– And two different attempts to make us want to understand why and how it all happened
*This blog title “the war nobody won” is stolen from Stanley Karnow’s famous and controversial prologue in “Vietnam – a History.”
The recent launch of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick 18-hour documentary on ‘THE VIETNAM WAR’ has prompted me to hole up quite a few Hanoi nights over the past month.
Subsequently, I added a 13 hour re-watch of the original ‘VIETNAM – A TELEVISION HISTORY’, done almost 35 years ago. It has been absolutely fascinating.
Both series are published by PBS, but very different in their approach to the war(s) in Vietnam. Burns/Novick are on a mission to captivate the viewers with a dramatic and well researched narrative, based on wartime footage (some it never seen before, I believe) and retrospective interviews with former combatants, peace activists, victims and relatives in Vietnam and in the US.
No doubt, it has been an enormous task to put this documentary together.
It is all spiced up with a continuous score of greatest hits from the US pop music charts during the war years. The narrator is intense and (melo)dramatic. The obvious ‘story-telling gimmicks’ seem a bit too much, but if you make it to the end, you will walk away feeling wiser on the war and its far reaching implications 40 years on.
However, one very big issue is strangely missing from the documentary: The legacy of the war, i.e. the long term effects of Agent Orangeand the enormous amounts of UXO’s, unexploded mines and bombs, which are still killing people in Vietnam as well as Cambodia and Laos, 40 years after the war. Apart from a single sentence on Agent Orange, the documentary completely ignores the terrible, lingering consequences for thousands of Vietnamese and US and other allied veterans, who ‘humped the boonies’ in the sprayed areas during the war.
Likewise, the efforts carried out by VN veterans to assist the Vietnamese with UXO clearance are also left out. One should think that initiatives like the Project Renew would deserve attention in a new documentary on the war in Vietnam.
The story of the Hanoi Spy legend Pham Xuan An would have suited well with the other ‘human interest’ stories in the Burns/Novick documentary.
Considering the Burns/Novick fascination of ‘human interest’ stories, it is also surprising, that the role of the legendary Hanoi spy, Pham Xuan An is not mentioned at all.
Being a trusted advisor of the US Ambassadors and several senior military officers, An supplied the North Vietnamese and the Southern Insurgents with the vital intelligence to prepare for the 1968 Tet Mau Tan Offensive, the massive attack against more than 100 cities and other targets in the South.
An even managed to become bureau chief for Time Magazine and cleverly manipulated the foreign press corps in Saigon during daily informal chats at his favorite café. Only several years after the war, it was disclosed that Pham Xuan An was also a colonel in Hanoi’s military intelligence apparatus.
It also surprising that Burns/Novick refrain from bringing post-war revelations into focus. On example: They are spending quite a bit of airtime on the1968 My Lai massacre without bringing this horrendous act into perspective. Once again, we get the hero-and-villain story about Lieutenant William Calley, who ordered the killings, and the courageous helicopter pilot, who managed to stop the massacre after 504 old men, women and children had been killed.
Why not tell the bigger story about, what really went on in Quan Ngai province, when Tiger Forcewas let loose in a year-long killing spree in ‘enemy villages’, and how Pentagon bureaucrats, led by Donald Rumsfeld, subsequently sabotaged the Army’s own investigations and covered up the atrocities. The incredibly story is well documented in yet another fine piece of Pulitzer-winning journalism, and subsequently this book:
Predictably, Burns/Novick have received quite a bit of flack for being biased, primarily from the ‘we-fought-an-honourable-war’-opinionists in the US. For obvious reasons, the Nixon Foundation is highly critical in published comments to the episodes, dealing with the Nixon/Kissinger years. But by and large, to this blogger the Burns/Novick documentary seems to be a rather fair assessment of the consequences of Nixon’s ‘peace with honour’ strategy, and the enormous loss of lives, which followed.
An obvious weakness of the entire Burns/Novick documentary (as opposed to the PBS-predecessor) is that they are without firsthand knowledge of the war in Vietnam and therefore at complete mercy of their sources.
The substance of several episodes seem to be largely based on interviews with wartime journalist Neil Sheehan and his Pulitzer-winning book ‘A Bright Shining Lie’. There a very few retrospective interviews with key decision makers, partly for the simple reason that most of them are dead now.
These weak points make the original PBS-series appear all the more stronger, even so many years after it was made. The producers of ‘Vietnam – a Television History’ contracted one of the war’s most eminent journalists, Stanley Karnow (Time Magazine) as chief correspondent for the series.
Karnow’s amazing network of sources on all sides is the backbone of every episode. During the war he had regular access to the highest levels of US political and military decision-making, ranging from ‘kitchen-chats’ with President Kennedy to the inner circles of the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies.
This also made Karnow a target of criticism for being biased in favor the US in his coverage during and after the war. For the very same reason left leaning professor Noam Chomsky and others fired away on the original PBS documentary.
The US-bias attacks on Karnow did not stop the Hanoi leadership from allowing him back in 1981. He became one of the first American journalists to make a first hand report from post-war Vietnam. PBS and the viewers would benefit enormously from the sources, which Karnow had developed among the senior decision makers in Hanoi.
The Vietnamese authorities gave Karnow full access to almost everyone on his bucket list, except the enigmatic wartime chief negotiator Le Duc Tho and Hanoi’s master spy Pham Xuan An. (Coincidentally, fellow reporter Jørn Ruby and I received the same khong duoc – “no-no” on the same requests, when walking a few years later in Karnow’s footsteps through the Hanoi maze of government offices).
Nevertheless, virtually all the sources you are missing in the Burns/Novick documentary, you will find in abundance in the original PBS-series.
Compelling interviews with all sides
The 35 year old documentary is by no means outdated. The analysis stands clear and solid, along with in-depth interviews with some of Hanoi’s famous warlords, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach.
Representing the US side, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, General William C. Westmoreland, and CIA chief Willam Colby are among those sharing their reflections on the war that led to so much death and suffering in Vietnam and in the US.
My recommendation to fellow Vietnam nerds, on which documentary to hole up with: Take both of them with you. If this is not enough, both documentaries come with just as compelling book companions, which are equally different in approach.
The Burns/Novick book is glossy and coffee table-size with lots of dramatic color shots. The text is a quality compilation of works by real Vietnam expert writers.
Stanley Karnow’s classic is an eminent brick of a book. 800 pages are waiting for you, and once you are done with it, you will be looking for a volume II.
Toward an honest commemoration of the American War in Vietnam
The Full Disclosure campaign is a Veterans For Peace effort to speak truth to power and keep alive the antiwar perspective on the American war in Viet Nam — which is being commemorated during this decade with a series of 50th anniversary events. Full Disclosure represents a clear alternative to the Pentagon’s current efforts to sanitize and mythologize that war, and to thereby legitimize further unnecessary and destructive wars.
March – The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Politburo passes a resolution that top leaders of the party should study what is termed “Ho Chi Minh thought.” Support for struggles in Cambodia and Laos are to be stepped up. Diplomatic struggle is elevated to the same level as political and military struggle. This is in part to offset the consequences of the growing Sino-Soviet split.
March 4 – Antonia Martínez, a 21-year-old student at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, is shot and killed by a policeman while watching and commenting on the anti-Vietnam War and education reform student protests at the University of Puerto Rico.
March 6 – In response to “intense public speculation” over U.S. involvement in Laos, President Nixon gives an address on U.S. policy and activities in Laos. For the first time, Nixon admits that the United States has been flying “combat support missions for Laotian forces when requested to do so by the Royal Laotian Government.” He also falsely denies that any American soldiers had been killed in Laos.
March 8 – Jane Fonda visits Fort Lewis, Washington, and is detained for “questioning” by military authorities. Fonda then visits the Shelter Half coffeehouse, and holds a press conference in Seattle the next day.
March 9 – ASU chapter at Fort Lewis breaks from the national organization and reorganizes as the Independent Servicemen’s Movement, continuing to publish Fed Up and hoping to work with the national Movement for a Democratic Military.
March 14 – A group of officers participate as Officers’ Resistance in a GI Rally for Peace and Justice in Washington DC. By the end of March 1970, they had changed their name to the Concerned Officers Movement (COM). COM’s first newsletter, published in April 1970, affirmed:
“The Concerned Officers’ Movement was formed by a group of active duty and reserve officers who could no longer continue to be passive, unquestioning agents of military and national policies they found untenable. Paramount in the program of COM is a fervent opposition to the continuing military effort in Vietnam. COM decries the military policies that turned an internal political struggle into a nation-destroying bloodbath. The application of American military power in Vietnam was as unnecessary as it was unworkable. “COM further abhors the military mentality that promotes absurd measures like the body count; that leads to the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians; that destroys land and villages and calls it victory.”
March 14 – Hey-Tra-Sneyo, ISM GIs, civilians, and Northwest and Alcatraz Indians picket at the Madigan gate of Fort Lewis, Washington, as an extension of the occupation of Fort Lawton, laying claim to the soon-to-be-abandoned army base for Native American tribes.
March 18 – Neutralist Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia is deposed by pro-American General Lon Nol along with Defense Minister, and First Deputy Premier Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak–who proclaim the establishment of the Khmer Republic. Sihanouk, who had been out of the country at the time of the coup, aligns with Cambodian Communists, known as the Khmer Rouge, in an effort to oust Lon Nol’s regime. The Khmer Rouge are led by Pol Pot (born, Saloth Sar), who capitalizes on the enormous prestige and popularity of Prince Sihanouk to increase support for his Khmer Rouge movement among Cambodians. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam breaks off relations with the Lon Nol government by March 27, the Chinese by May 5, while the USSR maintained relations with the Lon Nol government through 1975.
March 20 – Cambodian troops under Gen. Lon Nol attack Khmer Rouge and DRV forces inside Cambodia. At the White House, Nixon and top aides discuss plans to assist Lon Nol’s pro-American regime.
March 23 – Sihanouk issues a “Message to the Nation” from Beijing, calling on the Khmer people to rise up against the Lon Nol regime, offering a National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK) to govern and defend the Khmer people.
March 31 – The U.S. Army brings murder charges against Captain Ernest L. Medina concerning the massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai on March 16, 1968. (See Chronology entries for March 16, and March 28, 1968, September 5, 1969, November 12, 1970, and March 29, 1971.)
End of March – At the Oakland, California Induction Center, for the six-month period, October through March 1970, 50% of those called failed to report, and 11% of those who did show up refused induction.
2016 National Book Award Finalist, Viet Thanh Nguyen:
“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory . . . . Memory is haunted, not just by ghostly others but by the horrors we have done, seen, and condoned, or by the unspeakable things from which we have profited.”