The Football Game known as Vietnam: A critique of “The Truth about the Vietnam War” – a PragerU video by Bruce Herschensohn

It’s 1972. Coach “Bulldog” Dick Nixon is marching his team steadily toward the end zone. A few more yards and the game is won. Victory is ours! Hoping to fake the Vietnamese defense, Nixon calls for a quarterback sneak. Everything is set. The snap is delivered. But wait! The quarterback freezes. What?!  Oh no, it’s just then that Nixon realizes his QB is a limp-wristed Democrat. Holy Hell! Rather than leaping into and over the defensive line, the QB appears to have retreated from it. A moment later he is blindsided by a linebacker half his size who strips him of the ball and runs 98-yards for a Vietnamese touchdown! Time has run out. The game is lost. And, the Democrats are to blame. 

Some say there’s a link between America’s love affair with football and war.  Others don’t seem to see a difference. Such is the perspective of former Nixon speechwriter Bruce Herschensohn in his PragerU video “The Truth about the Vietnam War.” A more fitting title would be “What we Wished was the Truth about Vietnam” or “The Fairytale that was Vietnam.”

Mr. Herschensohn is a skilled writer and orator. Much like Dick Cheney. You listen to him and – absent the facts or a desire to get to them – you believe what you hear. Articulate and bespectacled it’s hard to imagine Herschensohn not espousing the truth. Guys like this just don’t lie. Besides his conclusion plays to a common narrative: we lost in Vietnam because of limp-wristed Democrats – those weak-minded individuals who prefer life over death. What more needs to be said?

In under 5 minutes Herschensohn explains everything he thinks you need to know about the Vietnam War.  For those serious about learning (some) facts about Vietnam, his pitch is followed by a 5-question multiple choice quiz. Nice tidbits of information for promoting the lore of America, regardless of how incomplete. I don’t mind bias; it’s human nature. It’s not so much that Herschensohn misinforms it’s what he leaves out that is most worthy of criticism.

Reading the text of Herschensohn’s video helps to strip away the man and lets his words stand on their own. Very quickly those words crumble under the weight of history. Here are six specifics to back-up my claim.

1. In his opening sentence Herschensohn says: “Decades back, in late 1972, South Vietnam and the United States were winning the Vietnam War decisively by every conceivable measure.”

By “every conceivable measure” I presume Herschensohn is referring to the metrics created by Defense Secretary McNamara and used by General Westmoreland and his successor General Abrams. Both men famously reported that they could “see the light at the end of the tunnel.” Then it was realized that tunnels in Vietnam were like the ground above – unpredictable and dark. Measured by bombs dropped, land controlled, and enemies killed, our measures showed that we were winning the war. The only problem was that one key variable was missing: the sentiment of the Vietnamese people and the determination of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

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The Vietnam War: A film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick – Are we the new Übermensch?

The Vietnam WarI applaud Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for their epic work and for rebooting the discussion about this tragic chapter in world history. For a film made in America, it’s likely as balanced an interpretation of the Vietnam war as we’ll see in a hundred years.

The many interviews with surviving combatants – North and South Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and American – as well as journalists, government experts, and historians, was moving. But, I think the series fell short in two areas.

First, it failed to dispel the oft-cited belief that the US’s entry into Vietnam was necessary to stop the spread of communism. Without a doubt this view was widely espoused as fact by our government and considered true by the vast majority of Americans at the time of the Vietnam war and, for those entrenched in past dogma, remains true today.

I saw this error coming when I read the title for Episode 1: Déjà vu (1858-1961). It was important that the film went back to the start of French colonialism, but here it also failed in a very significant way to inform the viewer of Vietnam’s long history of conflict with China. A 10-minute segment in Episode 1 could have explained the centuries of friction between Vietnam and China that predated the French. Focusing the spotlight on this aspect of Vietnam’s history brings out a vital point missed in our assessment of the war: Vietnam was no more interested in being occupied by China than by France, Japan, or the United States. Communism for the Vietnamese, and Ho Chi Minh in particular, was a means to an end, a road to independence. Little more.

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Another version of the American version of another American war

Last week I watched the preview of Ken Burns’s upcoming documentary, The Vietnam War, scheduled to start Sunday, September 17 on PBS.

While there were some moving segments in the preview, I was left feeling that the Burns documentary may turn out to be yet another version of the American version of another American war.  Excuse my wordiness but read on and you’ll get my point.

It is perhaps unfair to judge a 10-part 18-hour documentary based on a 23-minute preview, but in it I see symptoms of what I would describe as a kind of knee-jerk sentimentality that makes war an acceptable and often glorified, part of American culture.

Burns The Vietnam War

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are self-proclaimed storytellers, and very good at it. But that’s where the problem starts: with the notion that war is yet another “story” – a term they often use in the preview. It’s from this perspective that war begins to take on romantic appeal; something that young people without parenting, a cause, direction, or education will cling to when all else fails.

Exposing the clouded lens through which his documentary is made Burns says: “Wars are so extraordinarily revealing. Obviously, the worst of humanity, but as it turns out also the best of humanity.”  Really?

I would argue that using the phrase “the best of humanity” in the context of war is delusional. It is yet more storytelling about how people react in a time of horror when adrenalin is coursing through their veins. The same happens during a car wreck, a plane crash, or a terrorist attack. We don’t glorify these tragic events, so why do we glorify war?

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July 4th Postmortem: A Declaration of Equality

Discussing the war in Vietnam will never be an easy subject.

Unlike World War I that started with the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand, and World War II that started with Germany’s invasion of Poland, the events that led to our war in Vietnam remain a source of controversy. Unraveling these events into a cohesive storyline will likely never happen.

Adding to this problem is a general indifference to history – including our own – and a preference for trite explanations and sound bites that conform to the country’s predominantly patriotic narrative.

Events like July 4 give us an opportunity to put all this aside and to recall what we do know.

First, our founding fathers were extraordinary humans whose thoughts, words, and actions have transcended the ages. We may veer off course, but we have the bedrock of the Declaration of Independence, and its Preamble, to set us right again.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Second, in the heat of fighting communism, much like today’s “war on terror,” the Preamble is considered restricted to Americans only, and not “all men,” as it reads.

Should we take the Declaration of Independence literally, and choose to honor the men who signed it, we are compelled to think of the enemy as equal to our own. It’s not an easy notion to accept, but we must if we are to remain true to the idea of America.

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Memorial Day 2017 – A day of remembrance for all

For me, Memorial Day is not a day of celebration, flag-waving, and parades. It’s a day of mourning. A day to remember all who died as a result of war – American, Enemy, Civilian. All fellow human beings whose lives ended too soon. All denied the chance to live another day; few with a say in the events that led to their demise.

Memorial Day reminds me more of our weaknesses than our strengths. The cries of life irrevocably lost is silenced by the rhetoric of those in power who use Memorial Day for building political capital, and war for creating personal wealth. They are easy to recognize – never in the middle of the action but far removed from it. Like schoolboys playing with toy soldiers, they find joy in a horror they know nothing of.

Ignore the demagogues. Instead, listen to those who know war firsthand…

What a cruel thing war is… to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors.” Robert E. Lee – Confederate General (2nd in his class at West Point)

I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” Dwight D. Eisenhower – Five Star General and 34th President

War is wretched beyond description, and only a fool or a fraud could sentimentalize its cruel reality.” John McCain – Senator and Vietnam POW

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Chemical Warfare: A Lasting Impression

Anh Dung (means heroism, strength)Of all the monuments, memorials, and mementos left from the Vietnam War nothing is more lasting than the effects of Operation Trail Dust.

Trail Dust, Mule Train, and Ranch Hand were the catchy names given the US Government to programs to defoliate Vietnam for purposes of “food denial” and to clear “key routes.”

It was determined that “crop destruction” wouldn’t go down well politically, so the term “food denial” was used instead in the National Security Action Memorandum signed by President Kennedy on November 30, 1961.

We didn’t want to starve anybody, just deny them food.

Agents Pink, Green, Purple, and Orange provided another façade to the poisonous array of chemicals that would be showered upon the Vietnamese, to set them free. The real name for these toxins, phenoxy herbicides, was considerably less appealing and hard for the well-bred member of the Kennedy Administration, their successors, or the public, to digest.

Color coding made the use of 2,4-D (dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) 2,4,5-T (trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and the combination of the two into Agent Orange, palatable. This not only served to deflect public awareness of our use of chemical warfare in Vietnam, but it also made it easier for the Administration’s perpetrators to rationalize, thus distancing themselves from the insanity of their actions.

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“Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, Viet Cong are gonna win!”

When President Lyndon Johnson heard angry protesters bellowing this chant outside the White House in 1968, he reckoned it a conspiracy. Surely, he thought, somebody had paid for this show of support for the enemy.

Ho Chi MinhThe man who was determined to help “little nations” and protect them from “tyranny and aggression,” should have spent more time studying the history of Vietnam, and its northern leader Ho Chi Minh, than preoccupying himself with the motives of protestors outside the white house gates.

Being driven more by political instinct at home than a desire to understand the enemy he was confronting abroad, Johnson errored in the extreme. When Martin Luther King criticized “Western arrogance” as having “everything to teach others and nothing to learn,” he was describing Johnson, and his team of the so-called “best and brightest.”

Vietnam was a country long before the US entered it, and long before the French arrived in 1858. However, US historical accounts, particularly regarding the war, are weak with respect to Vietnam’s far-reaching past.

Why does this matter?

First, as a fundamental principle of military engagement, it’s crucial to know your enemy. We didn’t. Instead, we assumed our powerful military would win the day. As Johnson said: “America wins the wars that she undertakes.” This may have been true prior to the 1950’s when America exercised equal measures of brains and brawn. But, with the military build-up that followed WWII, the US resembled Goliath. Massive, powerful, and so confident that it failed to imagine the game plan of an opponent who played by a different set of rules.

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