As already touched on, all non-Americans are made ‘aliens’ in an exceptionalist conception – ‘aliens’ being the pejorative, bureaucratic term the USA applies to ‘foreigners’. It is a concept that doesn’t just reference ‘foreignness’, but the implication that people who are not American are in fact a different species altogether, like extra-terrestrials.
Thinking of non-Americans that way makes all their perspectives alien too. Not understood, and probably not to be trusted either. Even if the aliens assume they are much like the American people, like quite a number of my own compatriots, they become alienated from their own perspectives and realities, adopting those offered them instead by the American cultural imperialism of television, Hollywood, pop music, and other cultural artifacts. Adopting this exclusively American perspective is visibly destructive within the USA itself, and, from my perspective, catastrophic anywhere outside the USA. There are enough problems here not to warrant importing them from elsewhere.
Consequently I cannot adopt an American exceptionalist perspective. Not because I hate America or Americans, but because it seems obvious to me that adopting this viewpoint obscures the real reason American Civil War issues – and by extension also Vietnam War issues – remain unresolved. It is because they are not exclusively American issues, and can never be resolved by adopting a solely American perspective. No matter how some sections of American society yearn to do so, the nation cannot divorce or isolate itself from the world, and particularly not from Europe, from which its ruling elite, throughout its history, has descended.
As an alien, I don’t miraculously lose my sense of self. When I speak of myself here, I also assume I’m speaking for billions of the other aliens united by being human beings. It doesn’t work the way American immigration policy and enforcement agencies assume, and the way significant numbers of American citizens now seem to think. I cannot step back from my own sense of self, which includes a personal perception that I am educated, knowledgeable about the Vietnam War as a lay historian, and with some legitimate interest in how the USA presents to the world its interpretations of its past and present imperial wars.
As an alien critic, I must therefore rely on something other than a received ideology or pre-digested explanation, to make sense of the film. And I do so by reaching back into the history of ideas in Western culture, which extends well beyond the forgetful American orbit.
In the late 1960s, French philosopher Louis Althusser described the concept of ‘interpellation’ as the socialisation process by which ordinary citizens recognise themselves being addressed when commanded to act against their own interests. I don’t subscribe to Althusser’s ideas, or any critical theory, as literal truths, or fixed methods, but choose, like American philosopher Richard Rorty, to see them instead as elements of a continuity of thought over time, whose power is the ability to choose eclectically, according to appropriate context or need, and to do so without demanding any ideologically fixed application. It is in that context that interpellation seems an appropriate concept for discovering the intended and unintended audiences addressed and excluded by Burns and Novick.
But it’s not a discovery I intend to pursue religiously. All it requires for you to see it to ask yourself who is being addressed by each scene, each line of narration, each eyewitness report. Is it you they are speaking to? Is it an assumed persona? Is it someone specific or more general?
Consider the statement by Lyndon Johnson near the beginning of the first episode: ‘The enemy is no longer closer to victory.’ Who is LBJ talking to? He speaks as the president, in public, and therefore presumably to journalists and the entire world. But what did that statement really mean? Look at the concatenation of ‘no longer’ and ‘closer’. He’s really saying that the North was winning the war, but he wants us to believe the USA has slowed down that inevitable victory. Why didn’t he just say that? Because he thought of us, the audience, as naïve, credulous, and stupid. It is tempting to see in that conception LBJ’s contempt for his own constituency.
A similar deception underlies the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, in which a ‘probable but not certain’ North Vietnamese attack became justification for a massive ‘counterstrike’. How can the status of an attack that has been executed be probable? It either occurred or it didn’t. There can be no uncertainty about it.
Now consider why Burns and Novick included the LBJ ‘no longer closer’ clip right at the beginning of their film. Is it because they have a conception of their audience as capable of deciphering LBJ’s statement to make sense of it? Are we therefore positioned as an educated audience who know how propaganda and media manipulation works? What if we are aliens? Are we still addressed as the audience? What if we never heard of LBJ or the Vietnam War? I am not proposing answers, merely illustrating that this is an approach that analysis should not avoid. And one that Burns and Novick couldn’t possibly have overlooked in ten years of thinking about it.
A theme in the film, and raised independently by both Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in the Washington Post’s extensive publicity for the documentary, is the multiplicity of experience about the war. For example, you might have direct experience as a soldier, then as the subject of news and public debates, then as demonstrator, then as witness in the Burns-Novick film. And you might have been part of a number of events without necessarily understanding their back-stories or overall significance in wider developments.
This theme is directly relevant not just to the Vietnam war, but also to contemporary political debates, because it opposes a faux polarisation of all issues with the realism that there is always a plurality of experiences and opinion, and that pluralism is always a more powerful conduit to the complexity of truth than relying, in a simple-minded fashion, on simple binary oppositions.
Burns talked about this in relation to the Hofstadter essay mentioned above. Novick took a more poetic approach by referencing the ‘Vietnamese-American’ author Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose novel, The Sympathizer, she says proposes that ‘all wars are fought twice: on the battlefield and in our memory. And my postscript to that is that we’re still fighting the Vietnam War’. Elsewhere I argue that this is true, though the war still being fought is the American Civil War. In this particular context, though, what seems more relevant is how multiple experiences of the same traumatic events or phenomena can be in conflict with each other, causing fragile minds to recoil with fear, shock, or hostility from one or more of these experiences to leave behind a profoundly distorted perception, or even a broken mind.
The Burns-Novick film is full of witnesses whose minds, we must suppose, are at least wounded by their experiences. It cannot be another way when we consider what they reveal about their experiences. What I wonder about now, though, is how audiences will respond for whom this film is the first contact with the subject.
Is a narrative seeking to address a historical conflict, which fostered a social divide, likely to make sense to people who experienced neither, or at least only very indirectly? What is the likely scope of the interpretations such audiences can come away with? I hope it’s not the Hofstadter route to paranoia, and the Burns route to once more rejecting pluralism for a haunting exceptionalism forever anchored to the Civil War and its endless re-animation.
When you come to measure something, it’s training and instinct to want to compare it with something. So you don’t have to establish parameters and categories from scratch. The benefit of doing that is the ease of stitching together clichés everyone already understands. The disadvantage is that you might end up talking about the clichés rather than the subject, and that could mean you’re not really talking about anything.
My immediate reaction was to compare The Vietnam War to Winter Soldier (1972), Frontline (1979), Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam (1987), Battlefield: Vietnam season (1999), and The Fog of War (2003).
Winter Soldier still has the monopoly on stark direct-to-camera testimony from veterans, but its subjects are long-haired and bearded in an age where that was enough to discredit them in the eyes of conservatives and reactionaries.
Frontline isn’t really about Vietnam so much as being a journalist reporting Vietnam and other wars; it’s about Australian news cameraman Neil Davis, who survived Vietnam and was killed in a crossfire in Bangkok on 9 September 1985, during a ‘minor’ coup attempt.
Dear America does what Burns and Novick did in The Civil War (1990), using the letters of servicemen to bring alive the circumstances in which they found themselves.
The Battlefield season focusing on Vietnam is probably the most conventional narrative, sticking to dates-and-places historiography, and the ‘exceptional people’ theory on what provides the fulcrum of history. There’s very little focus on the actual people who fought the war or suffered its effects.
The Fog of War (2003) focused on the rôle of Robert McNamara, and his admissions in his later life that everything he thought was rational and valid had actually been done from a position of presumptuous ignorance.
When I started to think about the cotrasts between those documentaries and the Burns-Novick film, I realised that this was too narrow a frame of reference. The framework would have to include Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1978), Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), at least. But film would not be enough. The contrast would also be against Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (1977); Caputo is actually featured in the Burns-Novick film. If Caputo, then also Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977), and definitely John M. Del Vecchio’s The 13th Valley (1982), which left the deepest impression on me personally.
Pretty soon the framework was everything I ever read or saw about Vietnam. But the more I immersed myself in the Burns Novick film, the more I realised: ‘These people have accounted for all those things, sometimes in passing, and sometimes in great detail.’
Burns and Novick had ten years to consider everything I reached for in a few days. Arrogant as it seems, that realisation comes with my supposition that Burns and Novick had no greater insight than I did, but may have accumulated more of a command of the details than I will ever have.
I suspect the final experience of making the film was as revelatory to them as watching it might be to someone who has no prior knowledge of the conflict
At the same time, by simple consequence of such thorough sifting, new perspectives are added for those who have prior exposure.
Real people talk about real events they witnessed for those who were unfamiliar with the topic. Crazy as it seems, the broken education system in the USA has probably produced two generations of American adults who know the name, but not what it means to people who fought there; who know people who lost family members there but not why; or who were polarised by the war in American towns and cities between the 1960s and ‘70s, again without knowing why, and now with Gulf War and 9/11 tropes to divert interpretation.
Those ignorant new generations probably know what they know from fiction. The movies. Games. Television.
I get the nasty feeling that Americans are no more enlightened now than then. Naïve. Everyone from the Machiavellian politicians, to the commanding officers, to the public. It’s hard to pin stupidity to ignorance when even the fourth estate failed, and fails miserably to look into and analyse the motivations for the war. And the difference between opinion, perspective, and the outcomes. The so-called news media cannot even trace the flow of billions of dollars from source to destination, which would be a more accurate reflection of reality than all the carefully prepared political statements, and especially, all the throw-away social media rants.
DIFFERENCES: TIẾNG VIỆT
There are more Vietnamese voices in “The Vietnam War” than Burns at first thought necessary. Novick had to make the case for including them. “I wanted to pull them back, because we’re making an American film,” he said. “Her genius was to insist.”
– Ian Parker.
The Vietnamese presence in the film is unusual: they are shown both as allies and enemies, and above all else, victims of a war caused by Western attempts to prevent the inevitable: independence from colonial rule.
The recollections of the Vietnamese interviewees, particularly those still living in Vietnam and speaking Vietnamese, struck me as less confronting, shocking, and honest than their American counterparts. Could it be that I am as racist as the Americans of the period, who assumed the Vietnamese were sub-humans, less worthy of attention, and more readily accepted as savages when it comes to confessing atrocities? I considered the possibility, but was more inclined to think that I had long known of, and rationally accepted the brutal choices the guerrillas faced. That acceptance made the stories of murders with machetes, immurements, and torture less war crime than implacable method suited to a particular madness. Not that this excludes or excuses the brutality inherent in Maoist doctrine.
I confess that I had not been aware prior to watching this film how common immurement – being buried alive – was as a guerrilla form of execution. Plausibly explained as saving on the cost of bullets, I still wonder whether there was not some religious significance as well, keeping in mind that the French had brought with them Catholicism as a colonial artifact, competing with the local Buddhist tradition. In Europe the post-Reformation Catholic Church sometimes – rarely – used immurement as a punishment for heresy. I am unaware of any significance to live burial in Buddhism.
What did surprise me was the relative absence of more detailed horror stories about being bombed and shot at indiscriminately. The stories were not absent, but less prevalent than the American observations of the scale and persistence of free fire and indiscriminate bombing. Perhaps most of the observers of such events died witnessing them.
The stories of endurance and hardship recounted by the guerrillas and North Vietnamese were gripping, but less revelatory than what Americans confessed after all this time: any unbiased observer knew of the Vietnamese side of the war already in the 1960s. You would have to be a fool not to understand the commitment and toughness inherent in building and maintaining the Hồ Chí Minh Trail, the complexes of bunkers and tunnels, and the waves of sacrificially futile attacks and offensives.
Nguyễn Văn Tòng is one of the less personable guerrilla witnesses because he smiles as he describes appalling deeds and consequences, even when he cried, in episode three, about half an hour in, about his killed brother’s fiancée taking her own life rather than marrying another. There seems almost to be an intertextuality going on here for those who have the recollection and will to misconstrue what is happening. The homicidal maniac Bunny (Kevin Dillon) in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) justifies the brutal murder of a retarded Vietnamese kid, whose response to intruding soldiers is smiling pitifully, in a heartrending incomprehension of what is happening. Bunny dismisses the kid with a line to effect of ‘that’s the way the gook laughs’ before caving in his skull with a rifle butt. Nguyễn Văn Tòng is not a simpleton, but his inflection and facial expressions as he recounts his experiences don’t match Western expectations. Did neither Burns nor Novick see that? Did they not think it needed explanation? Did they trust us too much to spot it and understand?
Least sympathetic of the Vietnamese guerrillas is Lê Quan Công. A veteran of campaigns against the French, he was a National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) Militia man in the Mekong Delta region from 1960 to 1975. A dedicated and tough fighter who had seen it all, and done it all. In episode four, at about the 42 minute mark, he recounts how Americans killed two of his brothers, a brother in law, and a sister. His apparent unrepentant attitude to his own brutality makes perfect sense to me from that perspective, and should to Americans too, particularly in terms of their own persistent civil war myths.
JOURNALIST NEIL Sheehan is quoted about an hour and three minutes into episode two of the film recounting how he witnessed poor young women donating what little gold they had to persecuted Buddhists after the famous self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức: ‘And I thought to myself, this regime [headed by Ngô Đình Diệm] is over. It’s the end.’ I couldn’t help compare that insight to a scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film Godfather II, in which Michael Corleone, visiting putative business partner Hyman Roth in Cuba, recounts having just witnessed a Castroist rebel kill himself by exploding a grenade in a police car. Roth asks what that tells him. Corleone replies: ‘That they could win.’
In episode three, starting about 32 minutes into the programme, Lieutenant Philip Brady recounts, on arriving in Vietnam in 1964 being one of many personally briefed by General Westmoreland:
General Westmoreland told us that we were down on the five-yard line and just needed a few more to get the touchdown.
Then I went out, and then I got on the ground. And then I found out, ‘Don’t you realize? We’re losing this war.’
South Vietnamese Marine Trần Ngọc Toàn, who worked with Brady, regarded American military advisors as largely clueless about the realities in Vietnam.
I was left wondering how many moments the Americans in Vietnam had witnessed during which the guerrilla fighters of the North Vietnamese armed forces undertook revealing acts of suicidal resistance and defiance. How could there have been any doubt about their will and prospects of winning?
Did no one in the American hierarchy take note that the North Vietnamese and southern guerillas thought of the Americans as giặc Mỹ – bandits? That they denied there was a war rather than illegal incursions? Was the thinking in Washington about the political convenience of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution so blind to the reality that it made North Vietnamese claims true? Or was there always the arrogant assumption the USA could do whatever the hell it pleased?
MY CONCLUSION in this regard is that perhaps the American audiences Burns and Novick contemplated really had been kept ignorant of the Vietnamese perspective to such an extent that even tepid Vietnamese accounts of the war would be revelations to them.
For better or worse, the Vietnamese perspective in the film is a welcome opening up of American blindness to other perspectives, and yet seems less powerful than long withheld confessions and insights from Americans, who seem to have been constrained by less obvious but far more ominous social censorship, seeking to deny American culpability in a disastrous war, in the land of the free, than were the Vietnamese, under a communist dictatorship.
A footnote to that thinking came from Jeff Stein, writing for Newsweek on 17 September 2017:
Powerful figures in the Hanoi government are also deeply unhappy with the series, so much so that they ousted officials in the foreign ministry’s press operation who helped the filmmakers set up interviews, two independent sources said on condition of anonymity. Merle Pribbenow, a former CIA officer fluent in Vietnamese who helped work on the series, tells Newsweek that officials would be “unhappy” about the film for several reasons: Its description of communist massacres of South Vietnamese civilians in Hue during the 1968 Tet offensive, its first-hand accounts of “war-weariness, anti-war feelings and corruption in wartime North Vietnam,” and the accounts by Vietnamese of the harsh “treatment of the people in the South following [Hanoi’s] 1975 victory.”
“The party and the government are really jealously protective of their master narrative of the war,” says Ben Wilkinson, a Vietnam expert who is executive director of the Fulbright University in Ho Chi Minh City, who also worked on the film. It’s not just that they insist they fought a war for “national liberation, and [against] foreign aggression and an invasion from the United States, rather than a civil war that pitted Vietnamese against Vietnamese,” he says. The regime has “glorified the great victory, and…the [soldiers] sacrifices”—without showing the true scale of their losses in the South. During recent screenings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Wilkinson says, scenes of “death and destruction and the corpses of revolutionary soldiers…were for some Vietnamese soldiers really shocking.” They’d never seen that before.
Likewise, the film’s exposure of the intense dissension and poisonous rivalries at the top of the Hanoi regime throughout the war will come as a surprise to most Americans and Vietnamese viewers. Ho Chi Minh, for example, was shunted aside by more hard-core party leaders in the mid-1960s, the series shows, even as he remained the face of the revolution in the United States and around the world. So, too, the legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap, the hero of Dien Bien Phu. Their ouster from the leadership was a closely held secret. The film shows that “the Vietnamese communist government was not a monolith,” Wilkinson says, “that there was politics within it. There was politics within Hanoi, within the Communist Party, and there’s vicious politics now.”
Lynn Novick did eighty-five of the hundred interviews filmed for “The Vietnam War.” These sessions use a single camera. The eyes of an interviewee are flooded with light, as if for an ophthalmological examination. The setting, Novick told me, has to register as “a real place—not a studio—but not so much of a real place that you’re curious about where you are.” (Her apartment, on the Upper West Side, has been used in eight documentaries.)
– Ian Parker.
One of the arresting features of the narrative is giving voice to strong women from the USA and Vietnam who were very much part of the events, and definitely left their mark on history, no matter how much fat old white guys resent the idea and wrote them out of history.
There were powerful North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front (Viet Kong) women speaking about their experiences, and very sympathetic American civilians, including the impressive Eva Jefferson, a black ‘army brat’ who skewered the bullying Vice President Spiro Agnew on David Frost’s national television show. But the most powerful expression, for me, and maybe also an entire generation, was nurse Joan Furey, who had at first rejected the idea of talking to reporters about why the war should end. In the eighth episode of the film, the narrator explained that Furey was participating in small 1969 protest at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku, Vietnam – refusing to eat the army Thanksgiving meal – but had refused to talk to television crews that had gathered to get a story about an anti-war protest from within Vietnam. However, she changed her mind when becoming angry about a young patient, Timmy, who was unlikely to survive; Timmy was probably just the culmination of watching many others like him die for no gain. She recounts ripping off her hospital gown, and seeking out the TV crews to denounce on television all war that leads to unnecessary injury.
The power of this young woman, an intensive care nurse close to the battlefield, in calm tones, on a black and white television broadcast, denouncing senseless war, was greater than I think it has been credited with, though Furey became well known and respected in her own right.
Perhaps it is too obvious to be mentioned often, or maybe it isn’t mentioned because women disappear so often in the spotlight of history presented as the domain of famous men. Yet I sense that Lyn Novick’s involvement as an equal, not an assistant, is in itself a subtle but definite influence in the film of female presence and strength.
The opening quote acknowledges her creative and custodial influence over what could be seen as the film’s strongest element: the witness interviews. Yet the opening quote comes from a journalist whose article often read as if he ignored Novick’s influence over the entire film.
I wonder whether a deeply inculcated sexism – perhaps not quite misogyny – in even the USA’s patrician classes continues to blight the nation’s ability to move away from the testosterone-laden confrontations and internal schisms covered in the film, its Civil War antecedent, and the contemporary repeat of history from which no one seems to have learnt more than to endlessly repeat it.
The strongest feature of the film is its interviews with people who ‘were there’, as soldiers, victims, activists, advisers, and journalists.
And the strongest interviews, after Ron Ferrizzi (see Spellbound: Ferrizzi below), were those of former Marines John Musgrave and Roger Harris. The honesty and insight Burns and Novick were able to elicit surpasses for shock and revelation even the intensity that Winter Soldier delivered in 1972, with its jaw-dropping eyewitness accounts.
I will never forget Musgrave’s story about sitting in an outpost in 1967, and how that experience has created a fear of the dark that has him still using a night-light. Likewise, I will never forget Harris’s stoic fatalism. He recounts enlisting in the Marines because he wasn’t big enough to play football; he calculated that if he died his mother would get a $10,000 insurance benefit, and if he lived, he would return a hero and be able to get a good job. When his tour of duty was over, he recollects assuming god did not want to let him survive Vietnam, after having put so many fellow soldiers into body bags, when his flight home was caught in the opening barrages of the Tet offensive. He made it out, to become a respected educator, currently working at raising American fluency in Mandarin.
Musgrave is almost in a class of his own with his incredibly vulnerable, palpable recollections. Like this one, from episode five (about 17 minutes in):
They knew if they would pop the ambush close and the get amongst you, we couldn’t – or would hesitate to call in air on ourselves. So, that, … firefights like that we called brawls. They were very intimate. And they were very deadly. And they were absolutely terrifying.
The story of how Musgrave survived one of these brawls, against the most incredible odds, including being triaged three times as hopeless, almost deserves an entire episode in its own right. His subsequent transformation into an anti-war activist is riveting.
Harris’s realisation on returning home and being unable to get a cab, that despite all his sacrifice, in the USA he was still just a nigger, choked me up and almost had me in tears.
Not long afterwards, Harris was asked to form up with his Sate-side unit to help contain black rioting following the assassination of Martin Luther King. he recalls that he was willing to do it, thinking he and his comrades would stand in front of buildings to prevent damage. But he changed his mind when he saw his unit being armed with flak jackets, M16s and live rounds.
At the end of episode six, he recounts about the equipment:
You know. Same things we had in Vietnam. And when I saw that I said, ‘I’m not going. I’m not going.’ I said ‘I got family in Washington DC.’ And my company commander said: ‘Get on the truck, Marine.’ I said: ‘I’m not going.’ I didn’t make sergeant because I refused to go.
The man’s humanity in refusing to join soldiers ready to brutalise other Americans makes me want to shake his hand, not because it is unexpected, but because he dug his heels in while others around him were ready to kill their own family, friends, and neighbours.
Against the vérité provided by Musgrave and Harris, even the unexpected and vivid recollections of the communist Vietnamese interviewees seemed somnambulistic, toned-down, or censored. Novick, and producer Sarah Botstein, travelled to Vietnam in 2011 and 2012 (Burns was sick), and did an outstanding job of teasing out the nuggets of insight that were not quite as ‘ideologically sound’ as the Communist Party would have liked, but still a long way from as frank and confronting as their American counterparts.
Although not entirely novel, the power of eyewitness accounts not delivered by official spokespeople, and that refer to painfully taboo subjects, is a key ingredient in the ability of the film to re-define American myths about war generally, Vietnam specifically, and about the capacity of Americans to be both heroes and monsters at the same time. It is a phenomenal achievement to admit this duality, and to wear some of the insights into monstrosity delivered in the 1960s by Hannah Arendt with both pride and shame – but with, at last, an unprecedented honesty that may re-define how politicians and senior military officers will be able to justify war and its casualties, in and out of uniform, in future.
In evoking the myth and symbolism of the Christian confessional, the authors also evoke its corollary, which is about remorse, forgiveness, and moral lessons learnt. I wonder whether that impact of the film will filter through into contemporary debates about conflict and consequences.