What You're In For: That New Vietnam Documentary

The latest documentary project of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, a sprawling ten-episode, eighteen-hour film on the war in Vietnam, has provoked a fawning and predictable media response.  Reviewers uniformly opine about how admirably it documents what the country's chattering classes have known since the 1960s: that the United States was on the wrong side in the war and morally deserved to lose.

The film's heavy skew in the direction of the now well established antiwar narrative of the American cultural elite is evident most obviously in the jarring ideological imbalance of the Vietnam veterans chosen by the filmmakers to contribute commentary to the film.  The overwhelming majority of them are antiwar activists.  The radical "poet of Vietnam," W.D. Ehrhart, is given ample time to present his bizarre theories regarding American military history and to viciously condemn the American command during the war in which he served.  Another celebrity soldier-writer, Tim O'Brien, lugubriously laments his youthful inability to free himself sufficiently from the shackles of the obviously vapid patriotism of his neighbors in small-town America to pursue the true path of courage: refusal of military service. 

The lone soldier presented who does not fit the model is Denton Crocker, Jr., an enthusiastic enlistee whose principled anti-communism structured his thinking about the war.  But Crocker died in combat, and so Burns and Novick deftly avoid the need to include any retrospective observations from him that would indicate even the slightest sustained support for the war.  All soldiers in Vietnam were or eventually became cynical about the war effort – that is the film's story.  The major voice from the Crocker family presented in the film is not Denton's, but that of his sister, an antiwar activist who is given wide latitude to discuss how misled her brother was about the conflict.

A former member of the Vietnam Veterans against the War, John Musgrave, serves as the prototype for what is insinuated would inevitably have happened to Crocker if he had survived.  Musgrave went into Vietnam with the patriotic fortitude provided by a family of military veterans, and by the end of his tour, he had become a shaggy, suicidally depressive member of the radical counterculture.

The selective spin of the filmmakers' choices as to who represents the men who served in Vietnam is evident if one has read objective accounts of the attitudes of veterans of that war.  They are generally dissatisfied not with what they did during their service or the Cold War anti-communist philosophy that framed the conflict, but with indecisive political elites, a savagely partisan media, and a fickle and uninformed public that treated the returning veterans with vicious contempt.  If one makes the effort to talk to the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans who are not published and fêted writers and media celebrities, one quickly understands how poorly Ehrhart, O'Brien, and Musgrave stand in for them.  But the typical viewer of this film will almost certainly not have done this homework, and Burns and Novick know and exploit that quite well. 

The film's handling of the Tet Offensive of early 1968 provides another neat encapsulation of its ideological thrust.  Any objective summary of Tet defines it as a massive Viet Cong-North Vietnamese defeat, and its major consequence militarily was the near elimination of the ability of the Southern insurgents to continue to fight.  How, then, did this crushing defeat of the communists, in the words of the filmmakers, "turn out to be a still greater victory" for them?  Burns and Novick studiously avoid the true answer, which is that the American media and antiwar movement relentlessly presented it as such, and the American public never came to know the reality of Tet or indeed much else that was happening militarily in the several years thereafter.  Objective accounts have consistently emphasized that the enemies' forces were strained after Tet to the breaking point, and the Nixon administration's efforts to press that advantage to victory were critically hampered by the work of congressional doves to defund the war.

Two venerable antiwar symbols of Tet get the lion's share of the filmmakers' attention: the massacre by American troops at My Lai and the summary execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by South Vietnam National Police chief Nguyen Loan, famously captured by an American photographer.  No contextualization of these events is provided.  The Loan photo became a consistent symbolic prop of the anti-war movement, with its desired reading of a morally corrupt American ally and a helpless innocent victim of their (and our) brutality.  But what had the executed man done to merit such a fate?  As the leader of a terrorist attack squad, he had just slit the throats of the wife, six children, and elderly mother of a South Vietnamese officer.  The propaganda value of this photo for the anti-war movement has always relied on a radical distortion of the moral valence of the enemy and an equally simplistic view of the stern business of successfully prosecuting a war, and Burns and Novick make no effort to bring a more complex vision to bear here. 

Similarly, My Lai is presented absent the relevant context of the terrorist insurgency that was the Tet Offensive.  The responsible American unit had reason to believe that the village was harboring a V.C. battalion that had just carried out a bloody attack, and they had taken dreadfully heavy casualties in the preceding months from mines.  None of this excuses what happened there, but it is telling that Burns and Novick linger at such length over My Lai and are so comparatively fleeting in their description of the tenfold greater level of systematic lethal violence inflicted on innocent civilians by the retreating communist forces at Huế.

The film is generally remarkably lacking any sustained substantive discussion of the ideological ruthlessness of the communists.  Even the stolidly anti-war New York Times has recognized accounts in its op-ed pages over the years that make the well founded case that the enemy was basically everything so-called "anti-communist hysteria" of the '60s said it was and more.    

Almost despite themselves, though, due to the sheer volume of material presented, Burns and Novick cannot avoid providing some of the evidence needed to properly understand the war effort and the work by some to sabotage it.  They allow us to hear President Johnson's excoriation of Jack Horner of the Washington Star during Tet, and a discerning listener cannot help but note how much LBJ sounds like another American president in his assessment of the political role of the mainstream press:

Your press is lying like drunken sailors every day.  First thing I wake up this morning, I was trying to figure out after ... watching the networks, reading the morning papers, how can we possibly win and survive as a nation and have to fight the press's lies? ... They talk about us bombing, yet these sons of b------ come in and bomb our embassy and 19 of 'em try to raid it and all 19 get killed, and yet they blame the embassy.  I don't understand it.  We think we've killed 20,000, we think we've lost 400 ... it is a major, dramatic victory, and I think what would have happened if I'd lost 20,000 and they'd have lost 400? I ask you that.

Can there be any doubt as to the answer to the president's question?

Alexander Riley is the author of Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America.