September 29, 2017–Has reconciliation occurred? Ken Burns told us that has been his aim. He sought to do that by keeping his focus on the small people, taken from both sides. Maybe the lens was off kilter. He did nothing for me. I don’t think the reconciliation that needs to happen is between Westerners (I won’t use “Americans” because our land now has a significant number of citizens who came, or whose parents came, from the former South Vietnam) and Vietnamese. Probably 80 percent of Burns & Novick’s interview subjects have been Westerners. There are three axes along which reconciliation does need to happen: between former Vietnamese guerrillas (of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam) and the Northerners; between the Vietnamese diaspora and the larger polity; and among Americans (this time I use the word deliberately). None of these conflicts is assuaged by “The Vietnam War.”
Burns and Novick hardly even note the enduring sensitivities dividing southerners from northerners in Vietnam. To the degree these stem from the history of the war they revolve around the sense among NLF veterans that their efforts have been buried in the glorification of Hanoi. The Vietnamese communist party’s continuing drive for ideological conformity–whatever difficulties it caused our intrepid filmmakers–has cast a pall over Vietnamese seeking to produce an account of the American war that properly credits all participants. In the documentary practically all the voices from the victorious side represent the North. There won’t be much credit going to the NLF.
In the main (Mai Elliott and deep-thinking Vietnamese are exceptions), former South Vietnamese are certainly not reconciled to the now-Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) and its version of the 30 Year War, nor are they very happy when fellow American citizens make conciliatory moves toward the old country. Hanoi authorities are no better, imposing broad restrictions on visitation and even casual relations. The film casts the postwar years as a struggle of South Vietnamese (from boat people to regularized departures) to emigrate, the SRV’s aggressive and overblown “re-education” program, and the state-to-state hostilities that kept the United States from even recognizing Vietnam into the 1990s. All these are standard elements of the diaspora’s take on this history. There is no relief there.
As for Americans themselves, in my view Ken Burns and Lynn Novick only stoke the flames of residual enmity. Their hostility to the half of America that opposed the Vietnam war reinforces (often exaggerated or even fictional) stereotypes. Their practice of flitting from one subject, even theme, to another, without drawing conclusions, serves to keep the audience in ignorance of why the war was wrong, how it went wrong, and why the filmmakers’ offhand statement that good people started this war for reasonable purposes is way off target.
The adulation for vets exhibited here smacks of a post-modern “support the troops” mentality, unquestioning of purpose, strategy or politics; which would have served America poorly during the Vietnam war era (and has not brought us victory in today’s wars either). In this film it’s fine for the vets to oppose the war–and it was and I honor them for it–but since there are no conclusions drawn, the fact of that opposition says nothing about the legitimacy of the war. The failure to draw conclusions from the war’s strategy, tactics, or escalations creates the same vacuum about the actual war situation. That lacunae gives the advantage to neo-orthodox analysts who repeat the vacuities of Vietnam’s “Five O’clock Follies” and insist that the United States won, or was about to win, the Vietnam war, when in point of fact Hanoi’s troops marched into Saigon and not the other way around. This film will add to arguments about the war, not reconcile them. You can better use eighteen hours by reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or W. D. Ehrhart’s poetry.