Give Peace a Chance

Roundup
tags: Vietnam War, war



Maurice Isserman teaches history at Hamilton College. He is co-author, with Michael Kazin, of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 1999).

Related Link Reaction to the 10 Part Documentary 

A review of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary.  Conclusion:  It's anti-revisionist (the war was wrongheaded). But it's also anti-anti-war. 

... The release of The Vietnam War in September will doubtless shape popular memory of the conflict for years to come. The good news is that Vietnam War “revisionists”—those who argue that the war was a necessary, honorable, and winnable proposition until the liberal media confused the public and liberal politicians prematurely pulled the plug on further military aid to the South Vietnamese government—will find little to sustain their viewpoint here.

In their interpretation of the war’s origins and conduct, the filmmakers have relied heavily on reporter Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1988 account A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Sheehan’s book was partially a biography of Vann, a prominent American military adviser in Vietnam when Sheehan covered the war in the 1960s as a young wire-service correspondent. And, brilliantly, through the medium of Vann’s life, Sheehan retells the history of the war from the 1940s up to Vann’s death in Vietnam in a helicopter crash in 1972. Of Vann, Sheehan wrote, “He saw much that was wrong about the war in Vietnam, but he could never bring himself to conclude that the war itself was wrong and unwinnable.”

Most of the witnesses in The Vietnam War, including Sheehan himself, do not share Vann’s blindspot on that question. The overwhelming impression given through their testimony is that the anti-communist South Vietnamese government was a corrupt, ramshackle travesty, dependent on U.S. patronage from its founding in 1954 to its collapse in 1975, without political legitimacy. Through the testimony of their witnesses, Burns and Novick portray the Vietnamese Communist Party, the determined opponent of the sham Saigon government, as brutal and ruthless, but suggest nevertheless that it represented a powerful and genuine wave of nationalist sentiment. They do not celebrate the eventual triumph of the Communists, but they make it clear that this outcome was all but inevitable. The United States professed to be fighting in defense of a heroic independent ally, but instead stood in the path of Vietnamese self-determination. And in doing so, conducted a war that proved an atrocious waste of human life, both American and Vietnamese.

The bad news is that in their portrayal of the war’s opponents, Burns and Novick are, at best, inconsistent, at worst, intellectually lazy.

The narrator (the excellent Peter Coyote, formerly of the San Francisco Mime Troupe), says in the series’ final episode, “Meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through [the war].” That is and has always been Burns’s credo as a documentary-maker. He is not primarily an idea guy—he’s a story-teller (which, of course, is key to his popularity). Story-tellers are necessarily selective—the stories they choose and the ways in which they decide to tell them determine the narrative’s larger purpose.

In the stories they tell in the series, Burns and Novick manage simultaneously to offer a thorough indictment of the war, and a dismissal of most of the people who were committed to ending it. It’s both antiwar and anti–antiwar movement. The one protest against the war the film truly admires is the October 1969 “Moratorium,” which turned out several million people in peaceful protest across the country, and was indeed an impressive achievement on the part of organizers and participants. But in the series, it is used to denigrate the rest of the movement. “It’s nice,” one participant declares, “to go to a demonstration and not have to swear allegiance to Chairman Mao.” Far too often in the trademark Burns panning and zooming shots of still photos of those other protests, the focus comes to linger on Viet Cong flags or Communist Party banners or the like. This is a part of the story, to be sure—but only a part. It leaves the viewer with the impression that hundreds of thousands of Americans, gathering in New York, Washington, or San Francisco, were indeed swearing allegiance to Chairman Mao, Uncle Ho, or Comrade Brezhnev—rather than, say, exercising the rights and responsibilities of citizens to challenge a war that they regarded as inconsistent with American interests and values. ...




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