OPINION | Burns’ film on ‘The Vietnam War’: A great lie


As the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War came to a close at the end of the 10th episode, over 18 hours, anti-war protestors with greying hair must be celebrating since the film thoroughly vindicated their arguments – a manipulation many of us predicted before the opening of the first episode.

Great lies have an element of truth, and while Burns tells a great story in film, that does not make his stories true.

The documentary misleads viewers from the beginning with two false premises, first that Ho Chi Minh and his North Vietnamese were nationalists dedicated to reunify North and South Vietnam.

In fact, the North was determined to impose Communist rule by force on South Vietnam. We were there to stop the spread of Communism in southeast Asia. The difference is vast.

America’s part in the war was certainly not immoral or misguided as Burns portrayed, and the war was not unwinnable from the get-go, the second false premise the film pushed repeatedly from different angles.

Americans were depicted as dubious, confused, incompetent and fully expecting to fail, while our enemy was presented as united, energetic, enthusiastic, pitching together as a well-oiled machine, fueled apparently by the virtue of their mission.

The irony is comical, even if lost on most viewers who won’t notice the film used old Communist propaganda footage to depict happy North Vietnamese working eagerly as a team.

Statistics on enemy desertion during the war would put the lie to the film’s selective virtue and villain, but that would require viewers to think instead of being swept along by feelings. The dry truth – though it does not make good film – is America’s purpose was not a war of conquest at all, but to block the invading Communists and defend South Vietnam against their attacks. That meant finding and killing the invading enemy whenever their concealed positions were revealed.

Our soldiers’ lament that they fought hard to take a hill, took heavy losses, then abandoned the hill, leaves an appearance of the absurd on the surface. But among combat vets — who know more than couch critics — it should raise questions far different than a feeling we should have stayed to defend the top of that hill in the middle of nowhere.

Maybe the tactic of ordering an attack on a dug-in enemy holding the high ground advantage was a lousy command decision, a poor way to spend American lives, but the flip side is America was not in a real estate war. Securing every patch of ground we took away from the enemy by force would have required millions more troops and would have made little sense, but I understand the sense of futility. We were in a different kind of fight, to stop an invading enemy by attacking and killing them wherever their positions were revealed.

Like naive children, the film crew shows horrific scenes from Vietnam, disturbing to any viewer with a shred of humanity. Burns and Novick should know better. As I tell students, during the Vietnam War we had three TV channels, ABC, CBS and NBC, and news came on one hour a day, at dinner time, delivering scenes from Vietnam of blood-spattered wounded and dead, enemy and allies, adults and children. And so, to the viewing public back then, just as to the Burns film crew now, the Vietnam War seemed like a foul and nasty business in which Americans should not be involved.

What the children don’t realize is every war is an ugly, foul, unfair, unforgiving killing contest full of chaos, imperfection and collateral damage. It has always been so. If you want to find glory in war, the only place you will find it is in a Hollywood movie.

Burns might be surprised to know that Gen. Eisenhower in WWII, the good war, openly wept as he walked through a European battlefield, requiring great care to avoid stepping on body parts. War is a bitch, like a different planet, and reporting in WWII was heavily censored to prevent panic at home.

This might be a good place to pause to tell you a few lessons America should have learned from the war, but did not.

Lesson 1: Don’t get involved in a war unless committed to the overwhelming force to win.

Lesson 2: Combat should not be viewed through the lens of home life, because it is a different world, with unfamiliar values and mores requiring tough standards and lethal measures.

The public at home knows nothing about life in that world and has no business watching idiotic talking heads on TV and second-guessing from the comfort and safety of their living room. We should stay out of wars until we can’t, and when forced to fight we should squash our enemy like a bug then tell the public about it when the awful task is done.

That is why — if I were king — we would apply Lesson 3: Journalists in a war zone could write anything they wish, but no photos and no videos until after the war is done. Citizens with sufficient brains and motivation could read and be informed, but the masses would have to wait until after the conflict closed to have their feelings manipulated by powerful images.

Next time: Part 2 of “Documentary on the Vietnam War: A great lie.”

[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. Readers may reach him at tlg.opinion@gmail.com.]