Editor’s note: Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady is a recipient of the United States military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor. He is former president of the Medal of Honor Society.
Needless to say, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “documentary,” “The Vietnam War,” has caught the attention of Vietnam veterans. Except for the John Kerryites, the feedback is decidedly negative.
The filmmakers’ obsequious devotion to the Vietnam-era media narrative is breathtaking. Many call Burns and Novick’s “Vietnam” a hatchet job. That attitude certainly has merit, but I barely got past Tet when it was clear to me that what they were doing was more subtle than a hatchet job. A better description is: The filmmakers damned us – not only the veterans, but America as well – with faint praise.
They use a deceitful journalistic tool of gathering token credibility bites from those on the other side of their preordained narrative in an effort to appear objective. Burns and Novick’s “Vietnam” is plagued with media malfeasance including obfuscation, omission and some really messed up moral equivalences.
North Vietnam would have fallen in weeks if the American media had been there and treated it as they did our efforts in the South. The GIs knew this and would often declare that we should not fear the enemy – they will only take your life. Instead, they’d say, fear the media because they will steal your honor.
In this latest effort to highlight the GI disdain for Vietnam’s people, I was amazed to learn that we ridiculed their homes by calling them hooches. Really? We called our own living quarters hooches. And mama-san was a term of endearment for our hooch maids, not in any way an insult.
The Grantonian remark that U.S. Army Gen. Creighton Abrams “drank a lot” disturbed me. What was the point? That he was a drunk? I knew Abrams, and he was unquestionably one of the greatest soldiers we ever produced. I never heard a word about him drinking a lot.
I was especially disturbed by the notion that we wouldn’t carry the Vietnamese dead. In one tour in Vietnam, my unit and other helicopter ambulance units (“Dustoff”), carried hundreds of Vietnamese dead, as well as Communist dead and wounded.
The documentary’s co-creators repeat Walter Cronkite’s apocalyptic version of Tet despite the fact that it was surely one of the greatest military victories in the history of warfare. We killed 41,000 and captured 2,500 of 84,000 enemy combatants. Gen. Vo Nguyan Giap, the Communists’ supreme commander, was ready to quit. (Years later, I would represent Army Gen. William Westmoreland in a visit with Giap, who was willing to go on the record with Westy and admit what a catastrophe Tet was for his side.) Yet it was portrayed as a defeat, thanks to the likes of Uncle Walter, who had his nose up Ho Chi Minh’s posterior. It was like America turned around after Normandy and retreated across the English Channel or George Washington quitting after Yorktown.
Burns and Novick repeatedly remind us that we didn’t understand the Vietnamese. How then do we understand that they would vote for a Communist over a nationalist? As for Ngo Dinh Diem’s popularity, it is worth emphasizing that after the Vietnam division of 1954, hundreds of thousands fled Ho Chi Minh’s North in favor of Diem in the South. How many went North? We have no idea of Ho’s popularity since Communists don’t do polls.
I have seen the terrors of Communism up close – in Berlin, watching them build a wall around their own people; in the DMZ in Korea, where I saw human beings turned into robots; in Russia, where the people were still paranoid of Communists well after the fall of the wall; and in Vietnam, where I personally picked up the remnants of Communists’ atrocities beyond evil. Diem and the refugees recognized those evils, as did many in the South. We saw the fruits of that evil after the fall in the tragedies of the concentration camps and boat people.
Contrasting Burns and Novick’s fawning depiction of Ho versus that of Diem is instructive. Ho embodied many of the characteristics of Burns’ Hollywood. He was an atheist. He was a Communist. He was a propagandist who controlled the media, and he certainly was not celibate. Diem was far from the Hollywood denizens. He was a devout Catholic, so devout that he lived a celibate life in emulation of Christ and many saints. He was an anti-communist, pro-nationalist, and he lived an extremely austere life. He was not a man who coveted opulence. His extraordinary faith and austere lifestyle belies any motive of personal aggrandizement.
The Buddhist burning was covered, but not the Buddhist Communist connection – nor was the fact that many members of Diem’s family were murdered by the Buddhists, some buried alive. Still almost half of Diem’s staff were Buddhists. Diem was a dedicated nationalist with the best interests of his country at heart.
After our complicity in the murder of Diem, Ho said, “I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid.” Ho had a very high opinion of Diem and tried to recruit him. I was in flight school with some Vietnamese pilots at the time we murdered Diem, and I remember their distress, not only because of his death but over the fact that some Americans celebrated it. They would remind us how it felt three weeks later as we mourned President John F. Kennedy’s death.
To draw a moral equivalence between Ho and Diem, Communism and nationalism, is bad enough. But to draw a moral equivalence between the war cowards at home and those who risked their lives for them in Vietnam, as the filmmakers do here, is beyond shameful.
Let me give you Vietnam in a nutshell. It matches in unselfishness anything we ever did. There was really nothing in it for us in a materiel sense. We were simply trying to help a helpless people be free from the horrible evil of Communism. And the Vietnam veteran fought with a valor and humanitarianism never before seen in any war in our history.
Look at the facts ignored by Burns and Novick. The American soldier was never defeated on any significant battlefield in Vietnam. The average infantryman in the Pacific in World War II saw about 40 days of combat in four years. His counterpart in Vietnam saw about 240 days of combat in one year. The percentage of those who died is similar to other wars, but the prevalence of traumatic amputation and crippling wounds was 300 percent higher in Vietnam than in World War II and 70 percent higher than in Korea. Multiple amputations occurred at the rate of 18.4 percent compared to 5.7 percent in World War II. Approximately 75,000 Vietnam vets were severely disabled.
Medal of Honor recipient Gen. Patrick Brady tells the inspiring, miraculous story of his days as a Dust Off air ambulance pilot in Vietnam. Get his reissued book, autographed: “Dead Men Flying: Victory in Viet Nam”
Above our magnificent grunts, the aviation accomplishments in Vietnam are unprecedented. In World War II, aircraft losses were 16 percent, and, in Vietnam, 43 percent. I read that in World War II, some pilots completed tours after 25 missions at an average of four hours per mission, or total 100 hours! In Vietnam, 100 hours was an average month for many, and 25 missions an average week.
As an aside, Mike Novosel, a fellow “Dustoff” pilot, and I were playing golf with a famous fighter pilot much celebrated for having flown 100 combat missions. Between us, Mike and I had more than 5,000 combat missions! Needless to say, we reminded the fighter pilot of this as he bent over an important putt.
Burns and Novick’s narrative is woefully dismissive of the extraordinary valor and humanitarianism of the Vietnam GI. I saw mention of only one of 260 Medals of Honor awarded. What is remarkable is that 30 percent of the Medals of Honor earned in Vietnam, far more than any other war, were for soldiers covering explosives with their bodies to save their fellow soldiers. That is not only a remarkable statistic, it is a remarkable tribute to the quality of our troops.
The film’s creators also ignore perhaps the most amazing story of the war, Charles Kelly and “Dustoff,” the most famous call sign of the war. Kelly gave his life to save aeromedical evacuation. His dying words uttered when he refused to leave patients while under fire – “when I have your wounded” – set the standard for life-saving on the battlefield to this day.
“Dustoff” has been singled out by every supreme commander in Vietnam for special recognition. They led the humanitarian effort and set battlefield survival records unparalleled in combat. Over 500,000 combat missions and more than 900,000 rescued – men, women, children, enemy as well as friendly.
Although one in 10 GIs was wounded, less than 1 percent died, thanks to “Dustoff.” Your chances of survival were greater if you were wounded on a battlefield in Vietnam than if you were on an accident on a highway in America. How in the hell could any documentary of Vietnam omit “Dustoff”?
The filmmakers also ignore the fact that it was the outstanding veterans from that war who were responsible for the unprecedented victory in Desert Storm.
By the way, Congress continues to ignore the “Dustoff” crews. Although they have been recommended for a Congressional Gold Medal, Congress ignored them but found time for the Filipinos in World War II (surely deserving). Not one unit from Vietnam has received this honor.
In addition to the humanitarian efforts of “Dustoff,” Burns and Novick fail to highlight the contributions of the GI to the welfare, health and education of those wonderful people. Vietnam may be the only war we ever fought – or perhaps that was ever fought – in which the American soldier added to their heroism a humanitarianism unmatched in the annuals of warfare. And the U.S. soldier did so during the heat of the battle. He cared for and about those people, especially the young. The Vietnam veteran fixed as he fought. He cured and educated and built hospitals and orphanages in the middle of the battle. He vaccinated thousands, adopted the children, educated them. He cared for and about those people. No barrier, no political system, will erase what our Vietnam veterans gave to those people.
And the fruits of our humanitarian effort are still there in psyche of the people of Vietnam, in their hearts and souls – as they are in the hearts of so many people all over the world who have been touched by the American GI. I have been back three times and was amazed at the treatment I received. Of all the countries in the world that the young want to visit, America ranks No. 1. (Their favorite city is Las Vegas.)
Our defeat was at the hands of our elite in the courtrooms, the classrooms, the cloak rooms and the newsrooms: cowardly, media-phobic politicians; an irresponsible, dishonest media; and other cowards and spoiled brats and professors from Berkeley to Harvard.
Living with the scars of war is difficult. For some, it’s unbearable. But all veterans suffer. The Vietnam veteran suffered physically as much, perhaps more, than any veteran of the past century. But no other veteran has suffered the mental agony of the Vietnam veteran.
The thing that makes Vietnam so intolerable is what the elite tried to do to dishonor the source of those scars, to intensify the pain of Vietnam veterans and destroy their unselfish and honorable legacy. They opened a gash in the psyche of veterans and then rubbed salt in it. And equally as bad were the atrocities committed by the Communists targeting the friends we abandoned.
The Vietnam veterans not only distinguished themselves in combat, they came home and became model citizens. They were the best educated forces our nation ever sent into combat – 79 percent had a high-school education or better. Contrary to media reports, Vietnam vets didn’t abuse drugs more than their civilian cohorts. They were less likely to go to prison than non-vets. Their income exceeded non-vets by 18 percent, and their unemployment rates were lower.
We see horrifying suicide rates among today’s warriors, yet Vietnam veterans, who saw as much or more combat than any warriors ever, after living through the media calumny of their service and sacrifice, had a lower suicide rate than their civilian counterparts. And, as a tribute to their patriotism, despite their shoddy treatment, more than 90 percent of the veterans are glad they served. And so are 87 percent of the American people who saw through the media distortion of their service. Burns and Novick are obviously not among the 87 percent.
The Burns/Cronkite babble that Vietnam was a war we couldn’t win is sad. There is no such thing as “a war we cannot win” if we decide to win. The immeasurable and irredeemable tragedy Burns and Novick label Vietnam is true only in the manner in which we abandoned our allies and mistreated our veterans.
It was our vets in Vietnam who slowed the onslaught of Communism to this day. And Communism is dead in Vietnam; they just don’t know what to do with the corpse.
Humanitarianism was our great victory in Vietnam, a victory as great as in any war. There is an inscription on the wall of a veteran’s cemetery that says they sacrificed their youth that liberty might grow old. There is no one anywhere to whom that better applies than the veterans of Vietnam. Humanitarianism and a roadblock to communism were our great victories in Vietnam.
Next to the Vietnam Wall, we need a John Kerry/Fonda Wall of Shame listing those who prominently blasphemed the Vietnam GI. And let’s add the names of every member of Congress who voted in December 1974 to betray our allies and leave them to be slaughtered by an evil, vicious enemy.