I’ve blogged after watching Episode 1 and Episode 4 of Ken Burns‘s PBS documentary The Vietnam War. I’ve finished watching all 10 episodes, and I thought I’d share some general thoughts on the documentary.
- It’s technically extremely well-done and will please any fan of historical documentaries.
- Even when interviewees said things with which I disagreed, I felt I could respect or at least acknowledge their perspective. The exception to this is of course war criminal John Negroponte. Like other Burns documentaries, you are moved towards reconciliation.
- And of course Burns’s skill at #1 & #2 is the deadly flaw of this documentary: After 10 episodes, the documentary doesn’t editorially tell you how to react to contemporary USA wars. Like President Obama’s speeches, it gives viewers material with which they can arrive at conclusions suited to the preconceptions with which they began the film, although mellowed towards those who draw an opposite conclusion.
What’s the dominant message? The Vietnam War was a tragedy, but we’re getting past it (aside from the ordinance which continues to kill and maim Vietnamese and the illnesses and injuries which plague survivors). We can discuss whether we should have made good on our promise to the South Vietnamese government to protect it from North Vietnam after the 1973 peace treaty. We can discuss whether the US military involvement created a flawed dependency in South Vietnamese government and society which proved fatal upon the USA’s inevitable withdrawal. We can acknowledge atrocities on all sides, but, at least on the part of the USA, they weren’t systemic. We can discuss whether the Vietnam War Memorial’s design was too somber and insufficiently patriotic, but the ultimate criterion must be its efficacy in healing the hearts of veterans and their families.
We can’t discuss why our political system led four consecutive Presidents to escalate in Indochina to win future election cycles after their own intelligence assessments advised withdrawal. We can’t discuss why the US voter approves of war, killing of student protesters, shaming of draft resistors and protection of accused war criminals and commutation of sentences of the only one convicted.
I’m not sure if the word accountability is ever uttered in the series. It’s certainly not a theme. The military and government informers in the movie never offer their heads on a platter. The murderous Ohio National Guard or the CIA-directed Phoenix program officers never come clean. In fact, the only people to ever admit wrongdoing are Bill Zimmerman and Nancy Biberman, who are identified as “antiwar activists.”
Let’s hope that Ken Burns enjoys 30 more yeas of good health. That is more likely than a withdrawal from Afghanistan in the next 10 years. Will he make a similar documentary then? Its obvious hashtag is #AfghanistanWarPBS.
I’m trying to do a spoken word piece with a refrain like, “Them hippies were wrong about a lot of things, but they were right about the war.” In the meantime, listen to Spinal Tap’s “Listen to the Flower People.”
Here are some notes from the final three episodes. Observe the pattern of repeated hostility expressed towards peace activists and no demand for accountability for the people who decided to invade and occupy Vietnam.
In Episode 8, “The History of the World,”
- Minute 35:08 – Roger Harris “antiwar folks calling us baby-killers … say what you want, but say it from over there because, if you get in range, you’re gonna get serious damage done to you. Say what you want from a distance, but if you get close to me, I’m gonna rip your throat out.”
- Minute 53:55 – After discussing the “Days of Rage” of the Weathermen in Chicago and interviewing Zimmerman, who said that advocates of violent revolution were indulging in “infantile fantasies,” the documentary includes a clip of an interview with Governor Ronald Reagan, who tells dissenters that they must go through their representatives, but warned them that they would be aiding the enemy and “thus killing more of our men.”
- Minute 54:45 – The film’s producers tell us about one protest of which they approved, the October 15, 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. “It was peaceful, middle-class, carefully focused on ending the war. ‘It’s nice,’ one marcher said, ‘to go to a demonstration without having to swear allegiance to Chairman Mao.'”
- After Nixon’s November 3, 1969 Silent Majority speech and with Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee playing during footage of pro-war demonstrations, Jan Howard, the mother of a soldier killed in Vietnam, related how, when peace activists invited her to join a peace demonstration in Memphis, she told them, “If you ever ring my doorbell again, I will blow your damn head off with a .357 magnum.”
In Episode 9, “A Disrespectful Loyalty,”, there are some digs against the peace movement.
- Minute 2:38 Karl Marlantes relates being insulted by peace protesters outside of Travis Air Force Base. They pounded on his brother’s car with the end of their signs, snarling and shouting obscenities. “And it happened over and over.”
- Minute 4:33 – Manhattan construction workers attacked protesters. The documentary interviewed two supporters of that attack.
- Minute 37:20 – Phil Gioia – What I saw in Vietnam was not the soldier that Mr. Kerry or his colleagues [at Vietnam Veterans Against the War] were describing at that time. There was no widespread atrocity. There was … were a couple of units that went right off the rails, and we can talk about that. But they were not out-of-control animals, which was the way they were portrayed. And what was even worse was they were alluding to the fact that you would take ordinary kids and turn them into these savages, war criminals, that the military was doing that. And it didn’t. Didn’t happen that way. I’m still very angry about that.
- After positive footage of Vietnam veterans’ participation in peace demonstrations, which the Nixon administration decided not to confront because those demonstrations had people’s sympathy (minute 40:25): “The police had been ordered not to arrest any of the veterans because Pat Buchanan, a White House aide, wrote, they were “being received in a far more receptive manner than other demonstrators. The ‘crazies’ will be in town soon enough,” he continued, “and if we want a confrontation, let’s have it with them.” He was right. In the days immediately following the veterans’ protest, other groups of antiwar activists moved into the capital. The most radical called itself the May Day Tribe and threatened to close the city down. … [Bill Zimmerman speaks:] I realized, coming away from Washington, that our whole strategy was wrong and that we were becoming more and more militant at a time when more and more Americans were opposing the war but were turned off by our militancy. So we were doing exactly the wrong thing.
In Episode 10, “The Weight of Memory,” there are many digs against the “peace movement.”
- Minute 65.23 – Lewis Sorley, a West Point graduate who was an executive officer ofa tank battalion from 1966 to 1967 in Vietnam, described regretting that he did not “lay waste” to all the people at a 1975 conference in Tufts University who disrespected a former US Ambassador to South Vietnam by hissing during his speech in which he lamented the fall of South Vietnam.
- Minute 66:02 – The staff at the office of Vietnam Veterans Against the War were drinking in celebration the day the United States abandoned its embassy in Saigon.
- Minute 86:10- Nancy Biberman (antiwar activist): “I’ve been to the wall, more than once. When I look back at the war and, you know, and think of the horrible things we said to, you know, vets who were returning, you know, calling them “baby killers” and worse, I, you know, I feel very sad about that. I can only say that, you know, we were kids, too, you know, just like they were. It grieves me, it grieves me today. It pains me to think of all the things that I said and we said. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
- Minute 67 – David Brinkley makes about the most pro-peace statement in the entire series, namely that all political pro-war speeches should be made from Arlington Cemetery.