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Watching Notes: Episode 5

July 1967 - Dec 1967

1.00 “This is war, this is what we do.” You would have expected the interviewer to ask what exactly they are doing that Harris found initially uncomfortable. I assume that Burns doesn’t go there because he doesn’t want to deal with the idea of American troops regularly behaving badly.


4.20 “Pacification was not working.” This is an odd statement because we have heard more or less nothing about pacification. Don Luce and John Sommer set out some of the reasons for the failure of US pacification efforts in their book Unheard Voices. The failure of most US personnel to learn Vietnamese was a major problem. Another serious issue was the high turnover of staff. And those who wanted to extend tours sometimes found it difficult because of a fear they would come to put Vietnamese interests above American interests.

But pacification was not intended to be a purely American exercise. Fundamental to the whole effort in Vietnam was building a political structure sufficiently responsive to the needs of the people that they would abandon their support for the Viet Cong. All Burns has to say on that score is “[The] government remained unpopular and riddled with corruption.” Given how fundamental to the struggle this unpopularity was you might expect the issue to be explored in more detail.


20.35 “We did not torture prisoners.” Musgrave may be telling the truth in relation to his own experience but his denial is all we hear about the subject when the truth was torture of prisoners by US forces was commonplace. Here’s an account from a soldier giving evidence at the Winter Soldier Investigation (see episode 9.)


    • BEITZEL. Well, as far as torturing the prisoners, this happened as...I've seen a major there during torturing of prisoners. We also had electrical field phones in our battalion base camp in the headquarters TOC Room that's what they call the headquarters. There was torture going on in there so I'm as sure...I'm sure everyone from battalion commander on down knew of it; so I can presume from this, it was policy.

    • Or this.





36.30 Burns talks of hundreds then thousands of NV regulars joining tens of thousands of VC. The VC numbered in the (low) hundreds of thousands. To understate their size by an order of magnitude is extraordinary, but in keeping with Burns’ desire to underplay the extent to which the US was at war with the rural population of South Vietnam.


43.20 An archive interview with someone who witnessed atrocities.

It seems to me significant that two of the rare occasions when Burns uses archive interviews rather than filming them himself relate to US atrocities. (The other is about My Lai.) Nick Turse had no difficulty finding tens of US soldiers willing to talk about what they had seen, or even done, so it is hard to see this choice as anything other than a desire to put this issue at a distance.


45.15 Burns explains that people had been removed from their land to a refugee camp, but some had headed back, “to resume the farming they had always done.” Burns omits the dreadful conditions in refugee camps which were a factor in people’ returning to their homes even in free fire zones. 

He then goes on to detail the atrocities committed by Tiger Force followed by someone saying that, awful though this was, it was not the norm. As discussed in the overview, this sort of behaviour was much closer to the norm than this film suggests.


49.30 Large-scale peace demonstration. But no one from the peace movement gets to explain why they opposed the war.

56.30 Death of First Sergeant Pascal Poolaw.

Native American service in Vietnam is treated as something noble. But not everyone saw it that way. Another Native American veteran recalled,

"We went into their country and killed them and took land that wasn't ours. Just like what the whites did to us. I help load up ville and ville and pack it off to a resettlement area. Just like they moved us to the Rez. We shouldn't have done that. Browns against browns. That screwed me up you know."

Another said,

"We went into a ville after an air strike. The first body I saw in Nam was a little kid. He was burned up - napalm - and his arms were kind of curled up. He was on his back but his arms were curled, but sticking up in the air, stiff. Made me sick. It turned me around. See, in our way we're not supposed to kill women and children in battle. The old people say that it's bad medicine and killing women and children doesn't prove that you're brave. It's just the opposite."

57.45 Jefferson Airplane is obviously meant to introduce Musgrave's thoughts on hippies but the first words we hear them sing, "When the truth is found to be lies", would serve equally well as a judgement on the patriotic militarism of the previous segment.

58.30 Ambush “Don’t make us go in there sir.” This is powerful stuff but we only see US combat from the point of view of the junior ranks. There must be battalion commanders still alive who could talk about the pressures they were under and the orders they gave, but going there would show a darker, or at least less creditable, side of the US war which Burns wants to avoid. The Company commander says “I want their bodies. Bring me their bodies.” As John Musgrave says, “Everything is about body count.” And in pursuit of body count the commander committed Musgrave and his comrades to battle on the enemy’s terms.


1.05.50 McCain is beaten for not expressing sufficient gratitude for his treatment. All part of the story, but where is Burns’ interest in the beatings and torture handed out by the US and their allies? By way of comparison, as part of the CIA mind-control investigations, MK Ultra, three VC prisoners were anesthetised, their skulls cut open and electrodes implanted in their brains. They were then each given a knife and locked in a room together for two weeks while CIA staff tried to use the electrodes to induce them to attack each other. For two weeks these attempts failed so the prisoners were executed by Green Berets and their bodies burned.


1.17.05 “To take hills covered in triple canopy jungle on the Laotian border accomplished nothing of any importance.” These battles are part of the story but, as noted in the overview, what Burns does not cover is the fighting in the populated countryside.

1.20 "MACV released a new and surprisingly low estimate of enemy forces to show how much damage the United States had done to them. It was only two-thirds of the total suggested by the CIA, because, after a bitter and prolonged debate behind the scenes, Westmoreland had chosen to exclude from it the part-time guerrillas... farmers, old men, women, even children...who helped place the mines, grenades, and booby traps that accounted for more than a third of all American casualties." (However, emphaisising the dishonesty of the process, when one of these local militia was killed they continuted to be counted against the enemy's order of battle.)

The CIA had long been arguing that that the army had been seriously underestimating enemy strength. Analyst Sam Adams wondered, given that the US claimed to be killing 150,000 VC a year and 100,000 had deserted, out of an estimated strenght of 280,000, "who the hell we're fighting out there." During operation Cedar Falls the army captured VC records of their own strength and Westmoreland returned from addressing Congress to learn that his intelligence officers now took the same view as the CIA. It was in this context, having given Congress such an upbeat assessment, that Westmoreland set out to manipulate the figures. His head of intelligence General McChristian now argued that the enemy could sustain the level of losses the US was infliciting indefinitely and was removed. As Tet approached numbers of NVA soldiers coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail rose from about 8,000 a month to 25,000 a month but this increase was never reported to Washington or widely shared within the US intelligence community. Washington was kept in the dark about the revised view of VC strength because Westmoreland ordered his people to argue for a lower number and Jesse Helms, the head of the CIA,eventually ordered his people to go along with Westmoreland's numbers because the alternative was politically so damaging.

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