“History is written by the victors”? Not Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s'”The Vietnam War,” which is a lesson in how to see history as written by the losers. Whether a history is written by the losers or the victors, beware of the mythmaking. If only Burns and Novick understood this, their series might have been as enlightening as it is artful, fascinating, and moving. Perhaps it is an excuse that they are story-tellers and not historians. But the stories they tell and the ones they decide not to tell, the people they interview and the people they overlook, all impose framings and interpretations that charge their narrative with political meaning. Come for the stories, stay for the ideology.
I am thinking here about the myths, the unlearned lessons as the US continued to march its warriors into defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how a brilliant documentary can mix shocking truth and soothing lies, and still move viewers. When I look at art politically, often I am looking at how the artists’ explicit messaging can be contradicted by their images and storytelling. Burns and Novicks’ images and interviews sometimes tell a truer story than his narration, but even those select out disturbing testimonies, such as the Winter Soldier Investigation and a truer story yet is untold.
Why this TV series matters
Few of the young people I work with learned much about the war in high school. But will they watch this 10-part, 18 hour epic? The length alone tells them it was not made for their generation. That is a pity, because Vietnam isn’t only their grandfathers’ history, it’s our culture today. What I want to tell my young friends is that this war, as much as the civil rights movement, is at the origin of the political and cultural collisions that that are shaking and shocking and outraging us today. I want to tell them that their culture and values were shaped by the massive, militant, explosive rebellions that came together in opposition to the Vietnam War. The rebellions brought millions into the streets, opposition by all who saw their oppression linked to and symbolized by the war: The war, as one organizer said, “provided the razor, the terrifying, sharp, cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestige of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principle” of the US., and, as Dr King said, our country is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Too bad we can’t learn about these consequences of the war from Burns and Novick. They just aren’t very interested in the big questions historians ask, about the origins of the war or its consequences. What they do give us, however, is the powerful testimony of many survivors, in interviews with soldiers, their families, and civilians on all sides (not “both” sides, because, as we all should know, there are more than “two sides” to every story).
What they also give us is the mythmaking of history as it is told by the losers. Yes, the US lost this war to the Vietnamese revolutionaries, the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF, called “Vietcong”). We have to understand the defeat because the US has been losing big wars steadily since World War II: The Korean War was a defeat; the Indochina Wars (Vietnam, but don’t forget the devastation of Laos and Cambodia); the US defeated Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991, but suffered another traumatizing defeat in 2003- on; and Afghanistan, where we are still losing. The deaths of four Special Forces soldiers in Niger reminds us we are in an endless war, and there is no victory in an endless war.
Time finally to learn the lessons of the defeats? This post is about why Burns and Novick are no help here. But before saying more, I do want to emphasize that I think “The Vietnam War” is important and even a masterwork, and that I hope it will continue to be widely viewed and discussed. But, also, masterworks even more than mediocrity need to be examined critically, because the greater the work, the more it has power over us and the more it shapes us.
Defeat, decline, and “if only” myths
Defeat and decline are intolerable to a people who need to see their nation, and themselves, as all powerful. After World War I, German nationalists and fascists spread the “stab-in-the-back” myth: The Germany army, the German nation, would never have lost — if only it had not been betrayed by the defeatists who sued for peace when the war could still have been won. (That is, “betrayed” by the socialists and the Jews.)
We have a version of that in the US. The war was, as we all know, a “quagmire.” But so was the effort to explain it: How could the most powerful nation, with the most powerful and advanced military in history, be defeated by a small and impoverished peasant nation? Far worse — an Asian people were the victors, posing a profound cultural threat to a white supremacist nation. This was never just a question for the military and the foreign policy elites — it was a profound shock to a culture shaped by supremacist assumptions.
For many, still today, the war would have been won if the troops had not been betrayed at home, our version of the stab-in-the-back. Take your pick: betrayed by the politicians, the media, the liberals, the feminists, the hippies, the minorities. (The Jews, too, Nixon reminded Kissinger.) All the forces of defeat, disorder, and moral breakdown.
Or, without the more toxic bigotry, the war could have been won but was fought “with one hand tied behind our back.” This pernicious myth is not only held by right-wing extremists, but also in less apparently ideological and culturally toxic forms by some respectable writers.
Burns and Novick make many contributions to popular understanding of the history, but here we see one of the most important: Their detailed narrative of the battles thoroughly discredits the pernicious myth that the war could have been won “if only.” One of their overarching narrative themes is that the French and after them the Americans were headed for failure from the start.
Again and again, the documentary shows the French and then the Americans underestimating the enemy, unable to counter guerrilla warfare, supporting one corrupt and brutal dictatorship after another, killing civilians and burning down villages and thus recruiting more fighters for the enemy, winning indecisive and pointless battles with unsustainable loss of life and decline of morale. Finally, the rot spreads throughout the military, with soldiers refusing missions, killing their officers, and getting very high. In the end, General Abrams says he has to bring his army home in order to save it. And we hear lie after lie by presidents and generals to hide their failures.
How to spin defeat: “Neither side won”
So how, then, do Burns and Novick understand the defeat? Remarkably, they don’t call it a defeat, not anywhere in their epic. Instead, their message is that no one won this war; it was a tragedy, a catastrophe of suffering and sacrifice on both sides, for which the only fitting conclusion is healing and reconciliation.
Reconciliation and healing are the theme of the last episode, “10. The Weight of Memory (March 1973 onward).” In that episode, two powerful stories which resend this message. First, the story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They tell how many veterans and patriotic people hated the design, two walls with the 58,318 names of the dead, descending into the earth like “a black scar. Sorrow, shame, degradation, in a hole, hidden out of shame.” But then it became a story of conflict ending in healing and reconciliation, finding consensus in the Gold Star Mothers, who said, the one thing we all agree on is that the dead should be remembered. One veteran, in a familiar story, sasys he hated the war memorial but now goes every year to place his hands on the names of his fallen comrades.
The second story shows US veterans traveling to Vietnam and meeting with their one-time enemies, North Vietnamese and NLF (Vietcong) veterans. “They could not have been more gracious and more loving. Took me under their wing like a brother soldier.”
These are moving and important stories to tell, but the real ending was not all healing and reconciliation. Ending with these stories was not just an artistic choice; it was also a political choice.
A different documentary could have ended with the suffering of the victims of Agent Orange both in Vietnam and the US, the traumatized veterans and civilians who never did heal, the reparations that were never made — or the country that didn’t learn the lessons and went on to wreak havoc and misery on Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, that documentary would not be funded by PBS and Bank of America.
Reconciliation and healing, Burns’ master frame
“Reconciliation” and “healing” are one of the master frames of the series. This happy ending for Vietnam’s thirty-year horror is not just an artistic choice, it is Burns’ ideological signature. To understand its centrality to Burns’ thinking and how it falsifies history with its yearning to deny conflict, let’s digress for a moment to see how he used the same framing in the documentary that made him famous, “The Civil War.” There he not only played down the achievements of Black soldiers; he left out the story of Reconstruction. He brought in Shelby Foote as a narrator, an engaging story-teller about battles, but with a nostalgia for the Confederacy and its heroes and with admiration and empathy even for Klan founder Nathan Forrest. But he asked no one to tell the story of how the freed slaves, backed up by Union troops in the South, voted and got elected to office, set up public education and rebuilt the economy. Burns left out the story of how they were betrayed by their country, which withdrew the troops to enable a violent counterrevolution that replaced slavery with sharecropping and a white supremacist regime of terror. Instead, Burns spins another fantasy of reconciliation and healing, showing us the 1913 Gettysburg reunion of Union and Confederate soldiers, a Jim Crow celebration without Black veterans. It was healing and reconciliation — for the whites.
Burns’ story is the story I learned in school. But doesn’t it look absurd today when Confederate flags and monuments are coming down and an antiracist movement is facing down violent white supremacists in the streets? (And yet the President’s chief of staff has just said the North and the South should have “compromised.” It’s no surprise to hear White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defend him by citing Shelby Foote saying so in Burns’ “The Civil War.”)
“The Civil War” is a monumental achievement, but it is also something of a confederate monument. We do have to understand all the participants, empathy truly is a tool of discovery, history does need to tell the story from all sides. But never by adopting false perspectives and creating false equivalences.
Burns leaves us with images of reconciliation and healing, but he avoids drawing the conclusions from our later history, that the lessons were not learned. The values which led us into the Civil War and the Vietnam War leave racism unresolved, put Trump in the White House, and they starve our schools, health care and infrastructure to put our taxes into the military financial complex and, now, bring us to the brink of nuclear war with N. Korea.
Reconciliation without truth
This ending shared by both “The Civil War” and “The Vietnam War” expresses a kind of humanism, a humanism which is powerful in its understanding and compassion for all. But on closer look, more for some, and maybe none for others. It tells us that both sides were equally deserving of your sympathy, slaveholders and liberators in the Civil War, the destroyers and the destroyed in Vietnam. It tells us both sides were heroic and brave … and both sides committed atrocities and were equally to blame for the massive carnage.
This false equivalence is an essential part of Burns’ humanism; it replaces analysis with sentiment, and history with story-telling that can massage the sensibilities of conservatives and liberals alike. Conservatives can respond to the ennobling and caring for the veterans, the admiration for the warriors; liberals can respond to the emphasis on the horror of war. For both, the series relieves us of responsibility and allows us to continue to see our elites and soldiers as people of “good faith … decent people … [who made] fateful misunderstandings.”
There have been more or less successful efforts at reconciliation between warring parties — the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa comes to mind. But for the US and Vietnam, reconciliation is different; for us it is “reconciliation” without truth. For us, there is no expectation of an admission of guilt and no promise of reparations. For us, there is a false equivalence between the suffering of the Vietnamese and the suffering of the Americans — a false equivalence for the responsibility of each, the destroyers and the destroyed.
The false equivalence is another deflection from the real tragedy for the America — defeat, another way history is told by the losers. Next I want to look more closely at how false equivalence shapes the series.
The one bias underlying the others
The false equivalence between Americans and Vietnamese survivors, between the US and Vietnam, is part of another master frame, the one distortion that to my mind underlies all the others: The US is essentially a force for good in the world, a “leader of the free world,” and the wars the US fights are “just wars” and not crimes of aggression. The series’ narrator says this in the beginning of the series: “It was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation.”
One place to see how this works is Burns and Novick’s treatment of US atrocities — for example, the signal atrocity of the war, the My Lai massacre. The story-telling is powerful. We see the gut-wrenching details — how 100 soldiers in Charlie Company in March 1968 massacred over 500 unarmed civilians, old men, women, children, infants. American soldiers raped and then killed women and girls, burned the houses, killed the livestock, poisoned the wells.
We get the dramatic details, the heroic efforts of a helicopter crew to stop the slaughter, an army photographer who secretly photographed the carnage, one soldier’s campaign to expose it, and journalist Seymour Hersh’s reporting. In the end, only one officer, Lt William Calley, was tried and sentenced to house arrest, and then pardoned.
After watching the whole series, I had a false memory of Burns and Novick’s treatment of the atrocities. I thought they had underplayed the massacre, but when I went back and saw it again I was impressed with the informed choice of detail and the narrative intensity; the searing comments by novelist Tim O’Brien, whose unit was nearby, are unforgettable, and the comment by journalist Neal Sheehan insightful:
[My Lai] was different because they were killing Vietnamese point blank. With rifles and grenades. They were murdering them directly. They weren’t doing it with bombs and artillery. If they were doing it with bombs and artillery nobody would have said a word because it was going on all the time.” [My italics.]
And yet when I finished the 18 hours, I remembered the treatment differently, as if Burns and Novick had downplayed the atrocity. I think this was because of their overall framing and balancing, all done with artistry — through comments by the surviving witnesses. Burns and Novick follow the stories of these people, calling them in to give testimony in repeated appearances in the narrative. We come to know them, admire and believe them, through their courage, suffering, integrity, and eloquence. They all said, My Lai was different. The narrator said, the atrocity was different; Sheehan said it was different. Marine veteran Tom Vallely said Calley was different: “We didn’t have that guy [in the Marines]. We had individuals who committed war crimes, of course, and I wanted to kill ’em.”
The US military can’t be shown as “Calleys,” but the “Calleys” have to be shown. So the bad soldier has to be labeled “different” and the focus has to be on the good soldiers.
The good soldier framing is persuasive, even more when Burns and Novick, repeatedly, show them wronged by mistreatment when they came home, which drives home how different they are from the Calleys. Right after the segment on My Lai, John Musgrave, who later joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), tells how the antiwar protesters treated all of “us” as if we were “baby-killers.” The good soldiers are again contrasted with the bad protesters, who are then seen “waving the NLF flag,” and we see images of demonstrations with the NLF flag. Other veterans and even antiwar activists return to this theme. John Kerry’s famous speech in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when he described atrocities, was followed by an angry veteran denying it. We’re the good guys, we have to be. (More about the “babykiller” charge later.)
Burns and Novick include a few testimonies of atrocities, but far more about the suffering of our soldiers and veterans, who are the true subjects of the series; the series mentions the free fire zones and shows children with napalm burns, but Burns and Novick remind us that “atrocities were committed on both sides.” They remind us that the North Vietnamese tortured the American pow’s, the enemy were living in a communist country while the South Vietnamese were “free,” and the US was the leader of the “free world.”
Facts speak too, though without eloquence
The occasional focus on atrocities — not just My Lai — also creates a false impression, by suggesting that the crimes were those particular atrocities and not the routine prosecution of the war.
Burns and Novick say, “After thirty years of war, much of Vietnam lay in ruins. Three million people were thought to have died, north and south.” Yet they pose this enormity as if it has equal weight to the American dead and wounded. It helps if you don’t add that two million Vietnamese civilians died in the US war alone, not including the French war. It helps if you don’t remember that most were South Vietnamese killed by Americans; if you don’t remember that the US bombed hospitals and schools and rice paddies in North Vietnam and that “kill anything that moves,” the title of Nick Turse’s book on the war, describes the US rules of engagement in all areas they didn’t control — most of the country. (It is notable that Burns and Novick do detail the Vietnamese losses. Pay attention, when the war is discussed in the media, to whether the US casualties are mentioned, and the Vietnamese casualties overlooked.)
The documentary isn’t as interested in the Vietnamese civilians as in the Vietnamese soldiers and the American soldiers and civilians. This is a soft militarism, glorifying the heroism of the soldiers on both sides, equal in nobility of sacrifice, equal in suffering.
You can get more insight from a short article by Turse.
But civilian casualties absolutely dwarf those numbers. Though no one will ever know the true figure, a 2008 study by researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and a Vietnamese government estimate, suggest there were around two million civilian deaths, the vast majority in South Vietnam. A conservative killed-to-injured ratio yields a figure of 5.3 million civilians wounded. Add to these numbers 11 million civilians driven from their lands and made homeless at one time or another, and as many as 4.8 million sprayed with toxic defoliants like Agent Orange. “The Vietnam War” only weakly gestures at this civilian toll and what it means.
I will post one more blog on “The Vietnam War.” I want to look at the way Burns and Novick treat the antiwar movement and how this connects to the bias of the “good soldier” and “leader of the free world.”