One of the extraordinary aspects of Burns' film is how obviously bad it is. You only need read the first three books on this list to see how seriously Burns misrepresents the war. And none of these books is in any way obscure. Manufacturing Consent is one of the most famous books ever written on the subject of journalism. Kill Anything that Moves was a New York Times best seller. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers was a bestseller, won various awards, and received glowing reviews. It is astonishing that with so much good information so readily available Ken Burns nonetheless managed to make a film so bad. What is also astonishing is that a film so obviously this bad could receive near universal acclaim. If you want to try and get your head around that I suggest you start by reading Manufacturing Consent.
In a world of fake news Manfuacturing Consent should be compulsory reading for every citizen. It is an essential account of the systematic biases of a media owned by the wealthy, and dependent for so much of its income on advertising from powerful corporations. You need to read this book. In the chapter on Vietnam, Chomsky berates the US media of the time for failing to appreciate that most of the forces against which the US were battling were local, South Vietnamese, for failing to report the sheer destructiveness of US actions and for failing to recognise that My Lai was close to standard operating procedure. Burns manages to repeat all three of these errors. It was reading this book that led to me making this website.
Kill Anything that Moves gives the lie to Burns' mealy-mouthed attempt to pass My Lai off as out of character with the way the US fought the Vietnam War. The author, Nick Turse, was researching PTSD amongst Vietnam veterans when an archivist asked him whether witnessing war crimes might trigger the syndrome. "Within an hour or so... I held in my hands the yellowing records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group." Over several years he spoke to over 100 veterans and travelled to Vietnam for further interviews. I quoted Tim O"Brien's praise for the book in the overview. This is what Daniel Ellsberg had to stay, "He exposes official policies that encouraged ordinary American soldiers and airmen to inflict almost unimaginable horror and suffering on ordinary Vietnamese, followed by official cover-up as tenacious as Turse's own investigative effort against it. Kill Anything That Moves is obligatory reading for Americans, because its implications for the likely scale of atrocities and civilian casualties inflicted and covered up in our latest wars are inescapable and staggering." I link to TV interviews with the author on the next page.
The power of this book comes from the fact that Ellsberg is a man of enormous intellectual honesty who started off a supporter of the war. He was employed in a senior position in the Defence Department before spending two years in Vietnam working for the US government. (Readers will note that nowhere in his account of his time in Vietnam does he describe an episode remotely resembling the opening scene of Speilberg's The Post.) Gradually Ellsberg came round to the view that the war was both unwinable and immoral. He leaked the Pentagon Papers to demonstrate that at every point of escalation of US commitment US presidents had understood that the chances of success were slim but had ramped up engagement none the less. He knew from inside sources that, for all his talk of peace, Nixon hoped to support South Vietnam through further, devastating bombing. Ellsberg hoped that, by leaking the documents, he might prevent Nixon following this path.
A classic of the Vietnam War, a winner of the Pulitzter Prize and a major source both for Burns' film and for the accompanying book. However, Sheehan, much more than Burns, faces up to the inadequacy of the ARVN, the corruption of the South Vietnamese government and the inept brutality of US strategy and tactics. A Bright Shining Lie is, far more than Burns' film, a convincing account of how and why it all went so wrong.
This book gets the thumbs up from The Economist and The Marine Corp Gazette. What it does brilliantly is look at how the war was experienced by the rural population of South Vietnam, precisely the people completely ignored by Burns. It shows, through detailed analysis of events in the province of Long An, what Paul Vann understood so well, namely that, for as long as the US aligned itself with an exploitative elite, the Viet Cong, who administered areas under their control far more fairly than Saigon, would always have a reservoir of support and fresh recruits.
This detailed account of US involvement from the Second World War up to the commitment of substantial US ground forces illustrates the US fixation on establishing a government in South Vietnam willing to fight the war America wanted, regardless of the aspirations of the people of South Vietnam. If, unlike Burns, you are interested in what the people of South Vietnam were thinking this is an essential source.
This novel took the author 35 years to write, and re-write, and rewrite. You will find plenty of praise for it on line and it is all deserved. Reading it is an extraordinary, immersive experience. It conveys, far better than any contemporary film, photographs or interviews, how it must have felt to walk those trails week after week, fight those fights and lose your friends. Every paragraph oozes authenticity. Only someone who had lived it could have written it. You sense Karl Marlantes will die with some of the dirt of the jungle still wedged under his fingernails.
You will note from the cover that John Le Carre thinks it is the best book he has ever read on men and war in our time. It's certainly up there with the best. Like Ellsberg, Caputo and Marlantes, Michael Herr looks with complete honesty on what he is dealing with. You need to read this for all the madness, fatalism and futility that Burns works so hard to gloss over. In one episode of his film Burns tells how someone was last seen firing his machine gun from the hip like that somehow makes things better. Herr sees through all that and more.
Caputo deployed with the first Marine units sent to Danang. His autobiographical account is as vivid as Matterhorn but morally bleaker. Unlike Matterhorn this book tells of the fighting which took place amongst a civilian population and it describes what the war did to the minds of the men who fought it. Like Dispatches it is a powerful antidote to the militarism which occasionally seeps out of Burns' version of events.
Dirty Wars is Jeremy Scahill's account of America's ongoing attempt to solve complex international problems by the "targeted" killing of "bad guys." These dirty wars, with their attendant kidnappings and torture, are a product of the same mindset which underpinned the Phoenix Program. There's no doubt that terror and oppression can, in the right circumstances, achieve the intended results. What emerges from Dirty Wars is that, setting aside all questions of morality, US attempts to combat Islamic extremism in this manner are, even in their own terms, disastrous and counter-productive. Factor in moral considerations and the practice appears beyond comprehension. However, nationalism, militarism and the enormous profits this system generates for the military industrial complex mean we are unlikely to see these dirty wars wound down any time soon.
Not as bad as the film.
Blood Meridian is not a Vietnam novel. It is a loosely historical tale of violence and genocide on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s. But there seems to me to be a direct line between the events and attitudes in this book and the exchange in A Rumor of War between Caputo and a more experienced Sergeant discussing how a platoon member could have taken to slicing off the ears of a dead VC. When Caputo expressed astonishment Sergeant Colby replied, "When I was in Korea I saw men sight their rifles by shooting at Korean farmers. Before you leave here sir you're going to learn that one of the most brutal things in the world is your average 19 year old American boy." Perhaps there's a link too with the fact that 79% of Americans disapproved of the conviction of Lt Calley.