Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

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I have been watching The Vietnam War on PBS, the nation’s largest TV network. The program is billed as one of the best film documentaries about our misadventure in Southeast Asia. I agree that it’s a good one, but I have my reservations. It seems that I always find things that are wrong, or at least not accurate, about the Ken Burns effort and others like it. When I read books or news stories about Vietnam, watch old TV news clips, or see contemporary documentaries and movies, I cannot help but feel that we are not told the honest truth. Vietnam was never truthfully explained when Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were in the White House. This is still the case even if the latest offering is good history, exposing the lies and miscalculations on the political and military levels that got us into Vietnam. The documentary does a good job of that. We see the duplicity of our government, the bloody tragedy that resulted and the bitter wounds of division, not yet healed, that the war and the betrayal by our government, caused at home. Many are now saying, “I didn’t know the history.” But I am concerned about other things.

I am a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. I did my duty as a soldier. But my experience puts me in a small category of Vietnam veterans. I did not want it, but I am numbered among the few who actually fought. This affects my vision. Once an infantryman, always an infantryman. This means that I am unforgiving when civilians attempt to explain my war. This is common among combat veterans. We love our wars. Yes, in our hearts we love them, for most of us an embarrassing secret, hard to explain. We are sensitive about this and sincerely try to tell our fellow citizens that we and our wars have been distorted by well-intentioned people. But it never seems to make a difference. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick do not understand my war and this love. In spite of their interviews with combat veterans, they manage to distort the Vietnam combat experience. Since this film started I have been telling people that it is distorted. All I get is doubtful looks and pitying stares.

Almost every U.S. veteran war story told in the documentary is a tragic one: Ambushes and human wave attacks. Platoons, companies, battalions overrun. Horrendous casualties. The story of innocent young men like Mogie Crocker, KIA in 1966, woven throughout the entire series, told by his mother and sister who can barely contain their grief fifty-one-years later. The starving POWs, reduced to killing and eating cats. John McCain, with two broken arms and a broken leg, tortured by his captors. The 7th Cavalry, decimated in the Ia Drang Valley. The 173rd Airborne Brigade and the arrogance of their commander, who let three companies suffer near annihilation on Hill 875. Only the Marine, Karl Marlantes, tells a heroic story of taking a hill and killing the North Vietnamese. But there was much glory for us, if you can accept that  there is glory in war. I wish the story of my battalion, 1/8th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, had been told. In May of 1968 we fought and destroyed two regiments of NVA five klicks (kilometers) from the Laotian border during “Mini-Tet. What about the barrage of 152 millimeter Russian artillery that we endured for weeks during that battle? Now, there’s a story.

Losses happened. Many firefights ended inconclusively. The enemy was brave, just as brave or braver than we were. It was a war of attrition. But the fighting men never lost a battle. We lost the war, but that was no fault of ours. In their eagerness to tell the pathos of the war, accented by the maudlin lyrics and whine of Bob Dylan, Burns and Novick paint a picture of U.S. victims of the war. They make us out to be victims. It is true that the draftees didn’t want to be in “the Nam,” but the conscripts fought as bravely as soldiers in any other war. This is said by some of those interviewed but it is lost in the general narrative.

In contrast, the VC and NVA narratives ring with righteousness and heroism. Our men don’t smile for the camera. We see more than one stereotypical GI weeping veteran. The VC and NVA veterans look happy. Of course, they won, so they should look happy. U.S. film footage that Burns and Novick show is all real–we see bloodied American corpses. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) footage is obviously Communist propaganda, staged scenes of the victorious People’s Army of Vietnam, the PAVN, as they called themselves. No dead NVA in their films. That is the first thing that seized me when I saw the first episode. I asked myself, “don’t Burns and Novick realize that they are showing Communist propaganda?” They interview an NVA cadre in his dress uniform. The man looks much too young to be a veteran of a war fifty-years ago. No Americans are interviewed in dress uniforms and they are all old men.

There is one more bone to pick. Burns and Novick almost completely ignore the presence of Hispanic soldiers. Only Everett Alvarez, the longest-held POW in Hanoi, is interviewed. If not for that dubious distinction I feel that Alvarez would not appear in the documentary. It’s a pattern. Burns was forced to add an episode about Hispanic soldiers to his WWII documentary after the American GI Forum, a Hispanic veterans’ organization, threatened a boycott in 2007. He had completely left out the role of 500,000 Hispanic soldiers in WWII.  Burns should take another look at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It is the only public monument in which Hispanic valor is faithfully honored. Thousands of Spanish names are engraved on that Wall, written and paid for in blood.

Joe Barrera,
Publisher
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