Much has been written and many documentaries made about the American War in Vietnam including the highly acclaimed 1983 effort by PBS, Vietnam: A Television History. Though not without its shortcomings, this 13-part documentary series was well crafted, meticulously researched, carefully balanced and thought-provoking.
In September 2017, PBS will air the highly anticipated – seemingly touted as the definitive documentary – about the Vietnam War, directed by respected documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The goal of this 10-episode, 18-hour project is, according to the directors, to “create a film everyone could embrace” and to provide the viewer with information and insights that are “new and revelatory.” Just as importantly, they intend the film to provide the impetus and parameters for a much needed national conversation about this controversial and divisive period in American history.
“The film will be accompanied by an unprecedented outreach and public engagement program, providing opportunities for communities to participate in a national conversation about what happened during the Vietnam War, what went wrong and what lessons are to be learned. In addition, there will be a robust interactive website and an educational initiative designed to engage teachers and students in multiple platforms.“
In an interview and discussion of the documentary on Detroit Public TV, Burns describes what he hopes to accomplish as a filmmaker, “Our job is to tell a good story.” In response and in praise of Burns’ work, the interviewer offers his view of documentary. “The story that filmmakers like yourself, the story that storytellers create, are the framework that allows us to understand the truth because the truth is too unfathomable to take in all at once.” To which Burns quickly adds, “And there are many truths.”
My hope is that Burns and Novick, in “creating their story” of the Vietnam War, will demonstrate the same commitment to truth and objectivity as did their PBS predecessor. That they will resist the urge and the more than subtle pressure from what many historians and veterans see as a Government sponsored effort to sanitize and mythologize the US involvement in this tragic war, as illustrated in President Barack Obama’s proclamation establishing March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Day.
“The Vietnam War is a story of service members of different backgrounds, colors, and creeds who came together to complete a daunting mission. It is a story of Americans from every corner of our Nation who left the warmth of family to serve the country they loved. It is a story of patriots who braved the line of fire, who cast themselves into harm’s way to save a friend, who fought hour after hour, day after day to preserve the liberties we hold dear.”
Though the documentary has yet to be released in its entirety, based upon Burns’ and Novick’s recent New York Times op-ed, several interviews with the filmmakers, and the “Special Preview” and numerous video clips from the series posted at the Documentary’s PBS website, there is, in my view, serious grounds for concern.
In their op-ed, Burns and Novick expressed their skepticism regarding whether, despite a decade of careful research and analysis and 18 hours of documentary, viewers will come away with a greater, more accurate understanding of the war:
There is no simple or single truth to be extracted from the Vietnam War. Many questions remain unanswerable. But if, with open minds and open hearts, we can consider this complex event from many perspectives and recognize more than one truth, perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.
After nearly 50 years of hindsight, building on the work of previous researchers, as well as having access to new, comprehensive and formerly unavailable information, archives and recordings, to acknowledge that after 18 hours of documentary, “many questions remain unanswered,” is disappointing and does not inspire confidence in the skill, thoroughness and research capabilities of the documentarians. More troublesome, perhaps, is the claim that “we must recognize more than one truth,” as it smacks of perspectivism, the view that truth is relative and the opinions of individuals with different, even opposing, viewpoints are equally valid. This would explain, I think, why Burns and Novick can claim to have created “a film everyone could embrace.” If the premise of the documentary is that truth is perspectival, relative not objective, then one may argue for the validity of accepting the “truth” that most benefits us, that makes us look just, courageous, patriotic, resilient and exceptional. And if, as the PBS interviewer notes, truth is “unfathomable” until it is placed in the proper framework, truth becomes the perspective of the filmmakers and how they choose to “create” and fashion the “story.”
Documentary as Therapy
Perhaps I am being overly critical and expecting too much. Documentary is a human endeavor after all, and despite the best of intentions, inevitably expresses the viewpoint and biases, however implicit, of the filmmakers. Expectations of objectivity, therefore, may be unrealistic. Like with much historical reporting, memoirs and documentaries, there is a tendency on the part of the historian, writer and documentarian, intentionally or not, to tread lightly when recording and analyzing the motives of their political leaders and the actions of their countrymen so as not to offend perspective readers or viewers by appearing unpatriotic and disrespectful of the sacrifices of members of the military who “fought hour after hour, day after day to preserve the liberties we hold dear.” Burns and Novick, not insensitive to how their nation and countrymen are portrayed, indicated their hope that their documentary will provide the impetus for a much-needed national reconciliation between supporters and critics of the war and, perhaps more importantly, contributes to the healing of veterans who suffered and sacrificed so much on behalf of their country.
“If we are to begin the process of healing, we must first honor the courage, heroism, and sacrifice of those who served and those who died, not just as we do today, on Memorial Day, but every day.”
Burns’ and Novick’s expectation that their documentary be therapeutic and their belief that veteran healing is contingent upon honoring their courage, heroism, and sacrifice is misguided on so many levels. My fear is, of course, that this misunderstanding of the wounds of war, specifically PTSD and Moral Injury, will inform, influence and bias their presentation of fact. Documentary and history is not an established therapeutic modality, necessarily suited to effect healing and reconciliation. Rather, the goal and function of the historian and documentarian, as generally understood, is to accurately record the relevant issues and events as they occurred – in this case, the causes and justification for the war, why and how the belligerents became involved, the manner in which the war was conducted, etc. It may be the case that accurate, historical reporting and clarification of what actually transpired may, as a collateral effect, be therapeutic by putting the war and the experience into perspective and enabling veterans and non-veterans alike to understand what transpired and thereby determine and come to grips with their personal responsibility and culpability, if any, for the horrors of the war. But this therapeutic consequence of documentary and history, should it occur, is a secondary, not the primary, intended effect of such an undertaking.
Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem
In The New York Times op-ed, Burns and Novick set the stage for their discussion of the Vietnam War by referencing an address delivered by President Gerald Ford at Tulane University in New Orleans. They write,
“As the president spoke, more than 100,000 North Vietnamese troops were approaching Saigon, having overrun almost all of South Vietnam in just three months. Thirty years after the United States first became involved in Southeast Asia and 10 years after the Marines landed at Danang, the ill-fated country for which more than 58,000 Americans had died was on the verge of defeat.”
Referencing the sacrifice of some 58,000 of its own citizens, ignoring completely the deaths of over 3 million Vietnamese, and the description of the US’s involvement in the war as an ill-fated effort to save South Vietnam from invading hordes of North Vietnamese Communists, illustrates a not so tacit American bias and begs the historical question regarding why the war was fought, its legitimacy, and inevitable outcome. Objectivity (or at least neutrality) in documentary requires that we not accept without question, assumptions that are fundamental to what the documentary is alleging to ascertain – the legitimacy of South Vietnam as a nation and US’s claim of justification for its involvement in the war.
In truth, South Vietnam was an illegal construct made possible by the intervention of the United States in violation of the provisions of the Geneva Accords that forbade foreign intervention during the interim period of national reconciliation following the defeat of the American funded French colonialists at Dien Bien Phu and required a democratic election to unite all of Vietnam within two years – an election that was prevented from occurring by Saigon’s puppet regime and its U.S. overlords for fear that Ho Chi Minh would emerge victorious. Consequently, rather than to describe the North Vietnamese as “overrunning” an “ill-fated independent country,” it would be more historically accurate, not merely a different perspective, to describe the end of hostilities as the liberation of the occupied south.
Since Burns and Novick chose to quote noted Vietnamese writer Viet Thanh Nguyen in their Op-ed, allow me to further illustrate Nguyen’s commentary on remembering the war. He writes,
Emotion and ethnocentrism are key to the memory industry as it turns wars and experiences into sacred objects and soldiers into untouchable mascots of memory.
The validity of Nguyen’s assessment of how the war is remembered and memory appropriated to enhance a political agenda and subvert the historical record is illustrated by one veteran’s testimony posted on the documentary website. Vincent Okamoto, in remembering his experiences as an infantry company commander in Vietnam, extolls the merits of the soldiers under his command.
“Nineteen-year-old high school dropouts from the lowest socioeconomic rung of American society,” he remembered. “They weren’t going be rewarded for their service in Vietnam. And yet, their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire, was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself: How does America produce young men like this?”
Okamoto’s admiration for the men he led in combat is certainly understandable. What must be pointed out, however, is that in most cases, the “Nineteen-year-old high school dropouts from the lowest socioeconomic rung of American society” of which Okamoto speaks, did not choose to fight for their survival in a land they never knew existed, for a cause they didn’t (and if they survived probably still don’t) understand. Nor did their behavior in combat demonstrate nobility and honor as is implied, but, rather, the tragedy of being young and poor in the US. It indicates as well the profound inadequacies of the country’s educational system, the unfairness of conscription (now the economic draft), the effectiveness of military training and of surviving the battlefield in developing small unit cohesion (the brotherhood/sisterhood of the warrior), and in conditioning soldiers who will kill. Yes, it is true that patience, loyalty to comrades, and courage under fire, may in some instances, as implied by Mr. Okamoto, be character traits to be admired but only in those whose goals and purposes are just and moral. I think it safe to say that the patience, loyalty and courage in a terrorist, for example, would not be considered virtues. Though I hope otherwise, judging by what Burns and Novick have said in their op-ed and by what is illustrated by the film clips posted on their website, I question whether issues such as these will be explored in any fair and detailed way in the forthcoming documentary despite their relevance to responding to Mr. Okamoto’s question and, perhaps more importantly, to our understanding of the American war in Vietnam and of US’s propensity for war in general.
The filmmakers’ mythological bias and appropriation of memory in “telling their story,” is further corroborated by an interview with the “other,” also featured on the documentary’s website, probably as an attempt to demonstrate balance. A former member of the Vietcong, no doubt after having watched his comrades mutilated and killed by US soldiers, commented upon how, in observing his enemies from a safe distance, he was surprised and impressed by their humanity and compassion, obviously not toward him and his comrades however.
The Legacy of the American War in Vietnam
For more than a generation, instead of forging a path to reconciliation, we have allowed the wounds the war inflicted on our nation, our politics and our families to fester. The troubles that trouble us today — alienation, resentment, and cynicism; mistrust of our government and one another; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions; conflicts over ethnicity and class; lack of accountability in powerful institutions — so many of these seeds were sown during the Vietnam War.
While I believe Burns’ and Novick’s assessment of the state of our nation is accurate, what they seem not to realize is that this tragic legacy of the war in Vietnam can be explained in large measure not by a lack of patriotism or the failure of this nation to accord veterans the nobility and honor they so richly deserve. Rather, “the troubles that trouble us today” are a direct consequence of our reluctance to admit the hard truth of US criminality and the appropriation of memory to portray this nation’s involvement and our soldier’s behavior as honorable and noble. Nguyen observes,
Any side in a conflict needs . . . the ability to see not only the flaws of our enemies and others but our own fundamentally flawed character. Without this mutual recognition, a genuine reconciliation will be difficult to achieve.
Tragically, as has been the case, not only does this mythology prevent reconciliation, it may well be counterproductive to veteran healing by providing a refuge of sorts in which veterans may avoid facing the reality of their experiences – healing requires that we move beyond illusion and mythology. Just as tragically, it has allowed our leaders to ignore the lessons of Vietnam, to again portray militarism and war as palatable, to entice another generation of young people to enlist in the military, and to fight perpetual wars of choice in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
After much research as a philosopher studying the institution of war and even more soul-searching and introspection as a veteran striving to come to grips with the Vietnam War experience, I have realized that to restore the moral character of this nation and to achieve a measure of normalcy in my life – I hesitate to speak of healing as I am not at all certain that healing is possible – what is required is not more of the mythology of honor, nobility, courage, and heroism, as Burns and Novick suggests. Rather, we must have the courage to admit the truth, however frightening and awful it may be, regarding the immorality and illegality of the war and then to accept national (and perhaps personal) responsibility and culpability for the injury and death of millions of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian people. We can, as Burns suggests, finally stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and reconcile our differences, but only if we realize that there are not “many truths” and “alternative facts,” with which to make our involvement and our defeat more palatable. This is what history requires and what the documentary should work to clarify.
Despite the reservations I have expressed in this article, my hope is, of course, that, when viewed in its entirety, this documentary will prove more than propaganda and mythology intended to restore patriotism, this nation’s resilience, exceptionalism, and unity of purpose for further militarism and war. Regardless of whether my hope is realized, I will use this documentary in my course on war this fall semester, whether it is to provide insight and a historical basis for understanding the nature of war in general and of the Vietnam War in particular, or to demonstrate the manner in which historians and artists may contribute to the appropriation of memory and the distortion of truth in behalf of furthering the interests of the corrupt, the greedy, and the powerful. My hope is it will be the former.