The Vietnam War (2017): I

Vietnam War banner image.

Commentary on the overpowering documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, split into four parts of about 5000 words each.


CONTENTS PART ONE: Aperçu | Directory | Gestalt: Propaganda | Gestalt: Weltanschauung | Gestalt: Exceptionalism | Gestalt: Civil War

CONTENTS PART TWO: Gestalt: Audience | Gestalt: Multiplicity | Gestalt: Comparisons | Differences: Tiếng Việt | Differences: Women | Differences: Confessions

CONTENTS PART THREE: Differences: Barbarity | Spellbound: Ferrizzi | Spellbound: Beatles | Unresolved: McNamara | Unresolved: Kissinger | Framework: Subjectivity | Framework: Mythification | Dispatches: Bezos

CONTENTS PART FOUR: Dispatches: Partisans | Verdict: Chợ Đen | Verdict: Absolution | Verdict: Aliens | Verdict: Valediction | Select Bibliography



Nothing compares to this film in terms of that daily sense of obligation, of responsibility, coupled with the possibility for art and expression.

Ken Burns.

There’s no agreement among scholars, or Americans or Vietnamese, about what happened: the facts, let alone whose fault, let alone what we’re supposed to make of it.

Lynn Novick.

I suspect The Vietnam War will emerge as one of the greatest propaganda films ever made. This is neither a disparaging assessment, nor an uncritical one.

It has moments of brilliant insight, but constrains itself to an inexplicably inflexible American, exceptionalist paradigm.

For that constraint, the project foregoes doing more than asking worn questions about the McNamara and Kissinger doctrines, which we see played out unabated in contemporary American foreign policy and business practices. And it fails to reconcile the undue burden on the poor of a war, and wars following it, that make the already rich in America fraudulently even more rich.

The Vietnam War is a magnificent work with a potential to help change the way Americans consider war, and their stubbornly unresolved social and political Civil War malaise. So long as the hubris of lauding it only as art and catharsis doesn’t blot out its political potential.


The Vietnam War BluRay jacket.

I don’t offer a synopsis of the film: that would be madness for an eighteen-hour tour de force. Nor will I try to touch on every aspect of the ten-year, $30 million production: that would likely lead to a perpetually unfinished narrative.

This is a commentary rather than a polished essay or editorial. The consequence is a degree of discontinuity and overlap between my observations.

I examine the aspects of what the producers call a film, not a series. I think of the film as an organic whole, and split up into parts mainly because an eighteen-hour whole is unmanageable for viewers, and for discussion.

Instead of examining the film in a chronological or sequential order, I adopt my own taxonomy, informed by the most powerful impressions I am left with.

I begin by talking about my overall impressions and themes under headings prefaced as ‘Gestalt’, to denote a high-level view that reflects insights deeper than the contents of the film address directly.

These are followed by my thoughts on what the authors do differently from other treatments of the topic (‘differences’), what most captivated me in the film (‘spellbound’), and what I thought was missing (‘unresolved’).

I offer a meta discussion about what I thought the film’s impact was in terms of the analytical tools it made me reach for, with topics prefaced as ‘framework’.

I look briefly at other critiques under the rubric ‘dispatches’, and I conclude with some parting thoughts about the wider considerations that I call ‘verdicts’.

Gestalt: Propaganda

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are recognised as authentic American auteurs, and trusted to perform an interpretive function. A function Edward L Bernays, in his landmark 1828 book Propaganda, described as the necessary bridge in a democracy between a lay population and ‘an invisible government’.

Bernays wasn’t proposing a conspiracy theory. The invisible government is invisible only to those who won’t look. The stupid, the gullible, the ignorant. It includes media moguls, industrialists, and every other kind of moneyed interest that sends lobbyists to government. It also includes public intellectuals, or opinion-makers, who analyse information and highlight key issues for wider consideration, like a ‘favorite essayist’, which is as close as Bernays gets to talking about non-corporate interests.

There is no doubt that the film leads viewers on a guided tour of selected information. It may not seem like a distinct message is being pushed, and yet it is. If nothing else, that message is ‘we have been wrong in our assessment of the Vietnam War in the past.’ And that is a kind of propaganda that doesn’t seem like it because it isn’t inherently underhanded or sinister. The kind Jonathan Auerbach and Russ Castronovo, the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies, talked about when they said ‘people can actively use propaganda and are not simply passive dupes used by it’ and that ‘propaganda can produce unintended effects beyond the control of both producers and receivers’.

One small example of subtle but telling choices that can be made to convey meaning comes from Ian Parker’s New Yorker Burns profile, recounting how Air Force General Merrill McPeak, a Vietnam veteran and adviser to the film-makers, had objected to a word change in the narration:

In a section about the massacre of South Vietnamese civilians, in My Lai, in 1968, “murder” became “killing.” (The final script: “The killing of civilians has happened in every war.”) McPeak pressed for “murder.” His argument, he said, was, “Let’s open the kimono—let’s tell it all, see it the way it is.”

At lunch, Burns defended his change, on the ground that My Lai continues to have “a toxic, radioactive effect” on opinion. “Killing” was the better word, he said, “even though My Lai is murder.”

The general had lost that argument but accepted the final wording. At the restaurant, he told me, “I’m in. I don’t think it’s tough enough, but I’m in.” (He had already praised the film as “monumental work.”) He went on, “I believe My Lai was my fault. My responsibility.” He had been a senior officer in a U.S. military that “never stepped up to accept responsibility.”

Burns, struck by these words, said, “I’m so glad that we know you.”

It is only a word, but it makes all the difference in how people will react, and perhaps also in being accurate about what happened.


Noam Chomsky Propaganda and the Public Mind book jacket.

Talking about how to teach people not to be duped by propaganda, American public intellectual Noam Chomsky said that it was not about persuading people you’re right, ‘but to challenge them to think it through for themselves’. In the transcript of interviews that became the book Propaganda and the Public Mind (2001), Chomsky states that he is commonly challenged by people who say they can’t believe what he says because it challenges everything they have been taught to believe. ‘You shouldn’t believe what I say is true,’ says Chomsky. ‘The footnotes are there, so you can find out if you feel like it,’ but he warns that finding out is your responsibility: ‘Nobody is going to pour truth into your brain. It’s something you have to find out for yourself.’

Burns and Novick push for a rejection of past thinking about the Vietnam War, and without demanding that you go find out for yourself, but they leave the footnotes: the interviewees, each of whom represents a separate story, and the events to which back-stories are offered, suggesting that all the events of the war have back-stories, many of them as yet unknown or unexplored by most people. The film does not go down every rabbit hole a final reckoning would require.

The Burns-Novick film sets the new benchmark for discussing the Vietnam War, and all American wars more generally. But the film reinforces an existing American intellectual exceptionalism, by extending it, perhaps to resolve some of its inherent, internal inconsistencies. Optimistically, I see in the film some opportunity to use it as an intellectual tool for prying open the tightly restricted definition of American heroism as mute obedience in fighting wars, and to change it, acknowledging as equally patriotic and heroic the decision to publicly oppose wars.

This is a diabolically more complex roadmap to a documentary than most of us are used to.  The Burns-Novick film isn’t just a documentary – a convenient word that allows us to not think or question – but also art. This isn’t my claim. Burns staked out that territory for himself, and I will not challenge him on it. And art always requires thinking and questioning.

Do I need to add George Orwell’s echoing, ever present reminder: ‘All art is propaganda’?

Gestalt: Weltanschauung

Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970).
Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970).

In talking about American political consciousness during the Vietnam era, Burns mentioned, in his extensive Washington Post commentaries, a 1964 essay by Pulitzer Prize winning author of Anti-intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter. The essay, ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, published in the November 1964 edition of Harper’s Magazine, is an edited version of Hofstadter’s Herbert Spencer Lecture delivered at Oxford University in November 1963. It highlighted an unhealthiness in paranoia-fuelled American ‘conservative’ politics, concluding:

Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. … A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

The film shows us instances of such behaviour in on-screen comments and descriptions of politically-driven insanity, but it never interprets these to call them insanity directly. This failure of analysis might be defended as objectivity, but strikes me as cowardice instead.

I am persuaded that Burns and Novick knew this. Novick said, in the Washington Post disquisitions, that ‘Vietnamese-American’ author Viet Thanh Nguyen says in his book, The Sympathizer (2015):

… 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. And these ghosts of the war are still haunting us. They’re still there and they’re not going away.


There is a direct relationship between the paranoid politics of the 1960s Hofstadter explains, and a developing, hyper-sensitive overreaction falsely labelled ‘conservatism’ that has led not just to Trumpism, but by America’s influence on the world, to the politics of right wing extremism now extant in the Western world.

More topically, the politics of paranoia and ignorant overreaction also illuminate Ken Burns’s conception of American exceptionalism as a ‘laboratory’ of an ‘inward … toxicity’. Why he didn’t say so bluntly and openly in the film escapes me.

Also missing from the Burns-Novick narrative, or perhaps as a consequence of not directly focusing on paranoia as an American political leitmotif, is a contextual grounding in the US Weltanschauung of the later 1940s and the entire 1950s. I concede that the authors had to limit their scope, and yet we are shown material to indicate the perspective of the Vietnamese nationalists and the Viet Minh in the same period.

There is no reminder of America’s stewardship of the WWII war crimes trials, which didn’t conclude until 1948 in Germany, and 1949 in Japan. Those events have some bearing on how the USA exonerated itself from categorically similar crimes in Vietnam.

There is no reminder of the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunts, which poisoned American minds with hatred towards its own people between 1947 and 1957, and which might be seen as primary causes for the blind prejudice American politicians could marshal against anything that could be presented as ‘communist’. On that point, watching, in episode four, about ten minutes in, some of the actuality of the Fulbright hearings in 1966, it occurred to me that very few people would have understood the nuances of the veiled sentences. The exchange between Senator Wayne Morse and General Maxwell Taylor is so laden with McCarthyist absolutism it is difficult to imagine now how fearful the USA had been of this witch-hunt, and of being attacked the way Taylor attacked the senator. This could have done with some explanation.

There is only a parenthetical reminder of the Soviet iron curtain in Europe, which underpinned the domino theory, proposing that South East Asian states would similarly fall under the influence of ‘rising’ communism.

Against this blank slate for the USA, we are shown evidence of Hồ Chí Minh’s idealistic ambitions for a Vietnamese nationalist independence movement, frustrated by American indifference (the way Cuban overtures were rejected by the USA in the later 1950s), driving the revolutionaries into the arms of the Chinese and Soviets.

Hồ Chí Minh (1890-1969).
Hồ Chí Minh (1890-1969).

After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the North could likely have overrun the South in months, perhaps even without a real war, if the USA had not moved to prop up successive corrupt and authoritarian regimes there.

The film offers a powerful testimonial in its first episode by CIA officer Donald Gregg, admitting that America had made a ‘dreadful’, ‘costly’ mistake in regarding Dien Bien Phu as a loss for the free world, and a gain for communist China, rather than as the end of colonialism that it really represented. Right there, in the 1950s, the USA had missed an opportunity to avoid war, and make an ally of Vietnam. An opportunity to recognise in the Vietnamese revolutionaries the USA’s own foundational past. Not mentioned quite so explicitly is the irony of the USA backing instead the establishment of a South Vietnamese state, as if resurrecting a proxy Confederacy.

An argument could be made that it was not until the USA allowed itself to be manipulated by the mercenary South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm, that Hồ Chí Minh’s communism hardened, turning to anti-Americanism, and to much worse when he was eclipsed by hardline Maoist Lê Duẩn in 1960. In simple terms, the difference was between a nationalist socialism, and the Maoist version: world revolution. It was this Maoism which we might see as the engine of Lê Duẩn’s cycle of suicidal offensives that wasted hundreds of thousands of lives in predictable defeats. And the reward for victory, by the default of American withdrawal, was starvation through enforced collectivization of agriculture in 1975, forty years after Stalin had proved how stupidly unworkable such a policy was, and would always be.

There is some suggestion the USA was unaware of the power-plays in North Vietnam, and that Hồ Chí Minh was merely a figurehad after 1960; it would be easy to believe that, reaching for the myth of the CIA as a collective of bumbling fools. But it would be much harder to accept at face value considering that it was known in Soviet and Chinese circles, both of which had been under intense scrutiny, not just by American intelligence services.

On the other side of the ledger, Burns-Novick show us how fickle an ally the USA proved to be, turning a blind eye to corruption driven to obscene heights by its very presence, determining military policy far away in complete ignorance of its local ineffectiveness, and ignoring the signs of failure by military leaders on the ground, who just couldn’t adapt to insurgency, guerrilla warfare, and a desire not to be patronized.

Perhaps the ugliest manifestation of that failure of policy and rationality was the entropic tendency of military units to become increasingly undisciplined, dangerously murderous, and demoralized by the absence of any coherent strategy, and by tactics designed to address not reality, but rather bureaucratic body count metrics. The men who devised body count as a measure of success almost parallel Hannah Arendt’s targets when she remarked, in her writings, on the banality of evil in the Third Reich. It seems more than odd that no one in the USA connected developments in Vietnam to the WWII war crimes trials, and the formulation of the principles with which to distinguish between acts of war, and perverse criminality. Principles developed largely by American lawyers and soldiers.

When the USA finally withdrew from South Vietnam, it fecklessly betrayed an entire population it had wooed, bullied, and coerced into aligning itself against an enemy now sure to wreak a horrendous retribution on them. Burns and Novick don’t draw conclusions for us, but I find it impossible not to see a pathology here, of abandoned US allies in the Middle East and Gulf region, creating new enemies and assured future war in consequence. This seems very definitely a lesson not learnt from the Vietnam War, or perhaps only as a lesson learnt in how to profit from the funding of such chaotic policy.

America’s decisions were, in the end, callously indifferent to all but American opinions and whims, fashioned far away by people who didn’t give a damn about the consequences of their own narcissistic egocentrism. Not to explain the basis of these opinions and whims seems to be a major absence, or failure, in the film.

Roland Barthes (1915-1980).
Roland Barthes (1915-1980).

To explain the consequences of that absence, I am drawn to the conception of myth by French semiotician Roland Barthes, whose ‘main objection to myth is that it removes history from language,’ says British political theorist and author, Andrew Robinson. He explained that Barthes’s theory sees myth functioning to reduce ‘a complex phenomenon to a few traits which are taken as definitive.’ Put another way, an absence in a narrative is filled in by the audience by resort to myth – a reflexive shorthand that draws on unexamined stereotypes about ‘Americanness’, ‘politicianness’, ‘Vietnameseness’, and ‘warness’.

Burns and Novick are educated and sophisticated thinkers. I doubt that they were not aware of this gap in their treatment of the war, or how it would be filled by audiences. But they are also Americans, and maybe subject, consciously or unconsciously, to an intellectual trait in the USA that is the root cause of a peculiar blindness to history and pluralist perspectives: American exceptionalism.

Gestalt: Exceptionalism

Early on in my own viewing experience I was a little put off that the authors didn’t include a broader perspective – situating the 1960s and 1970s for the USA and Vietnam in terms of the concurrent European Cold War, Middle East tensions, and the Sino-Soviet split, for example. There was also the personally jarring omission of Australian soldiers, apparently written out of the entire conflict, despite the fact that 60,000 served between 1962 and 1973. And Australians weren’t the only US allies, mentioned but invisible in the war we are shown: 320,000 South Korean, 61,000 Australian, 30,000 Canadian, 10,000 Filipino, 3800 New Zealander, and unspecified Thai and Taiwanese troops provided assistance or fought alongside ARVN and US forces during American involvement in the conflict. I realized, as I drowned in the incredible detail and nuance of the film, that the production team had to stick to disciplined, narrow parameters to rein in the sheer length and cost of anything more ambitious. Already a ten-year project, underfunded at $30 million, and requiring delicate diplomatic footwork to get the North Vietnamese perspective, viewers have to expect not to be handed the vessel of ‘everything to everyone’ that I might have been subconsciously expecting.

Understanding as I am of the constraints on Burns and Novick, I am nevertheless inclined to say that one of the lessons America did not learn from the conflict, and that comes out of the documentary only in reading between the lines, is how arrogant it was, and remains, of Americans to suppose the conflict was theirs, and that its consequences accrued only to them.

I acknowledge that answering the question of whether anyone in America learnt any lessons from the war depends on perspective. Nevertheless, from my perspective, it is obvious in analysing the recent history of the USA (say from 1980 onwards) that the morally ‘wrong’ kind of lessons have been derived: Americans will allow their politicians to lie to them outrageously about all things, but especially about war; Americans will gladly pay trillions of dollars to fund a military-industrial complex, and all the parasitic corruption that infests military adventurism, but not a few million in veterans’ benefits, or the diplomatic initiatives that could prevent war in the first place, and make new friends in the world for the increasingly isolated USA.

A key component to exceptionalism is the bizarre, institutionalized conception of ‘foreigners’ as ‘aliens’, even if most of them are not quite ‘illegal aliens’. It is almost as if non-Americans are denied even the common ground of belonging to the human race, which is appropriated by the terminology solely for American citizens. This conception of ‘alienness’ makes it seem right and proper to suppose that all of human history and achievement are to be understood only in American contexts, and explicable only by Americans. This attitude effectively erases much of history and the perspective on contemporary events it might otherwise provide.

The attitude dovetails seamlessly with the American propensity for inventing ever newer religious cults as constitutionally guaranteed vehicles for political lunacy, asserting the superiority over realities immanent in the world of their delusions.

As a consequence, an ‘alien’ could conclude that the USA is unashamedly egotistical, to the extent that it simply doesn’t recognise itself as just one nation among many, possessed of only a narrow range of perspectives on complex global issues. At worst, and particularly in relation to the idea of divinely received ‘truth’ that infests the USA’s many pseudo-Christian cults, it would be easy to form the view of a nation overrun by self-delusion, and associated mental illnesses.

Seen from the alien reasoning alone it is tempting to regard the American people as the dumbest in the Western world. Yet it seems still more likely that it is arrogance, not ignorance or stupidity, that epitomizes the American inability to match its rhetorics with its actions, and to learn from its own history, let alone all other history. The arrogance of assuming ‘we’re different, and special’. A religionist, fundamentalist, ‘chosen-people’ complex. To an extent, that sentiment is even given voice in the film, by journalist Neil Sheehan, at the end of episode two:

We thought we were the exception to history. We Americans. History didn’t apply to us. We could never fight a bad war, we could never represent the wrong cause. We were American. Well, in Vietnam it proved that we were not an exception to history.

Journalist Neil Sheehan (1936-2021) on the right, seen talking to an American captain in Vietnam, mid-1960s.
Journalist Neil Sheehan (1936-2021) on the right, seen talking to an American captain in Vietnam, mid-1960s.

Perhaps even more courageously, in episode four, at the six-minute mark, Lieutenant General Samuel Vaughan Wilson impugned the ability of Americans to learn and think:

We simply thought we’d go in with a sledgehammer and knock things down, clean them up, and it would be all over. It was a kind of an oversimplification of the problem, combined with our overconfidence, that caused us, I think, to be arrogant. And it’s very, very difficult to dispel ignorance if you retain arrogance.

Wilson died on 10 June 2017, two months before the film was released.

As an alien, notionally excluded from an implied range of legitimate audiences, I regard the Burns-Novick film to pander to exceptionalism, albeit a kind that isn’t quite as narrowly prescriptive as Sheehan’s definition. That exceptionalism presents the Vietnam war as a phenomenon that was not American only in so far as it involved the Vietnamese people.

Alyssa Rosenberg: Watching the film, I just realized I had not accounted for the South Vietnamese in my thinking about the war and I don’t know how that happened to me.

Ken Burns: I’ll tell you how. I think because we forgot — I mean this is a country that we, in essence, abandoned at the end of it. You can hear a tape later on from Richard Nixon who will explain it really well: We’re playing a bigger game — the Russia game and the China game, and Vietnam is sort of losing its significance. And so the whole reason why we went there, to support this country, when that’s abandoned it doesn’t fit into the convenient American narrative.

And so in this case what you do is you demonize your enemy. You make them just black pajamaed figures coming at you in terrifying fashion. But they don’t have wives, they don’t have mothers that have sent them there. They don’t have dramatic purpose. They don’t have a life. They just fill up the bad guys. The endless hordes of stormtroopers or whatever it is.

And we just sort of felt that we need to go back and find out who the mother was and who the sister was and what the family was like and what they were thinking back home. And I think that gives a dimension to it.

Alyssa Rosenberg.

In that exchange, Burns perfectly summarizes the rôle he sees for the many interviews of Vietnamese witnesses to events: dramatis personae.

The Vietnam War brilliantly illustrates American experiences in that conflict, but extensive though the Vietnamese testimony is in the interviews, it seems less insightful and honest. I have no doubt it was constrained by direct imposition of censorship from the Communist Party of Vietnam. A censorship not referred to, but openly acknowledged in the military uniforms worn by some of the witnesses, and by the insight of those who have it, that no one still living in Vietnam would invite persecution for violating stated and unstated rules about what is permissible to say. Even the communist ideological position, and how it changed over the decades, is obscured by that influence.

Lynn Novick (1962- ) and Ken Burns (1953- ) seen at the Washington Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Lynn Novick (1962- ) and Ken Burns (1953- ) seen at the Washington Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

I suspect the ‘Vietnameseness’ of the war would have been written out of the story entirely if it had been at all possible to position the Vietnamese people as an only recently discovered third axis of the American Civil War of 1861-1865. A war that seems to have never ended in the USA. A war whose unfinished business fed the first major commercial success for Burns, and that of a recent new employee of his Florentine Films production company at the time – 1990 – Lynn Novick.

That Burns and Novick are artists, and historians, seems beyond question. But they are also dramatists and historical revisionists. It seems to me that their film excises the Vietnam War from its wider, global, historical context, aligns the entire narrative to a pre-existing discourse about the American Civil War, and imposes on it, rather than explains, an exceptionalism powered by the notion that history is anything America says it is at any time, regardless of lives, viewpoints, options, and facts thus omitted.

Underlying the American view of history seems to be a neurotic insecurity about its own status as the greatest nation on Earth. This Weltanschauung denies the fact that the American War of Independence was in fact an English rebellion, or even civil war, led on both sides by landed English gentry, and supported on both sides by the real natives of the North American continent. Natives who have been largely written out of history, but who can be easily thought to resemble the Vietnamese in white American conceptions about both peoples. American soldiers in Vietnam sometimes even referred to combat zones as ‘Indian country’.

In a 1971 CBS documentary entitled “The Changing War in Indochina,” Charles Collingwood reported the progress of the pacification campaign in Kien Hoa Province in the Mekong Delta … This province had been the target of Operation Speedy Express in early 1969, one of the most brutal American operations of the war in an area that had been organized under NLF control with no known North Vietnamese presence, conquered through the “awesome firepower” of the Ninth Division. This included air strikes using napalm, high explosives, and anti-personnel bombs, B-52 bombing, and artillery shelling “around the clock” at a level that “it is impossible to reckon,” with armed helicopters “scouring the landscape from the air night and day” and accounting for “many and perhaps most of the enemy kills”-about 11,000 according to the U.S. command, with 748 weapons captured, a fair indication of who was killed. Collingwood was pleased to observe progress in pacification, although there was still “Indian country” beyond.

— Herman & Chomsky (1988)

Gestalt: Civil war

Alyssa Rosenberg: Is the Vietnam War over?

Ken Burns: No, I don’t think it is … . If that war is still being used or misused in the context of a contemporary political decision, and this is occurring simultaneously with Charlottesville, which shows that the Civil War is not over – let us be very clear that the white supremacist and the neo-Nazi stuff is merely a subset of the lost cause of the Confederacy. Nazism is a great, attractive feature if you’re trying to hold to what the Confederacy – to the lost cause. And so the Civil War ain’t over. That’s still with us. And the Vietnam War isn’t over either.

And I’m not sure that we’re going to see its end for a very long time.

Alyssa Rosenberg.

How would I respond if Burns or Novick challenged my conception of exceptionalism, and the American Civil War that I place at the centre of it?

Taking the view that political economy informs all conflict in human history, I would argue the issues are primarily economic.

First, and foremost, these relate to the power of a federal government to impose taxes and laws on states in a federation or union. This conflict remains a continuing battle in the politics of the USA, illustrated by longitudinal efforts of Republican state governments (known as Red States for the Republican campaign colour) to overturn the spirit and letter of federal laws made by Democrat presidents on taxation, and how taxes are spent. A particular target by Red States is to block all spending on social and civil rights programs. Is this not an attitude by Republicans that Red States are a still-living Confederacy?

Secondly, it is about wages and profits, with the old Confederate position being to minimize wage costs through slavery, while also maximizing profit through reduced or non-existent taxes. Nothing has changed about that position among nominal conservatives. I say ‘nominal’ because, of course, there is nothing authentically conservative about radical infantilism or neo-fascism. In the creation of the gig economy to avoid paying fair wages and benefits to workers, in almost normalized tax fraud by the wealthy, and in libertarian business demands for exemptions from any social contract or civilized rules, we could recognize a wider attitude about unrelinquished Confederate claims to maintain a slave economy.

Thirdly, it is about democracy and what that means for the franchise and civil rights. That fight is also still alive today, with many Red States seeking to disenfranchise non-Caucasian voters and to reduce rights for women to return them to the status of chattel, most conspicuously through rape laws that favour the perpetrators, and reproductive laws that remove choice for women about family planning and abortion.

The exceptionalism here appears to be a demand to not have to learn from history, and to repeat its mistakes endlessly.


Burns and Novick begin their narrative in the 19th century, to within ten years of the American Civil War, and cannot but show us a Vietnamese civil war between determined, nationalist northerners and unremittingly corrupt southerners, incapable of sustaining themselves without American troops, materiel, and money. The parallels pop up unexpectedly, in granular details. For example, there was a heterogeneous and often persecuted ethnic minority of highland tribes in Vietnam, called the Montagnards, French for ‘mountain people’. These tribes were sought out by both the French and Americans as allies against the North. Hillbillies recruited to fight for the South? Must you be an outsider to see this side of the Vietnam War? Or do you just have to watch a few episodes of Duck Dynasty?

It is possible to trace these issues back even further to a Mediæval European lineage mentioned by Umberto Eco in his collection of essays, Travels in Hyperreality. Originally written in the 1970s, at the end of the Vietnam War era, Eco says we are living through a new Middle Ages characterized by insecurity and anxiety about identity and destiny, unsafe journeys, fearing the permanent transitions and constant readjustments we are forced to make, and prone to a perpetual apocalyptic millennialism. But taking this speculative step requires a cultivated intellectual interest that seems largely excised from the USA by the exceptionalist myopia that makes real only the things which can be claimed to be genuinely American. Eco’s essays do illuminate another aspect of The Vietnam War: that of hyperreal reconstruction displacing reality itself.

Forward to the second part of The Vietnam War (2017) >

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.