This overview makes frequent reference to the book The Vietnam War written by Geoffrey C Ward and Ken Burns. It describes itself as “based on a documentary film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick”. “Based on” is a curious form of words because, although it follows the film very closely, and sometimes reproduces the voice over word for word, it includes significant additional information, often information that shows the United States in a worse light than the version of events given in the film, never information that shows the US in a better light than the film. To give just one example, the book is far more up front than the film about the scale of corruption in South Vietnam.
Worthy and unworthy victims
What this difference between book and film suggests is that Burns is aware that, compared to what he can put in the book, there is a limit to how much bad news he can give the audience of his film. Anyone who has read Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (and everybody should) and is familiar with its thesis(1) knows where this is going. Is this limit imposed by the fact that the film is sponsored by, amongst others, David Koch(2) and Bank of America(3)? Is the limit imposed by fear of how much grief PBS will get if they tell too many uncomfortable truths? Or is it imposed simply by what Burns thinks his target audience, in their current state of understanding, is willing to hear? I would guess it is a combination of all three. Certainly the juxtaposition of the book and the film feels at times like a worked example of the propaganda model.
But if Burns appears to be oblivious to most of Manufacturing Consent, including those sections which directly cover South East Asia, he seems to have used the book’s concept of worthy and unworthy victims as an instruction manual. Early chapters of Manufacturing Consent compare the treatment in the US press of the killing of tens of catholic nuns and priests by US proxies in Central America with the killing of one Catholic priest, Father Popieluszko, by police in communist Poland. The authors point out that over 80 dead Catholics in Central America, unworthy victims because they were killed by US proxies, get fewer column inches than the one Polish priest, a worthy victim because killed by a state opposed to the US. The links between the murderers and the state get a lot of attention in the Polish story but are glossed over in the reporting on Central America. A further distinction is that the injuries inflicted on the Polish priest are reported in detail whereas the rape of four American nuns (who were then murdered) is dealt with in a brief, matter of fact, manner.
In Burns’ film worthy victims are similarly victims of communist forces, unworthy victims are victims of the forces supported by the United States. In episode one, half a sentence covers the killings by the Diem regime of “hundreds”, (according to most sources thousands) of his opponents. Who they were and how they died we never hear. But a Viet Cong fighter is given half a minute to describe the admittedly grisly killing of a government official with machetes and how everyone was forbidden to attend his funeral on pain of death. The most blatant expression of this concept of worthy victims though comes with the uncovering of civilian victims massacred by communist forces at the siege of Hue during the Tet offensive. How do we know these are worthy victims? Because of the heavy, not to say seriously unsubtle, use of cello music. Using music to emphasise the tragic nature of these deaths is not wrong but why does no one on the other side get this treatment? The dead of My Lai don’t get this. Nor do any of Diem’s victims, or Thieu’s. Because, like the raped and murdered nuns in El Salvador, they were, directly or indirectly, victims of the United States.
The contrast between worthy and unworthy victims is also illustrated by the amount of attention paid to Dr Hal Kushner. We meet him early in episode 6 when his helicopter is shot down. The voice over emphasises his decision to serve in Vietnam by choice. Over sad piano music we hear about his daughter. And we hear about how lacerated his feet were as he was marched by his captors into the jungle. We hear of his suffering again in episode 7 with tragic piano music accompanying the information that 13 of his fellow prisoners died of hunger and disease. In episode 8 we hear from him briefly, before a longer piece about the mistreatment of captured US airmen. We hear about his troubles twice more, with the second of the appearances again introducing a segment about the torture of American airmen. Finally, at the end of episode 9 we get his tearful homecoming. Now all of this is part of the story of the war. But so is the experience of those taken prisoner by the Americans and by the various governments they supported. We see one communist agent, who suffered in the notorious tiger cages, for 40 seconds, but nothing from any of the tens of thousands of political prisoners. Their existence is acknowledged but nothing more. In 1968 and 1969 Red Cross investigators found evidence of abuse of prisoners at all 60 of the US administered detention sites it visited but none of the victims of this abuse gets a voice. And indeed the regular use of torture by US forces is never even acknowledged in the film.
(Other than the excerpt from Selling the Pentagon, all the video clips in this section come from the Winter Soldier Investigation, organised by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, held in Detroit in 1971.)
Who was the US really fighting?
A further fundamental weakness of the film is the way it consistently presents the war as being essentially between the US/South Vietnam on the one side and North Vietnam on the other. The voice over refers constantly to the role of North Vietnamese regulars and when we hear from anti-government fighters they are generally from the North. The extent to which the battle against the US was waged by the population of South Vietnam is consistently underplayed. Burns describes the battle of Ia Drang, or at least the first half in which, unlike the second half, the US troops were not completely outfought, as well as the determination of the undoubtedly North Vietnamese troops they were up against, at length. But the Pentagon assessment months later was that they faced 13,100 NVA soldiers in South Vietnam and 225,000 Viet Cong. Even after the heavy losses of the Tet offensive NVA troops were still significantly in the minority. In the first half of 1968 the US estimated that there were only 800 NVA troops in the Mekong Delta, compared with 49,000 Viet Cong. So why do we hear so much more from NVA rather than VC witnesses? The attraction of presenting the conflict in this manner is obvious. It obscures the fact that most resistance was indigenous South Vietnamese resistance driven by dislike of the brutality, injustice and corruption of the governments the US was supporting.
The focus on NVA forces rather than the Viet Cong makes it easier for Burns to overlook the scale of support the VC had. If he obscures the fact that hundred of thousands fought for the VC it becomes less obvious that he fails to address the question of why so many young men would want to do so. But the answers are not hard to find. In fact they are set out very clearly in Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An, a book described as “significant” in the Marine Corps Gazette and “A remarkably compassionate and honest book” by The Economist but unknown to or ignored by Ken Burns. (Long An is a province of South Vietnam). South Vietnam was traditionally a society dominated by wealthy landowners in which much of the population survived on rented land and loans from money lenders. Before the expulsion of the French, the Viet Minh had organised land reforms which had redistributed resources, but Diem had undone these reforms and reinstated the previous, exploitative arrangements. When the Viet Cong finally rose up against Diem in 1959 they again imposed changes beneficial to the less well off. They were careful only to take land from the richest strata in society so as to spread the benefits of their government as widely as possible. They didn’t necessarily prevent landlords renting out land but they limited rents to between 5 and 15% of the crops rather than the more usual 25% or the 50% which landlords sometimes charged, despite the fact this level was prohibited even under Diem’s rule. At least initially the Viet Cong did not prohibit loans by richer farmers to poorer peasants, they simply limited the rates of interest that could be charged. The film talks about the Viet Cong “extorting” taxes. They did indeed raise taxes, though in many areas they provided schools and hospitals, and, unlike the government’s taxes, theirs were progressive. And the behaviour of the Viet Cong was generally better than that of the ARVN. They did not steal, they did not molest women and they would even, at times, work in the fields. For the majority of the rural population, Viet Cong rule was therefore preferable to control by the central government. The film makes much of Viet Cong assassinations but Race makes the point that in the entire province of Long An they only had to kill 26 people to take control of the vast majority of the province. They were pushing at an open door. He quotes a hamlet chief explaining the failure of the strategic hamlet he lived in to undermine VC support and control.
"You want to know how the communists got into our strategic hamlet? All of us in the Combat Youth were poor people. We asked ourselves, why should we be carrying rifles and risking our lives when Xoai’s son doesn’t have to. His family is rich and has used it’s power to get him out of it. When the communists come in they never bother us - they go to the homes of those who got rich by taking from others. Are we so stupid as to protect them?"
But to acknowledge this side of the story would be to acknowledge that the United States intervened on behalf of an overbearing ruling elite. Rather than do that, Burns paints a materially incomplete and entirely negative picture of the Viet Cong. There is a reference to a peasant population “caught between predatory guerrillas and an almost equally demanding soldiery” which hardly reflects the balance of imposition. And there is a single sentence, nothing more, on how the Viet Cong ran a parallel government followed by an account of how the Viet Cong propagandised/won over the rural population. But this account comes, not from a member of the Viet Cong, nor from a peasant on the receiving end of this approach, but from Duong Van Lai, a member of the urban elite who wasn’t there. Because Burns doesn’t dare give the rural population a voice, because that would give the game away. In fairness, he reports the unpopularity of the Strategic Hamlets programme but puts it down to the fact that it did not “protect the population from the Viet Cong.” The reality, that for many people the Viet Cong provided welcome protection from the Diem’s oppressive, US backed government, is ignored.
Consistent with this approach is Burns' silence on the the widespread desire for negotiation and accommodation with the NFL/VC amongst the people, and sections of the political leadership of South Vietnam. Burns makes no reference to the fact that Diem’s brother Nhu approached the NLF shortly before the coup that unseated him and his brother, that General Minh, one of the leaders who replaced them, did the same and obtained a positive response before being removed in another US backed coup. In response to Minh’s overtures, the NLF had both reduced their level of attacks and indicated that reunification was not an immediate priority. A later leader General Khanh grew close to the substantial Buddhist political leadership who believed that the NLF would be forced by their supporters to agree to a plausible ceasefire proposal. He too was removed in a US-backed coup. When Burns refers to the precarious nature of successive South Vietnamese governments he seems to imply that it is a reflection of cultural immaturity rather than of the fact that those governments were repressive, deeply corrupt and committed to a brutal war that had no popular support.
The whole North/South terminology is in any event problematic. The 1954 Geneva accords expressly did not create two countries. The Hanoi government, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, would, without doubt, have won the elections everyone had agreed should take place in 1956 and therefore, not unreasonably, regarded themselves as the rightful government of the whole country. They called their regular forces the People’s Army of Vietnam not the North Vietnamese Army. “NVA” is a politically loaded term, generally preferred by American commentators because it implies those forces had no business South of the DMZ. None the less I have, reluctantly, decided to stick with “NVA”, (and the derogatory “VC” rather than “NLF”) and “North” and “South Vietnam” because this site is at times a line by line critique of Burns’ film and to use different terminology to his risks confusion.
It is also worth nothing that, like the government in Hanoi, the Republic of Vietnam, similarly claimed to be the legitimate government of the whole country. It too did not recognise a national border along the 17th parallel, and, on a number of occasions, unsuccessfully proposed to the Americans an invasion of the North. It follows that the labels “North Vietnamese” and “South Vietnamese”, which Burns applies to numbers of his interviewees, would not necessarily be labels they would have chosen themselves.
The nature of the South Vietnamese governments
Burns is consistently wary of looking too closely at the nature of South Vietnam’s government even though, or precisely because, it was for the protection of this wretched institution that Americans were dying and killing in such numbers and at such expense. There are continual, passing references to corruption but never any attempt to investigate what it might be like to live day to day, let alone year on year, under such a government. In episode 2 we hear from a deeply principled governor who apparently achieved great things. But we are never given a picture of the conduct of other, less scrupulous governors who made up the bulk of the South Vietnamese ruling class. Provincial governorships, like so many other offices, were sold, precisely because they could be exploited through corruption, the burden of which ultimately, through maladministration or the need to pay bribes, fell on the ordinary people of South Vietnam. And office holders would not only want to recoup their outlay and indeed make a healthy profit, they would also, in many cases, have to provide a continual share of the booty to their seniors. Neil Sheehan gives us the example of Lt Col Hoang Duc Ninh, Governor of Bac Lieu province in the Mekong Delta. He sold government property, taxed whatever he felt like and ordered his soldiers to steal back petrol he had already sold in order to sell it again. He charged the innocent not to include their names in the Phoenix programme and let Viet Cong out of jail for a price. He claimed the wages of non-existent soldiers and accepted bribes in return for allowing young men not to serve. If you wanted a safe job you had to pay for it. And his artillery batteries fired endlessly, if largely pointlessly, to allow him to sell the brass shell cases. And Burns reports all this in his book but when he addresses the subject in episode 7 he does so briefly and only in terms of theft of US goods, not, crucially, in how it so thoroughly undermined the functioning of South Vietnamese government and society.
And this corruption carried on all the way to the top. Opium had been a lucrative source of revenue for the French during the colonial period but Diem had initially closed the opium dens when he took power. However, after three years they had been reopened because his brother needed the funding to support his intelligence work. We of course see the photograph of a South Vietnamese officer shooting in the head a Viet Cong captive in the aftermath of the Tet offensive but Burns does not mention that this colonel, Loan, was Ky’s fixer and when Diem and his brother were both murdered it had been Ky and Loan who had established new intelligence operations using the same, opium- and heroin-based, funding as before(4). Burns steers clear of the extent to which the rivalry between Thieu and Ky played out in battles for control of lucrative aspects of the South Vietnamese government, including the government’s substantial involvement in the heroin trade. Tet in fact marked the beginning of the end for Ky’s power. During the course of the fighting an American helicopter fired a rocket into a building containing many of Ky’s senior supporters and his power never recovered. Thieu was therefore a major beneficiary when, in the later years of the war, American soldiers developed an appetite for the heroin brought down from Laos by South Vietnamese and CIA aircraft and distributed through ARVN channels. Burns talks about heroin consumption by US troops but does not mention the extent of government involvement in the heroin trade.
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 views. 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 Burns dare not acknowledge the ugly truth about South Vietnamese governments 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.”
Even more extreme than Burns’ lack of attention to the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese society is the more or less total lack of any coverage of the ARVN. From the moment the Marines land at Danang up to Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization it is as if the Army of the Republic of Vietnam is not there. Burns is as uninterested in the ARVN as Westmoreland was. There are a couple of reasons why Burns might want to avoid this subject: it would draw attention to the corruption of the South Vietnamese regime; it would also draw attention to the reluctance of South Vietnamese citizens to put their bodies on the line for their republic which would in turn reduce the film’s appeal to those Americans clinging to the idea that the war was a noble enterprise. My guess is that the omission of this perspective is unconscious because had it been deliberate Burns would surely not have included, in episode 8, the comment that the ARVN had born the brunt of the Tet offensive when his own coverage of Tet had focussed almost entirely on the US experience, then commented, “Their bravery was often overlooked by Americans.”
Ken Burns on America
And Burns is evasive too about the nature of America. He records both Kennedy and Johnson making commitments to Vietnam which they do not believe in because they know they cannot get re-elected if they are seen to be soft on communism. But this anti-communism is taken as a given. There is no hint that it was driven in part by wealthy elites desperate to avoid a return to the egalitarian politics of the New Deal. McCarthyism gets no mention and nor does Nixon's central role in the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Nor do the systematic, often unlawful, attacks on the American Left by the F.B.I under the COINTELPRO programme which freed the American political sphere of any significant left wing voices which might have challenged this obsession with communism. How was it that Colonel Lansdale, who was instrumental in establishing the Diem regime, could recognise it as a “fascistic state(5)” but the New York Times could contrast communist North Vietnam with “democratic” South Vietnam? The question of why Bill Erhart and others would be keen to travel half way round the world to defend this South Vietnam from an ideology they had never directly experienced is never asked. A partial answer can perhaps be found in this excerpt from the 1971 CBS film Selling the Pentagon detailing the paranoid anti-communist films made by the Pentagon during this period.
You might have thought that a cultural force that drove two presidents, against their better judgement, to make the catastrophic errors which gave rise to the tragic subject matter of this film might be worth more attention. But to do so would involve showing the viewers a darker side of America than they might want to see, and would undermine Burns’ thesis that America’s ills for the most part date back only as far as the Vietnam war.
The America he does show us is very much peaceful, cosy, small town, white America. Tim O”Brien talks about the peaceful small town he grew up in. John Musgrave talks about the peaceful small town he grew up in. Bill Erhart talks about the peaceful small town he grew up in. Moogie Crocker and Michael Holmes (spoiler alert) both die but we hear too about their families and their peaceful small town backgrounds. In each case their stories are illustrated by nice photographs and nice music. White picket fences are everywhere. Whose home background do we hear much less about? Roger Harris. Roger Harris is black and he lived in the poor, sometimes violent, black ghetto of Roxborough in Boston. There is a reference to the possibility of recruitment to a gang and a sentence about the hostility between black and Irish areas but no more. This is a framing which helps sustain the idea that a nicer, kinder America was infected by the war, but it is a framing that is undermined by comparison with Burns’ book. Musgrave’s, Harris’ and Erhart’s accounts of joining the marines form a discreet section. Musgrave’s comment that when he joined the Marines he met for the first time, Blacks, Hispanics and Jews, who were all working class and all united by their desire to be Marines, makes it into the film. Harris’ story about how, when his basket ball and football teams went to play in white neighbourhoods, they would have sticks and stones thrown at them, does not.
In contrast to the attention paid to the reassuringly folksy America inhabited by white soldiers, when we hear about the civil rights movement we are shown nothing of the levels of injustice against which black Americans and their supporters are protesting. The single most dramatic act of black resistance to the Vietnam war, Mohammed Ali’s refusal to serve because, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger” gets no mention. Racism within the US army in Vietnam gets two minutes. The presence of Confederate flags in Vietnam is referred to but you have to read Burns’ book to learn that the killing of Martin Luther King was celebrated too. Charlie Company was a mixed race unit, black, white and Hispanic but most of the killing in My Lai was done by white soldiers. The next day black and Hispanic soldiers wore black armbands, until they were told to remove them. Neither of these facts make it into the film. Burns thinks that Vietnam planted a virus in America. But racial injustice and the violence with which it was enforced for decades both before and after the American Civil War predate Vietnam. It is not absurd to see a link between the generations of racist violence of slavery and Jim Crowe and the casual racist killings of Vietnamese by American soldiers applying the Mere Gook Rule (see below). But that’s not a link you would ever think to make on the basis of Ken Burns’ picture of the America that went to war in Vietnam.
In a similar vein Burns shields us from the views of those large numbers of Americans who supported Lieutenant Calley or who approved the shooting of students at Kent State University and the conduct of the Chicago police at the Democrat convention. We hear from peace activists (though not on the subject of why they opposed the war) but we know they were a minority. Burns reports that a majority of Americans actually supported the conduct of the National Guard at Kent State. Why do we not hear from them? My guess is that, consciously or unconsciously, Burns understands that seeing real live Americans in the flesh defending the slaughter of hundreds of Vietnamese peasants or the shooting of non-violent protesters at home, in the knowledge that they represented so much of America, would take us to a darker place then he wants to go.
The nature of America's war
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, but both take place in unpopulated areas. We hear nothing about the events that drove so many more civilians from their homes. There is no mention of civilian casualties. No doubt is cast on the suggestion that all 2,485 reported VC dead were indeed VC. And at no point in the entire film do we hear from the refugees themselves.
In Intervention George Kahin reports that the initial plan had been that after US troops had blasted through an area the ARVN and South Vietnamese government would move in and establish Saigon’s control. When that failed to happen the US armed forces resorted to emptying the countryside by the creation of free-fire zones, bulldozing dykes, trees etc, and burning down people’s houses in order to drive out the rural population and deprive the guerrillas of any means of support. This widespread, intentional creation of refugees is simply not acknowledged in the film.
A major source for the film is Neil Sheehan’s book A Bright Shining Lie about the career of John Vann, a US soldier who first went to South Vietnam as an adviser in 1962 and spent most of the next ten years there before dying in a helicopter crash. Burns mentions that well before the arrival of the Marines in 1965 Vann was trying and failing to persuade his boss General Harkins that you should not shell a village just because you come under sniper fire from that direction. Burns does not mention Vann’s objection to the shelling of villages merely because they were controlled by the Viet Cong or his failure to persuade the Air Force, in substance a US force controlled by Brigadier Anthis, to pay more regard to civilian casualties. American airmen had already adopted the practice of shooting anyone who ran and counting them as enemy dead in after action reports. As the strategic hamlet policy moved forward Anthis insisted on napalming abandoned villages because, although it was expensive, it enabled him to claim in his reports a greater number of structures destroyed.
And Burns avoids looking at the level of violence deployed in any detail. For instance, in the film he does not address the practice of harassment and interdiction fire, the bizarre tactic of shelling areas of the countryside during the night on the off chance that enemy forces might be located at the designated coordinates. One American general said the practice was the cause of the majority of civilian casualties, another described the practice as “madness”. But an artillery battery commander explained the generally profligate shelling. “The ammo kept coming whether or not we had targets for it so the batteries fired their allotments every opportunity they had, whether there was anything to actually shoot at or not.” Burns covers the practice in the book though, recording the astonishing fact that in 1966 85% of all artillery shells were fired as harassment and interdiction fire.
The practice of “reconnaissance by fire” is not mentioned in the film either, that is to say shooting up a feature, often a building, to see if any one shoots back. Not once you have been shot at, but before any shots have been fired and before you have had a chance to assess whether, say, there are any peaceful occupants of the building. It was another practice Vann had railed against and unsurprisingly, as Daniel Ellsberg records(6), it killed a lot of civilians..
Burns gives figures for tonnage of bombs dropped on North Vietnam and on Laos and Cambodia but, in keeping with his desire to underplay the extent to which this was a war fought against the rural population of South Vietnam, never gives a figure for bombs dropped on South Vietnam. In fact, in the years up to 1971, the US dropped 3.9 million tons of bombs on the South(7), about double the total dropped by the US in all theatres during World War Two. The film spends considerable time on the fighting around landing ground X-Ray. Neil Sheehan records how he was summoned to cover that battle while attempting to file a story (not included in the film) about how five hamlets along the coast had been reduced to rubble by naval gunfire and air attacks simply because the area was controlled by guerrillas. In the course of further, similar action that year (1965) one US army officer recommended that all hostile villages should be bombarded with heavy weapons before approach, regardless of civilian casualties. Major General De Puy, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, said, “The solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells, more napalm till the other side cracks and gives up.” The literature overflows with examples of this destructive approach to warfare in the populated countryside. The scale of flight from rural areas and the vast number of civilian casualties are testament to the universality of this experience. However, what Burns gives us is an army adviser, Stuart Herrington, saying what Burns’ funders, and probably most of his audience would like to hear, but what anyone who looks at what actually happened on the ground will tell you is completely untrue. “The overall myth of an American army running roughshod by policy, strategy or tactics to terrorise the innocent population of South Vietnam, that image is the … it doesn't do justice to they young men and women who served there.”
Burns pulls his punches on the bombing of Cambodia too. The way he tells it the bombing was directed simply at the Ho Chi Minh trail and North Vietnamese bases. It wasn’t. Everything was bombed. Secretly and in breach of US law. Every building, every bridge, every structure imaginable across hundreds of square miles, with huge attendant civilian casualties. Much of the famed starvation which followed the victory of the Khmer Rouge resulted simply from the fact that US bombing had destroyed Cambodian agriculture. (In the final episode Burns ducks US responsibility again. He records how Vietnamese troops occupying Cambodia were attacked by the Khmer Rouge “backed by China.” He makes no reference to the fact that the US too was now supporting the infamous Khmer Rouge.)
After its brief coverage in episode 4, the issue of refugees fleeing from this form of warfare is only addressed once more in the film. In episode 7 it 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 (8)“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 deliberate displacement of the rural population. Footage of the slums where millions of Vietnamese were forced to live for years appears on screen for 20 seconds. Not one of these millions ever gets to speak.
The official U.S. line was that these people were fleeing the Viet Cong but surveys of the refugees showed that the vast majority of them blamed the American and South Vietnamese forces. Some of these refugees fled out of choice and some because they were ordered out of their homes in order to create free-fire zones, a process that generally involved burning down all the villages within the designated area and killing much of the livestock. But conditions in the refugee camps were so awful that many returned to the countryside, even to areas which had been declared free fire zones where they might be shot down simply for being present. And because of the danger of bombing and shelling they built underground shelters but to the Americans these were not shelters, they were bunkers, and therefore targets in their own right, targets into which grenades might be thrown without regard for who was inside. When Burns mentions, in episode 5, that people returned to the free-fire zones he does not address the question of why they might have done so.
And all this was a result of deliberate US policy. General Westmoreland himself said, “Until now the peasant farmer has had three alternatives. He could stay put and follow his natural instinct to stay close to the land, living beside the grave of his ancestors. He could move into an area of government control, or he could join the VC. Now if he stays put there are additional dangers. Our operations are designed to make the first choice impossible.” When Neil Sheehan asked Westmoreland about civilian casualties Westmoreland replied, ”It is a problem but it does deprive the enemy of the population doesn’t it.” Only in the book does Burns record Sheehan’s response. “You cold-blooded bastard. You know exactly what you’re doing.”
Burns does give us global casualty figures for the war, but just as civilian deaths was one of the few metrics not collected by the US army, Burns steers clear of any detailed look at civilian casualties. There is no agreed figure for total civilian casualties in the South and, in a war where B52s unloaded onto populated areas, a precise figure would be impossible. Something approaching 2 million civilian dead is certainly plausible, with two to three times as many wounded. But this is not the war that Burns shows us. Tim O’Brien reads to us (twice) his account in The Things They Carried of weary, overburdened troops marching numbly onward. Tim does not read to us the passage where, after a minute or two of ineffective sniper fire, they call in an airstrike on a village. Tim does not read to us his account of how, after a member of their platoon was shot dead by a sniper, they burn the next village they come to, kill livestock, trash the village well then call down an artillery strike on what remains. In this film when we see soldiers in inhabited areas we merely see them walking through the territory and it is their troubles the film focuses on. O'Brien talks about the fear involved in putting one foot in front of the other in areas plagued with booby traps but no South Vietnamese peasant talks to us about their fear of violence from scared and frustrated American patrols. Instead the firefights the film focuses on all take place out in the jungle-covered hills where the issue of civilian casualties, conveniently, does not arise.
The failure of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick to address the destructiveness of the manner in which the US waged war in Vietnam is facilitated by their failure to interview any member of the US ground forces who held a rank higher than company commander. As a result we only hear from those obeying strategic orders, not those who set the agenda. Judgement is regularly passed on the strategic decisions of the North Vietnamese leadership. However, there is no voice over verdict on how Westmoreland ran his war, none of the North Vietnamese participants are asked about the operational conduct of those they were fighting against and no journalist is asked to opine on this subject. This approach shields viewers from the fact that the creation of refugees by the destruction of their villages, livestock etc and the constant threat of violence if they remained, was a deliberate policy.
This film does present, almost anecdotally, clear evidence of the ineptness of US tactics. The principal idea was that US infantry would patrol and track down the enemy who would then be destroyed by the superior firepower of US aircraft and artillery. Infantry patrolled in large, generally noisy formations so realistically they were rarely going to surprise enemy units and over 70% of contact was initiated by the VC/NVA. In episode 4 Mike Heaney talks about how he and his soldiers were used as bait and the fact that infantry were, in practice, being used as bait was so obvious to all concerned that the term “bait” had to be officially banned. But of course the risks attached to being subjected to US firepower were obvious to the other side who would not therefore initiate combat unless they felt that, despite superior US firepower, they had a tactical advantage.
Daniel Ellsberg, who had served as a peacetime Marine infantry officer, gives a depressing account of how this tactic worked out in practice, describing his time out on patrol in Vietnam while working as special assistant to Deputy Ambassador Porter(6). The attacks were generally short-lived bursts of fire from cover. The unit would halt and call in artillery or an air strike which would take ten minutes or so, giving the attackers, who knew exactly what was coming, plenty of time to get away. If the patrol had taken casualties it would not move until they had been evacuated which would take at least twenty minutes. This meant that even a lone sniper could regularly hold up an entire company for half an hour. In twelve days of this sort of patrolling Ellsberg observed no enemy bodies, but the troops he was accompanying lost nine dead and twenty three wounded. The only confirmed US kill was an 18 year old school girl hit by a stray American artillery shell. Burns doesn’t hide this futility from his audience but he never questions why such ineffective tactics were pursued year after year. He saves criticism for the South Vietnamese leadership.
Another aspect of US military practice which Burns does not address at any length was the practice of rotating battalion commanders so that everybody got to have a go. 6 months’ field experience was necessary to move on up the career ladder and the size of the US army meant there was a vast queue of officers seeking the necessary experience, so new commanders arrived every 6 months. Commanders had initially served for longer but tours were reduced to 6 months to accomodate demand for combat postings. The operation Ellsberg observed was commanded by an artillery officer with no infantry experience who had sought an infantry command for career purposes but had not expected to take up his command on day one of an operation with no handover beyond a hand shake from his predecessor as he climbed into the helicopter which had delivered this artillery officer to his new posting. Ellsberg also observed how short tours and regular rotations meant that even at platoon level officers did not know their NCO’s or their men well, compromising their ability to lead effectively. Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn may be fiction but every page oozes authenticity and the author bemoans the Marine Corps policy that required all officers to spend 6 months commanding an infantry platoon in the field, regardless of their specialism. It is this policy which lands the fictional Bravo Company 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division with the hapless Lieutenant Kendall, whose inadequate map reading continually places lives at risk. 6 month commands meant that commanders barely had the time to begin to learn the job before they were whisked away and the next novice arrived. It gave no commander any time to learn from his mistakes or begin to challenge the way of doing things laid down from on high
This short rotation of battalion commanders combined with Westmoreland’s use of the body count as the principal metric of success resulted in predictably catastrophic outcomes. As an internal US army report acknowledged, because every ambitious officer knew their career depended on reporting as many enemy dead as possible, and they might only have six months in which to rack up a creditable total, relentless killing was incentivised. Soldiers who killed more got in-country R&R or lighter duties in camp. Companies would be forced to compete and beers awarded to those who killed most. There were punishments too for not hitting your quota of dead. “Underperforming” units would be required to walk back to base rather than being helicoptered home in safety. Supply of hot food or mail might be curtailed. And officers who knew they would suffer if they returned without a sufficient tally would keep their troops out on patrol for longer periods despite the risks of fatigue, reduced effectiveness and consequent higher casualties. The effects of the system were so perverse that the US 3rd Brigade withdrew troops from the Phoenix Program (see below) because their Phoenix Program killings did not accrue to the Brigade’s body count.
This pressure for body count meant that all dead Vietnamese, including civilians killed along the way, would be counted as enemy dead. Anyone caught in the cross fire, any mangled bodies found after shelling a village in response to sniper fire, anyone gunned down because they were foolish enough to run went towards the tally. “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s V.C.” During Speedy Express initial casualty assessment after an air attack reported 62 women, children and elderly dead. The final versions reported 130 VC killed. And if a dead civilian counted towards the target then why not deliberately kill civilians? Soldiers had been trained to regard all Vietnamese as gooks or slopes and when they arrived in Vietnam they found that taking a Vietnamese life was regarded with so little concern that it had given rise to the “mere gook rule”, an understanding that the killing of any Vietnamese was of no consequence and a concept so widespread it had achieved the status of an acronym, “MGR”. This combination of intense pressure from senior officers to rack up body count no matter what and a widespread disregard for Vietnamese lives resulted in staggering, well-documented, civilian death tolls across South Vietnam. Charlie Company even reported a completely fictitious 128 enemy fighters killed at My Lai. But in the film the furthest Burns goes in acknowledging the problem is to quote a journalist, Joe Galloway, saying, “If body count is your success mark then your are pushing otherwise honourable men, warriors, to become liars.” Liars yes, but murderers too. And Burns is loath to report the murders.
Kill Anything That Moves is packed with examples of soldiers wantonly shooting civilians as they drive past, deliberately running them over just for the sake of it, or gunning down children scavenging on rubbish tips. Out on operations, with the added incentive of boosting the body count, the wanton killing of civilians became something approaching standard operating procedure.
And the biggest single moral and historical failure of the film is precisely the refusal to face up to the scale of - there is no other term for it - war crimes committed by US soldiers. And this failure is made particularly stark by the fact that the most detailed cataloguing of US atrocities, Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves, was published in 2013 (well before the film was released) was a New York Times bestseller and was suggested as an accompaniment to the film by the PBS website (11) for “The Vietnam War.” When Ken Burns and Lynn Novick gloss over the horrors of what US forces actually did they did so knowingly. They cover My Lai, though they only show an archive interview with an American perpetrator. No Vietnamese witness gets to speak, even though PBS had made a documentary on the massacre shown in 2015 with numerous Vietnamese witnesses and probably still had their phone numbers.
Burns sets up his account of the massacre by cataloguing the recent losses the company had suffered, which is not in itself wrong but it is just one side of the story. Burns conveniently leaves out the numerous murders that members of Charlie Company had already committed in the preceding weeks. The film talks about further atrocities committed by Tiger Force and of course they can’t avoid Speedy Express, an operation in which even a US Army investigation concluded that around half the approximately 11,000 recorded dead were civilians. Only 748 weapons were recovered and the indiscriminate use of firepower, day and night, means that the true death toll was almost certainly much higher. But that is really as far is Burns is willing to go. At the end of his coverage of My Lai the voice-over states, “Civilians have always been killed in war. In Vietnam it was not policy or routine. But it was not an aberration either. Still the scale and intimacy of what happened at My Lai was different.” I’m not sure he is even making sense here. What is there in between policy and routine on one side, and aberration on the other? Certainly murder of civilians continued to be the policy of the Americal Division after My Lai. One solider wrote to his Congressman,
"He [the Company Commander] told us that we may not understand why it was the policy to kill all males over 15 years of age but we should go along with it. The company followed that policy with lust. We went from hutch to hutch in that sparsely populate area. Any man found was shot with little or no questions asked."
And Burns' claim that such killings were "not policy or routine" is also flatly contradicted by the mountain of evidence Nick Turse has assembled.
The film is honest enough to mention that, on the same day as the massacre at My Lai, another company of the same regiment killed over 100 civilians in a neighbouring village. What the film does not report is that the officer commanding that operation was acquitted of any wrongdoing because he was simply carrying out a normal village clearance. That this was normal will come as a surprise to anyone relying on this film for their understanding of the war. But by the time you reach the final page of Kill Anything That Moves you will know that normal is what it was. Kill Anything that Moves is the book you have to read if you want to understand the brutal nature of America’s Vietnam war. Tim O’Brien said of it,
“This book is an overdue and powerfully detailed account of widespread war crimes - homicide and torture and mutilation and rape - committed by American soldiers over the course of our military engagement in Vietnam… Kill Anything That Moves is not only a compendium of pervasive and illegal and sickening savagery towards Vietnamese civilians, but it is also a record of repetitive deceit and covers-ups on the part of high-ranking officers and officials. In the end, I hope, Turse’s book will become a hard-to-avoid, hard-to-dismiss corrective to the common belief that war crimes and tolerance of war crimes were mere anomalies during our country’s military involvement in Vietnam.”
But while the refusal to face up to the scale of this evidence, and the willingness to give a platform to the deniers of these atrocities is dishonest, the way the film addresses the Phoenix programme is positively sinister. The film is refreshingly frank about what the Phoenix programme was: the systematic arrest, often torture and often extra-judicial 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 is somehow limited (ignoring the fact that the Provincial Reconnaisance Units who did the killing were recruited by the CIA, often from the prisons of South Vietnam, paid by the CIA and directed by the CIA ouside any South Vietnamese chain of command). 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 its final minutes the film records without comment that Vincent Okamoto is now a judge for the Superior Court of Los Angeles County.
The Rev. Martin Luther King nailed it on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City.
All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy—and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us—not their fellow Vietnamese—the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go—primarily women and children and the aged.
They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one "Vietcong"-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them—mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force—the unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators?
All Ken had to do was cut and paste. He chose to honour conflicting truths instead.
1In a nutshell, because mainstream media are owned by the wealthy elite and depend for advertising revenue on businesses also owned by the wealthy elite they inevitably report a version of the news that reflects the interests of that wealthy elite. Here’s a cartoon explanation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34LGPIXvU5M
2 This is David Koch
3 Bank of America is another funder.
4 See The Politics of Heroin in South East Asia by Alfred McCoy.
5 He said, ‘I cannot truly sympathise with Americans who help promote a fascistic state and then get angry when it doesn’t act like a democracy.”
6 Daniel Ellsberg Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers Ch 10
7 Noam Chomsky The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism Ch 5
8 Nick Turse in Kill Anything That Moves says 500,000 but his source for this figure is not clear.
9 Daniel Ellsberg Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers Ch 10
10 R. Kenly Webster Memorandum for Secretary Resor June 16 1970
11 Nick Turse’s article in The Intercept states that the book was referenced on the PBS website but I can find no reference to it there now.