Saturday 4 November 2017

On Blu-ray and DVD (Import) - Rod Bishop reviews THE VIETNAM WAR (Ken Burns and Lynn Kovick, USA, 2017)

Editor's Note: The 18-hour version of this important new series was broadcast in the USA last September. A 10-hour TV version was also broadcast in September in the UK, France, Germany, Ireland and other countries and is available free in New Zealand on TVNZ OnDemand. But there’s no sign of it here. Reports suggest both SBS and Foxtel have the rights, but neither have announced a release date – let hope it’s not dumped in the Christmas/New Year off-season. When it does appear, it almost certainly will be the 10-hour TV version.

Rod Bishop reviews the 18-hour version, available on either Blu-ray or DVD from online sellers.

If you really want to get a sense of “what happened” in Vietnam, by all means watch The Vietnam War. But as you do, as you sit there admiring the “rarely seen and digitally re-mastered archival footage,” while grooving to “iconic musical recordings from [the] greatest artists of the era,” and also pondering the “haunting original music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross,” just imagine that you’re actually crouched in your basement, that your home above is ablaze, that lethal helicopters are hovering overhead, and that heavily-armed teenagers — foreigners who don’t speak your language — are out there in your yard, screaming commands you don’t understand, rolling grenades into your neighbour’s cellar, and if you run out through the flames, into the chaos, one of them might just shoot you.” – Nick Turse

Author of Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse rightly asks why the Vietnamese civilians are missing from the 80 interviews in this 10-part, 18-hour, $30 million documentary series.

Seen only in newsreel footage and photographs as they flee their burning homes or lie dead on the ground, many were “collateral damage” and others were murdered for no better reason than being indistinguishable from the Viet Cong. Official Vietnamese government figures released in 1995 claim 2 million civilians died; 5.3 million were wounded; 11 million were driven off their lands and 4.8 million were sprayed with Agent Orange. Estimates of Agent Orange used during the war range from 13 to 18 million gallons across 10% of the country. The Red Cross suggests 1 million Vietnamese are disabled or have serious health problems and 500,000 babies have subsequently been born with birth defects.

It’s a notable omission in this otherwise exhaustive history of the most contentious and divisive war of the past 80 years. For many politicized in the 1960s, it was the defining war of our lives.

Ken Burns, Lynn Novick
There’s a strange start to Episode One when Ken Burns and Lynn Kovick’s narration declares the war "was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War miscalculation”. The filmmakers then proceed, hour after hour, episode after episode, to demonstrate it wasn’t a war “begun in good faith by decent people”, but the consequence of a deluded fear over ‘international communism’ and the risk of national humiliation. America stayed involved in a civil war in South-East Asia for the sole reasons of not losing face and of “stopping Asia from becoming communist”.

Burns and Kovick carefully track the White House’s growing belief the war was “unwinnable”.
President Kennedy, 1963, television interview with Walter Cronkite:
Unless a greater effort is made by the [South Vietnamese] government to win popular support, the war cannot be won…in the final analysis, it’s their war…I don’t want Asia to pass into the control of the Chinese.”
President Johnson, 1964, on tape to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy:
It looks to me like we’ve getting into another Korea…I don’t think we can get out. What is Vietnam worth to me? What is it worth to this country?”

In 1965, America committed 200,000 troops. At home, anti-war protest marches grew from 15,000 to 35,000 and a pro-war march in New York had an estimated 25,000 supporters. On 24 March, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton wrote a Top Secret memorandum to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara about the war calling the “situation bad and deteriorating” and stating the USA interests in Vietnam were 70% to avoid humiliation, 20% to contain China, 10% to help South Vietnam.

The Vietnam War narration:
 “[In 1965] Undersecretary of State George Ball told the President the war could not be won. The American people will grow weary of it. Our troops will get bogged down in the jungle and rice paddies while we slowly blow the country to pieces.” 
Karl Marlenes, Vietnam Veteran:
My bitterness was, first of all, the lying. I can understand policy error…kill a lot of people out of a mistake…You read that McNamara knew by ‘65, just three years before I was there, that the war was unwinnable…covering up mistakes, you’re killing people for your own ego.”

It’s almost as though Burns and Novick hammer a single mantra, repeated by both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and later by Nixon: We want to stop Asia from becoming communist, but the war is unwinnable - if we withdraw, America will be humiliated in the eyes of the world. If there is material that suggests a more sophisticated, intelligent and humanist strain existed in the White House administrations, then Burns and Novick didn’t find it.

Sending troops to an “unwinnable” civil war in South East Asia was the issue shared by all the disparate groups that made up the anti-War protest movements. It’s contemptible to now hear audio and written accounts of Kennedy, Johnson, McNamara and others talk of the “unwinnable” war more than a decade before it finally ended. If the war was “unwinnable” in 1963 and 1965, why were there 536,000 American young men and women in Vietnam and why did 58,300 of them die along with millions of Vietnamese?

You don’t hear much about Vietnam these days from those who supported the war. The intervening years have all but silenced them. If provoked, the best they can muster is “we were fighting for your right to protest” or “we stopped Asia becoming communist”. The North won, the dominos didn’t fall, communism wasn’t a world threat, nor was it a monolithic bloc secretly organizing the anti-Vietnam protests in the West. Claiming that defeating communism in Vietnam was essential to the security of the Western World was just futile political spin.

Image from the Battle of Dak To
Episode Five includes The Battle for Hill 875 at Dak To in 1967. Three American companies supported by airstrikes and heavy artillery bombardment spent three days being slaughtered on a hill in the Central Highlands. 107 Americans were killed and 282 wounded. A US aircraft dropped a bomb directly on top of 42 Americans, killing all. The top of the hill was completely denuded by bombing when the US survivors finally got there, but the North Vietnamese forces had long since melted back into the jungle, leaving only a few dozen bodies behind. The North meticulously planned their successful ambush and hid soldiers in bunkers at both the top and the bottom of the hill. No-one could come up with a single reason why the American forces had been ordered to take the hill or what all the casualties were for. Like many such hills examined throughout this series, it was abandoned shortly after it was taken.

1st Lieutenant Matt Harrison:
“To take tops of mountains in a triple-canopy jungle along the Cambodian-Laotian border accomplished nothing of any importance. The Battle for Hill 875 was, in my thinking today, a microcosm of what we were doing and what went wrong in Vietnam. There was no reason to take that hill…and we sat there for, I don’t know, half an hour, an hour, [helicopters] came in, took us off the hill…we accomplished nothing.

Ken Burns has developed a very effective technique for humanizing history. He carefully selects and researches individuals for his documentaries and follows their journeys through their eyes and through those of their family and friends. In The Vietnam War, he uses many Americans who fought (and some who died) to provide powerfully emotive, audience-identifying empathy. His interviews with South and North Vietnamese players, however, are mostly confined to factual war experiences. One exception comes in Episode Seven when a North Vietnamese woman who drove trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail is interviewed. Apart from the terrifying logistics of the Trail, she tells of her North Vietnamese lover whom she never knew was alive or dead for years. They both survived the war.

For another source of insight into the foot soldiers who fought for the North, seek out Oriana Fallaci’s journalistic masterpiece Nothing and Amen – 10 chapters on her years in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 and one final chapter as an eye-witness to the 1968 massacre of 400 students and protesters at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City (1300 were wounded, including Fallaci who was shot in the back and legs). In Vietnam, she comes across piles of diaries from dead Viet Cong soldiers that are being translated for military intelligence before they are burned. She is given access to the diaries containing no military intelligence, the so-called Viet Cong “love diaries”. Are the Americans naive, she wonders, or are they just being polite? One of the diaries she includes in her book is from Le Vanh Minh, who had died two weeks earlier. 

North Vietnamese Female Militia
Tuyet Lan, my darling! I should like to write you an August poem to celebrate your birthday, your twenty years. And I should like its verses to contain all my love for you and all my hatred for the enemy…I feel I left you only a moment ago: my hungry eyes still follow your white dress as you move away and your hair waving like the palm trees in our villages. My love is so exuberant; and it is as sweet as the scent of the lotus flower, as fresh as the water of a stream, as precious as the sun that gilds the earth. It helps me when I see the bombs falling on my country and tears running down a woman’s face. It makes me stand up against the Americans like a mountain in a storm…How many enemies have invaded our country? For how many centuries have we been fighting? And what a brave country ours is. We shall destroy this new enemy, Tuyet Lan.

I don’t believe it, Tuyet Lan. It isn’t true, Tuyet Lan. They came and told me you are dead, Tuyet Lan. They told me you were killed like my mother, in a bombing…I cannot bear it, Tuyet Lan, it must be a mistake, Tuyet Lan…. we shall meet again, we shall walk on the Lake of the Swan and the Gulf of the Yellow Star…we shall look into each other’s eyes, your hand in mine, and we shall never leave each other again…we shall meet again but in another world, if there is one, when I am dead myself…I don’t care about anything, anymore. They have asked me to go on a patrol and I am going. To die.

Throughout the 18 hours of The Vietnam War, America’s combat allies, apart from the South Vietnamese, are given scant mention. There’s a single photograph of South Korean, Australian, New Zealand, Philippine and Thai soldiers standing with national flags as the narration mentions these countries joined the USA in Vietnam. And that’s it for us, except for one final mention of Australia when a US soldier talks of going to Sydney for R’n’R and there’s a photograph of the Bridge and Opera House (under construction). In a sweeping montage of anti-Vietnam protests around the world, Australia isn’t mentioned, but protests in places likes Prague and Istanbul are included.

In this country, our troop commitment to Vietnam drew huge protest marches; the jailing of conscientious objectors and draft resisters; angry political debates just as divisive in public as they were around family dinner tables (it tore my family apart); the polarizing “which side are you on?”; the music, the deaths, the wounded and the traumatized veterans.

For the record:
South Korea (49,000 troops; 5,000 killed; 11,000 wounded)
Thailand (12,000 troops; 351 killed; 1,358 wounded)
Australia (8,000 troops; 521 killed; 3,000 wounded)
New Zealand (1,000 troops; 37 killed; 187 wounded)
Philippines (2,064 troops; 9 killed; 64 wounded)

A final note about the music. Nick Turse refers to it somewhat scathingly as “grooving to ‘iconic musical recordings from [the] greatest artists of the era’”. David Frick from Rolling Stone has written the Soundtrack Notes that appear on the PBS website for the series and he quite rightly points out the music of the times was heard throughout American bases in Vietnam.

Some of the music works and some doesn’t. It’s incongruous to hear Turn, Turn, Turn (performed by The Byrds), a song by noted anti-War activist and peacenik Pete Seeger adapting lines from The Book of Ecclesiastes over footage of desolation in Vietnam. Or Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock over images of American student protesters murdered by the National Guard at Kent State University. Moments later, however, Neil Young’s anguished Ohio proves a perfect closer to Episode Eight.

Also in Episode Eight, Air Force Commander Merrill McPeak who flew 269 missions in Vietnam says this:
“The anthems for that counterculture were provided by the most brilliant rock and roll music you can imagine…And I felt that way in Vietnam, I turned up the volume on all that stuff. That for me, represented what I was trying to defend”.

I’ve never heard of rock and roll being the reason for killing, bombing and maiming Vietnamese, nor that the music was under direct threat from communism and needed to be defended by the greatest armed forces on the globe. It’s certainly puts a new perspective on why we were there.

Perhaps the strangest of the “iconic” music of the time comes in Episode Seven. David Frick writes:
The space-y instrumental turmoil in the middle of Steppenwolf's Magic Carpet Ride – a Top Three single at the end of 1968 – was prime psychedelia that, in the Vietnam War echoes night-time sorties along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Really? Psychedelia and the Ho Chi Minh Trail have nothing to do with one another. It’s reminiscent of Coppola’s use of The Doors’ The End over images of Vietnamese jungles being burnt by napalm in Apocalypse Now. Certainly effective use of sound and image, but designed purely for filmic effect rather than documentary reality. Steppenwolf were one of the most stridently anti-War bands of the era. They released their own “Vietnam album” in 1969 with a title track, Monster, tracing the history of America from its founding up to the Vietnam War. Somewhat more relevant than Magic Carpet Ride, its lyrics conclude:
Our cities have turned into jungles
And corruption is stranglin' the land
The police force is watching the people
And the people just can't understand
We don't know how to mind our own business
'Cause the whole world’s got to be just like us
Now we are fighting a war over there
No matter who's the winner
We can't pay the cost
'Cause there's a monster on the loose
It's got our heads into a noose
And it just sits there watching

America where are you now?
Don't you care about your sons and daughters?
Don't you know we need you now
We can't fight alone against the monster.

The following are some of the issues, people and topics covered in the series. Pacification, Mai Lai, fragging, Napalm Girl, strategic hamlets, B-52s, General Ky, Nixon sabotaging the Paris Peace Talks, Nixon bombing Cambodia, Nixon invading Cambodia, Nixon creating The Plumbers, free fire zones, limited war, Lyndon Johnson, Ho Chi Minh Trail, John Kerry, John F Kennedy, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Daniel Ellsberg, The Pentagon Papers, Hamburger Hill, democide, Vietnamization, protest movements, draft dodgers, Jane Fonda, The Hanoi Hilton, POWs, conscientious objectors, Kent State, Khe Sanh, Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Gaip, Ngo Dinh Diem, Nguyen Van Thieu, Le Duan, Henry Kissenger, Robert McNamara, Dien Bien Phu, buddhist monks, Tet Offensive, Re-education Camps; Gulf of Tonkin, Rolling Thunder

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