Watching Notes: Episode 4

January '66 - June '67

4.20 The voice-over talks about Hanoi escalating the war and recruiting more and more people from the alienated countryside. Given that Hanoi was responding to the deployment of US ground troops it’s not obvious that it was Hanoi that was escalating the war. And South Vietnamese were not being “recruited by Hanoi”, so much as joining the same indigenous resistance that Hanoi was supplying. But Burns consistently tries to frame the conflict as one between the US and Hanoi not, principally, between the US and the rural population of South Vietnam.

 

4.50, Talks of the US trying to put together an international coalition to defend SFV but only 5 other countries ever sent troops. Despite his claim to be covering the war from every perspective, Burns does not give any of these 5 countries a single second of his 17 hour film. Nor does he mention that the US was paying for the soldiers from Thailand, South Korea and The Philippines.

 

10.00 Johnson urged reform on the Vietnamese leaders in order to win over the population of South Vietnam. What is never addressed is why, if Johnson was so keen on pacification, he left in command of the US war a General who had no interest in the subject and instead fought as near as possible a conventional war, across the countryside in which these people lived, with precious regard for their crops, houses or lives.

Almost immediately, at 13.55 Burns talks about how the VC controlled 3/4 of country but Westmoreland wanted to destroy regular NVA units and pursued this approach for several years. Burns does not comment on Washington’s failure to object to Westmoreland’s approach. Because no American above the rank of company commander is interviewed we never get the perspective of anyone overseeing the US campaign.

 

22.40 Search and destroy. I look at this section of the film in detail in the overview.

“Another major failure of the film is that it underplays the sheer scale of destructive violence deployed by the United States armed forces in populated areas. During episode 4 the issue is acknowledged. Leslie Gelb from the Pentagon says a great power will tend to use its massive fire power, drop large numbers of bombs and fire a lot of artillery in order to reduce its own casualties and increase the enemy’s. Then we get a description of the first large search and destroy mission in Binh Dinh. The commentary reports how artillery and aircraft “blew the hamlets to bits”, how the operation created over 100,000 refugees, how there were 17 more of these operations in 1966 alone which, together with bombing campaigns, resulted in 3,000,000 refugees. The names of a handful of these operations are flashed up on the screen as the programme goes on to the related issue of body count. The whole segment, including the information that commanders on the ground believed that NVA troops present had largely escaped (no assessment is given of the fate of local Viet Cong forces) lasts just over 4 minutes. We hear in detail about two further actions in this episode, both in unpopulated areas. We hear nothing about the events that drove so many more civilians from their homes. And at no point in the entire film do we hear from the refugees themselves.”

 

This is Michael Herr on Search and Destroy in “Dispatches.” “…it should have been named the other way around, pick through the pieces and see if you could work together a count, the sponsor wasn’t buying any dead civilians.”

 

What Burns also fails to explain is that the original plan was that, in the wake of these US operations, the ARVN and the South Vietnamese government were supposed to reassert control of these areas, thereby permanently denying the VC support. The failure of the South Vietnamese forces to do so led to the US policy of driving the rural population off the land and into refugee camps by the creation of free fire zones, harassment and interdiction fire etc.

 

Stuart Herrington, Army adviser “The overall myth of an American army running roughshod by policy, by strategy, by tactics to terrorise and murder and victimise the innocent population of S V, that image is the … it doesn't do justice to the young men and women who served over there, it's certainly not an accurate depiction of what our army was about.” As discussed in the overview, this statement is far too kind on the American forces. However, the people who would challenge it, the rural population of South Vietnam, or American peace campaigners, are never interviewed.

 

32.55 Burns talks about how Lt Col Henry Merson, “known as the gunfighter” was “courageous, implacable, relentless.” His offer of a case of whiskey for the first person to bring him the hacked-off head of an enemy, and the fact that one of his soldiers did just that, is recounted in a way which suggests that this behaviour is admirable, rather than a war crime.

 

42 A rare Viet Cong interviewee.

 

44.50 Duong Van Mai Elliot interviews a VC prisoner. In the book, but not the film she is recorded saying “He had more integrity than anyone I had met in Saigon in a long time.”

 

49.05 Herrington again. “Then after all these good works the VC turn up at night and kill the headman and conscript kids. People say the government promised to protect us.”

There is no doubt that the VC did use violence to secure control but it was the fact that there was so much more to VC authority than terror which made the war unwinnable and Burns never looks at that aspect of the conflict. If this was a complete account of how the VC behaved they would not have had the level of popular support they did. But again, the villagers Herrington claims to speak for are never interviewed.

 

57.30 “They haven’t yet learned to live as a nation.” This line is from a newsreel but its inclusion implies endorsement of the opinion.

58.00 “The country for which so many Americans were risking their lives again seemed on the brink of collapse.”

58.45 Talk of South Vietnamese troops abandoning the struggle against the communists. This is a loaded, not to say pejorative way of describing soldiers taking a view that they don’t want to shoot anymore of their countrymen, most of whom are not communists, just opponents of the corrupt US imposed government.

The whole tone here is that the noble, mature Americans are doing the heavy lifting while the inadequate South Vietnamese are fooling around, overlooking the fact that there were very good reasons why the people of South Vietnam might not want to lay down their lives for the corrupt, unrepresentative institutions the Americans had imposed. The existence of a powerful Buddhist political movement, which, by channelling the widespread popular demand for representative government and negotiated settlement, had done much to shape the internal politics of South Vietnam over the previous years, gets one sentence.

The book is actually good on this uprising. The focus of the revolt was Major General Thi, a Buddhist, popular with the troops he led, who wanted a democratic government in the South. His arrest by Ky, with the approval of the US ambassador Cabot Lodge, resulted in demonstrations which many of his soldiers joined. Ky promised elections but when he went back on this promise, and announced his intention to stay in power for longer, massive demonstrations, with a strong anti-American flavour, broke out again. Some in Johnson’s administration thought this would be an ideal opportunity to leave, but Johnson decided against it. Ky had the loyalty of most of the ARVN commanders and, with US logistical assistance, and the Marines blocking reinforcements going to Thi’s aid, the rebellion was suppressed.

However, in the film Burns makes no reference to US support. To do so would undermine the neat contrast, drawn I assume from Capote’s A Rumour of War, between dutiful hardworking Americans fighting the VC and South Vietnamese more intent on internal strife.

 

There is another aspect of this episode which Burns glosses over in the film. Ky initially promised elections within a year and on that basis persuaded the rebels to lay down their weapons, This promise was understood to be guaranteed by the Americans so when Ky went back on his promise and sent his own troops in US prestige took a heavy blow. Many of the rebels now fled to join the VC. Some were arrested and remained in prison for another 9 years. Daniel Ellsberg says that it was the crushing of this revolt which ended his belief in the war.

 

1.17.40 Tales of torture at the Hanoi Hilton. This is awful, and an important part of the story, but Burns only once, very late in the series, gives us a similar account of torture by South Vietnamese forces and never has the courage to report the widespread torture carried out by US forces.

 

1.30.20 Dr Spock is shown saying he opposes the war because it is destroying the good name of the US and is unwinnable. Quite how Spock thinks it is damaging America’s good name Burns carefully avoids telling us.

Dr Spock and others were famously (though it is not covered in Burns’ film) tried for conspiring to “counsel aid and abet resistance to the draft” by circulating a document the full text of which can be found here.

Perhaps the most crucial paragraphs read,

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    • “The combat role of the United States troops in Vietnam violates the Geneva Accords of 1954 which our government pledged to support but has since subverted. The destruction of rice, crops and livestock; the burning and bulldozing of entire villages consisting exclusively of civilian structures; the interning of civilian non-combatants in concentration camps; the summary executions of civilians in captured villages who could not produce satisfactory evidence of their loyalties or did not wish to be removed to concentration camps; the slaughter of peasants who dared to stand up in their fields and shake their fists at American helicopters; --these are all actions of the kind which the United States and the other victorious powers of World War II declared to be crimes against humanity for which individuals were to be held personally responsible even when acting under the orders of their governments and for which Germans were sentenced at Nuremberg to long prison terms and death.

    • The prohibition of such acts as war crimes was incorporated in treaty law by the Geneva Conventions of 1949, ratified by the United States. These are commitments to other countries and to Mankind, and they would claim our allegiance even if Congress should declare war.”

 

But Burns never tells us that an awareness of atrocities fuelled the peace movement, let alone that a figure this prominent compared US conduct to that of the Nazis. Nor does he mention that Dr Spock was initially sentenced to 2 years in jail, though this was ovrtuned on appeal.

1.31.40 Simiarly he shows us a few of the very general opening sentences of Martin Luther King's famous Riverside speech in which he came out against the Vietnam war rather than the brutally specific paragraphs quoted at the end of the Overview, paragraphs which, like Dr Spock's comments, specifically compare the conduct of the US with that of the Nazis.

1.40  Burns quotes McNamara as sayng, "the picture of the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring
1,000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny, backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits
are hotly disputed is not a pretty one." This is almost all we hear of the phenomenal scale of civilian casualties inflicted by the US. It speaks volumes about Burns' underlying outlook that we get plenty of extended, graphic accounts of US soldiers being wounded but not one wounded Vietnamese civilian gets to recount their experience.