Rolling Commentary 4/5

September 23, 2017–The latest episodes of the Burns-Novick film “The Vietnam War” are an improvement, in the sense that the vertigo of the first one is replaced by more straightforward storytelling. But this film, the product of a decade of research and interviewing, still demonstrates major flaws. One is its reliance on what is just a level up from newsreel footage to give the viewer her/his entire picture of the top level decisionmaking in the conflict. It’s nice to have a scene of Lyndon Johnson with his NSC ranged around him, and cut to a session of the Fulbright Hearings of 1966, but that’s like being given a whiff of a much deeper narrative without the ability to access it in any way. James Willbanks is a fine historian–and a friend–but he is overused here as the all-purpose commentator. Same with Joe Galloway, whose main knowledge is from 1965. That is also true of the Vietnamese officers interviewed, though on their side, where a “tour of duty” lasted for the entire war, there is some rationale. John Musgrave’s story is heart-wrenching, but, to pull back to a bigger frame, you need to realize that the 9th Marines at Con Thien are here made representative of all Vietnam combat action just as, in the previous episode, Hal Moore and The Cav at LZ X-Ray stood in for everything that happened in 1965. Burns and Novick do nicely at projecting their microcosms, but it’s the bigger picture that suffers.

That’s even graphically apparent. In one scene or another, flashing across the screen are phrases like “body count,” “attrition,” and so on, each a huge subject that could be explored in an entire documentary, here rushed past in seconds, at most with the brief appearance of a talking head. The documentary touches on the hot topics from Vietnam, atrocities and Tiger Teams, search & destroy, Liberation Front local militia, military exaggerations, and so on. It portrays a version of Hanoi’s decisionmaking for the Tet Offensive that is currently popular, but for which we have no actual evidence.

The antiwar movement is again portrayed monochromatically–as a virtual social event of spring and fall when masses of citizens would converge on either New York or Washington, capable of being hijacked in October 1967 to march on the Pentagon instead of listen to music and speeches. That’s a slight to every individual who, at personal cost, went to participate in these events, as well as to the activists who worked long and hard to organize a specific march on the Pentagon, not a jamboree.  Indeed, Burns and Novick trot out Leslie Gelb, who was working inside “The Building” that day on the Pentagon Papers, and Gelb recalls that DOD secretaries were frightened of protesters invading the building to rape them. Robert McNamara would tell a later interviewer, “How could you not be afraid?” Daniel Ellsberg was also there, also working on the Pentagon Papers. He is notably missing from this narrative. In any case, the activists were serious, they were against the war, and, as a movement they were neither communists nor hippies. At Con Thien John Musgrave and his Marine buddies got a copy of Playboy and fantasized about the hippies and the “summer of love,” but those elements of the counterculture were apolitical, tuned out, not available to antiwar organizers. The communists provided the antiwar movement with office space, a modicum of donations, and a certain number of individual protesters, but communists were never the ideologists of the movement nor its leaders.

Burns and Novick are also on thin ground with an aspect of the siege of Con Thien. They frame it as one of a series of “border battles” which Hanoi launched as distractions for American General William C. Westmoreland (“Westy”) as the North Vietnamese prepared their Tet Offensive–which Episode 5 of the film extensively prefigures. The only thing about Con Thien related to the Border Battles was that the post was located on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the boundary between North and South Vietnam. Con Thien was one strongpoint of what was dubbed the “McNamara Line,” and the North Vietnamese were seriously challenging the defense system–as they had done at Khe Sanh earlier in the year. Westy was always especially sensitive about I Corps–the part of South Vietnam below the DMZ–and Hanoi was taking advantage of his proclivities. The Con Thien siege went on too long and was conducted too fiercely to have been anything other than an independent operation.

The filmmakers are simply wrong where they record that defense secretary McNamara’s December 1967 memorandum to President Johnson warning of an unwinnable war and advising that it be cut back never received any reply. As a matter of fact, on December 18 Lyndon Johnson committed to paper one of the only written memoranda he ever created about Vietnam strategy and his aim was at McNamara. LBJ recorded that he had studied the McNamara paper “with the utmost care” and he had consulted with “certain advisers”–in fact Johnson had demanded written responses from the entire top level of his NSC, plus General Westmoreland and the ambassador to South Vietnam. President Johnson specifically stated that he was reluctant to send U.S. forces into Laos or Cambodia, that he saw no basis for increasing troop levels, but that he would not halt or cut back the bombing of North Vietnam. This key passage in Washington decisionmaking on Vietnam is entirely missing from the Burns-Novick film and there is no excuse–it has been written about, even within the span of the research for this documentary. Its absence shows the fallacy of “newsreel coverage” of the top level of the war.

That’s enough for today.

 

 

Rolling Commentary 1 : Someone Else’s Vietnam

September 18, 2017–Lyndon Johnson, a font of political aphorisms, used to tell a story of a camel and a tent. It was a lot better, he would say, to have the camel inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick could have used that advice. Their wide reading and wide consultation in the elaboration of this project appears to this historian to have been far narrower than advertised–and indeed intended to fuel a certain vision of the Vietnam experience. My phone never rang. As author of eight books specifically on the Vietnam war, with parts of four others devoted to it as well, I would have been a good resource. Perhaps I was relegated to the ranks of former high ranking government officials, who Burns and Novick deliberately chose not to interview. More likely, I am an exponent of a vision of Vietnam war history the filmmakers preferred not to hear.

So I will exercise the camel’s prerogative to piss into the tent. In keeping with Lyndon Johnson, who ran his bombing of North Vietnam under the nickname Rolling Thunder with numbers to distinguish the successive aerial assaults, we’ll run these as numbered entries of “Rolling Commentary.” Today I’ll make one general point and two specific ones.

This film was either cut to induce vertigo or to set up the viewer to absorb without questioning some key argument farther down the way. That is, any claim to be detailing this conflict chronologically is just that–a claim. The film hops back and forth across the history with dizzying speed. Geneva 1954 jumps to the late Diem period, Indochina 1945 to the Versailles peace conference of 1919, Dien Bien Phu to the American war and back again, with pauses throughout for participants to relate experiences. –But not experiences necessarily related to the moment the film is describing. David Marlantes gets as much face time to talk about how he and his dear friend never spoke of the war for more than a decade–certainly a post-Vietnam experience, as Burns and Novick devote to the entire origins of the Vietnamese revolution. In an 18-hour film they could have done better. Use of the interviews is also uneven. Mai Elliott’s memories describe specific experiences of her father and family in a way nicely related to the narrative, while Lam Quang Thi–not explicitly identified as a lieutenant general in the South Vietnamese army–is drawn upon merely for a generic comment on Vietnamese facing revolutionary conditions. Since Thi, as a young officer in the French-dominated Vietnamese National Army, had broad relations with Nguyen Van Thieu, who eventually emerged as South Vietnam’s military strongman, the opportunity to gain key insight into a major figure is lost.

On to the specific. The filmmakers’ asserted purpose is to furnish an account of the war that is a people’s story, not an overarching history of the clash of nations at arms. (Thus the avoidance of interviews with senior officials.) There’s an implication here that people have avoided talking about the war, and that presentation of this material is an advance in the story. Actually, look at World Wars I and II, or the Korean war and you will find that not speaking of the horrors of war has been the norm, not the exception. You might even make a case that many young Americans marched off to the Vietnam war precisely because their fathers had not spoken to them clearly of the horrors of war. But in Vietnam, talking about the war began while the guns were still shooting–with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which started in 1967–and continued throughout. At colleges throughout the country clusters of students using their GI Bill stipends had the war with them all the time. High school and college classes regularly have veterans in to tell their stories. Former South Vietnamese, striving for recognition in America, are all about the war too. Today you can go into anyplace where Vietnamese books are sold and find armloads of material on the war and the old country. It is no achievement to get participants to talk about the Vietnam war.

Finally, for today, one point of history. The first episode of the Burns and Novick film, in its coverage of the French war in Indochina, has left wing labor unions in Marseilles mount protests in which members throw stones at soldiers debarking from troop ships returning from the war. Actually the Marseilles dockworkers were guilty not of throwing stones but of refusing to load supplies aboard ships bound for Indochina. Those are two very different things. You can readily appreciate that the stoning charge sets up a parallelism with allegations later in the American war that protesters spat at GIs coming home. The latter charge continues to be controversial today. Establishing parallelism for it represents an attempt to enhance credibility. If this is the way this film is put together it adds up to the very opposite of objectivity. This is someone else’s version of Vietnam, not mine.