Further observations about Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

Episode 2 of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War was like Episode 1: an almost honest presentation of facts subtly shaped by a strong Leftist world view.

Hue Vietnam War
The Citadel, in Hue, Vietnam : a wall still showing damage from the Tet Offensive

A few days ago, I offered my impressions about the new Ken Burns documentary, The Vietnam War. Since then, two things have happened. First, I watched the second episode and have a few points I’d like to make about it. (I haven’t yet watched the third episode, which is cued up on the DVR.) Second, I got some fascinating insights in my comments section. This post will have my new observations and some of the material my readers submitted.

Episode 1 of The Vietnam War focused primarily on the French role in Vietnam and the way in which the French — especially de Gaulle — inveigled America into opposing the Vietnamese nationalist movement. I commented that the episode seemed to admire Ho too much and that it pretended that Vietnamese history started with the French. That last point seemed to me to ignore tribal differences and cultural expectations that may have existed long before the French came along.

Episode 2 took the focus off Ho. To the extent he appears in this episode, he still comes across as a saintly nationalist who was, coincidentally, a Moscow-educated communist who wanted to throw his lot in with the communist bloc and who slaughtered his own countrymen en masse. There’s even appreciation for his understanding of optics — he purposely looked older than he was in a country that revered age, and he made much of his childless state in a country that revered family, so as to highlight his sacrifices on behalf of his countrymen.

Ho aside, the bulk of the episode focused on South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngô Đình Nhu. The brothers come across as an unsavory, corrupt, and extremely stupid duo. Catholics in a majority Buddhist country (70% Buddhist, 30% Catholic), they attempted to impose severe restrictions on the country’s Buddhists, especially the priests. The result was that they gave birth to martyrs in the form of Buddhist priests who willingly and calmly self-immolated on the streets of Saigon to protest discrimination:

Incidentally, the car in which Thích Quảng Đức arrived at his suicide is on display in Hue, the city that bore the brunt of the Tet Offensive. I took these pictures there:

Keep in mind that, as Diem and Nhu were alienating the majority of their citizens, they were actively fighting the Viet Cong, who were engaged in active guerrilla war throughout the South. Matters were not helped by the fact that Madame Nhu, a slinky, sinuous, gorgeous Vietnam woman, had a knack for saying awful, cruel, heartless things:

Buddhist repression aside, Diem, a fat man in white suits, and Nhu, a slender man in black suits, seemed hell bent on a policy of alienation and corruption. They relocated farmers to supposedly impregnable compounds, a totalitarian policy that’s never worked and, worse, they allowed their military, the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN), to become irreparably corrupt and imcompetent at leadership levels.

The latter problem came to a head with the Battle of Ap Bac. This was the first battle in which the Viet Cong, rather than their usual guerrilla approach, engaged in a pitched battle with ARVN (which arrived at the battle in helicopters with American pilots). The Viet Cong destroyed the ARVN troops, creating an incredible morale boost. The battle also accounted for the first American dead in battle in Vietnam.

While Diem and Nhu were simultaneously repressing their people and fighting a guerrilla war embedded in their people, the documentary makes it clear that JFK was trying to solve two problems. First, Kennedy had run as a strong anti-communist, a principle in which he really believed. Second, he was smarting from a humiliation at Khrushchev’s hands and from the even greater humiliation of the Bay of Pigs debacle.

Kennedy was determined to appear strong and assertive when it came to stopping the South East Asia dominoes from toppling in a communist direction. To that end, he decided on the “Green Beret” limited warfare approach, which would see discrete, specialized troop insertions. War without war, or so Kennedy argued. The problem, of course, was that these Green Berets were supporting a corrupt, inefficient military. That was a dead end.

Eventually, frustrated with Diem’s and Nhu’s disastrous policies, Kennedy gave the go-ahead to a South Vietnamese military coup. Within a short time, the military took control in Saigon. After promising Diem and Nhu safe passage out of the country, the military rebels promptly shot them to death. That chicanery was emblematic of the fact that, with the coup, South Vietnam fell out of the frying pan and landed resoundingly in the fire. Subsequent leaders were even worse in their own ways than Diem and Nhu, and the military, as noted above, was both corrupt and ineffective.

After JFK’s assassination, the war landed in LBJ’s lap. He didn’t want the war, but couldn’t figure out how to get out of it. So he half-assed it, just as Bush tried to do in Iraq before the Surge and as Obama did in both Iraq and Afghanistan. As my father, a vet of two wars always said, you can’t “sort of” fight a war. You must fight the war to win it.

That’s where Episode 2 stopped. As you can see, the facts were honest enough. What isn’t honest is the subtext. The filmmakers manifestly for respect have for Ho and his people, despite their habit of massacring those unlucky enough to fall under their control. It’s as if, for Burns and Co., the war has to be a morality tale: If Diem and Nhu were corrupt and evil, then Ho and his cadre have to be good.

The other thing that I didn’t appreciate was the irrelevant throw-in about all of LBJ’s “wonderful” “New Society” legislation. Again, it’s clear that to Burns and his team, LBJ was an extraordinary president because of his decision to vastly expand the American government.

As for me, all I could think of watching the section about JFK and LBJ was “those two Democrats really screwed the pooch when it came to waging war.”

Lastly, what irritated me was that all of the Americans interviewed were vets and politicians who now fall into the “all war is evil” camp. To the extent the vets served, I don’t begrudge them that viewpoint. It’s just that it’s pretty clear to me that the only people we’ll hear from are North Vietnamese gloating about how good and happy they were, South Vietnamese bemoaning how corrupt they were, and veterans and politicians who are part of the John Kerry war brigade. There won’t be any John O’Neills or Bruce Keslers to present opposing views. The omission of these viewpoints is subtle, but very real.

So, that’s my wrap-up about Episode 2: Mostly honest facts, but always with a John Kerry spin.

And now for some of the comments and information I got from you. First, because he left the comment at WOW! Magazine, the Watcher’s site where I re-publish my posts, here’s what JoshuaPundit has to say:

Didn’t see this, but I’m not surprised at the inherent bias. As far as I’m concerned, PBS stands not for ‘Public Broadcasting Service’ but for a well know farmyard expression of the pure variety dealing with something male cattle produce.

One thing I’m certain the documentary didn’t cover was the fact the Nixon and Kissinger ended the war on our terms. After realizing that the North Vietnamese had no intention of seriously negotiating anything, they brilliantly forced the issue. Using detente and the opening of China to pit NorthVietbnam’s chief allies against each other and vying for U.S. favor so they wouldn’t intervene effectively, they fought the war as it should have been done from Day One.

They went into Cambodia to cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail, mined Haiphong harbor, and upped the bombing of the North to destroy their infrastructure, cut off much of their supplies and reduce their ability to attack the South at will from a neutral country. And Nixon, realizing the true nature of the anti-war movement essentially ended it by ending the draft, after which the star radicals mostly slithered back into academe.

The North Vietnamese were forced to negotiate, and the peace agreement MANDATED that if North Vietnam attacked the South, the U.S. would assist them with military aid and even send troops and air support. Similar guarantees were given to Cambodia’s Lon Nol. Both Vietnamese President Theiu and Lon Nol signed the peace agreement based on that.

After Nixon was forced to resign, the Democrats took over congress in the wake of Watergate. Both the NVA and their allies the Khmer Rouge violated the peace agreement and attacked South Vietnam and Cambodia.

When President Ford and Republicans in congress tried to honor our pledged word, the Democrats blocked any U.S. aid at all to South Vietnam or Cambodia. The result was a million Vietnamese being sent to gulags and the exodus of the so-called boat people, many of whom died at the hands of pirates or drowned trying to sail flimsy boats and rafts to freedom.

In Cambodia, the result was the takeover by the Khmer Rouge and the atrocity of the Killing Fields.

I have never heard one Democrat who was responsible for this disgraceful act ever apologize or take any responsibility for it. Some of them are still in Congress.

From 11B40 (who served in the war):

I’ve seen the first two episodes and overall I found them pretty good and less ideological than I feared. A couple of my more adult thoughts follow.

1) Not much on the Eden that was “Indo-Chine” before Les Français arrivée. A mention of some degree of fighting Les Chinois, s’il vous plait, but nothing of any socio-political depth. I recently re-read Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace” about the Franco-Algerian War of ’54-’62 which suffers similarly (though is a good read). Socio-economic oppression wasn’t invented by Europeans and my take on the local anthropology went something like the yellow Vietnamese were afraid of the Chinese because of the latter’s economic power and those guys with the hatchets outside the local tong-house. The former were also afraid of the darker Cambodes due to a bit of prior history and they lorded over the also darker hill tribes every chance they got. To redundinate, no Eden.

2) The traditional images versus words confluence: the quaky Marine Musgrave (?) would be a case in point. I don’t seem to have noticed much quaking on the other side and while I may feel for his pain, I can’t help but wonder if he had any sense that he might be being played by the filmmakers.

3) I remain skeptical about Uncle Ho devolving into much more than a “frontman” (something I also think about as regards North Korea). Commies have some skills in developing cliques with cliques with in cliques and the above mention Algerian history is replete with purges of old-comers by new-comers and warfighters by politicians. It will be interesting to see what is exposed in this regard.

4) Also, the shrift seems to have be shortened in regard to the “nationalists” war against their own fellows. Again as in Algerie, the revolutionaries weren’t just imposing their will on the French but also their fellow countrypersons. As the revolution evolved, the cabals altered and the public goals were not the only ones.

5) JFK’s blatant mentions of his re-election concerns kind of surprised me but the senior military’s failure to understand what they were up against while Algerie was in full bloom was disappointing.
John Paul Vann and later Hackworth knew but weren;t sufficiently listened to. As to the media, while I find their “making a difference” impulse as unseemly as JFK’s re-election concerns, I find myself a bit more sympathetic than previously but still annoyed.

11B40 also added this anecdote, about his own service:

On a somewhat lighter note, a bit of personal history seems to be in order.

Back in the last ’69, I was an infantry squad leader in Viet Nam. One day, while we were being resupplied by helicopter out in the bush, a camera crew arrived along with the things we needed.

A while later, our Captain came over to me with the crew in tow and asked me if I wanted to take them out on a patrol I was about to leave on. In one of my proudest moments in the war, I replied, in my New York fashion, with a question, “Do I have to bring them back?” We went out; they didn’t.

Yili Bai adds some interesting historic context about the Chinese:

The program gives short shrift to the historical animosity of the Vietnamese toward the Chinese, who viewed Vietnam as a vassalage. The traditional Chinese name for Vietnam is “the pacified South.” (安南) They did have an ideological alliance but it was short-lived. The Chinese supported Pol Pot while the Vietnamese overthrew his rule through their 1979 invasion. If you go through Vietnamese history museums, the people they fear as having designs on their country are the Chinese.

I personally don’t believe that historic dislike for the Chinese affect Ho’s decisions in any way. He may not have liked the Chinese, but he was a communist and they were communists, and that was good enough — especially when they started providing arms and ammunition.

It’s important to remember that, for the stone-cold communists, communism was the great purifier. When my aunt left Israel in 1949 or 1950 to return to Germany, her friends were aghast. “The people there are Nazis. How can you voluntarily go back to live amongst the Nazis?” Her response was that “Communism has purified the Germans.” Ho, I think, would have said the same about the Chinese.