[Editor’s note: Last week in Part 1, Terry Garlock began an examination of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War.”]
There certainly were villains in the Vietnam War, but a bit different than the film portrays. The chief villains were Communist invaders intent on conquest, feeding to naive anti-war types like Burns and his predecessors the cover story of being nationalists, like a Vietnamese version of George Washington’s patriots.
Without Communist aggression there would have been no war. Ho Chi Minh’s mission of conquest made America’s stand to defend South Vietnam a noble cause, even though our own villains screwed it up badly as we fought to stop the Commies.
The Communists were the chief villains also for systematically committing countless atrocities against non-combatants, ignored by the US media. Sig Bloom lives in Jonesboro, Ga. As a helicopter pilot he flew a news crew to a place near the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Cambodian incursion in 1970; they said they were eager to see the atrocity he vaguely mentioned.
When they arrived, they saw American medics treating Cambodians in leg irons, starved to skin and bones on the brink of death, having been slaves to the North Vietnamese humping ammo on the trail. The reporters were not interested since it was not an American atrocity, so Sig took off, leaving them behind to fend for themselves.
LBJ and McNamara, among others, were breathtakingly stupid in how they micromanaged the war with insane rules that withheld overwhelming force and prevented victory, fully to blame for prolonging the war as it ate American – and Asian – casualties.
U.S. generals polished their next star instead of resigning in protest about how the stupidity from the White House was spending American lives as if they were cheap. The American anti-war movement gave aid and comfort to an enemy engaged in killing America’s sons.
The news media twisted the truth, like showing their outrage at the execution in the streets of Saigon during Tet of 1968, but never seeming to care he had just been caught murdering a Saigon police officer, his wife and 6 children.
After so much focus on that one execution, the media seemed uninterested in the Communists’ execution of thousands of civilians in one battle: doctors, nurses, teachers, business owners, government officials and other “enemies of the people,” hidden in mass graves in the battle of Hue in 1968.
The media also didn’t raise too much fuss about genocide next door in Cambodia, I suppose because America had finally disentangled from Vietnam, a goal far more important to the media than truthful reporting. Can you say “hypocrisy”?
But Burns, squinting ever so tightly to keep his eye on the anti-war narrative, wouldn’t know that. Here’s something else he does not know, and can never truly appreciate.
Like every other war, as we came home from combat we had no idea how much we had been changed. We didn’t know it would be hard to re-connect, even with those we loved, or the isolation many of us would learn to feel from a public that was and remains oblivious to the brutalities of life we had learned.
Every one of us who were in combat carries with us memories hidden in our secret box deep down inside. When bad things happened, like a buddy whose guts were suddenly scattered in the bushes when a booby trap detonated and he screamed for his mom while he died, or a fellow helicopter pilot who burned alive in the wreckage of his crashed aircraft, a soldier pushed that anguish down deep into his secret box and closed the lid tight so he could go on to do what he must do.
For the rest of his life, he carries his secret box deep inside, and no matter how many years pass, when he opens his box the heartbreak he felt at the time is still there, fresh as yesterday when unwrapped.
When asked about things that only we know are hidden away deep inside, some of us will open our box to answer; many won’t, because they can’t find the right words, they know others will never understand, and they don’t want to cry in front of people, as often happens when we raise the lid to our box.
Congress cut off funding to South Vietnam in 1974, breaking the promise America made to our allies – our friends — when we withdrew in 1973, and Congress refused to intervene when North Vietnam took South Vietnam by force in 1975, thereby violating America’s pledge to come to their aid if the Communists violated their pledge not to attack.
It broke our heart that America did not keep its word, and that our country abandoned our friends to a horrible fate of executions, re-education camps, being driven from their homes and jobs, and becoming permanent second-class citizens in their own country, living under the thumb of Communist control.
In this matter of honor, we were better than that, our country was better than that, so we still carry that heartbreak and shame in our secret box.
Now comes the Ken Burns film story, as if told by naive children, mixing a wrapper of reality around half-truths, distortions, and carefully selected interviewees that feed his leftist narrative that the North Vietnamese were the good guys, justifiably committed to their cause while America bumbled and stumbled in a well-intended but completely misguided horrible mistake.
Those of us who answered our country’s call to do our duty in a tough place like Vietnam had to become accustomed to the overt and covert insults from fellow citizens who organized their protests and convinced themselves we had done dishonorable things when, in fact, we were doing the hardest things we have ever done while serving a purpose larger than ourselves. Not even Ken Burns and his masterful film skills can take from us pride in our service.
Since the public doesn’t have the knowledge to recognize the film’s omissions and distortions, viewers will be swept along by powerful scenes, mood music and interviewees they won’t know were cherry-picked for the war’s turning them into tormented victims.
For hordes of viewers who have no idea they are being fed the big lie, the Burns film will become the standard by which the Vietnam War will be judged. Most viewers won’t know and won’t see in the film that the vast majority of us who fought in Vietnam are still proud of our service and would do it again, and they won’t know their trust in Burns’ film is one more disappointment we will cram into our box and close the lid tight.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. Readers may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]