Moments from Burns’s Vietnam Episode 4 – Image, Sound and Narration Conflict

After watching the first episode, I wrote about my fears that the series would whitewash USA militarism. Here are some observations after watching Episode 4, “Resolve.”

Minute 34:

Narrator: Mogie’s combat commander, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Emerson, known as “the Gunfighter,” was courageous, implacable, relentless. A few months before Mogie got there, he had offered a case of whiskey to the first of his men to bring him the hacked-off head of an enemy soldier. They did. [Emphasis added. Dennis Crocker was nicknamed Mogie.]

Minute 38:

Bill Zimmerman, with Pete Seeger’s The Willing Conscript in background: The war by 1966 began to impact the middle class because the draft calls had to be enlarged. They couldn’t get enough people to volunteer or draft people out of the working class. They started drafting people out of college. And that’s when the antiwar movement shifted from a moral movement to a self-interest movement driven by people who didn’t want to go to war and their loved ones who didn’t want them to go to war.

Minute 48, with Donavan’s Sunshine Superman in background and clips of smiling US soldiers distributing items to Vietnamese.

Stuart Herrington, author whom the film identified as Army Advisor: The overall myth of an American army running roughshod by policy, by strategy, by tactics to terrorize and murder and victimize the innocent population of South Vietnam, that image is the … it-it doesn’t do justice to the young men and women who served over there. It’s not an accurate depiction of what our army was about.

Emerson and Herrington are good examples of what I’ve noticed is a common practice in this documentary: the conflict of its elements, unacknowledged by the narrator, whom we presume is the voice of the producers and writers.

While one would hope that is obvious with Emerson, in the case of Herrington, the choice of song during his interview, basically a man willing to do anything to seduce a woman, undercuts the “winning hearts and minds” portrayed in the stilled images and depicted by Herrington.

One should also note that, elsewhere in the episode, US soldiers are shown burning homes in villages, destroying rice stockpiles and allowing tied-up prisoners to fall from the tops of armored personnel carriers.

Regarding Zimmerman, his interview comes off as a criticism of the antiwar movement. I’m not sure that’s how he meant it, and I’m not sure that’s how we should take it. But let me finish the series.

I’ve written several blog entries about the Burns & Novick PBS documentary The Vietnam War. I’ve also tweeted about it.

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