Minor commentary on Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, “Vietnam War.”
Episode two (Riding the Tiger, 1961-63):
My first thought: Yes, please do watch this series; it is totally worth watching it. I don’t know why so many people on FB declare their criticism of a piece by saying they won’t watch something. Check it out, especially if you are younger than 70. There is much for you to learn. And there is plenty to criticize. For this episode, I watched on line so I could include “explicit language.”
Great music. #2 starts with “So What?” by Miles Davis
The whole series is suffused with a feeling of white innocence, white privilege not only in the framing of the story but just in the way the script is written. It is really a missed opportunity. It was a white man’s war fought by thousands of Black and Brown conscripts against Asian peasants. And yes many white youth were drafted too, which proved fatal to the war plan – too many were getting beaten down. But all of these brutal realities are softened. So many white talking heads in the interviews. Even the guy who describes the power of the Black freedom movement in the early 60’s – it’s a white guy.
They now frame Le Duan as the bad guy, the counter to a more avuncular Uncle Ho. Perhaps in time Ho Chi Minh will be defanged in American mythology the way they tried to turn Martin Luther King into a harmless man with a dream – instead of the revolutionary activist he was. As for Le Duan, read his work.
The key to the US defeat was of course people’s war – a combination of broad organizing and guerrilla resistance. This approach has been used to eject invaders since forever (viz. American revolution). The invader is dogged day and night, small ambushes, hit-and-run. They find themselves walled up in safe fortifications, unable to move. The US and its Saigon allies responded with “search and destroy” missions which were utter failures. Then they implemented “Strategic Hamlets” (villages caged in by barbed wire) Burns/Novick describe as a ineffective but not what they really were: prison camps. The British tried this first, in Malaya, always to rob the guerrillas of their base, to dry up the sea that the fish swim in. But it is a genocidal, hateful policy that is self defeating as it creates more enemies.
The story of Ap Bac is itself reason to watch Episode 2. This 1963 battle was a moment when the National Liberation Front (NLF) forces switched tactics, fighting a pitched battle at a location and time of their own choosing. It was a defeat for the Americans and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and it’s something to understand. Quite a bit of footage brings you close to this moment – including yes interviews with NLF cadre.
Another typical theme of the western point of view is emerging: the incompetence of our puppet forces. Those darn ARVN troops, they wouldn’t fight. They were cowardly, corrupt. This is such a racist perspective. “What’s wrong with them?” lament the invading Germans about the Vichy French (collaborationist) forces. “They don’t fight well, even when we tell them where to attack.” It’s an old story. Those darn Iraqi army forces, those darn Afghans. We send advisers, trainers. They just don’t know how to fight. They are corrupt. Why do the enemy, those who reject the blessings we are bringing to them, fight so well, so heroically? You will find ARVN-blaming throughout this series. So that’s the formula: well-intentioned Americans (“we had to kill the Vietnamese to save them”), cunning evil guerrillas, and corrupt, incompetent friends of the Americans. Expect to hear that version for the next 8 episodes.