Ken Burns’ documentary about the Vietnam War is beautifully crafted and visually stunning, but very subtly sides with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
I watched the first episode of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, a 16 hour documentary on PBS. It is, as is true for all of Burns’ documentaries, visually beautiful, factually dense, and meticulously crafted.
When it comes to the Vietnam War, I have a smattering of knowledge — my childhood memories of the nightly news, a recent trip to Vietnam, random articles and shows about the war, conversations with vets, and my personal convictions about communism. I definitely do not have a sufficiently wide body of knowledge to intelligently critique the show’s substance. Still, that’s never been enough to stop me from having opinions and here, in no particular order, are mine:
1. The French were as nasty a bunch of colonialists as you could ever hope to find. After a video montage, the documentary begins in earnest with the French invasion of “Indo-Chine” in the mid-19th century. This was imperialism pure and simple, practiced at the tail end of the imperial age. Unlike the British, which gave its former colonies a civil structure that enabled all of them to thrive as relatively free societies, at least when compared to similarly situated geographic regions, the French turned the country into a large plantation run for France’s benefit.
Unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese people found their French overlords offensive. A nationalist movement came into being, aimed at driving the French out. The French responded with unbridled cruelty.
When we visited the infamous Hanoi Hilton in January, the prison is primarily a museum honoring the Vietnamese who were imprisoned there because of their efforts to expel the French from Vietnam. The French piled on a variety of tortures, both physical and psychological.
(Despite American tourism, the Vietnamese had torn down that part of the prison in which Americans had been imprisoned, leaving only two rooms in which the Vietnamese could explain how marvelously well-treated the Americans were. I’m not kidding. Here’s a video someone took of the video that plays on an endless loop in one of those two rooms.)
After WWII, when England was recognizing that colonialism’s day was over, the French still fought viciously to retain their hold on Indochina. These brutal fights were both on the battlefield and off. The most significant “off” battlefield fight was the one that de Gaulle waged against Eisenhower, who wanted to disassociate himself from Indochina while nominally supporting its independence movement.
Charles de Gaulle used blackmail to keep the Americans engaged there: Either you support us in Vietnam or we’ll “probably” throw in our lot with the Soviet communists. And willy-nilly, there we were, back in a toxic, no-winners mix of French colonialists, Vietnamese nationalists, and Vietnamese and International communists. [Read more…]