One of the most hyped "events" of American television, The Vietnam War, has started on the PBS network. The directors are Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Acclaimed for his documentaries on the Civil War, the Great Depression and the history of jazz, Burns says of his Vietnam films, "They will inspire our country to begin to talk and think about the Vietnam war in an entirely new way."
In a society often bereft of historical memory and in thrall to the propaganda of its "exceptionalism," Burns' "entirely new" Vietnam war is presented as "epic, historic work." Its lavish advertising campaign promotes its biggest backer, Bank of America, which in 1971 was burned down by students in Santa Barbara, California, as a symbol of the hated war in Vietnam.
Burns says he is grateful to "the entire Bank of America family" which "has long supported our country's veterans." Bank of America was a corporate prop to an invasion that killed perhaps as many as four million Vietnamese and ravaged and poisoned a once bountiful land. More than 58,000 American soldiers were killed, and around the same number are estimated to have taken their own lives.
I watched the first episode in New York. It leaves you in no doubt of its intentions right from the start. The narrator says the war "was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings."
The dishonesty of this statement is not surprising. The cynical fabrication of "false flags" that led to the invasion of Vietnam is a matter of record -- the Gulf of Tonkin "incident" in 1964, which Burns promotes as true, was just one. The lies litter a multitude of official documents, notably the Pentagon Papers, which the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg released in 1971.
There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous. For me -- as it must be for many Americans -- it is difficult to watch the film's jumble of "red peril" maps, unexplained interviewees, ineptly cut archive and maudlin American battlefield sequences.
In the series' press release in Britain -- the BBC will show it -- there is no mention of Vietnamese dead, only Americans. "We are all searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy," Novick is quoted as saying. How very post-modern.
All this will be familiar to those who have observed how the American media and popular culture behemoth has revised and served up the great crime of the second half of the twentieth century: from The Green Berets and The Deer Hunter to Rambo and, in so doing, has legitimized subsequent wars of aggression. The revisionism never stops and the blood never dries. The invader is pitied and purged of guilt, while "searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy." Cue Bob Dylan: "Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?"
I thought about the "decency" and "good faith" when recalling my own first experiences as a young reporter in Vietnam: watching hypnotically as the skin fell off Napalmed peasant children like old parchment, and the ladders of bombs that left trees petrified and festooned with human flesh. General William Westmoreland, the American commander, referred to people as "termites."
In the early 1970s, I went to Quang Ngai province, where in the village of My Lai, between 347 and 500 men, women and infants were murdered by American troops (Burns prefers "killings"). At the time, this was presented as an aberration: an "American tragedy" (Newsweek ). In this one province, it was estimated that 50,000 people had been slaughtered during the era of American "free fire zones." Mass homicide. This was not news.
To the north, in Quang Tri province, more bombs were dropped than in all of Germany during the Second World War. Since 1975, unexploded ordnance has caused more than 40,000 deaths in mostly "South Vietnam," the country America claimed to "save" and, with France, conceived as a singularly imperial ruse.
The "meaning" of the Vietnam war is no different from the meaning of the genocidal campaign against the Native Americans, the colonial massacres in the Philippines, the atomic bombings of Japan, the levelling of every city in North Korea. The aim was described by Colonel Edward Lansdale, the famous CIA man on whom Graham Greene based his central character in The Quiet American.
Quoting Robert Taber's The War of the Flea, Lansdale said, "There is only one means of defeating an insurgent people who will not surrender, and that is extermination. There is only one way to control a territory that harbors resistance, and that is to turn it into a desert."
Nothing has changed. When Donald Trump addressed the United Nations on 19 September -- a body established to spare humanity the "scourge of war" -- he declared he was "ready, willing and able" to "totally destroy" North Korea and its 25 million people. His audience gasped, but Trump's language was not unusual.
His rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, had boasted she was prepared to "totally obliterate" Iran, a nation of more than 80 million people. This is the American Way; only the euphemisms are missing now.
Returning to the US, I am struck by the silence and the absence of an opposition -- on the streets, in journalism and the arts, as if dissent once tolerated in the "mainstream" has regressed to a dissidence: a metaphoric underground.
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