To give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam
Ken Burn’s 10 part documentary The Vietnam War has replaced The Jinx as the must see documentary of the moment. If both are very different shows then they are linked in the need to portray central characters as duplicitous and complex psychopaths. Robert Durst is the charismatic baddie of the Jinx and General Westmoreland and President Nixon the brilliantly incompetent baddies of The Vietnam War.
Ken Burns has interviewed several participants from different sides of the Vietnam War. This includes North Vietnamese soldiers, Viet Cong, South Vietnamese soldiers and citizens, and US soldiers and citizens. A small and well chosen group of characters, they stand in for the great swathes of people either side of the Pacific affected by the war. These talking heads discuss both their experiences and their developments. Sometimes disconcertingly the interviewee will discuss a painful experience and then the narrator will continue. All this has a novelistic effect, reminiscent, perhaps, of John Dos Passos’ techniques in the USA Trilogy. One of the great powers of this documentary is that you become emotionally invested in all of the narrators, even those with whom you may not agree.
A vocation of agony
The early episodes show a growing hostility towards General Westmoreland. In many ways this is justified. General Westmoreland was behind several poorly judged strategic operations including the large growth in US ground troops. He also misjudged army intelligence which pointed to a growing offensive during the Tet holiday of 1968.
However one of the great tragedies of the Vietnam War was that it lacked real leadership from the onset. Presidents bungled into war by accident. The greatest incompetent in high office of all time may have been JFK, a gun ho and drug addled inexperienced politician. In his short reign, he had messed up foreign interventions in Cuba, Congo and Vietnam. He largely wavered on domestic issues until expediency forced him to take action. His legacy to LBJ was Vietnam.
In many ways, the great US domestic tragedy of the war was the loss of momentum to the Civil Rights movement. The growing cost of the war shot down LBJ’s Great Society programmes aimed at eliminating poverty and racial inequality.
The current American situation is testimony to this failure of American will to fulfil the promises of their revolution. Promises that stand for all the world.
“A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” Martin Luther King Jr
If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.”
The documentary shows this painful experience from various angles but it is domesticated. The riots across American cities, the fragging of subalterns and the heightened political animosity around the war are portrayed as growing pains. It is true that lessons have been learnt. The military are more careful about how journalists report on their movements, for one thing; but wars – waged by force or guile – have continued since Vietnam. BO’s secretive drone warfare is one example. The documentary does not discuss the Khmer Rogue, but to some degree Daesh are today’s Khmer Rogue. Both inspired by a warped ideology but also by the bitter experience of a war waged on them by a technologically superior nation.
At the core of American involvement in South East Asia was a miscalculation. If US presidents had been willing to work with communist governments, they may have contained Chinese power which was ultimately their aim. The documentary portrays Vietnam as behind major domestic policies (which it was) but domestic politics fed into Vietnam. McCarthyism was the great driving force of particular foreign actions right into the early seventies.
The show seems unwilling to criticise US presidents for political blunders. That is until we come to Nixon. After 1968, the angle changes. General Westmoreland was removed from office and Nixon was elected to the presidency. There’s a brief flurry of RFK (would he really have been any different to his brother?). Nixon was in many ways mentally unstable and a paranoid, who manipulated events for his own power. He also left a damning trove of recordings, which will save his byzantine manoeuvrings for posterity. He was probably not the first president to act in such ways.
Nixon is the perfect villain because of the complexity of his character. Yet even within the sphere of South East Asia, his actions were complicated. He spread the war to Cambodia, even whilst his presidency was the first to reopen relations with China. We may see here the influence of Henry Kissinger’s grasp of foreign relations. Kissinger reinterpreted the focus of American actions in South east Asia. In this documantary, however Kissinger is presented as just as complicit as Nixon in continuing the war merely for political gain. This seems a valid interpretation and one that needs retelling.
It would be simple to say that in war no-one wins, but the real tragedy of this war was ithat it was continued to keep politicians in power. The series is a powerful exploration of America’s involvement in Vietnam, the impact that this had on the country and people of Vietnam and of the US. It is also a testimony to both the Vietnam and American people. Ultimately it reminds us all of the responsibilities needed of living in a democracy. One hopes this is on one of the current President’s TV screens.