Subject: PBS Vietnam specialI’ve received a lot of enthusiastic reports from those that watched Ken Burns’ treatment of Vietnam. To a person, they thought it was an informative, interesting, and well done series. To a person, not one of them had been there. I won’t watch it because there has never been—and may never be—an accurate representation of the war because that history was contaminated by the news media of that day and today. The real history is in our memories, and all of our experiences were different from each other and uniformly different from anything reported about that war. That may have been the first time that the news media discovered that they could change history through their reporting, making it the death of integrity in journalism. We reap those benefits today, but they’ve been going on for decades now. I learned those lessons long ago as I was interviewed for various stories by various media, not just in the U.S., and I was always a bit shocked to see the twisted version that was printed or aired. For some time, I gave them the benefit of the doubt—they’re just ignorant. Now, I believe it is a combination of immoral, intentional deception and stupendous laziness. For years now, I’ve used the term “Journalism Major” as a curse word.Here is a column written by someone who was in Vietnam and also viewed the Ken Burns “special”—the “special” that will become the latest version of “history” for all those too lazy to think for themselves:
Documentary on the Vietnam War: A Great Lie
by Terry Garlock
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 getgo, 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 naïve 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.
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 naïve 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. US 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 2nd 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 naïve 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 lives in Peachtree City, GA. His columns, written when the mood moves him, run in The Citizen, a local Fayette County GA paper, because they publish his columns the way he writes them, unlike major papers like the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which edits, composes their own desired title and limits word length. Readers may reach Terry at email@example.com
Monday, October 30, 2017
A VIew about the BURNS Vietnam Series
Thanks to Jim Chryst.