September 27, 2017–Continuing the saga of the camel outside the tent, here we are in the episode of the Ken Burns & Lynn Novick documentary “The Vietnam War” that covers the first part of the Nixon administration. We’re talking 1969-1970. The film still shorts Big Picture elements but is long on whatever the auteurs care about.
My Lai finally comes up–there’s an extended passage on the revelation, the military investigation by the Peers committee and others, the military justice moves to court martial participants, which ends up focused on young Lieutenant John Calley. OK. But the My Lai atrocity took place in the spring of 1968, while Lyndon Johnson was president. This episode is supposed to be 1969-1970. Vertigo again. And here’s another one– all through this series the filmmakers have valorized veterans over citizens, generals, or anyone else. But here’s My Lai and that atrocity would have gone unmarked save for the efforts of one GI, Ron Ridenhour, who forced the investigation of how South Vietnamese civilians were victimized by a run-amuck U.S. infantry unit by means of a campaign on Capitol Hill, challenging congressmen to look into what had happened at the Vietnamese village. That was heroism. Another participant, chopper pilot Hugh Thompson who averted a bit of the massacre at gunpoint, went to his grave insisting he’d only done what anybody would have, except that no one but he did do it. The helicopter crews who intervened in the My Lai incident to actually save some of the Vietnamese peasants did not push beyond a little bit for major investigations by the authorities. Anyway, amid all Burns/Novick’s valorizing of veterans, Ron Ridenhour gets maybe a little paragraph. Here’s a hero of the moment, who agonized for years after Vietnam over what had happened–a perfect candidate for the kind of coverage Burns/Novick are dishing out–who gets precious little from them.
While we’re on the question of atrocities, I must have been asleep, or else I missed the “Green Beret Affair,” which goes to the same point made here yesterday about the filmmakers not drawing links (or conclusions) from their disparate data points. There was no coverage of the Green Beret Affair so far as I could tell, yet it formed another atrocity controversy going on at the same time as the one about My Lai. So who’s picking the cherries here anyway?
I’ll pass on most of the Big Picture elements, like the peace negotiations or the supposed Nixon decisions, except to observe Burns/Novick represent Richard Nixon as strongly committed to withdrawing the U.S. forces from South Vietnam. Thus they are completely silent about the “Madman Theory,” Operation Duck Hook, and the conventional/nuclear threat against Hanoi in the fall of 1969. They skip on to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, which, if I remember this right, sounded like the U.S. following South Vietnamese forces into that neutral land rather than, in fact, Washington organizing this invasion from the ground up (South Vietnamese troops went first as a tactical matter). Because Burns/Novick resist analyzing events or drawing conclusions, they completely miss the way the Nixon strategy involved repeated escalations of the war. The antiwar movement did not miss that point. Political upheavals over the Cambodia invasion reflected that understanding, and went white hot after the Kent State and Jackson State shootings.
The documentary continues its ambivalence regarding antiwar protest. Those who did not live this history should make no mistake: every American, whether in the service (in Vietnam or not) or at home, had to face this war in a quite personal way. Opponents of the war were every bit as heroic as the soldiers, nurses and airmen lionized here. And unlike the GIs, the protesters did not receive GI Bill benefits, R&R trips, medals or promotions, retirement pay, or any of the rest of the trappings of military service. To underline that point, military veterans who turned against the war, like those of VVAW, often found themselves cut off from benefits and had to struggle to obtain them. Perhaps we’ll hear something about that tonight.