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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 10/2/17

The contradictions of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War

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The Vietnam War , a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, written by Geoffrey Ward, narrated by Peter Coyote

A 10-part, 18-hour film series directed by veteran documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War contains footage, photographs, interviews and tape recordings whose cumulative impact is immensely powerful. It evokes in the viewer a sense of horror. The film provides evidence that the war resulted in more than 3 million dead, the vast majority of them Vietnamese civilians slaughtered by American bombs, artillery shells, napalm and other weaponry.

The documentary is a major project, which was undertaken with vast corporate sponsorship. The involvement of Ken Burns, and its broadcast on Public Television, endows the documentary with a semi-official character. It reflects, in objective terms, where a significant section of official American liberal "public opinion" stands in relation to the Vietnam War more than 40 years after its end. Based on this documentary, one is compelled to conclude that this layer of opinion makers has never come to grips with the reality of Vietnam, that is still lying to the world and to itself, and attempting to relativize and justify policies and actions that rank among the most criminal in the 20th century.

By rights, the war should have been followed by the American equivalent of the Nuremberg Tribunal, at which all those responsible for planning and supervising the US intervention would have been publicly indicted for their crimes, prosecuted and sent to prison. That never happened, and American public life -- and American culture more broadly -- have suffered ever since from this colossal moral failure.

What followed the war, instead of such a fundamental examination of how such crimes came to be committed, was a persistent attempt to salvage something from the catastrophe, to disguise its criminal character, to legitimize it, and to gradually erode what came to be known as the "Vietnam syndrome" -- the pervasive and entirely justified distrust and resistance of the American people toward new foreign military interventions.

One of the major techniques employed by the US ruling elite to overcome the legacy of Vietnam was to hide behind the soldiers, the two and a half million Americans who fought in the war, many of them unwilling draftees. Appeals for sympathy for the veterans were employed, in a sort of moral blackmail, to cover up the central issue of the criminality of the enterprise in which those soldiers were ordered to take part. Anyone who rejects the claim that the Vietnam War was merely a "mistake" and demands a more penetrating and critical approach is smeared as denying the suffering and sacrifice of the soldiers.

The Vietnam War, broadcast over PBS over 10 nights out of 12 (September 17-28), and now being rebroadcast one night a week, is an example of this technique, although it is done with relative subtlety, and avoids the heavy-handed approach first voiced by President Ronald Reagan (who pronounced the war a "noble failure") and now regularly employed to block critical analysis of the ongoing US wars of intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, etc.

Moral "equivalency" of the invaders and the invaded

The fatal contradiction of the Burns and Novick program is that they show crime after crime -- mass slaughters, breaches of international law, government lying, cover-ups of war crimes -- but these exposures are embedded in an overall narrative which asserts the essential moral equivalency of US imperialism and the Vietnamese resistance. Both sides are shown engaging in ruthless military operations, massacres, assassinations, targeting of innocents, as well as gross misjudgments and systematic lying.

The film does interview Vietnamese who played significant roles in the war, both in the National Liberation Front (NLF or "Viet Cong") and in the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). It humanizes the "enemy" in a way that has not been done previously in American television. But this does not alter the basic framework of equivalency, in which the American soldiers are presented as victims of the war, and the bulk of the interviews are conducted with American veterans who discuss the impact of the war on themselves and the comrades they lost in battle.

It is true that American soldiers suffered greatly during the war, and deserve sympathy. But that does not justify the American invasion of Vietnam, any more than the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers justified the slaveholders' rebellion in the American Civil War, or the suffering of German soldiers on the Eastern Front in World War II justified Nazism.

The American soldiers suffered in Vietnam because the United States invaded that country in order to block its reunification under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. No Vietnamese were killed invading the United States. No American cities or towns were bombed, no American farms were burned, no American civilians died because of the actions of the NLF or NVA.

The Burns and Novick film examines the war through the lens of 79 eyewitnesses, the majority of them Americans, most of these soldiers who fought in Vietnam. They discuss their experiences of the war and their return to the United States, when some became activists against the war, and they reflect on the impact of the war on their lives. Almost without exception, the rank-and-file soldiers interviewed appear serious, thoughtful, regretful and fundamentally humane.

But the intense focus on the experience of a comparative handful of individual soldiers has damaging consequences. Their personal experiences cannot serve as a substitute for historical and political analysis of the war or provide a politically coherent narrative. Instead, the very attractiveness and decency of the former soldiers is used to buttress a narrative that essentially exonerates the US government of deliberate criminality and mass murder.

The film footage of the era is selected and edited with the skill we have come to expect from Burns and Novick, with one additional feature: they make use of the contemporaneous tape-recordings of White House telephone conversations and internal discussions, which show the cynical double-dealing of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, in a very powerful way.

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Patrick Martin writes for the World Socialist Website (, a forum for socialist ideas & analysis & published by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI).
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