The Vietnam War – A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick


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No Single Truth?

This is the tag line of the latest documentary by Burns and Novick.  There are many stories to be told, mostly from the US American perspective because it’s usually “all about US,” but there is one truth, I believe:  the US should never have been in Viet Nam in the first place.  There should never have been a 2nd Indochina War that resulted in 3.8 million Vietnamese deaths and wholesale destruction of the infrastructure, flora, and fauna of Viet Nam, in addition to debilitating and deadly war legacies such as Agent Orange (AO) and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) that continue to haunt Viet Nam. (AO, of course, has also affected US veterans who were exposed to this poison, along with many of their children.)

It started when the US made the decision to follow in the footsteps of the French by ignoring the Geneva Accords of 1954, which called for a national election in 1956.  President Ho Chi Minh would have received 80% of the vote, according to none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower, thus unifying his country and ushering in an era of peace and development. US support of its client state, the Republic of Viet Nam (South Vietnam), ensured that the war against the latest invader and occupier du jour would continue until it was forced to pick up and leave, which it eventually did initially in 1973 and, finally, in 1975. 

There are lines that The Vietnam War does not cross because either the truth is beyond the comprehension and ideological confines of the filmmakers and/or because their corporate sponsors would not allow it.  This is part of a larger issue, namely, the inability of the US to overcome its past, unlike other countries, including Germany.  (Although Adolf Hitler is a part of German history, there are no statues of him in Germany only memorials to his millions of victims.  The US is still having this debate, e.g., statues of Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee.) 

Here’s a story that Bill Ehrhart , who was interviewed for this series, encouraged people to share “far and wide.”  Ehrhart is a US poet, writer, scholar and war veteran who has been called “the dean of Vietnam war poetry.”  (He was a signatory to my 2016 letter calling on Bob Kerrey, a self-confessed war criminal, to resign from his position as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam board of trustees.  He eventually did in 2017.)

Dear Friends,

The day after I came home from Vietnam in early March 1968, I took the money I’d saved in those 13 months and went to West German Motors in Ft. Washington, PA, and bought a brand new Volkswagen. VW Beetle. Red with black interior.

Only I didn’t buy it. I had to give the money to my father, and he bought it because I was not legally old enough to buy a car. The owner’s card remained in my father’s name for the next year and a half until I turned 21, which was the age of majority then in Pennsylvania.

The day after that, I went to McKeever Insurance, in my home town of Perkasie, PA, to get insurance for my car. But Mrs. McKeever told me I couldn’t get a policy in my name. I would have to be carried on my parents’ policy as a dependent child.

Understand what I’m saying here: I had just spent 13 months fighting in Vietnam. I was a combat-wounded Marine Corps sergeant, but the state of Pennsylvania recognized me only as a child dependent on my parents.

Let me say that again: I had just spent 13 months fighting in Vietnam. I was a combat-wounded Marine Corps sergeant, but the state of Pennsylvania recognized me only as a dependent child.

You want to talk spat-upon? I sure as hell was spit on when I came home, but it wasn’t the antiwar people who did the spitting.

I begged Lynn Novick of Florentine Films to get this story on film and into their documentary, but you will not see this true story among the 18 hours of film you are about to watch. Instead, you will see and hear some teary-eyed woman apologizing for something there is no proof ever actually happened.

You are welcome to spread this story of mine far and wide. It’s the only way anyone will hear it because, as I said, it didn’t even make onto film, let alone into the documentary.

Bill

BONUS:  Here’s a post on the Vietnam Studies Group listserv by Christoph Giebel, an Associate Professor of International Studies and History at the University of Washington, Seattle, in a threaded- discussion about the film.

I have no problem with the depiction in episode 1 (and others) of Le Duan’s role. I have huge problems with episode 1 overall though. I watched it last night, prepared for some US centrism, to be sure, since this is a series heavily privileging American perspectives, experiences, feelings, but also anticipating to find the edgy “new take” by Burns/Novick that was so heavily promoted. Like with many books, I am particularly interested in the introduction and conclusion (episodes 1 and 10) for the “beef” of the argument, where the deep framing, contextualization etc. takes place

Episode 1 was, frankly, crushingly dispiriting in its unreflective depiction of ahistorical American exceptionalism and uncritical repetition of worn-out Cold War tropes and Western frames. Its flawed choice of key terminology and mapping and its condensation of extraordinarily complex issues over more than 100 years into 75 minutes, all marshaled to set up Burns’ “flawed, but innocently well-meaning” redemptionist narrative of the US, fell even short of the 1983 PBS series (which itself badly needs overhauling). After a decade of working on this, where is the damn novelty? I’ll need a bit of time to formulate my thoughts, but I must say that episode 1 was profoundly troubling.

C. Giebel
History / Int’l Studies
UW-Seattle, USA

MAA

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