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.
Last week’s announcement of a record-breaking US aid package for Israel underscores how dangerously foolish and out-of-touch is our interventionist foreign policy. Over the next ten years, the US taxpayer will be forced to give Israel some $38 billion dollars in military aid. It is money we cannot afford going to a country that needs no assistance to maintain its status as the most powerful military in the Middle East.All US foreign aid is immoral and counterproductive. As I have often said, it is money taken from poor people in the US and sent to rich people overseas. That is ...
The U.S. military base in Kosovo was constructed in 1999 without consulting with the government of Serbia and is the largest U.S. military base built outside of the U.S. since the Vietnam War. The site was apparently used for extraordinary renditions and has been referred to as a “little Guantanamo”.
This is a very little known fact as NATO, the U.S., the European Union and the West are in the process of forcing Serbia to effectively give up Kosovo, and indicates the real motive for the West’s support of the Kosovo Liberation Army which it had deemed a terrorist organization ...
From the onset of NATO’s aggression from March 24 to June 11, 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) flew over 35,000 combat missions over the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Over 1,000 warplanes (among others F-15, F-16, F-117) and 206 helicopters were used in the air strikes. More than 20,000 laser or satellite-guided weapons were launched and over 79,000 tons of explosives were dropped, including 152 containers with 35,450 cluster bombs, thermo-visual and graphite bombs, which are prohibited under international conventions.1
The NATO forces justified the bombing of civilian targets as either “mistakes” or essential to the destruction of Milosevic and ...
Over the past 50 years the US and European powers have engaged in countless imperial wars throughout the world. The drive for world supremacy has been clothed in the rhetoric of “world leadership”, the consequences have been devastating for the peoples targeted. The biggest, longest and most numerous wars have been carried out by the United States. Presidents from both parties direct and preside over this quest for world power. The ideology which informs imperialism varies from “anti-communism”in the past to “anti-terrorism”today.
Washington’s drive for world domination has used and combined many forms of warfare, including military invasions and occupations; proxy ...
The world is lectured frequently by the United States of America — the One Indispensable Nation — about how to behave, on the grounds that, as President Obama declared, «from London and Prague, to Tokyo and Seoul, to Rio and Jakarta... there is a new confidence in our leadership».
He didn’t mention Amman, Baghdad, Beijing, Beirut, Caracas or the capitals of so many other countries in which the majority of citizens, according to the Pew Research Centre and other pollsters such as Marketwatch, regard the United States as an aggressive and malign manipulator of world affairs.
Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton went further than President Obama in glorifying ...
Here it is, that time of year (the fourth Thursday in November) when we are all beseeched to consider “what we are thankful for.” This invitation to a mass cultural ritual targets everyone regardless of race, creed or sex (or these days, gender). The conformity of thought it reinforces does not discriminate among such superficial characteristics; it goes way deeper. The fundamentals (literally, the foundational elements) of the “American” mind are laid each year at this time.
Those fundamentals hold that we are a strong, brave, resourceful people – whether by our evolved nature or by the grant of a deity ...
During the Kosovo conflict in 1999, military intervention by the US and NATO was precipitated by the use of outright lies and deceptions. The conflict was “ostensibly about preventing “genocide” on the scale of the Holocaust. This was the Big Lie. This was the Noble Lie. In fact, the conflict was about secession and separatism and the creation of a US-sponsored Greater Albania. Why was the Noble Lie needed? A deception was needed because US policy was supporting an illegal land grab, a forceful take-over of territory from a sovereign nation, Yugoslavia.
Why and how could such lies and deceptions occur ...
The grossest thing in American society is the reactionary sentimentality that fill our gossip infected hearts with a chemical reaction every time one of our supposed war heroes moves on to a more peaceful place. The carefully rehearsed statements from useless political figures numb our minds as all those who are sane must collectively wonder what on earth has a fusty bag of bones like John McCain ever done for us? Donald Trump was once new to the political scene and was still capable of burning bridges that were worth burning. It was Mr. Trump’s finest moment when he said ...
“In the event of a nuclear war, there will be no chances, there will be no survivors – all will be obliterated… nuclear devastation is not science fiction – it is a matter of fact. The world now stands on the brink of the final abyss. Let us all resolve to take all possible practical steps to ensure that we do not, through our own folly, go over the edge.” Former First Sea Lord, Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979) Strasbourg, 11 May 1979.”
As US threats ratchet up towards North Korea, the latest hinging on the accusation that the country attempted a ...
Transcript of presentation by the author at the Conference of Independent Journalists’ Association for Peace, Vienna, Austria, May 2015.
This year the twentieth anniversary of the massacre in Srebrenica is being observed. On July 11 a huge spectacle will take place at the Srebrenica Memorial center specially constructed for that purpose. It will feature the presence of most of the rather insignificant individuals purporting to be political leaders in the region and the Western-dominated world. Their speeches, which never vary substantially, will be infused with the predictable platitudes.
I propose to deal with some aspects of the Srebrenica narrative from the standpoint ...
Note: This article was first published in January 2015.
Since 9/11, the imperial playbook has consisted of a favorite and time-tested tactic: the false flag operation.
Carry out or facilitate a spectacular atrocity. Blame it on the enemy of choice. Issue a lie-infested official narrative, and have the corporate media repeat the lie. Rile up ignorant militant crowds, stoke the hatred, and war-mongering imperial policy planners and their criminal functionaries get what they want: war with the public stamp of approval.
Here we are again.
The Charlie Hebdo incident is being sold as “the French 9/11”. It certainly is, in all of the most ...
What could cause Russia to invade Israel
At the time, Israel’s Prime Minister had flown to Washington, and was making a desperate bid to get Obama’s support for Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Only a few weeks earlier a discovery had been made that would serve to increase tensions on the question of sovereignty over the Golan – huge oil deposits were found on the Golan Heights, and verified by an Israeli company.
Yet, weeks later, Benjamin Netanyahu returned to Israel having failed to secure Obamas support.
It wasnt long before the United Nations – including Russia – condemned Israels “occupation” of the ...
It is as if the Gambino and Genovese crime families were arguing their turf disputes in the courts and the news media. The Democrats are screaming bloody murder over President Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, whom Hillary Clinton still blames for her defeat at the polls and whom the bipartisan War Party has never forgiven for Comey’s earlier hesitancy to blame the Russians for the same offense.
Now that Trump has cut Comey loose — ostensibly for his handling of the Clinton emails scandal, according to three letters sent by Trump and his two top Justice Department officials ...
The American people should, in the words of Vietnam War Veteran Brian Willson “place themselves in the position of people living in targeted countries. That North Korea, a nation of 24 million people, i.e., one-twentieth the population of the U.S., many of them poor, a land slightly larger in area than the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, continues to be one of the most demonized nations and least understood, totally perplexes the Korean people.”
What most people in America do not know –and which is particularly relevant when assessing the “threats” of the DPRK to World peace– is that North Korea lost thirty percent ...
This article was written and originally published in January 2015.
„God is our objective, the Quran is our Constitution, the Prophet is our leader, struggle is our way, and death for sake of God is the highest of our aspirations“
The West Europe before the 2014 Christmas became once again a target of several mini-terrorist acts by the radical Islamists among whom the Wahabbies are the most active and dangerous. On Tuesday, December 23rd, Germany’s security service warn of highest terrorist threat in decades as the German participation in the anti-ISIS struggle became the reason for potential terrorism. ...
Here we go again. In yet another Pentagon precision strike, a residential building in Achin district of Nangarhar province was hit as a crowd welcomed home a tribal leader returning from the Hajj.
At least 13 civilians were turned into «collateral damage». The Pentagon of course does not «discuss the details of counter-terror operations», but it’s «currently reviewing all materials related to this strike».
Nothing obviously will come out of it – adding the civilian dead to the non-stop mounting toll of Operation Enduring Freedom (Forever).
Someone that actually is bound to endure his freedom in full splendor is former warlord, head of ...
Why has Barack Obama airdropped 50 tons of ammunition into areas that “moderate rebels” in Syria supposedly control? This is essentially the equivalent of poking the Russians directly in the eyes. Much of this ammunition will end up in the hands of those that the Russians are attempting to bomb into oblivion, and so to Russia it appears that we are attempting to make their job much harder. And of course the truth is that there aren’t really any “moderate rebels” in Syria at all. Nearly all of the groups that are fighting are made up primarily of radical jihadists ...
There is a reason that most countries polled in December 2013 by Gallup called the United States the greatest threat to peace in the world, and why Pew found that viewpoint increased in 2017.
But it is a reason that eludes that strain of U.S. academia that first defines war as something that nations and groups other than the United States do, and then concludes that war has nearly vanished from the earth.
Since World War II, during a supposed golden age of peace, the United States military has killed or helped kill some 20 million people, overthrown at least 36 governments, ...
On September 16, 1982, Christian Lebanese militiamen allied to Israel entered the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila and the adjacent neighborhood of Sabra in Beirut under the watch of the Israeli army and began a slaughter that caused outrage around the world. Over the next day and a half, up to 3500 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were murdered in one of the worst atrocities in modern Middle Eastern history. The New York Times recently published an op-ed containing new details of discussions held between Israeli and American officials before and during the massacre. They ...
“The Declaration of Independence implicitly legalized the enslavement of Black people and the genocide of Native people within the context of the developing American capitalist nation-state.”
July 4th is once again approaching and principled left forces need to use the day as a teaching moment. In a speech given on July 4th, 1852, Frederick Douglas spoke before a packed Rochester Hall and did just that, highlighting the hypocrisy that stains the July 4th celebration of the American Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence, as Douglass emphasized, held no worth to the millions of Black people in the United States whose existence was ...
Why are We Sending $38 Billion to Rich and Powerful Israel?
Europe’s “Little Guantanamo”: Why the U.S. Wants Serbia to Give Up Kosovo
Civilian Casualties of NATO’s War on Yugoslavia
Fifty Years of Imperial Wars: Global Neoliberalism and America’s Drive for World Domination
Wars, Killings, and the Greatest Country Ever Created
Giving Thanks for Our Occupation of America?
Kosovo War and Plato’s “The Noble Lie”
One Dead McCain, 2.5 Million Dead Iraqis
“Making America Great Again” by Reducing the World to Ashes?
The Srebrenica Massacre as Paradigmatic Media Spin
Donald Trump – A Super Zionist?
Criminal Nation: Obama and Trump Both Should Be Jailed for War Crimes
North Korea vs the United States: Who are the Demons?
Making Balkan Caliphate: The Wahhabies – A New Danger for the Balkan and European Security
Afghanistan; It’s the Heroin, Stupid
Is Barack Obama Actually Trying to Start World War III?
The U.S. Wars and Hostile Actions around the Globe: A Preliminary List
The Sabra & Shatila Massacre
What is July 4th to US Imperialism? What is It to the Oppressed?