September 26, 2017–The latest episode of the Burns/Novick documentary “The Vietnam War” aired last night. Several posts ago I noted that the default position for many wars, not just Vietnam, has been not to speak about it, but that in the case of Vietnam there has been another vein in which people have long been speaking of their experiences, even starting during the war itself. In that sense the filmmakers’ achievement in collecting these interviews shines less brightly. What struck me last night was how the overall film is less than the collection of its parts. Burns explains in the companion book to this film that he thinks of Vietnam as a Rashomon tale and wanted to part with conventional wisdom. Looking at the result it seems that is a rationale for the stringing together of assorted personal stories that are related only loosely by the narrative, which repeatedly fails to tie things together, so much so that I have written of newsreel coverage of the highest level of the war. Three examples for today.
First, Speedy Express. This operation by the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta basically involved a gross manipulation of the “body count” criteria for measuring success in Vietnam. In the first part of 1969 the division’s commander drove the push to post statistics to such a degree that all over its operational area civilians were being killed and counted as Liberation Front adversaries. As Burns and Novick properly record, about half the dead were later found to have been innocents. What they did not do was relate this either to the atrocity theme they brought out in Episode 5, or to the larger issue of the weakness of pacification strategy. Newsweek’s Christopher Buckley wrote about Speedy Express at the time, and Nick Turse emphasized it in his recent book Kill Anything that Moves. Neither are mentioned or covered, Turse especially puzzling because the filmmakers quote that phrase, which comes from the “Tiger Team” activities in the Central Highlands (which Turse also investigated) and which was a subject in Episode 5. Instead the filmmakers use Speedy Express as the platform for a clip with Robert Gard, who was an artillery commander with the 9th Division. Gard’s account is harrowing, of course, but the point is his information never forms a part of any more extended analysis, it lies there as another blip on the film’s arc.
Next, the same thing happens with the notorious Phoenix Program. Burns and Novick introduce this pretty well–it was an attempt to decouple the North Vietnamese from the Liberation Front hierarchy. Hanoi’s troops, after all, knew no more about the South Vietnamese when they arrived in the South than did the Americans–a point I first made in the book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War. With little but their language in common they needed the guerrilla infrastructure. Phoenix aimed to neutralize the hierarchy. That meant identifying Liberation Front participants and going after them. So far so good. Good intelligence became central to the enterprise. There’s the platform. The film introduces Stuart Herrington, a U.S. intelligence officer who was a district adviser at the time and sat with counterparts on the “Phoenix Committee” in his area. At the time Herrington was quite critical of the operation of this system but the interview has him making only general comments. Criticism is left for an officer who served with the Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs), the sinister enforcers in Phoenix. That account is more dramatic, OK. But then both personal stories are not brought into any broader analysis. Equally to the point, both Speedy Express and Phoenix represent facets of the same pacification effort but the documentary does not relate them to each other either.
Third, let’s spend a moment on Merrill McPeak. Later to rise to a four-star general and chief of staff of the Air Force, at the time Major McPeak flew F-100s over South Vietnam and against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Burns and Novick tapped McPeak for a good interview that illustrated the difficulties of flying against The Trail–as well as with film outtakes and asides for North Vietnamese participants–the problems of the enemy itself. This struck me as among the best passages in the film. Only later did I realize that, in this same episode, President Johnson halted the bombing of North Vietnam. That’s when it came to me that what I had just seen was among the only coverage of the air war–virtually nothing about the Rolling Thunder air campaign except that it had started, and nothing about LBJ turning the weight of the air assault toward Laos (and The Trail) as he turned it off over North Vietnam–a subject directly relevant to McPeak’s participation. Another disparate segment left on the table.
This coverage is combined with plenty more bullet points. Saigon corruption. Street-level stealing from the U.S. Post Exchange system (I wrote about that in Unwinnable War also), Richard Nixon’s October Surprise during the 1968 election–a nice feature is that Burns and Novick play the telephone tape where President Johnson records Mr. Nixon insisting he would do nothing with the South Vietnamese to influence the outcome of the election (a bald face lie), the Chicago Democratic convention, more antiwar protests. I still have the feeling the documentary is disrespecting the demostrators. In the next couple of episodes the protests will reach their apogee. We’ll see.