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Watching Notes: Episode 7

June 1968 - May1969

As per the overview, note the length of time spent on the delights of small town America. O’Brien says “The war was less than righteous”. He describes joining up as “doing a bad and stupid and unpatriotic thing.” But the question of why going to serve was the wrong thing to do is never addressed.


4.20 Demos all over the world. Again no one is asked why they oppose the war.


6.45 We see a poster saying “War Criminals are Un-American” but Burns never gives a peace campaigner the opportunity to spell out that a major reason for opposing the war was an awareness of the atrocities which were being committed.


8.44 LBJ had said no Dien Bien Phu at Khe Sahn. So enormous effort was put in to breaking the siege. A week later it was abandoned. This is stunning evidence of the futility of Westmoreland’s approach to the war but what the film never gives us is any sort of strategic overview. This absence is particularly striking when Burns reports the appointment of Abrams as MACV commander.


9.40 “Many soldiers would believe for the rest of their lives that if Abrams had taken command sooner the outcome could have been different” (illustrated by some jungle being blown up). Given that for many Americans the single most significant fact about the Vietnam war is that America lost you would have expected this statement to be followed up in some way; perhaps an interview with a soldier who held this view, explaining the basis for it, or further commentary detailing how Abrams’ approach differed and what impact that difference might have been expected to have. But there is nothing. Given that the US has apparently won a great victory you would have thought that the appointment of a superior commander, combined with the apparent effectiveness of the Phoenix Program, would have led to something like victory. In fact Abrams worked hard to integrate military operations with the pacification program but Burns is ill equipped to address this change of focus because he has said so little about pacification under Westmoreland. Given US failures in Iraq and Afghanistan you would have thought this was an area worth paying far more attention to.

The book is a bit more enlightening on this subject. Abrams apparently also attempted to rein in excessive use of firepower but met significant resistance from some of his commanders, including Ewell, of Speedy Express fame, who apparently ate an entire pencil while listening to the new strategy.


18.45 Okamoto talks about the courage of his men under fire, which is a bit odd because he has just told us they all refused to man the machine guns on the APCs so he had to do it.


23.15 Most NVA draftees were poor and rural, “especially susceptible to the slogans and promises of the revolution”. These are though the people who may well have benefited from land reforms in which case it would be material benefits rather than slogans and promises that inspired them. Indeed, despite the fact that the justification for this war was saving South Vietnam from coming under the control of the communist North, Burns tells us nothing about life in the North beyond a reference to the land reforms. And note that while Burns is willing to disparage the motives of the NVA he has nothing to say about morale or motivation in the ARVN.


26.30 Democratic convention.

The peace movement were confident that the necessary permits would eventually be granted. Dispalying more prescience, and indeed more common sense, than the Chicago authorities, Abbie Hoffman said, "The possibility of violence will be greatly reduced [if permits were issued]. There is no guarantee it will be entirely eliminated. This is the United States, in 1968, remember. If you are afraid of violence you shouldn't have crossed the border."

Burns doesn’t look at the reasons for these demonstrations, or give the demonstrators a voice.


29.00 Cronkite calls it a Police State. Credit to Burns for including such a bleak assessment. A fact which supports this view, but which Burns does not mention, is that groups of Chigaco police removed their ID and violently attacked journalists.

37.30 Official investigation calls it a police riot but 57% of people approved of the way the police behaved. It would have been really interesting to hear from someone who believed what the police did was correct but, as mentioned in the overview, Burns is unwilling to interview this section of the population.


38.05 Michael Holmes' tape of trashing dykes in a jocular fashion..

41.40 “We burn down hooches which is a bad idea." This seems to me to parallel Burns’ use of archive interviews about atrocities. By using the testimony of a dead man he keeps the darker side of things at one remove.


44 Phoenix programme.

I deal with the Phoenix programme in the overview. “The way the film addresses the Phoenix programme is positively sinister. The film is refreshingly frank about what the Phoenix programme was: the systematic extra-judicial arrest, often torture and often execution of suspected Viet Cong. It acknowledges that the programme was created by the CIA, although it implies that because the day to day killing was done by South Vietnamese forces US responsibility was somehow limited. And it concedes that many of the more than 20,000 people killed had nothing to do with the Viet Cong. But while the film is happy to pass moral judgements on the brutality of the land reforms in North Vietnam and of Viet Cong conduct generally, the torture and extra-judicial killing of 20,000 plus people, many of whom had no connection with the anti-government forces, is passed over without any judgement. Likewise, one of the American soldiers who worked on the project, Vincent Okamoto, says, “it was scary because it was subject to abuse,” the abuse being the murder and torture of people who were not linked to the Viet Cong, rather than murder and torture per se. This section of the film finishes with the astonishing commentary, “And although the programme did succeed in degrading the Viet Cong infrastructure the government of Win Van Thieu remained as unpopular as ever.” The government has just murdered 20,000 plus of its own citizens, many of whom have done absolutely nothing wrong, and it’s not getting any more popular. No shit! In an interesting coda, the film, in its final minutes, records without comment that Vincent Okamoto is now a judge for the Superior Court of Los Angeles County.”


This comment is particularly disingenuous.
00:48:10 "Americans served in an advisory capacity; most of the day-to-day enforcement was left to the South Vietnamese Provincial Reconnaissance Units... the PRUs... who sometimes were more interested in settling old scores than in rooting out communists."

The PRU were trained by, paid by and directed by the CIA, who had recruited them in many cases from the prisons of South Vietnam. They were entirely outside the South Vietnamese chain of command. The crimes of the PRUs were the crimes of the CIA. From August 1968 killings were incentivised when Robert Komer, then reponsible for the program, imposed a nationwide quota of 1,800 "neutalizations" i.e. murders, a month.


1.00.00 O’Brien talking about not going to Canada. But plainly no one asked him directly, “Why did you think the war was wrong?” Or if they did a decision was made not to include the exchange.


1.02.00 Back to the woes of Hal Kushner.


1.08.20 From the overview. “In episode 7 [the subject of refugees] gets another full minute. The segment starts with archive newsreel whose commentary states that “The impact of war has disrupted the ancestral pattern of Vietnamese life.” The film’s own voice over records that by the end of the 1960’s almost half the rural population were now crowded into urban areas, that half these refugees had no permanent shelter and that thousands died of typhoid and cholera, that tens of thousands of girls “left their villages” to become bar girls and prostitutes. “The impact of war has disrupted”, girls “left their villages”. These neutral terms, avoiding any suggestion of attributable causation, are the editorial choices of film makers who, consciously or otherwise, are intent on downplaying the destructive impact of US actions and the fact that the US was consciously relying on driving people off the land to gain control of the countryside. Footage of the slums where, as a result of US policy, millions of Vietnamese were forced to live for years, appears on screen for 20 seconds. Not one of these millions ever gets to speak.

Burns’ attempt to characterise the government of South Vietnam is limited to 40 seconds. “The citizens of Saigon were far freer than the North Vietnamese” he tells us. And the evidence he gives is the large number of newspapers and people’s freedom to hold demonstrations “denouncing the rampant corruption and demanding religious freedom and better treatment for veterans.” If freedom to demand religious freedom is the best evidence of freedom you can come up with there is a problem. And John Pilger records that wheelchair bound veterans complaining about their treatment could find themselves on the receiving end of a beating. This is not the approach of a film maker genuinely interested in grappling with the nature of the regime the Americans were waging war to defend. Any honest attempt to assess the merits or the freedom of this regime would factor in the number of people held without trial, or murdered, for their political position. It would consider the honesty of elections, and the conduct of elected representatives. The papers Burns refers to used to publish the going rate for bribes of elected assembly members. But the truth about South Vietnamese governments is far uglier than Burns dares acknowledge because if he is honest about the nature of the successive South Vietnamese military dictators it’s harder to sustain the idea that American involvement was a “noble cause.”


1.11 “In the densely populated Mekong Delta the war in the country suddenly intensified.” The war didn’t spontaneously intensify. General Ewell intensified it, earning himself the the title ‘the butcher of the Delta” in doing so.

The problem here is not so much the coverage of Speedy Express, as the implication that this operation was a complete departure from standard procedures.


1.25.00 "It was a different army. We did terrible things." “It was very difficulty to keep the men under control, particularly if we had taken casualties going into a village. The veneer of civilisation is very thin.” “I’m not saying we didn't do some horrific things, but there’s a difference between being spontaneous and being premeditated.” What is telling here is that Burns doesn’t ask for details. He does not want to face up to what US soldiers actually did.


It wasn't just the army that was different. In his book The Phoenix Program Douglas Valentine quotes a CIA officer,

"When the so-called Vietnamization of the war began,  everyone knew that even though the Company would still be running CORDS, it was the begining of the end. The contract employees began getting laid off, especially those running operations in Laos. The others, mostly ex-Army types, knew their turn was coming so they began trying to make as much money as they could. Air America pilots doubled the amount of opium they carried. The Americans in CORDS, with the help of the PRU, began shaking down the Vietnamese, arresting them if they didn't pay protection money, even taking bribes to free suspects they had already arrested. Everyone went crazy for a buck."

1.41 Burns mentions that the New York Times eventually reported the illegal bombing of Cambodia. What he does not say is that when the Pentagon simply lied and denied the claim the media let the story drop.


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