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VVAW Still Teaching the American War in Vietnam: On Burns/Novick "The Vietnam War"
By Joe Miller
From the National Office
For fifty years, VVAW has had three continuing missions: agitation to end our war and stop wars like it; therapy in action and discussion for those who fought the war and needed to deal with what was then called Post-Vietnam Syndrome (now PTSD); and, ultimately, education for our members and supporters to try to make sense out of the senselessness of our war and to teach the public about what we experienced and how to be on guard against future wars of that type. VVAW has continued those missions since our earliest days; we set them out clearly in the first issue of our official publication The 1st Casualty (www.vvaw.org/veteran)
VVAW in Washington DC, July 4, 1974.
In the early 1970s, while the war was still being fought, VVAW members traveled to northern Vietnam as part of peace delegations. For example, Barry Romo who served in combat during the 1968 Tet Offensive, joined peace activist Joan Baez and former Nuremburg Prosecutor Telford Taylor on a trip to Hanoi in December 1972, during the so-called "Christmas bombing." They witnessed firsthand the destruction of schools and hospitals. Barry returned to the US to speak publicly about these acts and to give witness to the atrocities being committed against the Vietnamese people.
We fought against the onslaught of revisionist history in the 80s, when Reagan was describing Vietnam as an "honorable war." Popular culture, via "Rambo" and films of that ilk, put forth the proposition that we could've "won" the Vietnam War, but were held back. And, the "evil" Vietnamese were supposedly still holding prisoners from the war. We challenged all of this through speaking in high schools and colleges, trying to break through the mythologies that had been constructed since the end of the war.
With the release of films like "Platoon," we saw greater opportunities to engage with the public. Questions were being asked about the war that had lain dormant for years. With more films that challenged the official narrative about the war, we found new interest in VVAW and its history. There was a clear rise in academic and popular discussions about the role VVAW played during the war. This has continued well into the current era.
Now, 50 years later, while there are many who view the Vietnam war as ancient history and know little about it, there are also those who thought they knew what the war was about who are now challenged by the new documentary series written and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for PBS, "The Vietnam War." We applaud Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and PBS for bringing an in depth exploration of the war on the Vietnamese into the contemporary discussion, potentially a new tool for educating about the war and its aftermath.
Over the decades, documentary films like "Different Sons" (1971), "Only the Beginning" (1972), and "Winter Soldier" (1972) were very important in our education and agitation efforts. We realized long ago, that there are conflicting versions of what happened, though we learned, through our own experience, that the US had no business involving us in the lives of the Vietnamese people and sending us there to kill them for illegitimate and immoral reasons. Like many documentaries of this nature, there is much to say. And in the age of the Internet, everyone has a place to say it. Many condemned the entire series before viewing any of it. We in VVAW do not agree with every viewpoint expressed or every conclusion drawn. Even VVAW members have different takes on the series, as evidenced by the very lively debate on our Facebook page. That is to be expected, and it is healthy.
From this writer's perspective, I learned much about the war on the ground that had never come through in such stark images and testimony by warriors on both sides. However, I was disappointed by the apparent acceptance of the official story surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin "incidents." While Burns/Novick did not accept the claim of a second attack on the Maddox and Turner Joy, they did not dispute the US claim that our ships were always in international waters. That is simply not true, as evidenced by documents released by the National Security Agency in 2005.
Also, while colonialism was at least part of the story in the first couple of episodes, there was no recognition of the continued influence of colonial or imperialist interests at the base of the US decision to help France maintain its control over Vietnam. This, in fact, becomes the core of the growth of US involvement from 1945 onwards. Should the Burns/Novick team have covered every detail, every continuing controversy? Is the fact that the Bank of America and at least one of the Koch brothers were among the many, many sponsors of the series at fault here? In a recent interview, VVAW member Bill Ehrhart responded in this way:
"Has the documentary met your expectations?
Well, yes, but that's because my expectations were limited to begin with. I could hardly have expected Bank of America and David H. Koch to underwrite a scathing expose of US imperialism. There are some very good things about the series, especially in making plain how little hope most American policymakers had of winning the war, and how blatantly those same men lied and lied and lied over and over again to the American people about what was happening and why."
This writer was left with a few "what ifs." Why no mention of the US role in supporting the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979? Why did the US continue to support Pol Pot's regime in the UN? Why no discussion of how the US embargo from 1977 to 1994 was used to "punish" the Vietnamese people for winning their war for independence? Though there was a quick reference to the 300,000 missing on the Vietnamese side, why was the focus on the US missing....if this was supposed to be a "balanced" presentation on the war? Why was there no mention at all of McNamara's "Project 100,000," the program that drafted many who would normally have been unqualified for service? When the former NVA and Viet Cong speak of whether the war was "right" on their side, are we to believe that they really regret fighting for Vietnam's independence? What if the US had left them alone in 1945? Would the "cost" to the Vietnamese people have been as great? Who is really responsible for the pain and suffering by Vietnamese and US troops? We know, but we are still unable or unwilling to admit the US culpability. It was about political and economic control...it was about empire.
While the documentary may be criticized and nit-picked, we in VVAW should see this as a tool to continue our efforts at organizing for veterans and their families who still suffer, fighting for ALL victims of Agent Orange exposure, in the US and in Vietnam. We must remember that reconciliation with, and recognition of, the government of Vietnam was only a first step. There is still much healing to be done, and a huge part of that healing is recognition of the central responsibility of the US government and successive policymakers in the American war against Vietnam and its people.
"My generation, the people who lived through the Vietnam War, learned a great deal from our miserable and tragic experience. I wonder whether the lessons we absorbed at such tremendous cost are being passed on to future generations? If they are not understood, or if they are forgotten, are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes, commit the same crimes, repeat the same disasters, spread the same sorrows?"
—Bao Ninh, NVA Veteran, Author of "The Sorrows of War" [page 463, of the companion book to the PBS series]
Joe Miller is a Navy veteran, 1961-68. Naval Security Group, 1961-64. USS Ticonderoga (CVA14), 1964-66. HELTRARON 8, 1966-68. He is a VVAW National Board Member.
Thanks to Jeff Danziger and Billy Curmano for their cartoons. Thanks to Kim Scipes, Joe Petzel, Jeff Machota, Bill Branson, Richard Brummett, John Crandell, Anthonhy Shafton, John Zutz, Ben Chitty, Roberto Clack
and others for contributing photos.