Several folks have asked me what I thought of Burns/Novick “documentary” on Vietnam. I finally finished watching it this past weekend. The more I watched, the less I liked it because the series clearly took the apologist’s perspective of not only the war, but also the political and social events which occurred simultaneously in the United States (which definitely adversely influenced the actual conduct and outcome of the war, treatment of our POWs, and treatment of our Vietnam veterans).
What I am sharing here is NOT an request for anyone to tell me or any other Vietnam vet “thanks for your service.” I believe Terry Garlock’s story, set for publication tomorrow, is a valid critique of what I call a docudrama that aired on PBS last fall. You may think it’s long, but the televised series was 10 two-hour episodes so the critique’s length is justified.
I have said many times that I was convinced by the time (July 1971) I deployed to Vietnam as an advisor to a Vietnamese infantry regiment that I believed the battle against “communism,” the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese was NOT winnable because US politics and public sentiment was against the war and because the majority of Vietnamese people outside of their political elite just wanted the war and the killing to be over. I still stand by that assessment. However, that does not mean that our military should not have given or did not give our best effort to fulfill the commitments and promises of our American Presidents and other political leaders. I believe our military gave our best effort (under ever-growing political constraints) to fulfill our mission to help the South Vietnamese repel the Communist takeover of The Republic of Vietnam. Our military did not fail or “lose” the war; simply put, we were ordered to withdraw our support of the South Vietnamese. As the American military followed those orders, the South Vietnamese lost the ability and will to continue fighting the Communists who then took over governing the whole country.
I believe slanted docudramas like the Burns/Novick series are attempts to appease and smooth over lingering malcontent of Americans my age about American involvement in Vietnam. Such attempts allow those who misunderstood, disrespected and/or mistreated Vietnam veterans, especially those who did not volunteer for military service, to feel OK about how they felt and acted toward the Vietnam era military. To me, that is counter to this country’s values and efforts to defend freedom and those who seek it.
Propagandists masquerading as historians
by Terry Garlock
Scheduled for publication Wed, Jan 31 in The Citizen, a local Fayette County, GA newspaper
I was only one of many Vietnam veterans who wrote opinion columns criticizing the Vietnam War film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, opining their work seemed more like propaganda than history. In doing so I occasionally used “Burns” as shorthand for the pair, to which Ms. Novick emailed me her objection. She is correct, I should consistently include her name as co-producer because she is equally culpable in the hit piece they brazenly call a documentary.
So, Ms. Novick and Mr. Burns, this is for you. My back-handed compliment is that your wholly inaccurate film is a slick rationalization for aging Americans who, decades ago, loudly encouraged our enemy while we were killing each other in combat. For those harboring doubts about actively opposing us in their youth while we served our country in a war, your film may have supplied just the soothing salve they need.
You bent the truth in your film too far, too consistently, too repetitively, and omitted too much to leave any room for me to believe those errors, omissions, distortions, half-truths and complete falsehoods were remotely accidental.
Like a house of distorted mirrors, you portrayed the murderous and avowed Stalinist Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist driven by reunification of North and South Vietnam rather than his real commitment to Communist conquest of free South Vietnam. Your film repeatedly depicted the war as unwinnable, the North Vietnamese cause as just, war crimes between the two sides as morally equivalent, American troops as victims, South Vietnamese as mere bit players, all that and much more of your content completely opposite of the truth. You selected for dominant interviews from the tiny percentage of American combat veterans with a grievance who joined the protestors when they returned home.
I cannot know the motivation in your hearts, but I have the stark impression that your plan from the very beginning was to delegitimize America’s role in the war and justify the anti-war left by very selectively emphasizing negatives and minimizing positives to shape the film’s message to your liking.
There is a tragic irony in protests by the anti-war left and your justification for them. The noble cause of the Vietnam War was trying to stop the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, especially important given the hegemony of China in the region. Even so, while we answered our country’s call and honorably performed our difficult duty, leadership in the White House and Pentagon created a patchwork of micromanagement and idiotic war-fighting limitations, obstacles that got thousands of us killed while preventing victory. Those egregious and very real failures alone would have been worthy of protest, but your buddies on the left either didn’t notice or felt compelled to manufacture their own demons, like John Kerry’s fantastic lie that we were raping, murdering and rampaging in Vietnam like Genghis Khan.
The outrage is our enemy’s daily atrocities against their own people, juxtaposed against how we Americans defended and helped those civilians in a hundred ways, both ignored by the news media while American troops were maligned.
Ms. Novick, you were just eleven years old when America withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, so you might have missed personally knowing the effects of false stereotypes about Vietnam and its veterans.
Like so many others, I came away from that experience with my eyes opened, having learned by watching young Americans the true meaning of honor, courage and trust. Those men and women were then and still are the finest people of character I have ever known.
I saw my fellow helicopter pilots fly into enemy fire routinely, taking mortal risks to protect civilians and their brothers, and I saw grunts do the same crazy things for each other. I flew gun cover for Dustoff crews braving enemy fire to pick up wounded, and I flew gun cover for LRPs sneaking in enemy turf, the bravest men I have ever seen; if you have an open mind, read Six Silent Men by Gary Linderer to understand how bold our Rangers were.
I saw doctors, nurses and orderlies drive themselves to physical and emotional exhaustion every day as they struggled to send us home alive, and still we found time to send medical help to poor villages where medicine had never been seen. There was much to admire, and when I finally wrote a book my title tells my sentiments: Strength and Honor: America’s Best in Vietnam.
Anti-war voices were overwhelming, and America never knew what a fine job their youth had done in Vietnam, despite impediments imposed by our own government, despite collaboration with the enemy by our own fellow citizens.
When we came home, the country seemed to us to have turned principles upside down. Wearing the American uniform invited hostility while refusing to serve was somehow a virtue. These remarkable troops, young enough to be called boys but now battle-hardened men, never lost a single significant battle against a very tough enemy, but they didn’t know how or want to engage in political argument. And so many like me kept their head down and went on with life. Nobody wanted to hear about our experience anyway, for two reasons.
First, everybody already knew all the answers about Vietnam, they had seen it on TV. Second, in those days the Vietnam War was a shunned topic, something dirty not discussed in polite company.
Even some family members skirted the subject, wary of the rumors they heard about rampant war crimes, drug addiction and vets prone to snap into violence. During his first visit home, Tony Foster’s mother asked him what kind of drugs he was on.
False stereotypes took root from repetition in a media leaning hard against the war. Movies reinforced the lies with absurd stories and unreal characters that indulged Hollywood’s ridiculous fantasies of the war. Period fiction followed suit, and TV dramas occasionally created a Vietnam vet when they needed an unbalanced, unpredictable and dangerous character.
Spreading these attitudes has consequences. Not everyone thought the worst of us, but enough did to change the national mood.
Even small slights left lasting impressions. Jay Standish escorted his date to their seats near the front of an off-Broadway theater, proudly wearing his Marine Corps dress blues, prompting boos from many in the audience. A Sgt. named Chip went to see a Priest for pre-marital counseling wearing his Army dress greens, and the Pries t told him to come back when he was wearing decent clothing.
Vietnam vets learned to leave the war off their resume to avoid rejection in the first cull of job applicants. They soon knew to keep quiet in college classes since anti-war professors used their grading pen as a weapon.
ROTC membership plummeted and some professors wouldn’t accept members as students. Military recruiters were ejected from campus. The uniform was not popular, as R.J. DelVecchio learned by hostility to his Marine Corps uniform at the University of Maryland and was advised not to wear it again on campus. Wearing a uniform made some feel invisible waiting to be served in a restaurant.
Drew Johnson, who ferried Navy aircraft to Vietnam over an extended period, returned through California airports at least two dozen times and saw the escalation of vitriol aimed at our returning troops by anti-war protestors who, by my measure, were unfit to shine a veteran’s shoes. Officials and most in the public merely looked the other way while protestors yelled “babykiller” and worse at returning vets, threw nasty splatter packets at them and frequently used their own spit.
In 1971, my commanding officer told me to remind my men not to wear their uniform off-base, for their own personal safety.
Some anti-war tactics were despicable. An F-105 fighter pilot I will leave nameless bet his life every time he flew into North Vietnam through the toughest air defenses in the world. When he was shot down, even before his wife received official notification, anti-war activists called to say her husband was a baby-killing a**hole and deserved what he got.
There were many thousands of these uncouth episodes incited by fabrications from the anti-war left, and they were made worse that they were aimed at Americans who served honorably and sacrificed much. And yet every Vietnam vet I know is proud of their service, fiercely patriotic and doesn’t want even a shred of sympathy.
They do want one thing. They want the truth told about them, their enemy, their war.
Now, after forty something years, Ms. Novick and Mr. Burns, along comes the misrepresentation you call a documentary, very pretty but with only fleeting intersections with the truth and reviving conflict long ago buried. It seems, to me at least, that you pre-planned your strategy to build up to your conclusion in support of your friends on the left, “The Vietnam War was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable.”
Even with 10 episodes over 18 hours, you left out vital pieces of the story. In 1974, in the aftermath of Watergate, Democrats were elected in a landslide and the new Congress violated America’s promise by cutting off funding for South Vietnam’s se lf-defense. Then when the Communists attacked South Vietnam in massive force, Congress refused to honor America’s pledge to come to their aid. The left’s view seems to be North Vietnam’s conquest had the happy result of reunification. Senator J. William Fulbright, who provided the forum for that spectacular liar John Kerry, said about the fall of Saigon that he was “. . . no more depressed than I would be about Arkansas losing a football game to Texas.”
Trivializing the human cost of Communist victory, you didn’t mention tens of thousands of executions, the million or so sent to brutal re-education camps, the panicked populace fleeing in rickety overpacked boats and dying by the tens of thousands. You neglected North Vietnam’s obscene practice of bulldozing South Vietnamese graves, and the influx of North Vietnamese to take over the best farms, businesses, homes and jobs in South Vietnam. And you swept under the rug America’s shame, the betrayal of our ally, never mind the genocide by Communists as they murdered two million in Cambodia next door.
All in all, Ms. Novick and Mr. Burns, kudos on the slick appearance mixing photos, film clips, tilted narration and sad music to set the mood for your biased content. I think you have succeeded in making your semi-factual slop believable to a naïve public, and students in schools you send it to will likely lap it up because they don’t know better.
That means we will need to redouble our efforts to tell the story true.
As I tell students when I speak to them about the Vietnam War, “Why does this ancient history matter to you? Because you need to know how a false history takes root, and you need to be smart enough to beware propaganda when you turn on TV news.” Or watch a film labeled a “documentary.”
Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City, GA. He was a Cobra helicopter gunship pilot in the Vietnam War.