“No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now.” Richard Nixon’s 1994 post-war observation remains as prescient as ever. With the release of the Ken Burns/Lynne Novick epic 10-part PBS documentary on the war last month, it is safe to say that the misreporting and misremembering have only been compounded and exacerbated.
For those among us who expected favorable treatment for the American effort to halt the spread of communism and a serious look at our South Vietnamese allies beyond the recycled shibboleths of their leaders as corrupt American stooges and their troops unwilling to do their share of the heavy lifting, there was evidence well before release that this would never be the case. Burns’ 2016 commencement address at Stanford and public comments made shortly after the election of Donald Trump that he “needed some time in the fetal position” were preview enough into what we would be indoctrinated with by America’s greatest documentarian.
If nothing else, the release of the Burns/Novick work has ignited a firestorm of passionate response from those men who honorably served. And it was their stories, including those of our South Vietnamese allies, that went largely untold in 18 long, tortuous hours.
In my own research and study of the war, I have met and interviewed several hundred veterans of ground combat in Vietnam. None of them, not one single Marine, soldier or corpsman, spoke of his experiences or reflected in the ways Burns’ key enlisted grunts described their service. There was something different, unquantifiable about them. It was as if there should be an asterisk placed after their names.
All of the above was made obvious the further one progressed into the series. Burns, with a $30 million budget funded by PBS (read: U.S. taxpayers) and a few left-leaning foundations, was able to locate those needles in the haystack, at the most one of 1,000 men who returned from the war to join Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). (The record suggests that between 2.6 and 2.7 million men served in theater in the period constituting our involvement there. The record also places the maximum number of actual Vietnam vets in VVAW at something just over 2,000 as a maximum … not even one in 1,000.)
Rather than further rehash the abundant criticisms posted across the Net, I would ask readers to Google posts by Vietnam combat veterans Terry Garlock, John Del Vecchio, Bing West, Phil Jennings, Steve Sherman and countless others who proudly served. The most succinct summation came from one of the great Vietnam authors, Dr. Lewis “Bob” Sorley, also a combat veteran and imminent scholar. He said this about the film’s message in a post-showing panel discussion with a range of opinions from credentialed participants:
War is hell.
Americans who opposed the war: good.
Americans who fought in it: inept, pitiable.
North Vietnamese: admirable.
South Vietnamese: hardly worth mentioning.
War is hell.
Let’s all make nice.
America has moved beyond the “Ask not what your country can do for you … pay any price, bear any burden” type of thinking (from President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address), which motivated that sizable cohort of young men to action and selfless service. We now live in a more Clintonesque “What difference, at this point, does it make?” cynicism, indolence and cultural self absorption type of world.
Many who have studied the Vietnam War are familiar with the 1975 exchange in Hanoi between U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers and a North Vietnamese Army officer of similar rank. The American reminded his tentative host that they had never defeated the U.S. in battle. The more politically astute communists’ reply underscored all that mattered: “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”
Absent from discussion in the Burns work is the absolute truth that communism kills – and not just in Vietnam or Southeast Asia. Communist regimes are responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000,000 people in the 20th century, nearly one-third the number of the current population of the United States. Its surviving victims number many times that. People do not die breaking into communist paradises. As an old Vietnamese friend who escaped to freedom in 1980 after several attempts described it: “If they could, even the trees would leave.”
It is my belief that the Burns/Novick team was acutely aware that the documentary would cause a stir among honorably serving men. Who among that group would agree that there is moral equivalence between them and their NVA/VC enemies, or them and the antiwar crowd? And who in their right mind would agree that it took more courage to oppose the war and bug out for Canada than it did to fulfill one’s obligation to one’s country? And where else is there a production that presents John Kerry as reasonable rather than traitorous? To again borrow from the failed presidential candidate: What difference does it make? Plenty.
No sir, it did not take more courage to oppose and flee. You are not honorable. Your guilt is not expiated. Your actions emboldened our enemies. Even they acknowledged and were grateful for that. You have American and South Vietnamese blood on your hands.
The prophet Isaiah comes to mind when he said, “Woe unto those who call evil good, and good evil.” If the biblical reference makes you uncomfortable, consider George Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” And closer to the mark: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
In this struggle for historical truth, Burns and crew hold the logistical high ground. In this instance they control the metaphorical equivalent of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and all sanctuaries. They have prepared the battlefield. With the blessings of Hollywood, academia and most of the press, the narrative is theirs to shape and continue to spin.
When the furor over this documentary dies down, when the rest of us press on with the exigencies of life, when some other issue arises to divide our attention, the passion will subside; and there will still be the Ken Burns story. In five, 10, 20 years, the men who fought the war in Vietnam and the millions of refugees who fled ancestral homelands rather than live as slaves will be gone, or nearly gone. But on the shelves of the public libraries and in the halls of academia will be the Ken Burns story, waiting to be accessed as fact and the way it really was.
I can imagine the most erudite, strident veteran of the war, whoever that might be, one day confronting Mr Burns, much like Col. Summers did his NVA counterpart in 1975:
“But Mr Burns, your story is filled with lies, half truths and glaring omissions.”
“That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”
We cannot let that happen.
See the official trailer for “Ride the Thunder”: