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Watching Notes: Episode 8

April 1969 - May 1970

1.55 “Who sometimes spat at the medical personnel who tried to save their limbs or their lives.” 

For an honest account of how US medical personnel generally treated Vietnamese wounded go to


Here’s a sample



    • “MODERATOR. Anybody else want to comment on it? Dave, what about you? What have you seen happen with prisoners?

    • FORTIN. Basically, in regard to this, a lot of various instances. But I can relate one specifically to you. A prisoner would be brought into triage, which is where they get their basic medical treatment before they go on to their specific needs like operations which had to be performed directly by a doctor. Well, in triage, a prisoner would be interrogated. They'd come down with ITT, which is Intelligence Translations people, and they'd try to get information from the prisoners. If the prisoner wouldn't give information out to the questions they asked, they'd use various ways of torture. They'd poke at his wounds. I've seen them stand a prisoner up who had a stomach wound; his shoulder was torn up. They generally harassed the prisoner until they could get information out of him. I don't even think he could speak. He was in pretty bad shape. They took him to an operating room and in the operating room he wasn't treated by a doctor, such as Americans were. I know sterile conditions were less than normal in this case. Rather than having a doctor who would work on an American, they'd have Corpsmen who were practicing or getting experience from working on the prisoners, treat them. He was in pretty bad shape. They had very little regard, whatsoever, for the concern of him once they got him out of the operating room. Their attitude was like, okay, we got to do it so we're going to do it, you know,. But, like, who cares whether he lives or dies. It's just something that has to be done. There was one doctor present. Other than that, the Corpsmen did all the major work. They set bones, very sloppily. If you set a bone sloppily, it's going to come out crooked. They don't care. You've heard all this through the testimony. You're dehumanized and yellow people are not even human. You have no regard for them, so you don't care what happens to them. And the prisoners more so than anyone else.”

    • Or this. "You could have an American come in in an expectant category and there was no way that he was going to make it. And the doctors would oftentimes treat him before they would treat an ARVN soldier or NLF soldier, or whatever, in a lower category who had a really good chance of making it if he was taken care of.”


This account is even more disturbing.




Michael Herr records this exchange in Saigon. "I heard a doctor bragging that he refused to allow wounded Vietnamese into his ward. "But Jesus Christ," I said. "Didn't you take the Hippocratic Oath?" But he was ready for me. "Yeah," he said. "I took it in America."

8.30 Yet more on Hal Kushner’s suffering.


Of Nixon’s public campaign about US prisoners the voice over says “It also provided a rebuke to those in the anti-war movement who seemed more sympathetic to North Vietnamese civilians who had been bombed than they were to US airmen who had been shot down doing that bombing.” I’m not sure the sympathies of those in the anti-war movement are as unreasonable as the film suggests.


11.30 Saigon holds 200,000 South Vietnamese civilians, many without trail. What Burns choses not to mention is the frequency of torture and the appalling conditions prisoners were often kept in, often in prisons build by US contractors  He now gives the testimony of one communist who was severely tortured by the South Vietnamese authorities but makes no attempt draw any general conclusions about the nature of the South Vietnamese regime. Here is an account by Don Luce, previously country director for IVS, see episode 2, but now a journalist, of the famous visit to the dreadful tiger cages by US congressmen in 1970. Only in the book does Burns say that during the years the US of support for South Vietnam some 20,000 people died in these cages.


25.50 Mid '69, 90,000 ARVN soldiers had been killed in combat. “Their bravery was often over looked by Americans” 

Burns seems completely oblivious to the irony of quoting someone else talking about overlooking the ARVN when Burns has done exactly that himself from the moment the US troops landed at Danang.


32.10 Burns acknowledges racism but, as per the overview, underplays it. VTH reports there were “black areas of town and white areas of town" and you were very wary of stepping in to the part where you did not belong. In Achilles in Vietnam Dr Jonathan Shay reports a number of veterans as saying, "There were two wars going on - one out in the boonies against the V.C., and another in the rear between blacks and whites. I felt safer in the boonies."

40.00 Fragging. Burns says the army investigaed "nearly 800 cases." and that most took place "far from the fighting." As ever, Burns understates an embarassing issue,confining himself to official records of grenade attacks only. Richard Gabriel, who served twenty two years in the US army reports 'at least 1,013 documented killings of superiors or attempted killings." i.e. a wider catergory than merely fragging, but still limited to documented cases. The scope for shooting unpopular, over-combative officers during a fire fight is obvious. In Acts of War Richard Holmes estimates that 20% of American officers who died in Vietnam were killed by their own men.


48.35 Anti war organisers and the response. Throughout the whole ten minute sequence, we hear nothing about the reasons why people opposed the war, though we do hear Spiro Agnew denigrating the peace protesters.


59.00 A woman threatens to blow peace campaigner’s heads off with a magnum. This is the only occasion when we hear from people like this, supporters of the war or of Calley, or of the killing of students at Kent State, in a contemporary interview. 


1.00.30 More than 70% of Qnang Nai villages had been shelled by US Navy ships, bombed, bulldozed or burned and more than 40% of its people had been forced into refugee camps. Finally, in episode 8, he talks, very briefly, about the true nature of the war the Americans were fighting. But only for a couple of sentences before spending a minute or two listening to Tim O'Brien talking about how awful it was to be there as an American soldier.


1.07.52 My Lai

As mentioned in the overview Burns introduces the subject by talking about the losses the unit had suffered rather than the murders they had already committed.


1.11.13 Interview with a soldier who took part in the massacre. Burns relies on archive footage for these people. The interviewer asks the former soldier how he and his comrades could have done this and he says he doesn’t know. And Burns just leaves it there. You would have thought this was an issue worth pursuing.


And of course there are no interviews with Vietnamese survivors even though a PBS documentary about the massacre, shown in 2015, included numbers of such interviewees. PBS probably still had their phone numbers.

Here’s one from YouTube.














1.13.00 Burns’ one attempt to grapple with the widespread nature of atrocities. “The killing of civilians has happened in every war. In Vietnam it was not policy or routine. But it was not an aberration either.” 

But the claim that killing civilians was not policy is then directly, and quite rightly, contradicted by Neil Sheehan. “It was different because they were killing Vietnamese point blank with rifles and grenades. They were murdering them directly. They weren't doing it with bombs and artillery all the time. If they’d done it with bombs and artillery no one would have said a word because it was going on all the time.”

This is quite extraordinary. You have editorial comment on a fundamental issue, killing civilians was not policy or routine, directly contradicted, immediately afterwards, by a Pulitzer winning journalist who knows the territory backwards. The only way I can make sense of this is that Burns is so completely in denial about the scale of killing that he just doesn’t see the contradiction.

It’s worth noting that staff at a nearby Canadian hospital learned of the massacre shortly after it took place but didn’t make an issue of it because it was typical of what they were seeing. This clip gives another example of how routine such behaviour was. The most chilling line is, "I didn't even remember that."





1.14.15. The helicopter pilot reported the massacre but no one acted. The PBS documentary about the massacre reports that afterwards the pilot was repeatedly sent on dangerous missions, leading him to suspect that the authorities hoped he would die.


1.16.30 A previously seen hero says, "we had people who committed war crimes in the Marines and I wished I had killed them and I didn’t". We are offered no details of what these crimes might have been. Burns doesn’t want to go there. And the fact that this one veteran knew several people who had committed war crimes is a further indication that these crimes were widespread.


1.25.20 Jack Todd says a major reason for not going was an evening spent with a friend who had returned from Vietnam who showed him some ghastly pictures. Only in the book does Burns include Todd’s account of the pictures, particularly dead eyed US soldiers wearing necklaces of ears.

1.27.20 Jack Todd sees the war as “immoral” but we get no explanation of why.

Burns interviews O’Brien who talked about fleeing to Canada, and Todd, who did, but no one who took the arguably more principled course of going to jail rather than serve. 5,000 Americans went to jail rather than serve in Vietnam but in all his coverage of the peace movement Burns doesn't mention them once, let alone interview one.


1.28.45 30,000 Canadians volunteered to fight in Vietnam. Burns doesn’t interview one. It’s all about the Americans.

01:35:45 Invasion of Cambodia "The previous month, Prince Norodom Sihanouk had been overthrown in a coup." It seems incredible that Burns does not mention that the coup was orchestrated by the CIA or that one of the justifications for the US invasion was to offer support to the new government, now under attack by communist forces. One of the consequences of the overthrow of Sihanouk was the mass slaughter of ethnic Vietnamese settled in Cambodia by agents of the new government and others. The CIA were involved in drawing up the death lists.


1.29.20 More on the sufferings of Hal Kushner.


1.42 In one national poll 58% of the population thought the killing of students at Kent State were justified. Burns doesn’t interview anyone who took this view. Ohio State Governor James Rhodes had previously vowed "to eradicate" peace protestors, which may or may not have influenced the attitude of the National Guard.


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