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Watching Notes: Episode 9

May 1970 - March 1973

2.00 Marlantes leaving the terminal and getting abuse. “Why are you doing this?” The answer to this question is obvious, (though Marlantes, who served in the unpopulated jungles, may not have witnessed US treatment of civilians up close). People were horrified by the murderous behaviour of US troops in Vietnam. Marlantes’ bewilderment only makes sense because Burns has never shown us a peace protester articulating that view. This begins a pattern of showing peace protesters in a bad light which continues till the end of the series. On any rational analysis the peace protesters have been right on both a practical and a moral level but Burns consistently denigrates them from now on.


9.00 Spiro Agnew debates students. The small section we see is enormously unhelpful. All we get is Agnew pretending to believe that Eva Jefferson’s explanation of why some students turned to violence was her justification of violence. We do not hear any of the students at this debate explaining why they are against the war.


13.00 Interview with ARVN officer. Only now US troops have largely left does Burns pay attention to the ARVN.


20.40 Drugs. As mentioned in the overview Burns doesn’t mention that the CIA were bringing much of this heroin into Vietnam or that senior figures in the government the US was fighting for were profiting from this drug trade and using the ARVN to distribute heroin.


21.00 This devastating report by the retired officer (Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr) is worth reading in its entirety. The picture it paints of racial strife within the US military is far bleaker than that depicted by Burns. He writes at length too about the extent to which American troops are simply refusing to fight at all. One of the more shocking details is a reference to a Viet Cong statement that they have instructed their forces not to attack US units which do not molest them


21.50 “The rear guard of a once 500,000 army is numbly extricating itself from a nightmare war the armed forces feel they had foisted on them by bright civilians who are now back on campus writing books about the folly of it all.” Nonsense, as we saw earlier. The US Generals had been eager to commit to a land war. But it is nonsense that Burns for some reason choses to include without challenge. (It is in fact a quote from the report written by the retired officer referred to earlier.)


Then on to Calley

24.15 79% of Americans disagreed with the verdict. Burns doesn’t interview anyone who took that view.

Here is an amazing contemporary song in support of Calley.



26.30 Yet more on the suffering of Hal Kushner..


28.30 Torture of prisoners to make statements against the war. Where is the focus on torture by the US and South Vietnamese?


32.32 Kerry testifying. This is the low point of the film. This is the point at which Burns’ inability to face up to what actually happened is laid bare.

Kerry, “And so in 30 years when our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm or a face and small boys ask why, we will be able to say “Vietnam” and not mean a filthy obscene memory but mean instead the place where America finally turned, and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.”

John Musgrave who was there is blown away. “ I thought I have never heard such an incredible speech that says exactly what I am feeling. It was extraordinary. Extraordinary.”

Then the voice over says. “But some veterans remembered a different part of Kerry’s testimony.” But nothing Musgrave has said suggests he is talking only about that particular part of the speech, Musgrave, a veteran, who was actually there, can only be understood to be endorsing the entire speech. What the voice over is trying to do is get round the fact that Musgrave, who we know and like, has endorsed a speech in which Kerry was up front about the scale of atrocities which Burns is so keen to deny.

The voice over continues, “Testimony in which he repeated accounts of atrocities he had heard from other American veterans.” Then we cut to Kerry repeating these stories. Then we go to Phil Gioia (US Army) denying that this conduct was widespread. Phil is also very upset at the suggestion that the army turned young men into racist killers.

This is a shameful abdication of responsibility. You have Kerry, and others, saying there were widespread atrocities. You have Gioia saying there weren’t. The scale of atrocities committed by US troops is a fundamental issue of the US involvement in Vietnam, the subject that Burns has chosen to make a very long film about. And only one side can be right. Either there were widespread atrocities or there weren’t. But Burns doesn’t dare go there, he just leaves us with two conflicting points of view, making no effort to weigh up the evidence. And of course that is what he has to do because, as discussed in the overview, the evidence for widespread atrocities is overwhelming and there is no way Burns is going to complete his mission of bringing Americans back together if he tells them this uncomfortable truth.


And there is another serious omission here. Burns says that Kerry had heard these stories of atrocities from other soldiers but he doesn’t mention where he heard them. He heard them at the Winter Soldier Investigation, as mentioned before, a three day event in early 1971 organised by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, at which over 100 veterans gave accounts of war crimes they had taken part in or witnessed. It seems extraordinary that Burns should not report this event.

47.20 Of Ellsberg's motives Burns says, "He had come to see the war as profoundly immoral and hoped that if Americans understood how administration after administration had misled them about what was being done in their name they might help bring it to an end."

Ellsberg's motives were rather more specific than that. What prompted him to leak these documents was information from inside the administration that, for all his talk of peace, Nixon in fact intended to resolve the situation in Vietnam by a massive extension of bombing.


1.00. The voice over tells us the US had gone to war in Vietnam in part “to block Chinese expansionism.” This is just Cold War nonsense. China had shown no sign of moving into Vietnam.


1.03.30 Kushner says “I mean, I'm sophisticated to know, and I knew then, that bad things happen in war and they happen on both sides, and I had seen the evidence of the other side too, also. And I knew it. And... but still, to hear the testimony and to hear it used as a weapon against our further prosecution of this war that we were suffering for was very powerful indeed.” This sounds like an honest account of the impression this episode made at the time. The question which goes unasked is what does Kushner think about it now.


1.20 The famous photo of civilians burned by napalm. The photo is an obvious hook to hang a story on but it is worth noting that Burns never covers civilian suffering inflicted by Americans in such detail.


1.27.10 Jane Fonda visits North Vietnam. It seems mean-spirited to cover her visit to North Vietnam without also mentioning her role in organising and appearing in the FTA tour, an anti-war show which toured the Far East in 1971 playing to 60,000 grateful American servicemen. (FTA was taken from the Army recruiting slogan, “Fun Travel Adventure” recast as “Fuck/Free The Army”)


The trailer for "FTA", a film about the show

1.35.10 The North Vietnamese Paris delegation had to go home. They had problems because they had ignored the two major demands of the Viet Cong, removal of Thieu and release of their 30,000 prisoners. Because Burns has ignored the significance of the Viet Cong, the fact that they could disrupt proceedings in this way will come as a surprise to Burns’ audience.

On the question of Hanoi's insistence of a cease fire in place it is worth remembering that in 1954 they had agreed to withdraw their forces north of the DMZ pending an election, and they were not going to get burned the same way twice.


1.42.35 Despite Burns' uncritical adoption of the phrase, it is worth comparing Nixon’s declaration of "peace with honour" with the assessment of South Vietnamese politicians. Vice President Ky described the phrase “peace with honour” as “a sanctimonious passage which I could not stomach, so nauseating was its hypocrisy and self-delusion.”

Interesting from a different point of view was the opinion of US Admiral Zumwalt. “There are at least two words no one can use to characterise the outcome of that two-faced policy. One is “peace”. The other is “honour”.” Zumwalt’s disdain for these terms derived from his understanding that, contrary to every statement he had made to the American people, Nixon did not for a moment expect the terms to result in peace, and for that reason had ignored MACV’s concerns that procedures for monitoring the cease fire were inadequate. He expected the North to violate the agreement and proposed to respond with massive bombing, bombing he believed, rightly or wrongly, the American people would support if it was presented as enforcement of a peace deal.

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