Well-intentioned and artfully executed, The Vietnam War—Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part, 18-hour-long documentary series on PBS—is not history, but rather story-telling and remembrance. Balanced, exhaustive, and relentlessly solemn, it glides along the surface of things, even when that surface is crowded with arrogance, miscalculation, deceit, and bloodletting on an epic scale.
According to one promotional trailer prepared for the series, “In war there is no single truth.” Embedded within every war (as in other forms of human endeavor) are multiple truths—some of them trivial, others very important indeed. The purpose of history is to unearth and engage with those truths that have something to teach us. This requires a willingness to interpret and render moral judgments. Yet Burns and Novick have an aversion to interpretation and steer clear of judgments.
Notably, among the many subjects interviewed for the project, professional historians—those trained to interpret the past—are all but absent. Whether as soldiers, government officials, reporters, antiwar activists, or mere bystanders, the series’ featured “talking heads” all participated in the events they recount. Their authority derives from what they themselves did or saw several decades ago and from how they have since processed those experiences. As witnesses, none are less than credible. Many are eloquent and offer deeply moving testimony: the Americans mournful, the South Vietnamese bitter, the North Vietnamese and former Vietcong resolute and assured. Yet largely absent from any of their recollections is a sense of distance or detachment. All are, in effect, partisans of one stripe or another.
If The Vietnam War as a whole has a point to make, it would appear to be that war is a great tragedy. Of course, this qualifies as a truism. In this particular tragedy, the participants on all sides—the people of North and South Vietnam no less than the Americans sent to fight against the North on the South’s behalf—suffered more or less equally. On all sides, the combatants exhibited courage and stamina. No side was innocent of grievous atrocities. All are victims; all are guilty. Or so Burns and Novick would have us believe.
I don’t mean to suggest that the series stakes out a position of bland neutrality. But the controversies it does take up tend to be either already resolved or largely peripheral. For example, Burns and Novick briefly examine and summarily reject the claim, cherished by devotees of Camelot, that President John F. Kennedy was planning to pull out of Vietnam once reelected in 1964. They also expose as simply untrue the US military’s claim that despite losing the war, it never “lost a fight.” In recounting the Battle of Hill 1338 in June 1967, for example, they depict in excruciating detail the destruction of an elite American paratroop unit, a tactical defeat that senior US officers subsequently covered up. And on the charges that, in 1968, Richard Nixon’s campaign conspired to derail the peace talks in order to improve his chances of winning the presidency, Burns and Novick find Nixon guilty. In each instance, their evidence is irrefutable. But having delivered their verdicts, they simply move on. So Nixon’s treasonous behavior becomes just one more anecdote.
Throughout The Vietnam War, the production values are of the highest quality. The narrative unfolds seamlessly, cutting from the war zone to the home front (theirs and ours) and back again. The period footage—a surprising amount of it North Vietnamese—is vivid and compelling. GIs wade through rice paddies, trudge up mountainsides, and stumble into ambushes set up by the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong. At night, fleets of Russian-built trucks lumber down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, trying to conceal themselves from the ordnance-laden American jets prowling overhead. Flying low and slow over the jungles of South Vietnam, Air Force C-123s dump tons of chemical defoliants, with nary a thought about the second-order consequences. Cruising at altitude over North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, B-52s disgorge their bomb loads onto whatever lies below. And always there are helicopters, mostly Hueys, Cobras, and Chinooks, touching down to unload assault troops, provide suppressive fire, or evacuate casualties. The cumulative effect is both mesmerizing and obscene.
Burns and Novick complement the imagery with a soundtrack consisting of pop songs from the 1960s and ’70s: Dylan, Seeger, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Barry McGuire, Simon & Garfunkel, and so on. With few exceptions, the recordings have a political edge, however oblique—no show tunes, no doo-wop, no lovey-dovey mush. Sgt. Barry Sadler’s mawkish “Ballad of the Green Berets,” a hit in 1966, doesn’t make the cut. The music is clearly intended to convey the sense that the film has something profound to say, even if, to quote a famous Buffalo Springfield lyric, “what it is ain’t exactly clear.”
Merrill McPeak, a former fighter pilot interviewed for this series, takes a stab at clarifying one central issue: “We were fighting on the wrong side.” Given that McPeak remained on active duty after the war and, as a four-star general, eventually served as Air Force chief of staff, his verdict is all the more noteworthy. But it is also off the mark. The United States screwed up not because it picked the wrong side in the Vietnam conflict, but because it stuck its nose where it didn’t belong. It simply wasn’t for us to decide who were the good guys and who the bad guys. The fate of Vietnam was an issue of negligible relevance to US national security. Had the United States allowed the Vietnamese to settle their differences on their own terms, everyone would have been better off. Almost certainly, far, far fewer people would have died.
Yet Burns and Novick pay surprisingly little attention to why exactly the United States insisted on butting in and why it subsequently proved so difficult to get out. Their lack of interest in this central issue is all the more striking given the acute misgivings about a large-scale US intervention that Lyndon Johnson repeatedly expressed in the fateful months between late 1964 and early 1965.
The anguished president doubted that the war could be won, didn’t think it was worth fighting, and knew that further expansion of US involvement in Vietnam would put at risk his cherished Great Society domestic-reform program. He said as much in taped conversations with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and his friend Georgia Senator Richard Russell, among others. Despite his reservations, Johnson—ostensibly the most powerful man in the world—somehow felt compelled to go ahead anyway. Yet Burns and Novick choose not to explore why exactly Johnson felt obliged to do what he did not want to do.
Our present situation makes the question all the more salient. The US war in Afghanistan, although smaller in scale than the war in Vietnam, has dragged on even longer. It too has turned out to be a misbegotten enterprise. When running for the presidency, Donald Trump said as much in no uncertain terms. But President Trump—ostensibly the most powerful man in the world—has not turned his skepticism into action, allowing America’s longest war to continue.
In a very real sense, Trump did not so much decide as capitulate. Much the same can be said about LBJ a half-century earlier when he signed off on committing US combat troops to Vietnam. But Burns and Novick barely touch on the factors leading to Johnson’s capitulation, even though, in present-day Washington, those factors persist: a brain-dead national-security establishment unable to conceive of political alternatives to escalation; a fear that admitting military failure will exact unacceptable political costs, whereas the costs of perpetuating an unwinnable war are likely to be tolerable; and, perhaps above all, the iron law of American exceptionalism, centered on the conviction that Providence summons the United States to exercise global leadership always and everywhere, leadership having long since become synonymous with a willingness to use force. As Trump has affirmed, even (or perhaps especially) presidents must bow to this pernicious bit of secular theology.
According to Burns and Novick, the American war in Vietnam was “begun in good faith, by decent people.” It comes closer to the truth to say that the war was begun—and then prolonged past all reason—by people who lacked wisdom and, when it was most needed, courage. Those who fought in the war and those who fought against it will certainly want to watch this series. Yet to find the answers that many are still searching for, they will have to look elsewhere.
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Source: The Nation
Note: The period of the author’s own tour of duty in Vietnam corresponds with episode nine of this series.
Barring unexpected delays, Silvia Foti is months away from fulfilling an old promise that’s become her life’s work: to write a biography of her late grandfather, who is a national hero in his native Lithuania.
Foti, a 60-year-old high school teacher from Chicago, made the pledge to her dying mother 18 years ago. She has spent a long time studying the life of her grandfather, Jonas Noreika, as well as acquiring the writing skills necessary for chronicling it and finding a publisher.
But rather than celebrating Noreika’s legacy as her mother requested, the biography that Foti wrote confirms and amplifies the findings ...
It is 70-years anniversary of the end of the WWII – the bloodiest and most horrible war ever fought in the human history. The war that caused creation of the UN in 1945 in order to protect the world from similar events in the future – a pan-global political-security organization of which first issued legal act was the UN Charter, which inspired the 1948 Geneva Conventions’ definition of genocide.
The Nüremberg and Tokyo Trials were organized as “The Last Battles” for justice as the first ever global trials for the war criminals and mass murderers including and the top-hierarchy statesmen and ...
Obit scribblers are calling John McCain a war “hero.” Well, I have to concede that unlike so many warmongering chickenhawks such as Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Kagan and most other neocons, McCain did actually serve in the military. But the same could be said for nearly all top Nazis including Hitler and Goering; they fought in a war and they loved war. They were destructive persons who learned nothing positive from their military experience.
Of course, few of the pundits and politicians who are eulogizing McCain would wish to include Nazis in their hall of fame, nor would most of ...
The US media has done it again. In a breaking news story on Fox News on Friday, September 28, 2007, Fox reporter Catherine Herridge used the term “former Yugoslavia” twice in the Fox story “Terrorist 007”. The term Yugoslavia was used deliberately to conceal the fact that the Al Qaeda terrorist known as Terrorist 007, or Irhabi 007 in Arabic, Younes Tsouli, had ties to Bosnia and to Bosnian Muslims who planned terrorist attacks.
Fox News sought to conceal this Al Qaeda connection to Bosnia by using the term “former Yugoslavia” in place of “Bosnia”. This was deliberate and planned. Someone ...
The genesis of the world, the myth of creation speaks of seven days.1 Six days of divine labour whereon the seventh the lord of the universe rested. No one, not even the angelic general staff of the combined heavenly hosts, could fathom what led the Creator to engage in this feat.2 But tradition has established that man — here the gendered reference is intended — as being created in the image of the Creator — aka “God” — should also rest on the seventh day. Depending on the sect into which one was born and bred, this may be called ...
The Bosnian Muslim Nazi SS Division Handzar, above in 1943, was made up of 18,000 Bosnian Muslims and 300 Albanian Muslims. Bosnian Muslims were not Nazi and fascist “collaborators”, but Nazis themselves.
The Bosnian Muslim Government and Army of Alija Izetbegovic reformed and reconstituted the Bosnian Muslim Nazi SS Division Handzar from World War II. Contrary to the nonsensical screed of Croat Marko Attila Hoare, whose mother is Croatian Marxist and Ustasha apologist Branka Magas, and other Bosnian Muslim apologists and propagandists, there is overwhelming and abundant proof of the existence of a “Handzar Divizija” in the Bosnian Muslim Army. The existence of ...
Exclusive: U.S. mainstream media sees itself as the definer of what’s true and what’s “propaganda,” but has gotten lost in a fog of self-delusion and is now the principal purveyor of “post-truth” news, writes Nicolas J S Davies.
For several months, Western officials and media outlets repeated thousands of times that there were between 250,000 and 300,000 civilians trapped under Syrian and Russian bombardment in East Aleppo. Western reports rarely mentioned the Syrian government’s estimate that there were only one-third that number of civilians in the rebel-controlled enclave – nor that its estimates were solidly based on what it had found in Homs and other ...
The Kosovo Question recently once again became an important issue of global politics and international relations for two reasons: 1) The Albanian “government” of the “Republic of Kosovo” announced to officially proclaim the existence of the Kosovo Army (that is a violation of the 1244 UN Resolution in 1999), and 2) The “president” of the “Republic of Kosovo”, a war criminal Hashim Tachi, participated on November 11th (2018) in Paris to the world leaders’ celebration of a centenary anniversary of the end of the WWI (the signed armistice with Germany) as the official representative of an “independent” Kosovo. He was ...
In Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (Metropolitan Books. New York. 2013), Turse writes that the US military’s official position, and the popular understanding in the US, is that leadership “has never condoned wanton killing or disregard for human life.” (2) On the rare occasions when atrocities are brought to light, they are blamed on low-level individuals and are said to be aberrations having nothing to do with official policy. The My Lai massacre, for example, was blamed on Lieutenant William Calley, who is said to have gone “crazy” (4,5) – although he and his unit ...
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2014.
On Monday [October 13 2014], America’s government offices, businesses, and banks all grind to a halt in order to commemorate Columbus Day. In schools up and down the country, little children are taught that a heroic Italian explorer discovered America, and various events and parades are held to celebrate the occasion.
It has now become common knowledge amongst academics that Christopher Columbus clearly did not discover America, not least because is it impossible to discover a people and a continent that was already there and thriving with culture. One can only wonder how ...
When I was living in San Francisco in 1981, I met and became friends with Chun Sun-Tae, a Korean immigrant who had come to the United States as a college student in the 1960s and ran a small luggage shop in Oakland. James, as he was known, had grown up in the 1940s in the city of Kaesong in what was then the northern frontier of South Korea.
One warm day in June, 1950, he went camping with a group of friends at a nearby lake. The next morning, they woke to the sounds of artillery and gunfire: Kaesong had just ...
Grenada is an independent state, a member of the U.N., located in the southern portion of the Caribbean Sea very close to the mainland of the South America (Venezuela). The state is composed by southernmost of the Windward Islands combined with several small islands which belong to the Grenadines Archipelago, populated by almost 110,000 people of whom 82% are the blacks (2012 estimations). The state of Grenada is physically mostly forested mountains’ area (of volcanic origin) with some crater lakes and springs. In the valleys are bananas, spices and sugar cane grown. The country is out of any natural wealth ...
It is now openly discussed even in mainstream media the fact that Turkey has been intimately involved in fomenting and supporting the war on Syria, with its ultimate goal of the overthrow of the Syrian government and its replacement by a compliant proxy aligned with Turkish President Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood. That this is no longer a ‘conspiracy theory’ but a conspiracy fact not only vindicates my analysis over the last four years, but it also brings to the fore the nefarious role of a NATO member in stoking a brutal and bloody war for its own ends.
Beyond just ...
A new Foundation for the Study of Democracy (FSD) report is titled “War crimes of the armed forces and security forces of Ukraine: torture of the Donbass region residents.”
It provides graphic evidence of horrendous Kiev war crimes Western media ignore.
Earlier articles discussed Kiev’s dirty war. It deliberately targeted civilian neighborhoods, schools, hospitals and infrastructure.
It used of cluster munitions, white phosphorous and other chemical weapons, as well as cold-blooded murder of hundreds of captives.
Most were abducted civilians. They were brutally tortured, murdered and secretly buried. Eyewitnesses exposed the crimes.
FSD’s report provides more damning evidence of junta torture, inhumane and degrading treatment.
Over 100 former ...
Following the death of President Tito in 1980 the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia slid towards chaos. In the 1990s the plunge accelerated into civil war and one of the regions most affected was Kosovo from which Serbia withdrew after a NATO bomb and rocket offensive from 24 March to 11 June 1999. That blitz involved over 1,000 mainly American aircraft conducting some 38,000 airstrikes on Yugoslavia that killed approximately 500 civilians and destroyed much of the economic and social infrastructure of the region.
NATO said its air bombardment was essential to halt repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and justified the ...
They could be found on the outskirts of Sirte, Libya, supporting local militia fighters, and in Mukalla, Yemen, backing troops from the United Arab Emirates. At Saakow, a remote outpost in southern Somalia, they assisted local commandos in killing several members of the terror group al-Shabab. Around the cities of Jarabulus and Al-Rai in northern Syria, they partnered with both Turkish soldiers and Syrian militias, while also embedding with Kurdish YPG fighters and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Across the border in Iraq, still others joined the fight to liberate the city of Mosul. And in Afghanistan, they assisted indigenous forces in various missions, just as they have ...
Bosnia and Kosovo are two of the biggest exporters of jihadists joining the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) from the Balkans. As The Cipher Brief reported last month, legacies of the Communist era and the wars of the 1990s – presence of foreign fighters, economic and physical destruction, a lack of funding to rebuild, and the near eradication of moderate Islamic institutions – paved the way for Islamic extremist groups to establish a foothold in both countries. Now, ISIS recruiters are targeting Bosnia and Kosovo, and many Bosnians and Kosovars have left to fight in Syria and ...
On October 21, 2016 a typical Estonian school witnessed an opening ceremony of the bronze bust of Harald Nugiseks. He was an SS-Oberscharführer (Sergeant) in World War II, who served voluntarily in the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the Waffen SS. According to the director of this education institution, the memory of Harald Nugiseks will lead to the increase in feelings of patriotism among students and must increase their willingness to protect their country in case of external aggression.
So who is this Nugiseks? – During the Second World War, he was awarded with the second highest military award in the ...
The United States is killing entire families in Raqqa, Syria, and enabling Saudi Arabia to do the same in Yemen.
In June of this year, the U.S. led a campaign to retake the city of Raqqa from ISIS fighters while the Russian and Syrian militaries were also attempting to do the same thing. In the first week of fighting, U.N. war crimes investigators warned that the U.S. had already killed 300 civilians from air strikes alone in that seven day period.
Rather than heed that warning, the U.S. has continued the same strategy of pounding Raqqa into the ground despite the likelihood of civilian casualties. Pentagon ...
What is wrong with the American people? After several years of horrific policy toward the waking world, democracy’s standard bearers seem to be drowning in a lake of selfishness. Distracted, apathetic, or simply dumbed and numbed by unrelenting propaganda, the most admired society on Earth has turned to a wriggling mush of diverging ideals. I fear that American have become what we ultimately deplored, just another despicable cultural hegemony. Here’s a short brief on the matter.
A recent article by James Carden at The Nation prompted me to discuss this unsavory truth today. The title of the piece, “Trump’s Syria Policy: ...
Untold History of Lithuania: A Chicago Teacher Showed Her Grandfather was a Nazi Collaborator
The Unspoken Crimes of World War II: The Dresden Massacre of 1945
The Fallacy of Calling McCain or Anyone Else a War Hero
“Yugoslavia” Again: Terrorist 007
From a Sunday to a Monday in August, the Sixth Day
Bosnian Muslims Suppressed Their Dirty Nazi Legacy
The ‘Post-Truth’ Mainstream Media
The Basic Guidelines Through the Kosovo Question
A Look at “Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam”
Before Columbus: How Africans Brought Civilization to America
Can the United States Own Up to Its War Crimes During the Korean War?
When the Cowboy-Actor Star Brings Democracy: The 1983 Grenada Case
Turkey: A Criminal State, a NATO State
From Kosovo to Crimea — Tales of Referendums
U.S. Special Operations Forces Deploy to 138 Nations, 70% of the World’s Countries
Exporting Jihad: Bosnia and Kosovo
Who is Profiting from the Rise of Fascism?
U.S. Airstrikes are Wiping Out Entire Families in Yemen and Syria
The Problem is America: The Malignant Cultural Hegemony