More thoughts about Ken Burns’ documentary about the Vietnam War

Discounting the bias built into Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary, it provides food for thought about the politics of war, hubris, and 20/20 hindsight.

Vietnam WarFollowing Mr. Bookworm’s return from a business trip, we resumed watching Ken Burns’ documentary about the Vietnam War. We just finished Episode 4, which ends right before the Tet Offensive is to begin in early 1968.

All of my comments have to be understood in a specific context: I’ve never studied the war. I have childhood memories of watching Walter Cronkite discuss it on the nightly news; I remember hearing about it endlessly (always negatively) growing up; I have read about bits and pieces of it in some depth over the years, but never had a coherent history; and I am a student of history, so I have some perspective on war in general.

Here are my thoughts, in no particular order. As always, I would love to hear from those of you who are also watching; who have knowledge about the war, whether first hand or academic; or who just want to chime in on the subject. Also as always, my only request is that any comments be phrased in a civil way (something everyone has been doing so far).

1. I think Burns is trying to be even-handed. However, I feel there are a couple of missing points of view in terms of those he interviews who experienced the war and their absence is telling.

The Americans who talk about the war are those who were always opposed to the war or those who came to be opposed to the war. All of those interviewed feel that America shouldn’t have fought the war at all. It seems to me that we also ought to hear from people, and I know they exist, who will argue that it was a good war, although carried out stupidly, or that it was a good war and, at least once Nixon started fighting it in dead earnest, one we actually won. Those people have not been interviewed and I don’t anticipate seeing them show up any time soon.

The Vietnamese who talk about the war also represent two points of view, and two only: North Vietnamese who speak as victors; and South Vietnamese who talk about their corrupt government and about American failures. There are no voices talking about the horrors of communism, either in North Vietnam during the war or about all of Vietnam after the war. (And yes, I know we’re still at the end of 1967 in the show’s chronology, but the Americans interviewed certainly have been using 20/20 hindsight to castigate the war, so I don’t see why Vietnamese interviewees can’t do that to castigate the communists.)

Periodically Burns hints at communist tyranny and atrocities, but these quickly fade away. There are no photos and no personal narratives.

The history of the Vietnam War is incomplete without those missing voices.

2. I was struck by the fact that, for America, the war was a relatively bloodless affair. I know that 58,318 Americans died, which is a horrific number, but as a student of history, it’s also a very low number. Americans were in Vietnam for almost a decade, after all.

In WWII, in only 4.7 years of fighting, 405,399 Americans died. In WWI, which America fought for only one year, 116,516 Americans died. In the Civil War, which saw Americans killing each other for five years, 618,000 died. For more information about the relatively low casualties in the Vietnam War, check out this page from an anti-War writer.

Perhaps what made Vietnam different was the fact that it played out on television, with the boys calling home when they were on leave. It may have been a faraway war geographically, but it still managed to take place from coast to coast in America. We saw them sweat, we saw them suffer, we saw them bleed, and we saw them die. Then, thanks to TV’s ubiquity, we all saw the families’ anguish played out too.

3. In 20/20 hindsight, Johnson made terrible decisions. Instead of listening to the generals and fighting to win, or listening to the peaceniks and getting out, he kept trying to split the baby, pouring more troops into Vietnam and dropping more bombs, but never in the numbers that would have routed the North Vietnamese. Everything was always done in numbers just sufficient to ensure that America wouldn’t suffer a humiliating loss on his watch. When it came to Vietnam, Johnson fought a political war, rather than fighting the actual war.

To give Johnson credit, though, he understood that the North Vietnamese were proxies for the Chinese and the Soviets. He was afraid, and perhaps rightly so, that if he pushed too far north with bombs or blockades, or engaged in battles of overwhelming force, the Chinese and Soviets, instead of merely delivering supplies and home-front labor, would start pouring actual troops onto the battlefield. That would turn the war from a smallish battle in the Cold War, into a Hot War that could go nuclear. I don’t envy him the decisions he had to make, trying to win a war on the ground by fighting with a delicacy that would keep the true enemy off the battlefield.

4. The American government and the American military lied a lot to the American people. They probably did the same in prior wars but this time, because of an anti-war media and an anti-war movement, they couldn’t get away with it over the long run. There was also the problem, as noted above, of the TV playing the war in people’s living rooms and troops being able to engage in fairly uncensored communications with friends and family back home.

5. If the documentary is to be believed, in the period leading up to the Tet Offensive, the American military never figured out how to fight this particular war. For example, in the story of the assault on Hill 875, the Americans attacked uphill. Any student of European history knows about the Battle of Agincourt, which taught this important lesson: Never conduct an open attack against an enemy that holds the high ground. Indeed, any student of either the Battles of Fredericksburg or Gettysburg knows the same thing. You don’t win an uphill charge.

Although the North Vietnamese sustained more casualties, it was a demoralizing rout for the Americans. Worse, it served no purpose. No land was held. People just died.

Over and over again, the documentary tells stories of little bands of Americans wandering through the wet, tropical landscape, running into Viet Minh and Viet Cong traps, and getting shot to pieces, without being able to fight back. By the time they regrouped, the Vietnamese fighters had vanished.

According to Burns’ approach to the war, at least through the end of 1967, the Americans were always on the defensive, never the offensive. The North Vietnamese completely controlled the timing and venue of each battle. The impression I’m getting is that, while the Vietnamese sustained spectacularly more casualties than the Americans, both Vietnamese and Americans perceived these skirmishes as battles the Vietnamese won and the Americans lost. Perhaps people with better knowledge about the war can tell me if this was really what was happening or if this is just the Burns’ version.

6. Despite the experience in Korea, the Americans didn’t seem to grasp going in that this was a very different affair from the World Wars, in both of which foreign powers had violently invaded other lands. The Americans fought to drive out those foreign invaders, in what was a very clear demarcation between enemies and friends. In this war, fought out between the same people (making it akin to a civil war), it was impossible for foreigners to tell who among the populations were friends and who were enemies. All of them looked the same, spoke the same language, and wore the same clothes. In Europe and the Pacific, things were difficult. For example, after the D-Day landing, the French were French and the Germans were Germans, and the latter needed to be driven out. That was pretty straightforward.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, while the North Vietnamese soldiers were clearly the enemy, the civilian population was impossible to read. It’s no surprise that there were war crimes — although given the number of young American men sent there for a decade, the infinitesimally small number of war crimes is impressive and laudatory. Burns spends a few minutes on the Tiger Force, which did commit war crimes, but he also gives a former Army officer the chance to say that these crimes were aberrant and were wrongly used to smear the entire military.

7. America had a terrible ally when it came to the political leaders of South Vietnam. Their criminality and fecklessness alone should have been enough to drive the Americans out and to do so quickly. Politics and war make for strange and uncomfortable bedfellows, but the Americans should have realized quickly that they couldn’t fight on behalf of a country the leaders of which were attacking their own people. (In an earlier post, I discussed the way in which Diem, a Catholic, waged war on the Buddhist majority, even as he was also almost half-heartedly having his troops join the Americans to wage war against the Northern communists.) The political leaders following Diem weren’t as prejudiced, but they were just as corrupt and ineffective.

8. Caught in this tug of war between feckless Southern leaders, fanatic Northern leaders, and often bewildered (and angry beyond bearing) American fighters, the Vietnamese people suffered horribly. It’s a reminder of the point I make regularly in my annual Passover post: No matter how badly the people suffer, as long as the leaders are insulated from that suffering, they will not stop doing what they’re doing.

9. Speaking of civilians, as Grant and Sherman understood, civilian morale matters. Sherman’s march through Georgia was intended to destroy civilian morale, because that was the only thing holding Confederate troops together.

Stuck with manifestly corrupt leaders, seeing their farms and fields destroyed repeatedly, too often caught in the crossfire, bombs, and napalm, the South Vietnamese civilians lacked the necessary morale to keep going in the face of mounting casualties, especially civilian casualties. Meanwhile, in the North, while it suffered aerial bombing, there were no battles in the countryside. What was happening in the South was similar to what the French experienced during the 100 Years War, with the British and French knights routinely destroying their homes and crops, killing their men, and raping their women, all as collateral damage to the leaders’ warfare.

Meanwhile, at least before the Tet Offensive, through a combination of fear and fanaticism, the North Vietnamese government ensured that morale was high, with people willingly or forcibly joining in the vision of a united Vietnam, a socialist paradise free of all foreign invaders. This mean that, despite the North Vietnamese suffering a much higher combatant casualty rate than in America (probably over a million combatant deaths), the troops remained committed to the fight.

10. I hate, just totally and passionately hate, Peter Coyote’s slow, monotone voice. That, combined with Burns’ habit of going very, very slowly on collateral subjects that don’t require sloth speed, means that a small part of my brain is always fighting sleep.

Again, all of the above are my takeaways from and observations about Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War. I welcome any further information or opinions.


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