The third part of my commentary on the Burns-Novick documentary.
CONTENTS PART THREE: Differences: Barbarity | Spellbound: Ferrizzi | Spellbound: Beatles | Unresolved: McNamara | Unresolved: Kissinger | Framework: Subjectivity | Framework: Mythification | Dispatches: Bezos
One of the things I learnt in the war is that we’re not the top species on the planet because we’re nice. We are a very aggressive species. It is in us. And people talk a lot about how, ‘well the military turns,’ you know, ‘kids into killing machines’ and stuff. And I’ll always argue that it’s just finishing school.
What we do with civilization is that we learn to inhibit and rope in these aggressive tendencies. And we have to recognise them. I worry about a whole country that doesn’t recognise it. ‘Cause you think of many times we get ourselves in scrapes as a nation because we’re always the good guys.
Sometimes I think if we thought that we weren’t always the good guys we might actually get in less wars.— Karl Marlantes, former Marine, about 48 minutes into episode five.
Talking about war and differentiating between the brutality of war, and barbarity, is a difficult and ideologically loaded endeavour. ‘We’ usually only do the right thing, and stray into barbarity usually only as exceptions to a rule of honour and martial fairness. ‘They’ usually stoop to the most despicable acts as a matter of course. Burns and Novick commendably avoided that trap.
Throughout the film we are given small snippets of North Vietnamese barbarity towards civilians and US prisoners. Particularly repellent are repeated mentions of communists burying people alive for being suspect in their eyes. There is also mention of Lê Duẩn’s repeated ‘elimination’ of his imagined and real opponents – Stalinist purges by any other name.
The real courage of the film-makers, though, lies in exposing American atrocities, which they knew would cause backlash, and then to give voice to that backlash alongside the exposé of routinized barbarity. I was struck by the fact that, in episode nine, the enumeration of American atrocities came from an improbably young John Kerry in archival footage, but the rebuttal was made by the present-day Philip J Gioia, an infantry captain during the Vietnam War: ‘There was no widespread atrocity.’ He admitted to ‘a couple of units’ that went ‘right off the rails, and we can talk about that’, but they were ‘not out-of-control animals, which is the way they were portrayed. And what was even worse was they were alluding to the fact that you would take ordinary kids and turn them into these savages, war criminals, and the military was doing that. And it didn’t. It didn’t happen that way. I’m still very angry about that.’
Retired counterintelligence Colonel Stuart Herrington reinforces Gioia’s perspective, saying in the film that myths of endemic brutalization of the Vietnamese by American troops doesn’t do justice to those who served there. It has the ring of truth about it: not every American soldier who served there was a monster, but in aggregate, what was the experience of them by ordinary Vietnamese people?
American discourses of service, bravery, and honour don’t resonate with notions of war crimes. And yet, the film asked us pretty bluntly to consider the inevitable conclusion that any war-time atrocity by Americans in Vietnam must have been the failure of command, from Washington down to platoon commanders in the field. If that failure existed for high-profile cases, it certainly existed for others not widely publicised, and maybe for much deeper failures of wartime conduct that transcend atrocities by driving combat tactics unhinged from any rational military strategy. The case in point would be futile battles for hills that lasted for days, caused mountainous casualties, and ended with both sides withdrawing from these hills, which never had any strategic or tactical value in the first place.
While I’m willing to admit the possibility that Giaio and Herrington were honourable men, I am inclined to believe that on this point they remain deluded and obstinately ignorant. How could free fire practices and the largest bombing campaigns in the history of war to that point not be seen as endemic barbarity?
That all of this was seen on nightly television by Americans may explain why, as Novick lamented, there was a WWII triumphalism in 1945, with returning veterans being seen as having been part of something heroic, while Vietnam veterans were reviled, publicly shamed and privately ashamed (Alyssa Rosenberg, 28 September 2017).
More than looking at atrocities on the battlefield, the film also exposes the malevolent psychosis that underlay the beatings and murders of American youths by police and National Guard units in American streets. By order of politicians. I confess that while I knew of those incidents for decades, it had not occurred to me until watching this film just how inextricably linked battlefield atrocities were with mental illness in an American political leadership which can regard its own population as enemies to be brutalised and killed.
Unfortunately, this mental illness has been allowed to fester, and is today an almost expected feature of the American police state, labelled by the economist Business Intelligence Unit as a ‘marginal democracy’, while its leaders still bleat about setting an example for the rest of the world, which we can all see the country is not.
I cannot tell whether my own realization is slow in coming, or whether Burns and Novick can be credited with establishing it as an unlearnt lesson of the Vietnam War. Whatever the case, I am also forced to acknowledge, willingly, that this realization must always have been part of the daily reality faced by black and Latino Americans, whether they were soldiers or not. It may be that I have, even as an alien, shared the white blindness to endemic racism and the casual, unpunished violence associated with it.
The most riveting, menacing, adrenaline-inducing moments of the entire film are the recollections of Ron Ferrizzi at the beginning of episode six, ‘Things Fall Apart’.
Ferrizzi is the son of a policeman in North Philadelphia. He arrived in Vietnam in 1967, functioning as a crew chief in a scout helicopter for the 1st Air Cavalry in the Central Highlands.
He is relating an occasion when he had just returned from a combat mission when a pretty ‘roundeye’ (female) reporter asked him: ‘What was it like out there?’
Ferrizzi turns to camera, asking rhetorically: ‘How does it feel that a 50-caliber just opened up shooting a half-inch piece of led at you.’
Ferrizzi scratches the hair immediately below his lower lip in a gesture that could be frustration, saying it’s hard to describe, in a voice that almost cracks.
‘It’s shitty,’ he says. And then with a slowly rising agitation: ‘Isn’t it apparent what it’s like?’
The on-screen actuality changes to a photo of the young Frizzell staring straight at us with a baleful frown.
‘You wanna know what it’s like, go look at it,’ his presents self says. ‘Go out there. Go see the bodies.’
‘I was ready to whack her,’ he says as the screen shows his present self again, wide eyed with the truth and awkwardness of the statement.
Shaking his head, gesturing: ‘I wanted to blast her. I was ready to … whoa …’ Voice rising and gesturing rapidly with a finger like a gun: ‘You want to know what it’s like? Boom! There it is!’ His eyes wide open and his face contorted with the madness of the proposition.
Now extremely agitated, as if talking to the journalist, throwing his finger: ‘I’ll give it to you. Right now! You wanna feel it? You wanna see it?’ Ferrizzi is snarling at the camera in a way that scared me. I was convinced he’d tapped right back into that adrenaline rush frenzy that comes from not wanting to die, and being ready to kill the enemy first. A rage that might not distinguish between friend or foe.
‘I’ll give it to ya if that’s what you want,’ he continues in the eerily menacing fugue state. ‘Is that what you want?’
There’s a jumpy cut. Ferrizzi comes back smiling genially: ‘I don’t want to tell you what it’s like because I don’t want to remember it. That’s the insanity that it brings out.’
Close up of the younger Ferrizzi’s eyes, like a predatory, wounded animal, and roll the title sequence for episode 6.
This was not an actor. This was not a confected scene. This was a guy who remembers decades later what it’s like to be scared shitless under fire, and to fire back, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake.
I don’t think I’ve seen a finer expression of the indescribable memory of combat anywhere. Not in literature, not on film. And you have to see it to witness the madness that creeps into Ferrizzi’s eyes as he remembers. You don’t want him to remember too much. Not while you’re around.
Also in episode six of the film, detailing the Tet Offensive attacks, beginning early in 1968, a segment of the film focuses on film clips of fighting in Saigon itself, where the Viet Cong guerrilla forces had taken over the national radio station. While the unruffled, sonorous narration by Peter Coyote describes the intent to broadcast a recorded message by Hồ Chí Minh, urging the Vietnamese people to rise up and join the guerrillas, we see scenes of disorganised and desperate street battles.
The sound track, incredibly, switches to the Blue Danube waltz (the same piece of music Stanley Kubrick would use to accompany his breath-taking scenes of a space shuttle commuting to an orbital station in 2001 a Space Odyssey, released a year after the Tet Offensive).
Coyote’s narration explains that a South Vietnamese technician had been able to control the transmission tower, preventing the guerrillas from broadcasting, and playing instead, by remote control, waltzes … and then Beatles songs.
The narration cuts out, and the soundtrack changes to the Beatles song ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ from the 1966 album Revolver. The soundtrack volume is boosted as images of chaotic fighting and destruction flash across the screen. The psychedelia of the song is almost the perfect emotional antithesis of what we see.
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
But we see the opposite.
But listen to the colour of your dreams
It is not living, it is not living
What we see is carnage – a nightmare – and it seems fitting that this is not what we think of as living.
There was some press sniping at Burns and Novick for using popular music of the times as part of their soundtrack. The arguments seemed to be that this was, by now, clichéd and trite. And yet, these were the songs Americans and the world listened to at that time. I don’t agree with the critiques.
In the end it was an English band that provided the back-drop to what was for me the most effective, gripping, shocking vérité of the entire film – the Saigon street battles in 1968. Not because I hadn’t seen some (not all) of the footage before. Not because of the surreal quality the mixture of soundtrack and footage created. But because, for the first time, I saw the juxtaposition from a middle-aged perspective, and I wondered whether I would not have thought, at the time, my children were mad, the world had gone crazy, and it was time to admit that the war in Vietnam was lost. It is difficult to describe why it shocked me, gripped me, caused me to replay the segment several times. It just seemed like a perfect summation of the lunacy of the war, dressed up as it was at the time in the conservative symbolisms of American politics and military might, but actually, in situ, a barely contained helter skelter of nightmarish violence – worse than the worst bad trip any of the long-hairs of the era ever had.
The after-taste of that experience left me wondering how anyone in Vietnam at the time could have had any doubts that the war was unwinnable for the American-backed South.
I don’t know whether this segment of the film has the same effect on other viewers, but I think it is another example of Burns and Novick deconstructing an existing mythology of war to re-construct it as something different. This re-construction of existing myths is likely to occur regardless of whether that particular segment of the film captivates significant numbers of viewers – so long as there are other scenes that grab people as much as this one did me.
From my perspective, the treatment of Robert McNamara, ‘the architect’ of the Vietnam War, was less direct than it ought to have been. In my opinion he represents a lesson that was definitely not learnt from the war: systems analysis (and its modern equivalents), was a grand conceptual failure for applying mathematical and engineering principles to human qualities. Attractive for its reductionism of the ‘facts’ to a manageable state, and a determinism based on models in which the ‘manageable facts’ become misleading determinants of a bizarre, altered reality not at all aligned with what is really going on.
To make that point, the film includes an interview with Dr James Willbanks, who today occupies the General of the Army George C Marshall Chair of Military History at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas (a graduate school for officers). Willbanks was an army advisor during the Vietnam conflict. He relates an apocryphal story about coding computer punchcards with all the relevant 1967 data on ‘Numbers of ships, numbers of tanks, numbers of helicopters, artillery, machine guns, ammo – everything you could quantify’. The mainframe computer is asked the question ‘when will we win in Vietnam’, and a few days later gives the answer: ‘You won in 1965!’ The rider is: ‘the enemy gets a vote, and they weren’t on the punch cards.’ One might today add that no human beings were on the punchcards because they had all been reduced to quanta, expected to behave as predictable robots whose every action and reaction could be precisely pre-determined.
That was McNamara’s failure: the obstinacy of applying engineering problem-solving methods to a political problem in which people, not engineered artifacts, are the key ingredients and outcomes. That remains the greatest unlearnt lesson of the 1960s: you cannot reduce people solely to numbers and a determinism about how they will react under conditions of assumed rationality. Such thinking removes the idea that one person’s rationality is another’s lunacy, and implies that the parameters to human decision-making can be fixed, the way that the parameters to manufacturing a tank can be fixed. Burns and Novick make the latter point with the Willbanks interview, but seem to have lost sight of how the former problem – that of relying on ‘expert’ problem-solvers like McNamara to determine courses of action – creates larger problems than it resolves. Most particularly by the apparent inability of the problem solvers to recognise themselves as a new variable in the overall problem once they start to infuse it with their own subjectivities.
Nixon was not spared, but like McNamara, Henry Kissinger is not carpeted for his rôle in deliberately lying and instigating subterfuge; that strikes me as soft-pedalling. I cannot quite understand why Burns-Novick chose to do that. Kissinger’s pedigree as a Machiavellian manipulator, who made everything he touched worse, was definitely a lesson Americans ought to have learnt from the Vietnam era: don’t trust glib ‘experts’ to understand the issues they gloss over, and don’t trust their motives for acting with impunity.
Perhaps the focus is mine: Kissinger was the face and voice I associated most with the Vietnam War. But I was not alone: the man was hardly ever out of the daily newspapers between 1969 and 1975. How he was not impeached for the Laotian and Cambodian incursions escapes me. And how he was never prosecuted for directly criminal activities is a story in its own right (Christopher Hitchens wrote an entire book on the subject, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001), that ought to be mandatory reading in international relations and politics courses).
Good arguments can be made to trace the decline of American democracy to the ascendancy of ‘Kissingerism’, which certainly infused the Reagan and Bush administrations. Perhaps that topic was just too hot and still too recent for Burns and Novick; incredibly, at the time of writing, Kissinger is still alive, aged 94.
Above all, the Burns brand carries with it a sense of trustworthiness; of a project undertaken with humility, but without a stated agenda beyond the truth. Maybe it’s this notion, rather than the idea that the Vietnam war is at the root of the US’s divisive apolitical culture, that makes the series seem so important right now.— Tim Dowling.
All interpretation is subjective, even that which claims for itself an objective literalism. In making this assertion I entrust readers to be at least familiar with Chomsky’s ideas on how ideology works through mass media, if not also with a wider body of critical theory.
My critique is not passive or anodyne. It does not contemplate for a second that I must consider or give equivalence to the viewpoints of others which I evaluate as being without merit. That I should need to mention this is a bitter reflection on the ‘alternative truth’ era.
My approach includes critical theory, but also ideas derived from critics of critical theory, who sometimes seemed immune to the irony that they propose a counter-critical theory.
So, while I embrace the ‘counter-culture’ notion that opposing war is legitimate, draft-dodging is rational, and African-American opposition to fighting a racist war while still being subject to racism at ‘home’ is unassailable, I side with commentators, like the archly reactionary Roger Kimball, in rejecting the retreat into 1960s psychedelia or mysticism as necessary adjuncts to civic duty or civil rights.
When applied to the film, this subjectivity leads me to ask: is the witness today telling me an already revised and carefully amended version of actual experiences that are now fifty years in the past?
Am I being lulled into the American predisposition to accept, as more real than reality itself, a careful reconstruction? Umberto Eco, in his Travels in Hyperreality, remarked that sometimes ‘the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake.’ That isn’t to suggest the film is faked, but to remind me that the perception offered, with back-stories, exceeds the original perception of the witnesses, who were not privy to all the back-stories that are now made available to me.
That’s why the Dowling quote above grabbed my attention. It is a naïve conception based, at least in part, on the doctrinaire conception of the possibility for omniscience. It is a concept we invented as a rod for our own back, because we are of course incapable of every attaining anything so pure and ideal as ‘truth’. We can only ever hope to know some parts of such an ideal, and guess at others.
To illustrate this point, consider again the famous photo of South Vietnamese police commander, General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, executing a captive, identified as Nguyễn Văn Lém, and accused of have being part of a Viet Cong militia group that had executed family members of one of the police commander’s officers. The photo won a Pulitzer Prize for photographer Eddie Adams.
Burns and Novick show us film footage of the event unfolding, which is quite shocking, but hardly new. What the authors add is a back-story. But no matter how much we might seek for objective facts, some of them will always remain out of reach. For example, will we ever know whether Nguyễn Văn Lém actually participated in the killings for which he was summarily executed? Will we ever know whether Nguyễn Ngọc Loan would have acted as he did if there had been no cameras to perform for?
Even the Burns-Novick back-story didn’t delve into the question whether Nguyễn Ngọc Loan acted within the parameters of law under the circumstances, so we cannot be sure whether this was an execution or a murder.
The idea that we are given objective truth in this piece of the film, or any other, is risibly naïve, and the demand for such objective truth is revealed to be delusional.
In this context, as a critic, my subjectivity must remain vigilant of the film’s subjectivity, which is the collective subjectivity of the authors and witnesses in it. Nothing between us is objective, the same way that McNamara’s systems theory could never incorporate all the variables that affected the outcome of the war.
Burns and his research team found their fundamental preconceptions challenged, the film-maker said … . “At every intersection, there was the explosion of myth, there was the humiliation of being just dead wrong about what we thought had happened. And that, at some point, if it’s not about your own self-aggrandisement, is exhilarating and liberating.”— David Smith.
Burns and Novick rely on cultural myths, as well as subverting or altering them, to create new ones.
To explain, it is necessary to simplify some critical theory about myths, drawn principally from French semiotician Roland Barthes, who worked to reveal myth as a kind of second-order meaning to a signifier (words, or images) beyond a literal or simple meaning (the signified).
A photograph of a soldier in a combat situation, for example, signifies or denotes a literal meaning: the specific man, the specific location. The second-order, or mythical meaning draws on culture specific connotation: the observer reads into the photo notions of ‘soldierliness’ that might include stereotypes of courage, machismo, heroism, patriotism, and so on. All meanings that are not there in any literal senses, but rely on the socialized subjectivity of the observer. This isn’t a precise creation or transfer of meaning. Another observer, from a different culture, or even the same culture with a different social perspective, might read into the same photo notions of threat, terrorism, murderous intent, fascism, and so on.
Mythical concepts can be invoked subconsciously, by a reflexive resort to stereotypes, or deliberately, by tailoring stereotypes in an attempt to address specifically conceived audiences (this often occurs in advertising and propaganda). In the past, the wives of American soldiers might have been routinely imbued with stereotypical attributes of ‘housewifeliness’, in which they functioned solely as domestic servants. Burns and Novick subvert that myth by showing such wives to have also been self-directed, independent, activist people, and even soldiers in their own right, maybe as well as traditional wives, or maybe as something new, created in the crucible of the Vietnam War’s consequences for American society and political engagement.
Another perspective on myth comes from the Frankfurt School of cultural critique, which proposed myth, among other things, as a form of anthropomorphism, implying enlightened human motivation and agency in circumstances where they don’t exist, particularly to explain catastrophe. This might be a particularly appropriate consideration when evaluating the unwillingness to confront the reality of American war crimes that so clashed with the myth of American moral superiority.
The existing stereotype of the war criminal, based largely on WWII war crimes trials, would undermine the myth of American moral superiority when applied to American soldiers. This conflict correlates with observations by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in the seminal book, Manufacturing Consent, in which they said that the news media misled the public on the war in Indochina by adopting the official line dictated by Washington, and supported by the corporate sector, to the exclusion of any meaningful alternative voices. Even when significant sections of the public broke ‘free of the premises of the doctrinal system, as finally happened during the Indochina wars, real understanding based upon an alternative conception of the evolving history can be developed only with considerable effort by the most diligent and skeptical.’
Pre-dating and working on a different theme entirely, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno offered a likely explanation of how the Vietnam War was covered by news media in its own time by suggesting that all cultural products, like film, are constructed to prevent independent thought if the spectator is ‘not to miss the fleeting facts.’ The sense-making in such a process then relies on reflexive resort to myths, or stereotypes, about the unexplained assertions heard, and to interpret the images seen. In this way, viewers of films fill in the gaps in any literal message with socially inculcated, unspoken, and unproven assumptions about such things as the honesty of government, journalists, and experts; the ethical despicability of national enemies; the bravery and patriotism of ‘our’ soldiers as opposed to the opposite for ‘their’ soldiers; and so on, into any level of granularity that ‘fleeting facts’ might require.
Awareness of these theories allows for both a greater understanding of how they might be constructed and subconsciously absorbed, and for the manipulation of that process to subvert, alter, or even destroy extant myths. I think Burns and Novick do a bit of both in their film.
The most effusive publicity for the film came from Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post, which carried not just the expected review and commentary, but a ten-part podcast series, transcribed for readers, by the Post’s ‘pop culture blogger’, Alyssa Rosenberg.
Bezos was not a sponsor of the film, as far as I can gather from available details, but his company, Amazon, is of course the major American sales outlet for the DVD/BluRay sets, the associated book, and the soundtrack.
The 32-year-old Rosenberg is an ingénue when it comes to serious critique, and completely out of her depth with a subject as complex as the Vietnam War, but her dilettante questions offered a carte blanche for Burns, Novick, and some others associated with the film, to say whatever they wanted to about The Vietnam War. The Post offered them the most excellent promotional vehicle imainable. And for me it was an easy way to access the authors’ commentary on their work.
Some of the comments in the ten-part Rosenberg Wapo series are so good I wonder why they weren’t in the film itself. Here’s a small exchange from the piece of 27 September 2017:
General Merrill McPeak: You know, the military — the uniformed military — is not a monolithic, right-wing, ultraconservative outfit. They are, by and large, politically conservative. As am I, by the way. But my point is, it’s not automatic that you sign up with the conservative right wing of the Republican Party just because you’re a general officer. Although a lot of them are. But a lot of them are not. And I guess I wasn’t signed up with anybody. I just looked at a cause like the protection of the environment and said, “Yeah, why should we poison the air we’re breathing?” I mean, who wants to do that? Hold up your hand. And why are we against rights for everybody, including black people, in this country? And why are we for putting some sort of glass ceiling on women? We can use all the talent we have in this country.
Alyssa Rosenberg: You’ve talked about feeling sympathetic with these movements and also feeling like you were in Vietnam in part to protect protesters’ freedoms. How did you feel about the way protesters were being treated at home while you were in Vietnam?
McPeak: Look, I believe in a vigorous debate. I don’t believe in killing students at Kent State or the police riot that happened in Chicago during the Democratic political convention. So there need to be limits.
I think that the opposition to protest was quite ugly in some cases. And what I would say is that these people were not unpatriotic, which was what they were accused of by the so-called silent majority. They were just expressing their patriotism in another way in a different way. In a way different than I expressed mine. And I’m all for it. And I’m all for you opposing the way they expressed their patriotism. But I don’t think you should get out a billy club and go beat up on them.
A uniformed general should have said that on camera, in the film. But none did. And it seems to me that the cowardice inherent in no one of that status saying such things is responsible for the state of civil dissolution in the USA today, in which police shooting innocent people is routine, and the national guard being called out to quell demonstrations with bullets and grenades would probably shock no one.
Using Rosenberg instead of senior cultural or political journalist to explore a major work strikes me as a not-very-subtle play to capture a younger market for the film than it is sure to command already by those with skin in the game. I would like to believe that Bezos is interested not just for financial reasons. But I’d also like to believe in basic human decency. Bezos’s record, and the core messages of the film, keep such beliefs just out of reach.