THE VIETNAM WAR BY KEN BURNS AND LYNN NOVICK
By Armen Pandola
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Vietnam War is a sprawling documentary whose goal is to ‘heal’ the wounds caused by divisions in America about the Vietnam War. It does not succeed. You cannot heal a wound that you refuse to diagnose and treat.
According to Burns and Novick, the United States 'slipped into the War' by trying to assist the South Vietnamese in defending their country. Lip service is given to the fact that the US violated the terms of its 1954 agreement regarding Vietnam in which it was agreed that an election would be held to determine the leaders of a unified Vietnam. The overwhelming amount of time is given to the narrative that the US went into Vietnam with 'the best intentions', but lost because the ‘liberals’ in the US abandoned the cause. It is a message that those who financed this documentary are happy to see given the imprimatur of a Ken Burns-PBS documentary. Sadly, it is a lie. This documentary ignores the Pentagon Papers, ignores the work of Noam Chomsky and others who wrote about the true reasons for the war, ignores all of the fine books about Vietnam, its history and people, that put the War in context. This is a documentary that distorts the War it claims to chronicle - and more, it is part of the narrative that has led the US into so many subsequent wars and conflicts that we had no honorable reason to be part of.
The donors who made Burns/Novak's series possible represent an America that has long refused to face the reality of the Vietnam War, that is, that the US invaded that country for the purpose of maintaining its power in the Southeast Asia region. The ‘domino theory’ was created to deceive the American people into believing that the ‘fall of Vietnam’ to Communism would mean the fall of all Southeast Asia and perhaps even India to Communism. It is a theory which proved to be wrong, but that fact is not given much play in this documentary.
Instead, a great deal of time is spent claiming that soldiers returning from Vietnam were mistreated. Having lived during that time, I saw no such evidence of that. There was a military draft at the time and almost all soldiers who served in Vietnam were drafted and forced to serve. Everyone, including those who opposed the War, knew that. It is sad that this lie continues to be perpetrated without any contemporary evidence to back it up. The only people I saw who were ridiculed were the protestors - those who opposed the War. And the only long lasting damage done to those who served was done by the cancerous agent orange that was used in Vietnam without any concern for those, both Vietnamese and US soldiers, who were scarred forever by it.
One example of the way that this documentary plays fast and loose with the facts concerns the assassination of the Diem brothers, the US puppet regime running South Vietnam from 1956 to 1963. It claims that the US allowed the Vietnamese generals to kill the Diem brothers because of a series of seemingly innocent mistakes. When the generals asked for US support to overthrow Diem, President Kennedy and most of his administration were on vacation. Really? That’s why the Kennedy Administration threw out Diem, it was on vacation? The Pentagon Papers clearly states that the Kennedy government both knew of and its ambassador encouraged the overthrow of Diem:
With the coup plotting far advanced and the U.S. clearly committed to the generals' attempt, Lodge seeks to calm Washington's anxieties about the. lack of detailed information on the generals' plans [to overthrow Diem]. He is at pains to oppose any thought of thwarting the coup because he thinks the military will create a government with better potential for carrying on the war, and because it would constitute undue meddling in Vietnamese affairs. Embassy Saigon Message 1964, Lodge to McGeorge Bundy, 25 October 1963 •
And later in 1963, before the coup that ousted Diem, this was Kennedy's order: "[O]nce the coup has started, it is in our interests to see that it succeeds. CAS Hashington Message 79407, 30 October 1963" .
The series concentrates on the stories of individual soldiers both North and South. By concentrating on those who actually fought the war, the series deceives the viewers into believing that the battles, the combat, was the most important thing about the War, but that is far from true. From the Pentagon Papers, we know that the men in power in Washington (there were no women at that time) who were running the War knew that it could not be won in any conventional sense, for example, as WW II was won when Germany and then Japan surrendered. They knew that North Vietnam would never surrender, and that to subdue the entire country would take millions of troops.
The series does little to put the blame where it belongs, with those men in the military, in the government and in the press (yes, there were a few reporters who tried to tell the truth about Vietnam, but the vast majority were content to pass on the daily briefing from the latest General in charge, especially before 1970). It does little to give credit to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who opposed the War and marched or protested to try and stop it. The last word we hear from someone who did protest the War, a now older woman, says she is sorry for calling returning Vets ‘baby killers.’ I don’t know any protestor who did that (some did say it of LBJ and Nixon). Burns and Novak have perpetrated a serious harm to those who opposed the war by portraying them as insensitive monsters. In fact, the protestors were right - this was a War fought not for freedom, but for power.
America deserves a better documentary about a War that tore the country apart like nothing else, not even the Trump administration.
The two most vivid pictures of the War are given no real context. In one, we see the cursory execution of a Viet Cong. The documentary could have told the story of how many Vietnamese were summarily shot and how that effected the will of the Viet Cong who were known to die rather than surrender. In the other, we see a young girl suffering from the effects of napalm bomb, but we are told that the bomb was dropped by a South Vietnamese plane by mistake. US bombers were dropping tons of the stuff and likely this was a scene that could have been photographed every day somewhere in Vietnam. Instead of any real context, we only get a long account from the reporters who took the pictures about how they were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. There is little mention of the hundreds if not thousands of US soldiers who died 30-40-50 years later of cancer caused by napalm.
Are there good things in the series? Yes. The stories of those who fought or were captured are told, vividly. They suffered in unimaginable ways and often their stories evoke tears for the sheer suffering of what they endured. All of their lives were forever shaped by their experiences in the War, and it is obvious that many of them are never going to be able to put it behind them. They cannot do that, and no matter how much Burns and Novick would like to see this series make it happen, neither can we. Nor should we.