'Vietnam War': New Documentary Is Powerful, Flawed and Necessary
September 16, 2017 David Wiegand / San Francisco Chronicle
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's PBS documentary, "The Vietnam War," comprises 18 hours organized in 10 parts airing over the course of nearly two weeks. It feels both overwhelming and, counterintuitively, somewhat insufficient, because no matter how much testimony we hear, see and read about the war, the question of "For what?" will always remain. Nearly 60,000 Americans and more than a million Vietnamese died in a war that every president since Dwight Eisenhower said privately was a futile effort.
'Vietnam War': Powerful, Flawed and Necessary David Wiegand / San Francisco Chronicle
The Vietnam War: A film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premieres 8 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 17.
First five episodes air through Thursday, Sept. 21; final five episodes air Sept. 24- 28, PBS
(September 12, 2017) -- For what?
Nearly 60,000 Americans and more than a million Vietnamese died. All told, the US spent more than a trillion dollars on what every president since Dwight Eisenhower said privately was a futile effort.
"There ain't no daylight in Vietnam," said Lyndon Baines Johnson. "Not a bit."
The price the US paid in lives and money on the war was not confined to just the 28 years of the nation's involvement in Vietnam. The war, says Northern California veteran Phil Gioia in the PBS film "The Vietnam War," "drove a stake right into the heart of the country and, unfortunately, we never recovered."
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's "The Vietnam War," premiering Sunday, Sept. 17, comprises 18 hours organized in 10 parts airing over the course of nearly two weeks. It feels both overwhelming and, counterintuitively, somewhat insufficient, because no matter how much testimony we hear, see and read about the war, the question of "For what?" will always remain.
The film begins with the early history of conflict in Southeast Asia. It ends with the "whimper not a bang" of concession when the US pulled out in 1975, with a post-Nixonian metaphorical mumble of "peace with honor."
There was scant honor and certainly no peace in Vietnam for quite a while as the North swept through the South, taking lives as indiscriminately as all sides had done for years. Returning US soldiers weren't hailed as heroes, conquering or otherwise. Instead, they were treated inadequately by the government, at times, and with outright disrespect by some of those who had opposed the war and, with the revelation of atrocities such as the My Lai massacre, wrongly tarred all soldiers as "baby killers."
Even if you haven't seen previous Burns/Novick films, you know the drill: a seamless composite of archival footage, with retroactively supplied sound effects, blended with still photography and modern-day observations from a wide range of subjects, including politicians, veterans, peace advocates, families and others from all sides of the conflict, all narrated in carefully declarative tones by actor Peter Coyote. . . .
To understand where we are as a nation today, we have to understand, without blinders, where we were for 28 years in the last century.
Burns and Novick first take us back to the era when Vietnam was French Indochina to show that the region was vulnerable to colonialism and proxy wars long before the US sent the first 35 advisers to Southeast Asia. Working, again, from a script by Geoffrey C. Ward, Burns and Novick stick to a chronological structure that may seem prosaic, but given the complexity of the story a more organic approach would be a muddle.
Within that complicated chronology, the filmmakers focus on individual narratives such as that of John Musgrave, a Missouri veteran who served in the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam in 1967. His journey was especially significant, in many ways mirroring what many Americans experienced: supporting the war effort at first but then becoming deeply disillusioned.
"We were probably the last kids of any generation who believed our government would never lie to us," he says.
Equally memorable is the story of Denton Crocker Jr., known by all as Mogie, born in 1947 and so determined at 17 to join the war effort that he ran away from home in order to force his parents to sign the permission slip allowing him to enlist. His story is told by his mother, Jean-Marie, and sister, Carol.
Of course, we know the outcome as soon as we meet them, although the young man's death, a day after his 19th birthday, doesn't occur until a future episode. He expressed a moment of regret after he signed up, but even at his young age Mogie was a man of principle. His sister came to oppose the war but respected her brother's decision to enlist and continues to honor his bravery.
It's probably inevitable that most American viewers will take more from the stories of American veterans and their families than those of Vietnamese veterans. But of course, whether they were from the North, members of the Viet Cong or fought with ARVN in the South, those men and women have similar stories.
We often fail to remember at least until it is behind us, that war is an equal opportunity destroyer of life. In a war, you'll hear the observation that the enemy, whoever he is, does not "value" life as much as "we" do and therefore is willing to sacrifice more men and women. Of course, that's tragic nonsense. But it can be effective in fueling hatred toward the enemy in the heat of battle.
A soldier is frightened when he or she kills for the first time, observes Nguyen Ngoc, a Viet Cong veteran who is now a respected writer and teacher living in Hoi An. But the next time and the next, killing gets easier.
"War awakens savagery in people," he says.
There is more than enough savagery to go around in "The Vietnam War." Accounts of specific battles blend together, which only underscores how without strategic purpose many of them were. Often at great cost of human life, an American unit would battle furiously to take a hill, which was usually identified only by a number. Once taken, the hill was then abandoned.
From the tenure of Robert McNamara as secretary of defense, the government sought ways of quantifying our "progress" in Vietnam. McNamara, the former president of the Ford Motor Co., drew up a chart to measure whether the US was winning, as if it were a profit and loss statement on the Edsel.
The military accordingly became obsessed with body count. The bodies were added up for both the US and the enemy after each encounter. Even if the reported numbers were accurate, they didn't specify who was killed on the other side. Were they all Viet Cong, or were they civilians? It didn't matter. As one veteran says, "you were pushed to kill and it didn't matter who you were killing."
Former ARVN adviser James Willbanks almost evokes Joseph Heller as he summarizes the logic of measuring American progress in the war this way: "If you can't count what's important, you make what you can count important."
For a while, the press went along with body counts and other disinformation promulgated by the military and the government, but soon, reporters like Neil Sheehan, television's Morley Safer and the late David Halberstam began to report more accurately.
While the film is very good in general about emphasizing the role of print and television journalists in reporting the truth about the war, and uses an optic of a '60s-era television set to show actual news footage from the era, it doesn't go far enough in explaining what may seem obvious but cries out for deeper analysis: That this was the first American war televised every night in American living rooms. Because of that, the media had an entirely new, if not greater, impact on American opinion, pro and con, than any previous coverage of a war.
"The Vietnam War" isn't only about what happened on the battlefields and within the walls of the White House and the Pentagon. It's also about the complex context of what was happening back home, not just in the area of war protest, but also in social unrest, especially in American cities. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were not enough to quell growing racial unrest in the US In the early years of the war, there was a disproportionate number of African Americans serving in the military.
Against the backdrop of economic disadvantages, and continuing prejudice and racism in the US, Muhammad Ali refused induction in the US Army and said, "You want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won't even stand up for me at home." The war inevitably became entwined with the fight for racial equality at home.
Roger Harris grew up in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood and enlisted in the Marines, serving near the DMZ in 1967 and '68. When he returned to Logan Airport, in spite of the fact he was dressed in full military regalia, he couldn't get a cab to Roxbury.
"They looked at me as a nigger," he says in the film.
"The Weight of Memory," the film's final chapter, takes its title from novelist Tim O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried, and cleans up some short-term loose ends. John Negroponte, who spent more than 30 years with the Foreign Service, summarizes the irony of the peace agreement by saying the US essentially bombed North Vietnam into accepting our concession.
But it wasn't a peace agreement at all, he says. "We were withdrawing in order to get our POWs back. The rest didn't resolve a darn thing."
We come away from the film with a heartbreaking sense of futility, of the enormous waste, of the deadly folly, of heroes lost and heroes ignored.
Yet, after making the empirical case so effectively of the war's toll on lives and trust, Burns and Novick leave it up to the viewers to connect the dots to the present day, to consider the full weight of memory, specifically, what Gioia means when he says that as a nation, we have never recovered from Vietnam. And what Musgrave means when he says his was the last generation to think that its government would never lie to them.
The Vietnam War itself ended more than 40 years ago. The divisiveness it fomented in the nation has not. Some wounds have healed but scars remain, including shattered trust in our institutions and in each other. As otherwise powerful as "The Vietnam War" is as a film and a historical document, it misses a significant opportunity to go beyond the rhetorical "For what?"
David Wiegand is an assistant managing editor and the TV critic of The San Francisco Chronicle.
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