IT WAS a tough watch, wasn’t it? To see it all in one place, and in context?
Viewers from all points of view will feel it should have had more of this, less of that, but in general I’d say Ken Burns and Lynn Novick put a wide lens on the whole big mess of it, and came up with something people will be talking about for a long time.
Nobody comes out of the series looking very good. It takes on all the wrong things said and done in all quarters, over here and over there, even the contemptibly wrong (especially that). It’s about imperfect people working their way through the human condition, circumstances in which they often don’t have the whole story on what’s going on.
My friend Ron Hall, aka Stray Dog, wasn’t impressed. I heard from him this morning as he was on the road in Mexico.
He was surprised to see a veteran expressing guilt on camera about having followed orders to destroy rice stockpiles in the villages. It was always clear to Ron whether rice was for local consumption or would go to feed the Viet Cong. If the rice was stored in baskets, his outfit left it alone. If it was “bagged for transport” in canvas or burlap sacks, they destroyed it.
For him, he said, the series just reopened old wounds.
“They only interviewed the soldiers who protested the war and those who went to Canada, not one of us who did our duty and loved our country when it didn’t love us. I’m proud to be called a Vietnam Veteran, I will not be shamed into thinking otherwise.”
I quote him here with his permission, not that you can know much about a person from a line or two. To know more, see the documentary Debra Granik made about Ron. I know you’ll find it worthwhile.
I wasn’t surprised to learn a few things over the last two weeks, despite that Vietnam has been a special interest of mine for 45 years, and that knowing about it was part of my job at one time.
It was interesting to see and hear from combat veterans I’ve read, like Tim O’Brien (If I die in a Combat Zone, The Things They Carried, Going after Cacciato) and Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War, Means of Escape).
I was impressed by what Karl Marlantes had to say. Didn’t know he had two Vietnam books to his credit, so I looked them up this morning and put them in my Amazon cart. He gave up a Rhodes scholarship—quit Oxford to go to Vietnam! Here’s a C-Span Q&A with him talking to Brian Lamb.
Eyewitness testimony, how can that not be compelling? Even despite that two people standing side by side can come away remembering the same event very differently.
Listening to these guys you have to appreciate the confusion, the mayhem, how many absurd ways there were to lose your life, if not shot by your own guys then shelled by your own guys, napalmed by your own guys…
And then there’s “lied to by your own guys,” as in Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon… The clips the filmmakers culled from the Pentagon Papers and the White House tapes are some real beauts.
The one I feel bad about is Ike, a hero of mine from way back. I don’t think I was aware that he arranged for the French to use napalm against the Viet Minh in the empire-ending battle of Dien Bien Phu. American napalm dropped from American planes maintained by American ground crews, just no Americans aboard, that way Uncle Sam’s fig leaf could remain nicely centered over the ol’ bocce balls.
Did this really seem like a good idea to Ike? Providing arms and cash to lift up a defeated colonial power and put it back in the business of stealing other people’s resources?
He’s got some responsibility, too, for present-day Iran, by the way. He and the Dulles boys, who were whispering in his ear on behalf of the Brits who’d had their Iranian oil assets expropriated by Mossadegh. Read Stephen Kinzer’s All The Shah’s Men for the declassified yarn on that.
I’m sure you must know that Nixon had to top them all. Just stunning. The gold standard. We see him say one thing in a prime-time speech then the opposite on the White House tapes. Nixon and Kissinger, that legendary tag team of self-interested amorality in action.
Vietnam obviously has lessons and profound meaning at the individual level. It changed lives forever. As a nation, though, my take is that America learned exactly nothing. If the pols get a wrong idea in their heads tomorrow, count on them to write a blank check on a trillion-dollar war that can’t possibly end well. One side of the aisle will dive in with a brainless booyah and the other with a gutless me too.
And here’s a dirty little open secret: you can always count on the press to beat the war drum. The press is a business and its owners don’t want to be labeled in ways that are bad for business. Pols will always whip up fear and then respond to the fear-feedback loop they get from the public. And once they’re all fired up to lead the way over a cliff, the press simply isn’t equipped to call bullshit.
You get the story at face value: the government says This is coming for us, That’s coming for us, blah blah. Let’s not forget how the New York Times helped to lead the panic and grease the skids for the Iraq invasion. And it wasn’t just Judith Miller, either.
Karl Kraus said it best: “How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print.”
Bottom line? Beats me. If you’re aware of one, do let me know.
The human tragicomedy goes on. I think you do what Stray Dog and a few million others did. All a responsible person can do is make their own best call with whatever truth they can discern at the time. Go with the head, the heart and a gut check, and live the best you can with wherever your call may lead.
Tony DePaul, September 29, 2017, Cranston, Rhode Island, USA