The tragedy of the PBS-Ken Burns version of the Vietnam War
Ken Burns, in his new PBS series, correctly points to the Vietnam War as a source of the polarization in our society today. And he correctly urges us to revisit, understand, and come to grips with details making up that history through civil (as opposed to raucous) discourse. He apparently believes he is presenting a fair picture of that history and that if we see it as the "tragedy" he paints, we will align our views with his so as to restore a more cohesive society.
The problem for many of us is that Burns does not see the same tragedy many of us lived in person day by day. Yes, the deaths of millions, American and others, mostly Vietnamese, was tragedy – but not tragedy in the classic sense, that being the human characteristic, the hubris to believe we can design policy, take actions to thwart an undesirable or uncomfortable development in the future that we believe awaits us.
All the prime actors here exhibit that hubris, whether it was the communist leaders who believed that a Leninist state would bring prosperity (really? how about stability instead of prosperity?) to their people, or American presidents who thought their bombs and troops would bring the other side constructively to the negotiating table, or demonstrators who thought civil unrest would end a war and save lives. And what about reporters who felt it necessary to disseminate facts without context, or academics who even today feel that overlooking and distorting untruths buried in the history they teach will better enable us to mature as constructive citizens?
The ironies abound in this chronology. Had Mayor Daley not awarded Kennedy the "tombstone vote," JFK might have lived to become president after a two-term Nixon presidency during which there would be no disastrous Harriman Geneva Agreement providing the North Vietnamese communists with a transit corridor from North to South. A winning vote for Barry Goldwater might have resulted in a wider war, but we got that anyway when he was defeated, in part, by the "Daisy" political ad. While civil rights, voting rights, and even Medicare were positive developments in Johnson's Great Society, the War on Poverty was a costlier and a more destructive force in our society than the Vietnam War. Protests enabled an enemy to hope for victory despite military failures like Tet and the Easter Offensive, resulting in eventual enslavement for millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.
Supplying their proxies added to the Soviet Union failure to achieve economic sufficiency. Chairman Mao's Little Red Book faded when it came in contact with capitalist possibilities. The South Vietnamese's perpetual bickering, attendiste attitudes, and endemic peculation1 cost them their nation and a prosperous future, a victim of their own inability to constructively play the game of "messy" democracy. The North Vietnamese fought hard to "liberate" their Southern brothers, only to put them both under the thumb of the Cong An (the Thought Police).
What we see today is the failure to learn lessons from the past. Appeasement never works. (We have Bill Clinton and Kim Jung-un to prove that.) Wars must be pursued to their objective, as rapidly as possible, to save lives on both sides. (Compare the conduct of the Gulf War with Iraq and Afghanistan today.) Protests are intended not to unify a society, but to heighten the divisions and encourage anarchy for principal benefit of the protest leaders. Some remnants of pride and honor have withstood the onslaught, as evidenced in some strange ways. (The number of people who served in Vietnam was around 3 million, but three times that number claim to have been at a modern-day Agincourt. Iraq and Afghan veterans are able to survive the trauma of war, but they return home to a society that seems inured to a high incidence of their suicide.) Being nice in the messy corners of this world is not sufficient policy and is simply a method to no end. Marxist theory still attracts young people who don't understand its symbiotic attachment to Leninism.
My own views on the Vietnam war haven't changed much in the intervening half-century, since my assignment in Vietnam with Special Forces, but I am called, today, a "revisionist" by some who have never served our country. I have subsequently learned, thanks in part to Burns's history, that a "revisionist" is anyone who opposes the Communist Party line, so I guess I can live with that. Many of my fellow veterans have succumbed to a constant din of false history. Burns's documentary film series includes an Air Force general proclaiming that he thought we were fighting on the wrong side. The view from a cockpit at several thousand feet must have been very different from that on the ground.
Burns seems reluctant or at least non-observant to accepting that there is inherent evil built into Lenin's theory and application. His Vietnam documentary is accepting of half-baked college students and cub reporters having far greater insights into decision-making for our nation than the administration their fellow citizens had elected. But fifty years have passed, and the statues of Lenin are mostly destroyed (though here and there some may outlast those of Robert E. Lee). The murderous, corrupt, and totalitarian regime of communist Vietnam has been exposed. Most Che Guevara t-shirts are, in shame, hidden away.
Thank you, Ken Burns, for bringing the issue of Vietnam back to our attention. Thank you for doing this before all of us who served there, and the 70% of us who would have gone back and done it all again, have been silenced by actuarial factor death. Thank you, Ken Burns, for imagining that this country can be healed and divisions overcome.
But just one more thing, Mr. Burns: come help us identify the untruths and tear down "this wall" of false history.
1 The U.S. Embassy labeled corruption as an acceptable level of peculation.
Stephen Sherman served as a civil affairs and psychological operations officer with 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam. He is a founding member of Vietnam Veterans for Factual History (vvfh.org) and the editor of the Indochina Series that organization publishes.