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.

Scant details regarding this critical element of Vietnam’s past were given. During the first half of Episode 1, when referring to the French treatment of the Vietnamese the series’ narrator Peter Coyote said: “The Vietnamese didn’t take well to the French. Just like they had fought against the Chinese.” And, at the end of Episode 1, a former member of the CIA employee, Donald Gregg, explained: “We should have seen it as the end of the colonial era in SE Asia, which it really was. But instead, we saw it in Cold War terms. We saw it as a defeat for the free world, that was related to the rise of China. It was a total misreading of a pivotal event which cost us very dearly.”

Ho Chi Minh was a communist and played the party line with China and Russia because he depended on them for arms. But his ideology was not that of Stalin or Mao, but only of achieving independence for Vietnam. As Ho said to an American journalist before the US become involved in the war: “Do not be blinded by this issue of Communism.” Unfortunately, we were.

It’s not until Episode 8 that we hear this point bluntly put forward by North Vietnamese Army survivor and author Bao Ninh: “The Americans thought we were followers of Marx. No, you were wrong. We fought for this country so that there would be no more bombing, no more war. There would be no more death, no more destruction.”

Second, the series fails to dig into the remnants of the Vietnam war. The film tracks what happened after the US was forcibly pushed out in 1975, and the conflicts that followed between Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. But there is no mentioned of the long-term effects of our chemical warfare program and how hundreds-of-thousands of Vietnamese, to this day, are born with birth defects. The fact that landmines remain hidden in farmland and the countryside is mentioned, but that’s it. The same for the thousands of half-American children who were left behind after our troops left.

More generally, the series is weak in taking account of the Vietnamese people who lived with the war year in and year out. Whether civilian or military, there was no rest and relaxation (R&R) for Vietnam. They didn’t go on 13-month tours. Their tours were unto death or being spared death. It might seem an obvious point to many, but think about it for a moment and the implications are profound and remote from anything experienced by the US. One might describe the Vietnamese experience as hell on steroids.

In her October 10th article in KQED “Definitive for Americans: A Refugee’s Review of The Vietnam War” Beth Nguyen, a Vietnamese American refugee, writes: “The message is clear: the Americans think of the war as their experience; the history of Vietnam on its own doesn’t matter. To me, it feels like the same erasure or diminishment of the Vietnamese experience that we have always seen.”

As much as Burns and Novick may have wanted to tell the story of the Vietnam war, they couldn’t free themselves from their bias. I suppose nobody can. This was most pronounced in the segment about the Vietnam War memorial in Episode 10. The memorial serves as a fitting monument for comrades, family, and friends, of those individuals who didn’t return home from the war. But when it becomes a national lightning rod for self-pity I begin to feel nauseous.

It remains me of the startling insights gained after WWII when US personnel, under the direction of Eisenhower, questioned German military and German civilians. Many felt they were the victims of the war; they were denied expansion by the Poles and felt the British were jealous of their accomplishments. Thus their invasion of Poland and bombing of London were justified. Young SS soldiers complained in testimony at Nuremberg of having their uniformed dirtied and splattered with blood because they had to step into shallow graves to put a bullet through the head of another fallen Jew. Many Germans never came to grips with their crimes. It took a generation of concerted re-education to undo the propaganda that convinced the Germans of their superiority. Eventually, they learned there is no Übermensch.

Whatever pity we feel should be shared equally with our fellow human beings in Vietnam. If the sharing of pity doesn’t come naturally, then we should force it out of ourselves in words and actions. The Vietnamese did nothing to us, yet we invaded their country, destroyed large portions of it, poisoned the farmlands of their ancestors, and participated in the killing of over 3 million Vietnamese – sixty times our losses. Shamelessly, many Americas still shrug this off as “collateral damage” and what’s to be expected in war. For them, the fact we were the aggressor doesn’t make this any different. To individuals who believe this, I say we are no better than the German SS.

If we believe in the idea of America, then we shouldn’t be afraid to admit to our colossal error in Vietnam. We should express our regret, even offer compensation, and work to make for a better tomorrow, for all. Anything less is un-American. We should heed the words of Vietnam Marine veteran John Musgrave, who said in Episode 10 that he broke down and wept uncontrollably when he first visited the Vietnam Memorial and then thought: “this will save lives, this will save lives.” For Musgrave, I believe it was no longer just a memorial to our fallen soldiers, but a message to future generations: learn from your mistakes, America. Have we? Or are we the new Übermensch?

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