I Guess I’m About to Do a Highly Immoral Thing

On The Vietnam War

Photo by Raymond Depardon, 1972.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (directors). The Vietnam War. 2017.

The goal of The Vietnam War, as stated explicitly by one of its directors, Ken Burns (the other is Lynn Novick), is reconciliation: to account for the war in such a way that patriotic veterans and peace activists alike could each nod their heads in quiet approval and finally lay their grievances to rest. On these terms, the film is a failure. The only way to reconcile yourself to something is to acknowledge the truth about it, and Burns and Novick either soften or avoid or misrepresent the truth frequently enough to deal their own project a fatal blow, or rather, a series of little blows that have the same cumulative effect. They are both too concerned for the feelings of their audience and too dismissive of its intelligence. While putting the film together, a debate broke out about whether to describe what happened at My Lai as “killing” or “murder.” Burns won the debate, and went with “killing.” He justified this change to a New Yorker writer by citing My Lai’s “toxic, radioactive effect” on people’s emotions. That made “killing” better, “even though My Lai is murder.” Once you have consciously decided to not use the word that best describes something like My Lai, you’re lost. The best Burns and Novick can do under these circumstances is hope that a feeling of shared tragedy and tender patriotism will paper over all that remains unaddressed. It doesn’t work. Despite these failings, the film is invaluable.

The film’s most galling error, as many critics have already noted, occurs right at the beginning, in what amounts to a thesis statement: “It was begun in good faith, by decent people.” As a matter of historical fact, not interpretation, this is false. In 1954, having demonstrated the impossibility of continued French occupation of Vietnam at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the communist Viet Minh met with representatives of the United States, France, the Soviet Union, and other countries to negotiate a settlement. Ho Chi Minh and the communists enjoyed enormous prestige throughout the country; they, and no one else, had expelled a Western power that had occupied Vietnam since 1887. A just settlement at the Geneva Conference would have recognized the communists as Vietnam’s ruling government. Instead, with the insistence of the US, and the tacit approval of the Soviet Union, Vietnam was cut in half, with reunification and elections pushed off two years into the future. The Viet Minh would not have accepted these conditions except for the looming threat of American intervention.

The US then spent two years trying to force a popular non-communist government into being in South Vietnam. Money and equipment poured into the country, as did American military advisers. The effort failed. A free election held in 1956 would have unified the country under communist rule, just as it would have in 1954. Again, this is not a matter of conflicting interpretations or schools of thought. In 1955, even State Department intelligence analysts were aware that “almost any type of election would . . . give the Communists a very significant if not a decisive advantage.” Things would be even worse for the US, the analysts recognized, if the election were fair and democratic: “maximum freedom and the maximum degree of international supervision might well operate to Communist advantage and allow considerable Communist strength in the South to manifest itself at the polls.” So, with full American support, South Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem announced he would refuse to participate in any national elections. Instead, a corrupt referendum in 1955 made Diem president of the country’s southern half, which was now to be called the Republic of Vietnam. I suppose the decency of the American officials who oversaw these events may be up for debate, but their “good faith” is not. Denying a unified Vietnam to the communists, in the face of democratic principles the US claimed were sacred, made the eventual outbreak of war a certainty.

Burns and Novick’s film presents itself as a record of both sides’ experiences of war. But its ten episodes are so heavily weighted toward the American point of view, both in terms of the amount and the range of different experiences people had, that it does a disservice to the Vietnamese and the Americans alike. More than two dozen Vietnamese people are interviewed, and Burns thought initially that even that amount was too much. “I wanted to pull them back,” he told the New Yorker, “because we’re making an American film.” He does concede that Novick’s insistence on including Vietnamese voices is correct (she’s the one who traveled to Vietnam to conduct the interviews), but his originally intended imbalance remains. The information Vietnamese interview subjects provide is often factual: we went here, we captured this city, the American strategy was misguided for these reasons. But there is no Vietnamese equivalent of the many searing accounts provided by the Americans, accounts of their terrors and humiliations, their physical ordeals, their journeys through nihilism and despair, their longing for home, and their families’ years of worry and grief. Except for a few illuminating sequences on the effort required to maintain the Ho Chi Minh trail, the road the North Vietnamese used to supply their troops in the south, one does not get any kind of a textured sense of what the Vietnam War was like for the Vietnamese who fought in it.

One especially does not get a sense of the Vietnamese experience of death. Some fifty-eight thousand Americans died in the Vietnam War. That’s also a conservative estimate of how many civilians were killed by US and South Vietnamese bombing in North Vietnam alone. A reasonable estimate of North Vietnam’s total military and civilian dead runs to a million, with a high estimate at 1.5 million. South Vietnam suffered somewhere around three quarters of a million dead. Numbers matter. The Vietnam War was a major trauma to American society, but that trauma pales in comparison to the trauma the American military visited upon the Vietnamese economy, landscape, and people. By failing to pay any attention to this discrepancy, Burns and Novick slight not just the Vietnamese but the Americans, too. How can you account for the experience of American soldiers in war without taking a clear look at what those soldiers actually did?

And it is Americans alone whose individual deaths register with Burns and Novick. Spread out across seven episodes is the story of Denton “Mogie” Crocker, a boy from New York who so badly wanted to go fight that he ran away from home until his parents agreed to let him enlist. Once in Vietnam, Mogie had a terrifying encounter with the reality of war. His commander once offered a case of whiskey to the first man who brought back the decapitated head of an enemy soldier—the task was soon completed. Mogie voiced doubts about Vietnam to his sister, Carol, who went off to college and eventually joined the antiwar movement. Mogie was killed in 1966. The easy pace with which this family’s story is told has a devastating effect. A phrase from Mogie’s letters, or a look on his sister’s face, can linger in the back of your mind for a whole episode or two, informing your reception of the newsreel footage and battlefield photographs, before the narrative circles back to the Crockers. In the fourth episode, you learn that Mogie’s parents chose to have him buried at Arlington. Why not closer to home, so that they could visit his grave? Mogie’s mother is interviewed onscreen, but her answer to this one question is delivered via the narrator, a fact that is almost as haunting as the answer itself: “A corner of my heart knew that if he were buried near us I would want to claw the ground to retrieve the warmth of him.” Burns and Novick treat the Crockers with a degree of care, respect, and filmmaking sophistication that they do not extend to any Vietnamese family.

The film makes no independent contribution to the historical scholarship of the war. Burns and Novick appear, bizarrely, to have made a point of this. One of their ground rules for the project, as the New York Times reported it, was that they would interview “no historians or other expert talking heads.” Burns didn’t want to include anyone with what he called “an interest in having history break the way they want it to break.” First of all, everyone has an interest in history breaking the way they want it to break. Second, The Vietnam War includes interviews with John Negroponte, who made an enemy of Henry Kissinger over Vietnam while in the Foreign Service in the 1970s; Robert Rheault, the Special Forces commander whose time in Vietnam provided Francis Ford Coppola with the inspiration for Colonel Kurtz; and Leslie Gelb, who produced a government report on the war that would eventually come to be known as the Pentagon Papers.1 You’d think they would have been excluded along with the historians under the filmmakers’ alleged rubric. That issue aside, Burns’s dismissal of historians as a professional group is not encouraging. It is as though Burns sees historians as just resource extraction technicians, rather than as people who might also have a special understanding of the materials they uncover. The result is that The Vietnam War tells the same story that the US has been telling itself for the last few decades, the one in which the war is a tragic blunder in which a lot of good people came to bad ends.

Largely unconcerned with how and why societies change as a result of events (i.e., with history), Burns and Novick’s real subject is how the war was experienced by the individual Americans who came of age as it happened. It is a film about a generation, not an event. On that count, and in ways that sometimes work against the film’s apparent intentions, The Vietnam War is dark, shocking, and often unforgettable. Karl Marlantes, a veteran who did a tour with the Marines (and later wrote a novel about the war, Matterhorn), delivers the film’s first spoken line. “Coming home from Vietnam was close to as traumatic as the war itself.” We know some of the reasons why this was so. Veterans were sometimes confronted by protesters at airports upon their arrival in the US. The transition back into civilian life was bewildering. People came back with drug dependencies—at least forty thousand soldiers used heroin in Vietnam—or with PTSD, and as the war decreased in popularity, these soldiers were often regarded, even by people not inclined to take to the streets with signs, as symbols of embarrassment rather than as people in need of care. The feelings of embarrassment were not all responses to the national humiliation those veterans represented, though. Veterans also came back with a body of knowledge people did not want to hear about, one the government has been anxiously working to suppress ever since, with a fair amount of success. The Vietnam War brings much of this body of knowledge back to life.

First, soldiers and the journalists who covered them learned what combat is like. The Vietnam War deals with both the horrors that are unique to warfare, that are present in no other human experience, and the adrenaline rushes that allow soldiers to keep fighting in spite of them. In the eighth episode, one veteran describes crawling down into a narrow underground tunnel, looking for North Vietnamese soldiers. In total darkness, he found one, and a struggle ensued, which he won with his bare hands. “I beat and strangled someone to death, someone in a tunnel, in the dark,” he says, adding that the fight had two casualties, the second being “the civilized version of me.” In the previous episode, Karl Marlantes says, “Any sane person would never do crack. Combat is like that.” The misery and terror, he says, are counterbalanced by a kind of “transcendence,” the knowledge that “everything is at stake.” Plus, “there’s a savage joy in overcoming your enemy.” In lieu of transcendence, there is the detachment afforded by fighting from the air. One pilot describes his bombing runs as like a “ballet in the sky, and I was just performing what I was doing.” The double detachment of that last phrase—“I was just performing what I was doing,” with no mention of what he was actually doing—conveys the pilot’s need, forty years on, to hold his own actions at a distance.

The pilot is a bit of an outlier. A number of veterans interviewed recount intimate experiences of violence with a forthrightness that is hard to understand or believe. In the sixth episode, one soldier tells the story—it’s not right to say that he “admits” to it, since he is recounting the experience without the prompt of an accusation—of participating in a gang rape. He recalls someone from his unit coming in and saying, “‘I found this girl who will fuck us all for C-rations.’ . . . I demonstrated to myself how little courage I actually had. . . . I did it, because I wasn’t gonna say, ‘You guys, we shouldn’t do something like this.’ Even more than the killings, [that’s] the thing I think I’m most ashamed of when I think back on the time I spent there. . . . Somebody gets shot—not a good thing. See somebody running away—coulda been a VC. That woman, nah, I had every opportunity to say no.” Why would someone agree to appear on screen in a Ken Burns documentary and tell this story about himself? Because only by holding himself up as an example of what people do in war can he make his experience mean anything at all. This is a common refrain among Burns and Novick’s veteran interview subjects. Another part of the body of knowledge soldiers brought back home was the understanding that what they had done and gone through in Vietnam was meaningless, and that the government had rendered the lives and aspirations of thousands of young men and women meaningless by sending them to fight in the first place.

This meaninglessness was palpable at the time, on the ground, and soldiers recognized it for what it was. In November 1967, more than three hundred American soldiers were sent to take control of a hill designated only by a number, Hill 875. More than 100 Americans died over the course of four days, with another 250 wounded. When soldiers finally reached the summit, they found that the North Vietnamese had simply abandoned their posts and fled. “We literally got to the top of the hill,” one soldier says in the film, “and sat there for, I don’t know, half an hour, an hour, just kind of gathering ourselves and everything together. [Chinook helicopters] came in, took us off the hill, and I doubt there’s been an American on Hill 875 since November 23rd.” General John Wright, when asked to explain another, similarly useless assault on and abandonment of a hill, said, “No piece of ground as such is important to us.”

Remarks like these make it easier to understand the mood Karl Marlantes found himself in when he gave up a Rhodes scholarship and went to fight in a war he believed was wrong. He’d trained with other Marine cadets before heading to England, and he could not bear the thought of not being with them and helping them make it home. This fellow-feeling did not make him sentimental. If anything, it made his views of his own actions even more lacerating. He wrote a letter to his parents, explaining his decision:

I can only feel a feeling of rage and frustration, and a feeling of complete helplessness. I have in effect been hiding, and I’ll not do it anymore. I guess I’m about to do a highly immoral thing. I will be taking part in one of the greatest crimes of our century, and I will be doing so out of frustration, bitterness, and a sense of the absurd that I’ve only come to appreciate in its entirety in the past year. From now on my logic will be changed. I can do something, that is I can do my very best to get forty kids out of Vietnam alive, and if I have to turn into an evil machine to do it, then by God I will.

These soldiers also understood exactly who it was turning them into evil machines: it was the United States. That’s the realization that constituted the great generational trauma of the Vietnam War, and it’s that trauma that Burns and Novick’s film illuminates. “We were probably the last generation of American kids,” a veteran named John Musgrave says in the second episode, “who believed our government never lied to us.” Anyone who has been through a public school history class in the last thirty years has heard a version of that sentiment—that the Vietnam generation was the last to grow up believing in the fundamental goodness and honesty of the American government—about a thousand times, and of course it was never universally held, especially among the working-class and minority soldiers who suffered a disproportionate share of the war’s casualties. But I hope it won’t mark me as naïve to say that I still found it shocking to realize that many people really did believe that, before the war. I felt that I understood the set of cultural upheavals that we call the Sixties in a new way, or for the first time. Kids joining the Army were told they were going to Vietnam to free an oppressed people, only to find that what they were actually doing was putting down a struggle for national independence that reminded them of the American Revolution more than anything else. For many soldiers, the understandable response to that discovery was rage, despair, and hopelessness.

This knowledge isn’t worth much if it is only held individually, even if by a great many individuals. And it’s here that Burns and Novick once again fail to recognize the import of their own work. If the line about decency and good faith constitutes their thesis on the war itself, a passage of narration in the film’s final episode serves as a thesis on how Americans should understand their experience of it. “Meaning can be found,” the narrator says, “in the individual stories of those who lived through it, stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness, and ultimately reconciliation.” That is exactly wrong. To the extent that Americans have been able to draw any positive meaning from the Vietnam War, it hasn’t been as individuals; that meaning was produced collectively. A new understanding of the US as an imperial power, a recognition of the extent to which the country’s foreign policy decisions are shielded from the democratic process, a reckoning with the brutality of what is involved in “protecting American interests abroad”—these are the Vietnam War’s meager but valuable fruits. The name of the collective that produced them is the antiwar movement.

A number of veterans interviewed in the film specifically say it was joining the antiwar movement that pulled them back from despair. Bill Ehrhart, a Marine who became a student at Swarthmore College after his tour, recalls seeing the famous photograph of the dead student at Kent State and having a breakdown on the curb. “All I could think was, ‘It’s not enough to send us halfway around the world to die, now they’re killing us in the streets of our own country,’” he says. “And when I finally cried myself out, I got up and joined the antiwar movement.” The protests and actions carried out in the late ’60s and early ’70s were so disruptive that they made two presidents a little nuts: both Johnson and Nixon were sure that the antiwar movement was being directed from Hanoi, Beijing, and/or Moscow. In 1971, future presidential candidate John Kerry testified before the US Senate as a representative of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The meaninglessness of the war and the lives lost to it, and the antiwar movement’s effort to redeem those lives, was at the center of his testimony:

The country doesn’t know it yet, but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history . . . We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service as easily as this administration has wiped away their memories of us. But all that they have done, and all that they can do by this denial, is to make more clear than ever our own determination to undertake one last mission: to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war; to pacify our own hearts; to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last ten years and more. And so, when, thirty years from now, 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 desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead where America finally turned, and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.

America did not turn. It is impossible to imagine today’s Senate listening to words like this, to someone—even a veteran—calling the war on terror “the biggest nothing in history.” Kerry himself voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. For a time, there was a real public reluctance to support the US engaging in full-scale military conflict, which government officials referred to pejoratively as “Vietnam Syndrome.” The Gulf War swept most of it away, and September 11 took care of the remnants. Since then, military jingoism has reigned more or less unchecked. Presidents are trusted to kill people abroad no matter how hated their domestic policies may be, and veterans are trotted out for obligatory standing ovations at sporting events (a number of Major League Baseball teams now bring out a veteran at every game).

This is possible sixteen years into a useless global war because the government has been careful to avoid the kinds of things that allowed the Vietnam-era antiwar movement to emerge. Drone warfare, the use of private military contractors, and increased reliance on small Special Operations units have kept the number of American soldiers killed in the war on terror below ten thousand. A military draft was never raised as a possibility. Protest has been effectively criminalized in many instances. Media coverage of American military operations has been severely curtailed. Journalists covering Vietnam essentially had free rein to roam the battlefields with their cameras, whereas reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan had their whereabouts monitored, their copy subject to censorship, and their access to combat zones severely restricted. The most consequential images to date of the war on terror were not made by journalists at all, but by soldiers wanting keepsakes of the torture sessions they conducted at Abu Ghraib. We do not have a sense today, or at least not a visceral, collective one, of what the war on terror is like, what it has done to people abroad, or what it has done to people in the US, including those who did and continue to do the fighting. This means that those who fought in the Vietnam War and then fought against it are the only people in the country who know both the experience of American military adventurism and the experience of rejecting it. For all its historical incompetence and sentimentality, The Vietnam War has preserved much of that knowledge, along with the possibility of that knowledge being put to use again someday in the future.

  1. Negroponte later played a critical role in supporting Honduran death squads fighting the Sandinistas; Gelb became a prominent supporter of the invasion of Iraq, which support he later abjured, saying, in a breathtaking admission, that he did so for the sake of his foreign policy career. The relationship between these later actions in support of destructive wars, and their Vietnam War policy, is undoubtedly germane, but untouched by the filmmakers. 

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