Archive | Vietnam

Analysis of Vietnam-Perkasie


The following is an analysis of a book of self-experience, Vietnam-Perkasie, written by a Marine who served during the Vietnam War. There is also a bit of author analysis regarding the Vietnam War and those who served there included here.

The Vietnam-American War was very different from the previous wars that America had been involved in.  This war had no defined battle front, defied the use of conventional means of waging war, had allies whose commitment to the cause were in doubt, endured anti-war sentiment on the home front, returned soldiers to a nation who did not regale them as heroes, seemed to lack a clear purpose and obtainable objective, and plunged hundreds of thousands of America’s young males into an alien world with experiences that ranged from supreme boredom to the heights of terror and fear for life and limb.

W.D. Ehrhart’s story, Vietnam-Perkasie, offers vast insight into his experiences leading up to, during, and immediately following his thirteen-month military tour as a Marine in Vietnam.  This intelligent, sensitive young man experienced personal growth that would have taken several years to develop had he not followed his patriotic sense of duty to his country.  This time spent in Vietnam slapped him with decades’ worth of experiences in a very small frame of time.

Probably the most profound metamorphosis in Ehrhart was that regarding his views of reasons for the United States’ involvement and subsequently his part in Vietnam.  Before his enlistment he strongly believed in the American ideology for the halt of Communism.  He felt his duty was to contribute to this cause.  He convinced his parents to sign for his enlistment in the Marines, as he was underage.  “Is this how you raised me?  To let somebody else’s kids fight America’s wars?”  (Ehrhart, 10).  Even the rigors of boot camp, with the caustic drill instructors, could not dissuade him from his commitment to his country.  During his graduation from boot camp he stated that “I burst into a broad grin, barely able to control the pride struggling to get out of me in a mighty shout” (Ehrhart, 19).  Upon his arrival in Vietnam, Corporal Saunders, who he would replace, informed him that he was indeed not in a country that would welcome him with open arms.  “Better pay attention, kid.  We get sniped at along this road all of the time.  Half the people you’re waving at are probably VC” (Ehrhart, 21).  Ehrhart witnessed harsh treatment of detainees and tried to get Saunders to stop it.  He was informed that the “detainees” may very well be VC or at the least VC sympathizers.  “There people know where those mines are and who’s planting ‘em and who’s doing the sniping” (Ehrhart, 26).

His perception of the ARVN as capable fighting partners began to decline when the ARVN did not leave their compound to assist the scouts who were being ambushed.  The ARVN had even fired upon and killed two men with a .50-ciliber machine gun (Ehrhart, 30). Taggart’s torture of an old man to find out who had dug a bunker, was disturbing to him but soon he is telling a new recruit the reasons behind the cruel treatment of someone who appears to be too feeble to be an enemy.  “Two weeks ago a God damned kid maybe eight or nine years old runs up and tries to flip a grenade into the jeep.  A grenade!  I had to blow ‘im away” (Ehrhart, 56).  He describes Vietnam as Indian country and starts to vocalize that there is not light at the end of the tunnel and no end to the number of VC available to fight (Ehrhart, 61).  As he becomes more and more immersed in the war he forgets the voices and faces of Jenny and his mother.  By the time of his second kill he was charged with the excitement of it.

In his experiences to date, the first time that cold hard facts about the home front could touch this jungle, was when Calloway received a letter from his wife that informed him that she was pregnant by his best friend and wanted a divorce to marry him.  Calloway’s swift suicide, in front of his men, shocks all and brings what is happening a world away right into that jungle.  Ehrhart writes home that the U.S. is winning the war and this is a way for him to try to convince himself that his reasons for being there were just, as much as to keep the folks at home from worrying.

Ehrhart’s job of plotting the harassment and interdiction fire was done in a haphazard way. Due to the lack of reliable sources this seemed to be the only way to get a report out when one was required.   He knew too much about the inner workings of the war to trust what the outcome would be.  “But day after day and week after week and month after month of F/6s and F/3s and C/3s had proven the rating system to be as crazy as the rest of the war” (Ehrhart, 104).  His distrust of the United States basis for waging attacks was rooted in knowing that often there was no legitimate rhyme or reason to the shelling and bombing strategy. Falsified body counts and slanted news coverage did nothing to bolster his confidence in his military.

He reflects on how during his earlier years he had avoided personal confrontations.  Perhaps he had come a long way from that little boy or teenager, but not really.  He could still feel revulsion at the death of the old man on Barrier Island.  He thought of the old woman that he had shot just because she happened to be running and then of his Quaker friend Sadie Thompson’s final words to him, that in essence said, “ do not kill anyone” and he could still feel sick with what he had done.  He also realized that the South Vietnamese “democracy” that he is fighting to establish and maintain is a sham.  There was continued mistrust of the ARVN troops and their apparent lack of enthusiasm and cooperation.  After all the Americans had come over to their country to keep Communism at bay, and the least they could do was to fight along side the Americans.

The R and R to China Beach was not as much fun as was anticipated.  There may have been too much time to think of what was going on in the “real” world plus the letters from Jenny had started to drop off drastically.  Gerry and Bill did not choose to stay the full amount of time that they were allotted.  What were they missing back at camp?  Perhaps they had become too accustomed to the constant adrenaline rush.  When the “Dear Bill” letter finally arrived, all of the previous traumatic experiences came crashing in on Ehrhart. His thoughts of his future with Jenny and surviving long enough to get back to the world had been his anchor during his trip on the turbulent, deadly sea of Vietnam.  “A perfect chain, like a rosary, a lifeline, a beacon.  Gone just like that?” (Ehrhart, 132).

Ehrhart had a discussion with Trinh about Trinh’s view on what the United States was doing to the South Vietnamese by supporting the current government of Ky and Thieu.  “This is not America, Corporal Ehrhart” (Ehrhart, 146).  Trinh said that the South Vietnamese did not want the Americans there, nor had the South Vietnamese people asked for American help.  “Ky and Thieu and the rest of those fat bloated bandits who are getting filthy rich from this war-they asked for help (Ehrhart, 148).

Ehrhart’s meeting with Dorrit comes at an especially low time in his life. Jenny is gone; he has much anger toward her, the South Vietnamese, and himself. This new relationship came at a time when he needed the will to go on with his life.  He almost deserted and stayed with her.  This shows how much he had changed from the staunch supporter of his country and of the American involvement in this war. He expresses his frustrations about what he has seen and done during the previous months. He vocalized the wrongs that he could see with the waging of the war.  He talked about what he had done and how he was no longer proud of himself. The apparent futility of what he was being asked to do. “Round and round and round, just chasing our own tail” (Ehrardt, 169). His anticipation of a future relationship with Dorrit helps to take some of the sting out of Jenny’s abandonment. In nine months he has changed from the eager new Marine enlistee to someone who would get out of the uniform as soon as possible.  “I knew that once I left Vietnam, I would never again go anywhere that required a uniform and the forfeiture of my right to come and go as I chose” (Ehrhart, 184).

Ehrhart’s father was a minister but he had decided before going to Vietnam that he was an agnostic.  His talks with Father Lignon became more and more strained until he tried to avoid contact with the clergyman.  He had decided that he was not doing the correct thing by being in South Vietnam. He did not believe that he should continue to ask forgiveness for what he did, all the while knowing that he would just go out and do it again. “Either you are a Christian, or you’re not a Christian.  There’s nothing ambiguous about ‘Thou shalt not kill’” (Ehrhart, 196).  He refused the offer of the chaplain to write him up for a deferment as a conscientious objector.  He would complete what he had started with his enlistment.  When he reads that Dorrit has been murdered he immediately reacts to the news; he is upset, but seems to quickly adjust to her death.  Her death seems to affect him less than Jenny’s rejection. He after all had seen others, whom he had known far longer, die in his presence.

The fighting when helping the MACV compound near Hue exhilarates him.  This is the first time that he feels that he is allowed to fight back. He is free to fight with full force and in doing so acts out his frustrations.  He had come to fight Communism and now could not think of a reason for him being there in the first place. His youthful aspirations and sense of patriotic duty had turned to self-doubt and questions of his purpose.  He states:

And I fought back passionately, in blind rage and pain, without remorse or conscience or deliberation.  I fought back at the mud of Con Thieu, and the burning sand of Hoi An, and the alien blank faces in the marketplace in Dien Ban; at the Pentagon generals, and the Congress of the United States, and the New York Times; at the Iron Butterfly, and the draft-card burners, and the Daughters of the American Revolution; at the murder of Dorrit von Hellemond, and the son-of-a-bitch who had taken Jenny flying in his private airplane; at the teachers who had taught me that America always had God on our side and always wore white hats and always won; at the Memorial Day parades and the daily Pledge of Allegiance and the constant rumors of peace talks and the constant absence of peace; at the movies of John Wayne and Audie Murphy, and the solemn statements of Dean Rusk and Robert MacNamara; at the ghosts of Roddenbery and Maloney and Rowe and Basinski and Calloway and Aymes, and Falcone and Stemkowski…at freedom and democracy and communism and the monumental stupidity with which I had delivered myself into the hands of the nightmare; at the small boy with the grenade in his hand…I had no idea-had not the slightest inkling –what I was fighting for or against. (Ehrhart, 246-247)

As his time in Vietnam became shorter, he became more nervous about returning.  In his war of bullets, mines, snipers, and bombs he has no trouble putting the eventual homecoming into the back of his mind. “The solid immediacy of survival made the turning easy” (Ehrhart, 263).

His return to the States was very disturbing.  He justifiably came back with a heightened awareness of the generalized anti-war environment.  He unexpectantly found that he did not hate the hippie that he met in the airport, but instead felt contempt for the two older men, one who was a World War II Marine veteran, who befriended him.  Everything they said about the war just seemed to show how little they knew of what really was happening in this war. This war was far different than America’s previous wars. He had gone at the age of seventeen to fight in a war, but he was not old enough to buy his own car or to purchase insurance for it.  He was not trusted to be with the high school students on their trip, but was asked to speak to them of his experiences. He faced hypocrisy everywhere he turned and he had experienced enough in the past months that he was not going to turn a deaf ear or blind eye to it.

These young men who came to Vietnam had lives that they had to put on hold.  The ones who had families, wives, or girlfriends to return to used these people who remained at home as their anchors.  Any change in the status of their relationships back home often times had cataclysmic results.  From the day they arrived they counted down the days till they could again be home and safe from constant threats of death. When they returned home they were greatly changed by their experiences while those at home were seemingly unchanged and often unwilling to recognize the turmoil the returning soldiers felt.    Some of the men went to fight the Communists and some just went because their number came up and they had no luxury of a deferment.  The constantly revolving door of people into and out of the platoons often disrupted the fluidity of operations. These operations were often haphazard with little hope of accomplishing anything.   Eventually as they spent more time in country they realized that the war was not nearing an end and that those in charge of their lives did not really care about them.  They experienced the futility of taking a small patch of ground, often at great expense of life and wounded, and then leave to let the enemy come in again. Deep friendships were made and just as quickly terminated as they were killed or wounded and evacuated.  They would often hear later that their wounded friend had indeed died.  There was no time or way to say farewell at funerals and wakes. Their distrust of the ARVN became elevated as they witnessed their allies’ apparent lack of enthusiasm for the war.  The Americans did not understand the South Vietnamese way of life.  Some of the men reverted to the worst possible form of humanity when confronted with the fear of what the enemy would do to him if he did not do first to the enemy. They came from a world where they had been taught that to kill was a sin or against the law and were then thrust into one in which they often had to kill to survive or were even rewarded for killing. Often those who were sent to Vietnam were those who were the least qualified for the task.

Vietnam-Perkasie is an honest account of the feelings of a very young man.  His patriotism in the beginning is contagious.  His descriptions of incidents and his reactions to these various incidents give the reader the sense that he or she is the one in the story.  It is easy to feel a great deal of compassion for this young man.  There seems to be a lifetime that passes during the few months that this story spans. Ehrhart has every facet of his life traumatized and seems to be quite forthright in how these events make him feel.  This could be the story of any young Marine who was in this war. The only weakness that this book has is that the reader, who has become very involved with the young Ehrhart, must leave him while he is in great despair.  The “real” world, for him was no sanctuary and the “normal life” he longed for was not to be found there.

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What We Still Haven’t Learned from the Vietnam War


Featured image: Vietnam War protestors march at the Pentagon in Washington, DC on October 21, 1967. (Photo credit: Frank Wolfe / LBJ Library / Wikimedia)

Fifty years ago today, in 1967, nearly 100,000 Americans marched on Washington, DC, to protest the Vietnam War. In those days there was a mandatory draft in place, and the risk was very real that a young man just out of high school could quickly wind up 13,000 miles away, fighting an unseen enemy in jungles that didn’t need tanks or B-52 bombers to inflict fear. Worse yet was the possibility of going MIA or coming home in a body bag — just another expendable statistic in the great fight against communism. But even many of those who made it back left part of their souls in that war zone.

Today there is no longer a mandatory draft. And neither is there any anti-war movement to speak of.

If you ask young people today why the United States joined the fight in WWII, many could probably tell you that we were bombed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. Or perhaps they would say we had to fight Hitler and the Nazis. But what about Vietnam? Why did we go to war there? What were we fighting for? How did we become involved in that conflict? My guess is that most couldn’t tell you — just as it became unclear to that generation in 1967, who were fighting and dying.

This contrast between clarity and ambiguity is reflected in popular cinema — take WWII films like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Pearl Harbor, and Sands of Iwo Jima that reflect the essential righteousness of the American cause. Yet classic Vietnam War films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal JacketPlatoon, and Hamburger Hill reflect the uncertainty, misery, barbarity, and psychosis of the GI experience.

But this split perception took time. The truth is that the US had been in Vietnam since the mid-1950s. Since the turn of the century, America had been slowly developing into an imperial power to rival the British and the French. WWII had solidified it as the inheritor of the British Empire — the only imperial power left standing.

The whole of Vietnam had been a colony of the French since the 1890s, but after WWII an uprising occurred, led by Ho Chi Minh — inspired by Marxist-Leninism and a nationalist fervor to regain control of their own country. By 1954 the French were out, and two Vietnams, north and south, formed in an uneasy proximity.

The US inherited the imperial project from the French — gradually sending in military “advisors” to the south. President John F. Kennedy had continued that project by backing the south Vietnamese government with military assistance and equipment. The stated reason for this intervention was to prevent the spread of communism throughout southeast Asia — the infamous “domino theory.”

But by 1963, Kennedy had come to see the futility of this endeavor. He gave orders to begin withdrawing troops, and planned to have all military personnel out of Vietnam by the end of 1965.

But on November 22, 1963 President Kennedy was assassinated, and President Lyndon B. Johnsontook the helm. He immediately reversed Kennedy’s orders. The Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, in which a group of North Vietnamese torpedo boats allegedly fired on a US Navy ship (it turned out to be false — and the administration knew it), gave Congress the incentive to give Johnson the authority he needed to dramatically escalate troop deployment and to begin a new bombing campaign.

By 1968, over 500,000 American soldiers were stationed in Vietnam.

In the mid-60s, young people began questioning why their friends and family members were being sent thousands of miles away to fight in another country they’d never heard of before. The rock n’ roll revolution was in full swing, and the hippie movement, dope, and acid were fueling a counter-culture movement that questioned the establishment and their rules of conformity — instead pushing the mantra “make love, not war.”

Not only was Johnson feeling the heat from student protesters, but even Wall Street and Big Finance were beginning to express doubts about the feasibility of winning the war. The debt was piling up and America was at that point still under the Bretton-Woods gold standard.

In March of 1968, less than a year after the protest march on D.C., Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of JFK, had thrown his hat in the race, running as a peace candidate who would bring the troops home from Vietnam. He was assassinated several months afterMartin Luther King, Jr. The Republican candidate Richard Nixon won the election, and the war continued another seven years, taking us off the gold standard in the process. It ended in US defeat in 1975, shortly after Nixon resigned from office in shame after the Watergate scandal.

By the war’s end the US had lost 58,000 troops — the Vietnamese somewhere between one and three million.

So why was America in the Vietnam war for so long? What was it really about?

We might as well ask why we have been in Afghanistan for 16 years with no end in sight. Or why did we invade Iraq? Why did we overthrow Libya? Why are we involved in a civil war in Syria? Why are we backing a genocidal war in Yemen? Why did we invade Grenada? Why did we conduct covert warfare in a dozen different Central and South American countries over the past 60 years? Why are we still in Korea 70 years after the fact, now on the verge of a renewed conflict? Why have we come to the very threshold of nuclear annihilation more than once?

What happened to the citizens, community leaders, institutions, and politicians that we would allow this endless warfare to continue? And where is the anti-war movement? Why are they MIA?

These questions are all related. Perhaps if we were to solve the riddle of Vietnam, we would solve these other questions as well. Perhaps those 100,000 students and protesters 50 years ago solved it — and decided to do something about it. Maybe we can too.

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The Vietnam War and the Phoenix Program: “A Computerized Genocide” ‘Video’


Michael Maclear’s 1975 documentary, Spooks and Cowboys, Gooks and Grunts (Part 1)

Introduction by Douglas Valentine

Michael Maclear’s 1975 documentary, Spooks and Cowboys, Gooks and Grunts (Part 1) is more relevant now than ever. Forty-two years after its release, it exposes the suppressed, shameful truths that have corrupted America since the Vietnam War. The documentary makes it perfectly clear that “we” have always known what was going on – and that “we” have perfected the means of denying and obfuscating it.

Maclear’s documentary stands in stark contrast to the current Ken Burns documentary, The Vietnam War, which is nothing more than historical revisionism, sprinkled with massive doses of cognitive dissonance, served up as healing.

While Burns assiduously avoids connecting the conflicts of the Vietnam War to America’s on-going experiment in technofascism, Maclear’s documentary is straightforward in stating several shameful truths. Foremost, that the CIA has corrupted not only the military, but America’s political and judicial systems; and that, through its secret control of the media, the CIA’s power to create the official version of history has left veterans of the Vietnam War, as well as every subsequent generation of Americans as well, in a state of neurotic delusion.

This is what Guy Debord meant when he said,

“Secrecy dominates this world, and foremost as the secret of domination.”

While Burns falsely characterizes the war as a tragedy engendered by decent men with good intentions, Maclear offers incontrovertible proof that it was a war of imperial aggression in the pursuit of counterrevolution.

Maclear gets to the heart of the matter by focusing on the CIA’s Phoenix program, which Burns spends all of two minutes on. Through interviews with Bart Osborn and Jeff Stein, both veterans of Phoenix, Maclear shows what happens to combat veterans when they are made to function as judge, jury, and executioner of civilians. Mass murder and computerized genocide are the terms used in the documentary.

While Burns places combat veterans on an unassailable pedestal, and makes America’s involvement in the Vietnam War “noble” based on their sacrifices, Maclear shows how the war managers indoctrinated the troops with lies, and then aimed them at innocents. As Maclear explains, by 1968, the CIA knew American military forces could not win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people, so they turned to eliminating, through torture and terror, members of the revolution’s civilian infrastructure, as well as anyone who could be said to be sympathetic to it.

Burns has no stomach for this hard truth, or the fact that Phoenix, as Maclear made perfectly clear 42 years ago, has become not only the template for policing the American empire, but for the SWAT teams and militarized police forces that control America’s political and social movements on behalf of their corporate masters in the war industry.

I’ll close this brief introduction by honoring Bart Osborn, who, along with several other Phoenix veterans, testified to Congress about the Phoenix program. Based on the testimony of these veterans in 1971, four Congresspersons stated that Phoenix was a policy of waging war crimes and violated the Geneva Conventions.

In 1973, Osborn, along with Air Force veterans Perry Fellwock and Tim Butz, formed the Committee for Action-Research on the Intelligence Community (CARIC) in response to revelations about the CIA’s role in Watergate. CARIC exposed individual CIA officers and operations through its publication, CounterSpy.

At the same time in 1973, Norman Mailer and several of his associates created The Fifth Estate to counter the CIA’s secret intervention in America’s domestic political and social affairs. In January 1974, CARIC and The Fifth Estate combined to create the Organizing Committee for a Fifth Estate. The plan was to organize groups on campus and in communities to investigate and expose the CIA. CounterSpy was its publication.

If only such organizations existed today.

Before the security forces and complicit media subverted CARIC and its efforts to expose the CIA, CARIC worked with the British Corporation Granada Television Inc, to produce a documentary on political prisoners in Vietnam.

Titled A Question of Torture, it too has also been suppressed, but is well worth viewing as an antidote to the Burns propaganda film, as well as to the duplicitous Vietnam War narrative Americans have had shoved down their throats for the past 40 plus years.

In the absence of any organizations dedicated to exposing the CIA, war crimes have since become official US policy, at home and abroad.

Video Copyright, Michael Maclear, 1975

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The Tragic Failure of Ken Burns Vietnam

Image result for Vietnam CARTOON
By Christopher Koch | Medium 

There is so much to love about this series. The uncompromising scenes of combat, the voices of both Americans and Vietnamese, the historical context, the exposure of the utter incompetence of our military leaders, the terrific music that is frequently exactly where it should be, the slowly revealed powerful still images and Peter Coyote’s wonderful narrative voice. Its tragic failure is its inability to hold anyone responsible for their actions.

Burns and Novick tell us that the war was begun “in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and …” whatever the current threat. That’s probably true of most wars. However, as we used to teach our children, you have to be accountable for your actions. If you kill someone speeding the wrong way down a one way street you’ll get charged with manslaughter even if you’re rushing someone to the hospital.

It’s the lack of accountability, the failure to prosecute those who lied to get us into the war, who encouraged battlefield tactics that resulted in the massacre of women and children, who authorized the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, who drenched Vietnam in chemical poisons that will cause birth defects and death for generations.

In order to maintain this central lie, Burns and Novick must establish a false balance between good and evil on both sides. Every time the United States is shown doing something bad, Burns and Novick show us how the Vietnamese also did bad things. In one absurd example, Coyote intones something like, “we called them ‘Dinks,’ ‘Gooks,’ ‘Mamasans;’ they called us ‘invaders’ and ‘imperialists.’” The GI terms are dehumanizing, but the Vietnamese terms are accurate. People who cross 3,000 miles of ocean to attack a country that has done them no harm, are accurately called ‘invaders.’ I suppose you could argue about the ‘imperialist’ charge.

Vietnamese soldiers killed some 58,000 Americans and wounded a couple of hundred thousand more. Burns and Novick put the number of Vietnamese we killed at 3 million, but most experts say it was more like 4 million and Vietnam says its 6 million, with more people continuing to die from unexploded ordinance and Agent Orange. We destroyed 60% of their villages, sprayed 21 million gallons of lethal poisons, imposed free fire zones (a euphemism for genocide) on 75% of South Vietnam. They attacked US military bases in their country and never killed an American on American soil. There are no equivalences here.

Burns and Novick do a good job of explaining that the United States worked with Ho Chi Minh during World War II and that Ho hoped to get our support after the war. They do not mention that having friendly relations with Communist countries was a successful strategy we used with Yugoslavia, because although it was Communist, Yugoslavia was also independent and a thorn in the Soviet Union’s side. Any minimal understanding of Vietnam’s history would have identified Vietnam’s fiercely independent streak. Intelligent leaders (anyone with half a brain) would have adopted the Yugoslav strategy in Vietnam.

This brings us to another central problem of the Burns and Novick series, Leslie Gelb’s smiling recollection (he looks so smug) that nobody knew anything about Vietnam and didn’t for several years. In fact, throughout the series, many people say “we should have known better.” Is ignorance really a good excuse for launching a brutal war and the war crimes that followed? Unmentioned is how easy it was to gather information on Vietnam. French historians and journalists had studied every aspect of the country and its culture during and after their defeat in the French Indo China war. Much of this material had been translated into English. That’s how I figured out in 1965 that we were going to lose the war in Vietnam.

Burns and Novick fail to mention my trip to North Vietnam in 1965 nor any of the other trips to North Vietnam by members of the American peace movement such as Tom Hayden, Staughton Lynd and Herbert Aptheker who went in January 1966 and members of Women’s Strike for Peace who went later. They only show us Jane Fonda’s trip in 1972, when she broadcast to US troops asking them to stop the bombing and was photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun. No one else who went to North Vietnam did either of these things.

Our earlier trips to North Vietnam were important, because we were the only Americans to witness the destruction being rained down on North Vietnam. Burns’ documentary shows lots of aerial shots of bombs and napalm going off (Mussolini’s son called them rosebuds blooming in the desert when he attack Ethiopia) but very few shots of the bomb’s effects on the ground in North Vietnam. We hear talk of precision bombing, but those of us who traveled to North Vietnam observed hospitals, schools, churches, markets, and working class neighborhoods utterly destroyed. And this was ten years before the war ended!

The Burns’ documentary doesn’t show us the makeshift hospitals with children and old people without arms and legs or suffering from horrendous burns, all victims of American bombing attacks. The documentary focuses our compassion on the American pilots who dropped the bombs.

In fact, the only heroes in Ken Burns’ Vietnam are American GI’s. Almost everyone else is their enemy: the Vietnamese they fought, the officers whose absurd strategy sent them to their deaths, and the American peace movement that struggled to end the war and bring them home. Burns and Novick portray the peace movement in the worst possible terms. In at least three places, they have moving sound bites about how returning soldiers were spit on or in other ways disrespected. It’s a false memory, at least in any general sense. They couldn’t find any visual support, no signs about baby killers, because it didn’t happen, or happened extremely rarely.

To me, this is the central flaw of Burns and Novick’s film, their failure to deal truthfully and equally with the peace movement. Six million Americans took part in the anti-war effort (only 2.7 million Americans served as soldiers). Everyone I knew in the peace movement honored the veterans and wanted justice for them. They studied books, took part in teach-ins, and watched newsreels. But Burns and Novick, with a couple of notable exceptions, characterize the peace movement as uninformed, chaotic, disrespectful, self absorbed and violent. At one point, they intercut 1969 pictures of kids at Woodstock wallowing in great music with soldiers fighting in Vietnam. What was that supposed to mean?

The kids who refused to go (many out of righteous opposition), who fled into exile in Canada or Sweden, or who, like boxer Muhammad Ali lost his right to fight for three years, or the Fort Hood 3 who went to prison, or the professors and journalists who lost their jobs, the protestors beaten by riled up construction workers, Martin Luther King who went public with his opposition in 1967, the priests who raided draft offices and burned their records, Alice Hertz and two other Americans who burned themselves to death in honor of the Buddhist monks who did the same in South Vietnam protesting our puppet regime — these are not worth profiling, all tinged by the same brush, they are the bad guys who disrespected our troops and went violent. What a wonderful authoritarian message that gives to viewers. Don’t protest an evil war or your country’s war crimes.

The only heroes in Burns and Novick’s Vietnam are American servicemen and I am thrilled to see them finally recognized for what they went through. We have moving back stories of their homes, their motives for joining, their families waiting for them.

None of the six million participants in the American peace movement gets similar treatment. The same is true, incidentally, of the Vietnamese. While the sound bites are great, there are no Vietnamese back stories either.

Without the peace movement, there is no moral center to this series. The lack of accountability is fatal. That an American general can watch from a helicopter the massacre at Mai Lai (as the films tells us) and suffer no consequences is sickening. If military courts had aggressively prosecuted violators of human rights, or even if we only had held detailed and accurate reconciliations where the truth came out, there would have been a chance that our reckless invasions of Iraq with its policy of torture and the invasion of Afghanistan would not have followed so easily. When people are held accountable for their actions, perpetrators of questionable violent acts think twice.

Last week on NPR an American general in Afghanistan announced that we are not trying to occupy territory in Afghanistan, we are simply trying to kill terrorists. Here, again, is the same rationale of the body count that led to disaster in Vietnam. We are reliving the Vietnam War because no one was ever really held responsible for its horrors.

The moral center of the Vietnam War was held by those who opposed it. Several people I’ve talked to say the series is depressing. I had the same feeling of despair at the end. Burns and Novick suggest Vietnam’s a tragedy. It’s not. In tragedy a powerful human makes a terrible mistake and suffers the consequences. No one suffered any consequences for Vietnam. Burns and Novick assure us that even if people did wrong, they didn’t mean to. America is still the shining city on the hill and we can do no wrong.

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