1968 is embodied in this veteran’s closing narrative as we continue to sink deeper into the “big muddy” of the American War in Vietnam. Where is the end to all of this?  Is there any light at the end of this rabbit tunnel?  “Go Ask Alice,” Gracie Slick tells us. Indeed.


Howie Machtinger:

Episode 6:

A lot of this episode turns on one’s view of the Tet offensive.  B/N emphasize that Le Duan’s hopes for a mass uprising, the dissolution of the ARVN, and the overthrow of the Saigon government.  These hopes were dashed.  And the NVA and NLF forces did take heavy casualties. They quote General Giap (an opponent of the Tet strategy) that Tet was “a costly lesson paid for in blood and bone.”  B/N also show how LBJ and Westmoreland’s “Success Offensive” in late 1967 backfired by adding to the shock of the offensive..  Tet demonstrated that the US was certainly not at the point where it could perceive “the beginning of the end” or “the light at the end of the tunnel”.   They also point out Westmoreland’s misperception of his enemy’s strategy and his and LBJ’s misguided focus on the Battle for Khe Sanh (a remote site of little strategic value) which drew forces away from the cities and other vulnerable points prior to  he Tet offensive.  They feared another Dien Bien Phu, stuck, as is often the case, in fighting the last war over again.  This also accounts for the initial ineptness of the American response in Hue, as Westmoreland still saw Hiue as a diversion from Khe Sanh.
So the fact that the Tet offensive did not end in the takeover of the South was overshadowed by the capacity of the opposition and the new vulnerability of the cities which had not previously seen intense combat.  The ARVN and American forces were needed to protect the cities at a new level.  And it caused a reevaluation of overall policy and the replacement of Westmoreland by Abrams, not to mention LBJ’s abdication.
B/N do not sufficiently dwell on the capacity of he DRV and NLF to launch in secret, to coordinate, and to carry out such a massive and complicated operation.  This implied not only clandestine skill, but a significant base in the population willing to take great risk.  Not enough for a successful general uprising, but enough to throw a big scare.
Also underplayed are the consequences of the American counter-attack.  It does note the words of an unnamed U.S. officer reported by AP correspondent Peter Arnett about Bến Tre city on 7 February 1968 that :’It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’, in reference to the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.[  My Lai was part of this (I know it will be explored in a later episode), along with unleashing massive air power which resulted in massive civilian casualties as in Bến Tre.  For instance, Mark Bowden, in his recent Hue 1968, notes “Nearly all the civilians I interviewed who survived the battle described losing family members, most often to shells and bombs.  The survivors described, without hesitation, bombardment as the most terrifying memory even those who’d had family members executed.” (p. 524).
B/N note the antiwar demonstrations around the world; in Rio and Jakarta, as well as Prague, Berlin, Paris, and London.  The global disgust with the war led to a new level of isolation of the US in world affairs despite its overweening power.
In general, economic considerations are absent form the B/N narrative.
A couple of points that are relevant at this point because the gold drain had become a significant issue for the US at this point.  First is the role of the US in currency manipulation:
“Although many critics of the war cited South Vietnamese corruption in their arguments for US withdrawal, congressional investigation into currency manipulation revealed that without the direct contributions of US soldiers and civilians, the magnitude of illegal economic transactions would not have existed as it did.”  See
and the impact of the gold drain on US conduct of the war:
“the costly Vietnam war led to a drain of US gold reserves.” “there came the March 1968 run on gold, which led to the collapse of the London Gold Pool. The U.S. government and Federal Reserve System, seeking to stave off the complete collapse of the dollar-gold exchange standard, felt obliged to take deflationary measures;” this led eventually to Nixon’s abandonment of the postwar Bretton Woods agreement in 1971,t hereby ending the convertibility of dollars into gold.
There has been speculation that the gold drain was important in the Wise Men’s reversal of their position on the war in March 1968.