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The Tragic Failure of Ken Burns Vietnam

By Christopher Koch | Medium | September 28, 2017

There is so much to love about this series. The uncompromising scenes of combat, the voices of both Americans and Vietnamese, the historical context, the exposure of the utter incompetence of our military leaders, the terrific music that is frequently exactly where it should be, the slowly revealed powerful still images and Peter Coyote’s wonderful narrative voice. Its tragic failure is its inability to hold anyone responsible for their actions.

Burns and Novick tell us that the war was begun “in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and …” whatever the current threat. That’s probably true of most wars. However, as we used to teach our children, you have to be accountable for your actions. If you kill someone speeding the wrong way down a one way street you’ll get charged with manslaughter even if you’re rushing someone to the hospital.

It’s the lack of accountability, the failure to prosecute those who lied to get us into the war, who encouraged battlefield tactics that resulted in the massacre of women and children, who authorized the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, who drenched Vietnam in chemical poisons that will cause birth defects and death for generations.

In order to maintain this central lie, Burns and Novick must establish a false balance between good and evil on both sides. Every time the United States is shown doing something bad, Burns and Novick show us how the Vietnamese also did bad things. In one absurd example, Coyote intones something like, “we called them ‘Dinks,’ ‘Gooks,’ ‘Mamasans;’ they called us ‘invaders’ and ‘imperialists.’” The GI terms are dehumanizing, but the Vietnamese terms are accurate. People who cross 3,000 miles of ocean to attack a country that has done them no harm, are accurately called ‘invaders.’ I suppose you could argue about the ‘imperialist’ charge.

Vietnamese soldiers killed some 58,000 Americans and wounded a couple of hundred thousand more. Burns and Novick put the number of Vietnamese we killed at 3 million, but most experts say it was more like 4 million and Vietnam says its 6 million, with more people continuing to die from unexploded ordinance and Agent Orange. We destroyed 60% of their villages, sprayed 21 million gallons of lethal poisons, imposed free fire zones (a euphemism for genocide) on 75% of South Vietnam. They attacked US military bases in their country and never killed an American on American soil. There are no equivalences here.

Burns and Novick do a good job of explaining that the United States worked with Ho Chi Minh during World War II and that Ho hoped to get our support after the war. They do not mention that having friendly relations with Communist countries was a successful strategy we used with Yugoslavia, because although it was Communist, Yugoslavia was also independent and a thorn in the Soviet Union’s side. Any minimal understanding of Vietnam’s history would have identified Vietnam’s fiercely independent streak. Intelligent leaders (anyone with half a brain) would have adopted the Yugoslav strategy in Vietnam.

This brings us to another central problem of the Burns and Novick series, Leslie Gelb’s smiling recollection (he looks so smug) that nobody knew anything about Vietnam and didn’t for several years. In fact, throughout the series, many people say “we should have known better.” Is ignorance really a good excuse for launching a brutal war and the war crimes that followed? Unmentioned is how easy it was to gather information on Vietnam. French historians and journalists had studied every aspect of the country and its culture during and after their defeat in the French Indo China war. Much of this material had been translated into English. That’s how I figured out in 1965 that we were going to lose the war in Vietnam.

Burns and Novick fail to mention my trip to North Vietnam in 1965 nor any of the other trips to North Vietnam by members of the American peace movement such as Tom Hayden, Staughton Lynd and Herbert Aptheker who went in January 1966 and members of Women’s Strike for Peace who went later. They only show us Jane Fonda’s trip in 1972, when she broadcast to US troops asking them to stop the bombing and was photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun. No one else who went to North Vietnam did either of these things.

Our earlier trips to North Vietnam were important, because we were the only Americans to witness the destruction being rained down on North Vietnam. Burns’ documentary shows lots of aerial shots of bombs and napalm going off (Mussolini’s son called them rosebuds blooming in the desert when he attack Ethiopia) but very few shots of the bomb’s effects on the ground in North Vietnam. We hear talk of precision bombing, but those of us who traveled to North Vietnam observed hospitals, schools, churches, markets, and working class neighborhoods utterly destroyed. And this was ten years before the war ended!

The Burns’ documentary doesn’t show us the makeshift hospitals with children and old people without arms and legs or suffering from horrendous burns, all victims of American bombing attacks. The documentary focuses our compassion on the American pilots who dropped the bombs.

In fact, the only heroes in Ken Burns’ Vietnam are American GI’s. Almost everyone else is their enemy: the Vietnamese they fought, the officers whose absurd strategy sent them to their deaths, and the American peace movement that struggled to end the war and bring them home. Burns and Novick portray the peace movement in the worst possible terms. In at least three places, they have moving sound bites about how returning soldiers were spit on or in other ways disrespected. It’s a false memory, at least in any general sense. They couldn’t find any visual support, no signs about baby killers, because it didn’t happen, or happened extremely rarely.

To me, this is the central flaw of Burns and Novick’s film, their failure to deal truthfully and equally with the peace movement. Six million Americans took part in the anti-war effort (only 2.7 million Americans served as soldiers). Everyone I knew in the peace movement honored the veterans and wanted justice for them. They studied books, took part in teach-ins, and watched newsreels. But Burns and Novick, with a couple of notable exceptions, characterize the peace movement as uninformed, chaotic, disrespectful, self absorbed and violent. At one point, they intercut 1969 pictures of kids at Woodstock wallowing in great music with soldiers fighting in Vietnam. What was that supposed to mean?

The kids who refused to go (many out of righteous opposition), who fled into exile in Canada or Sweden, or who, like boxer Muhammad Ali lost his right to fight for three years, or the Fort Hood 3 who went to prison, or the professors and journalists who lost their jobs, the protestors beaten by riled up construction workers, Martin Luther King who went public with his opposition in 1967, the priests who raided draft offices and burned their records, Alice Hertz and two other Americans who burned themselves to death in honor of the Buddhist monks who did the same in South Vietnam protesting our puppet regime — these are not worth profiling, all tinged by the same brush, they are the bad guys who disrespected our troops and went violent. What a wonderful authoritarian message that gives to viewers. Don’t protest an evil war or your country’s war crimes.

The only heroes in Burns and Novick’s Vietnam are American servicemen and I am thrilled to see them finally recognized for what they went through. We have moving back stories of their homes, their motives for joining, their families waiting for them.

None of the six million participants in the American peace movement gets similar treatment. The same is true, incidentally, of the Vietnamese. While the sound bites are great, there are no Vietnamese back stories either.

Without the peace movement, there is no moral center to this series. The lack of accountability is fatal. That an American general can watch from a helicopter the massacre at Mai Lai (as the films tells us) and suffer no consequences is sickening. If military courts had aggressively prosecuted violators of human rights, or even if we only had held detailed and accurate reconciliations where the truth came out, there would have been a chance that our reckless invasions of Iraq with its policy of torture and the invasion of Afghanistan would not have followed so easily. When people are held accountable for their actions, perpetrators of questionable violent acts think twice.

Last week on NPR an American general in Afghanistan announced that we are not trying to occupy territory in Afghanistan, we are simply trying to kill terrorists. Here, again, is the same rationale of the body count that led to disaster in Vietnam. We are reliving the Vietnam War because no one was ever really held responsible for its horrors.

The moral center of the Vietnam War was held by those who opposed it. Several people I’ve talked to say the series is depressing. I had the same feeling of despair at the end. Burns and Novick suggest Vietnam’s a tragedy. It’s not. In tragedy a powerful human makes a terrible mistake and suffers the consequences. No one suffered any consequences for Vietnam. Burns and Novick assure us that even if people did wrong, they didn’t mean to. America is still the shining city on the hill and we can do no wrong.

Christopher Koch, in 1965, became the first American reporter to visit North Vietnam.

October 10, 2017 - Posted by | Deception, Fake News, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Timeless or most popular, War Crimes | , , ,

9 Comments »

  1. At the end of the documentary, Burns profiles an anti-war activist who broke into tears and apologized to the vets she (they) supposedly spat on and called baby-killers “and worse.” Yet I saw not one bit of video or audio to substantiate this claim. Alternatively, there was non-stop documentation of pro-war Americans screaming at the protesters, attacking them, beating them up, calling them “Commies,” all of which culminated in the murders at Kent State by National Guardsmen summoned by Gov. James Rhodes of my home state of Ohio, who referred to the protesters as “Brownshirts” and “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

    Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick, I’d like to know where is the apology from these people??

    Comment by greenpete58 | October 10, 2017 | Reply

  2. No mention of the dark figure in the White House, and the Architect of the “Vietnam War”(known to the Vietnamese as “The American War”) Henry Kissinger, war criminal, who is famously quoted as saying, “Military men are just dumb stupid animals, to be used as pawns in foreign policy”.(Tell that to the families of the dead and injured American,and allied troops) Henry, you disgusting fat pig.
    It’s still not too late to Hang Kissinger on a meat hook in Time Square, like the Italians did to Mussolini after WWII.

    The Military Industrial Complex didn’t learn a lesson from Vietnam, because they are still doing the same thing to countries in the Middle East, on behalf of Israel…… and North Korea is the next country on the Pentagon’s “to do” list.

    Comment by Brian Harry, Australia | October 10, 2017 | Reply

  3. THE BIGGEST PROBLEM IN AMERICA IS IGNORANCE!

    HE TAMED THE US WAR MACHINE

    The Vietnamese general who tamed the US war machine

    General Vo Nguyen Giap who was a legend in his lifetime and hailed as one of the greatest military leaders of the 20th century.
    Vo Nguyen Giap, the brilliant Vietnamese general who died last week at the age of 102, became a legend in his lifetime as one of the greatest military leaders of the 20th century. Equally important, he became a source of inspiration to millions of young people the world over who spiritedly opposed and protested against the United States’ invasion of and war on his country.
    The antiwar movement ignited some of the most radical and creative mobilisations the world has ever witnessed, including the landmark May 1968 revolt in France, and politicised a whole generation.
    Giap became a hero in India too, where progressive political, student and trade union movements coined slogans expressing solidarity with the revolutionary Viet Cong forces fighting the Americans, such as “Aamaar Naam, Tomaar Naam, Vietnam, Vietnam (My name, your name, Vietnam, Vietnam)” and “Ganga, Mekong Ek Naam, Vietnam, Vietnam.”

    ‘No other war for liberation was as fierce as Vietnam war’

    A teacher and journalist with no formal military training, Giap enlisted himself in a ragtag Communist insurgency in the 1940s and forged it into a highly-disciplined force that brought about the end of France’s Indo-Chinese empire and reunited a nation divided by the Cold War.

    Giap first masterminded the defeat of the French forces occupying Vietnam, and then led North Vietnam’s forces against the South’s puppet regime until the US had to beat an ignominious retreat from the country in 1975, when a helicopter flew out the remnants of US troops from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon.

    This ended one of the most brutal wars in history, in which three million civilians were killed (of a total population of 32 million), vegetation in huge swathes of land was destroyed by defoliants such as Agent Orange, cities were indiscriminately bombed, and numerous atrocities were sadistically committed against unarmed peasants, such as the infamous My Lai massacre.

    As Giap put it in an interview in 2005 on the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam under US occupation: “No other wars for national liberation were as fierce or caused as many losses as this war.”

    ‘A kindle hope following the US debacle in Vietnam’

    The war was one of the bloodiest chapters, if not the bloodiest one, in the history of the Cold War, fuelled by the US’s global offensive against Communism and national liberation movements seeking a modicum of independence and sovereignty. The US launched a ruthless campaign in Vietnam to bomb it “back to the Stone Age” and

    created concentration camps known as “strategic hamlets” to punish and demoralise non-combatant civilians, besides funding clients and blacklegs.

    All this was to ensure that the Viet Cong, politically led by Ho Chi Minh, would be militarily defeated and their country economically and socially ruined. The opposite happened. Giap’s brilliant military strategy of a people’s war played no mean role in bringing about this outcome.

    The US’s historic debacle in Vietnam served to kindle the hope the world over that ordinary people determined to fight invasion, tyranny and injustice could win against the world’s mightiest nation no matter how poorly equipped and armed they might be. Like Fidel Castro’s successful and heroic defiance of the US, the victory of the Vietnamese revolution became a symbol and source of hope for movements in scores of countries against imperialism and for emancipation of their people from exploitation and oppression.

    Giap devised a combination of military strategies that would combat US and South Vietnamese troops both by conventional means and through guerrilla warfare. Crucial to this was winning peasants over to the cause of national liberation. Giap had closely studied the military teachings of Mao Zedong, and believed that political education and grassroots popular support for sustained guerrilla warfare were necessary for the revolution to succeed.

    ‘The timing of the Vietnamese attack was a political masterstroke’

    Giap’s military methods were perfected in the war against the French occupation after World War Two. In 1954, Giap famously defeated the French army’s elite troops and its foreign legion at Dien Bien Phu, near the border with Laos, where they had established a stronghold. In May 1954, Vietnamese forces under the command of the Viet Minh, the military wing of the Vietnam Independence League, besieged Dien Bien Phu.

    The Viet Minh troops wore sandals made of used car tyres and had so little mechanical transport that they had to lug their artillery piece by piece over the mountains around the encampment. Yet, after an eight-week siege, they inflicted a crushing defeat on the French troops after using artillery to block supplies to them. That battle has become a part of military strategy books worldwide, and even earned Giap the grudging admiration of French generals.

    But military strategy was only one source of Giap’s success. The timing of the attack was a political masterstroke, coinciding with the day that negotiators met in Geneva to discuss a settlement to the conflict. Faced with the debacle, the French conceded defeat and agreed to withdraw. The country split into a Communist-ruled north and a non-Communist south, which Giap eventually managed to reunite by defeating the US-backed and far better armed south Vietnamese forces in 1975.

    Dien Bien Phu forced out France of Indochina altogether and greatly strengthened anti-imperialist movements in Asia.
    Against his more powerful American adversaries, Giap used a strategy based more on guerrilla warfare than conventional attacks, but only after his massive operation called the Tet offensive of 1968 collapsed, with heavy Viet Minh and Viet Cong casualties.

    The offensive affected the people of US more’

    Militarily, the Tet offensive was a failure. But politically, it succeeded in showing that the Americans were vulnerable. It greatly reinforced the growing domestic opposition in the US to the war, whose savagery became increasingly apparent thanks to television coverage and the sight of body bags returning home. As Giap said later, the offensive “affected the people of the United States more. Until Tet, they thought they could win the war, but now they knew that they could not.”

    Giap firmly believed that the key to military success against the US would lie in politics — the people’s conviction that they are fighting for a just cause; they will therefore forge the will to win despite the greatest possible adversity. The people become the sea for the guerrillas who are like fish, in Mao’s famous analogy.

    General Giap, known as the Red Napoleon, has often been compared with legendary military geniuses like Wellington, MacArthur and Rommel. Perhaps a more apt comparison would be with Soviet general Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who fought the white counter-revolutionary forces during the Civil War and commanded the Red Army with dazzling success — until he was victimised in Stalin’s Great Purges and executed

    ‘Now that Vietnam is independent and united, we can address the challenge of poverty’

    In personal life, Giap was no aggressive militarist. He was a gentle and charming person, erudite and well versed with Western literature and music, as well as classical political economy. He enjoyed Beethoven and Liszt.

    Although a general, and then a defence minister, Giap remained sensitive to social agendas in contemporary Vietnam.

    “In the past, our greatest challenge was the invasion of our nation by foreigners,” he told an interviewer.

    “Now that Vietnam is independent and united, we can address our biggest challenge. That challenge is poverty and economic backwardness.”

    Comment by Buddy Silver | October 10, 2017 | Reply

    • Great summation of the War and General Giap. His defence of Vietnam against the “Most Powerful Nation on Earth” must rank right up there with Churchill’s stand against the German War machine.
      Giap’s effort may have even eclipsed Churchill’s when you compare how much “Ordinance” was dropped on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Four time the tonnage was dropped on those 3 countries than in ALL of Europe in WWII.
      The Military Industrial Complex has lost ALL credibility these days when they accuse countries like Iraq and Syria of using “chemical weapons”, as the USA used Agent Orange, and now leaves ‘Depleted Uranium’ in the aftermath of their wars for “Freedom and Democracy”…………..
      It surprises me that the American People haven’t taken to the streets, like they did during the American War in Vietnam..to rein in the Lunatics in the Pentagon and the CIA.

      Comment by Brian Harry, Australia | October 10, 2017 | Reply

      • Wasn’t it Stalin the stood against the Nazis (with endless US arms and munitions) and Churchill merely jumped on when the war was already decided?

        Comment by aletho | October 10, 2017 | Reply

        • Hitler was bombing London(The Blitz) when My mother was a 16 year old girl, and she told me that when Hitler attacked Russia, the Blitz stopped. It was The Russians who smashed the German War machine, and the Russians paid a HUGE price for their victory. The Death toll was in the many Millions.
          The Allies(including Britain and of course, The USA) invaded Europe on D-Day and mopped up what was left of Hitler’s forces.

          Comment by Brian Harry, Australia | October 10, 2017 | Reply

    • Excellent post and excellent comment above.

      Poofter Burns is a complete phony and propagandist, relying on the sheer ignorance of the American population, as he did with his fantasy series on the Civil War.

      This is all just a rewrite by Intelligence, which in the present day presents only their narrative as they go–as in the war in Syria, for example.

      Comment by Laskarina | October 11, 2017 | Reply

  4. “I refuse to believe that a little fourth rate Power like North Vietnam does not have a breaking point”……Henry Kissinger.(He was wrong)

    “We fought a military war, our opponents fought a political war. WE sought physical attrition, our opponents aimed at our psychological exhaustion……….The North Vietnamese used their armed forces the way the Bullfighter uses his cape, to keep us lunging into areas of marginal political importance”……….Henry Kissinger. (He was right)

    “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up”…….Babe Ruth.

    “History has shown, there are no invincible armies”……Joseph Stalin.

    Comment by Brian Harry, Australia | October 10, 2017 | Reply

  5. Fuck those fuckers = US

    Comment by Nicholas Giannelos | October 11, 2017 | Reply


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