I mentioned last week that I have some problems with the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War. That was on the basis of just the first episode, so to be fair, my comments were a bit preliminary. I have not seen much of it since – just the odd half-hour here and there. (Frankly, it’s hard for me to come up with 18 hours of viewing time over the course of a week or two.) That said, the episodes I’ve seen since the first installment have done nothing to change my estimation of the overall project. It’s important to get many and varied perspectives from American veterans; I’m all for that. But the Vietnamese perspective that I’ve seen thus far has been very limited and two-dimensional. Further, the narrative seldom departs from the neo-imperial framing that has always defined mainstream retrospectives on this brutal war.
We’re told, for instance, that in 1969 Hanoi would not consider an agreement that would leave the Saigon government in place. Actually, it wasn’t just Hanoi; it was a large percentage of the people under the dictatorial governance of South Vietnam – at least those who had not already been brutalized, burned to a cinder or chopped to pieces by that late date. One important point that’s getting lost in this series is the fact that the vast majority of ordinance dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam was dropped on South Vietnam, not North Vietnam. This is reflective of that imperial framing – South Vietnam was “ours” to rampage over, so look elsewhere. Also, perhaps I’m missing too much, but virtually all of the atrocities I’ve heard described in this series have been on the anti-Saigon side. (I hope this is just a reporting error on my part.) And the picture they paint of Le Duan is practically that of a ruthless super villain, “Dr. No” figure.
No such depictions on the American side – just a lot of well-meaning actors gone awry. And seemingly very little reliance on official documentation from the period. I’m hearing a lot of recorded phone calls and office conversations, but not even contemporaneously available material like excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, let alone subsequent declassified documentation. The authors seem unaware of or uninterested in American planners’ thinking on why the war was being fought in the first place; the danger of a good example of independent development, outside of the U.S.-run system; the desire to provide a recovering Japan with markets, raw materials, and labor and (post-1949) to prevent them from accommodating to communist-led China.
I will watch more, of course, but I am not sanguine about this effort. We are currently in the midst of a 16-year conflict in Afghanistan. It would help to understand the last pointless, seemingly endless conflict a lot more clearly than this series allows.