Ken Burns' "Vietnam": A Legacy for War as a "Noble Cause"
By rg cantalupo (reviewer)
If Ken Burns' "Vietnam" was meant to promote "healing and reconciliation," the first two episodes only caused this (and many other) combat veteran nausea and anger at the continued perpetration of negative myths and corporate/Pentagon-promoted mistruths to kill future anti-war dissent.
If "Vietnam" is to become our national "narrative" and legacy, whose primary purpose and intent seems to be to "steal" our story as Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace, then my only regret is to not have another lifetime to dispel its dangerous, ignoble perspective.
There's a reason James Koch and the Bank of America bankrolled the project—let's keep the 10 plus other foundations, families, etc. out of the discussion until I can fact-check their motivations—and that's to promote "The Noble Cause" doctrine which helps enable the Pentagon to continue perpetual wars: Communism is bad; God is on our side; and, we sent our soldiers to Vietnam to stop a "civil war" between the North and the South.
To compare Vietnam's struggle for independence as a civil war, is like comparing the American Independence fighters battling the British and Royalists to a civil war. 80-90% of the Vietnamese people would've voted for Ho Chi Minh if the agreed upon election would've been held, so the notion that we got into the war to stop a Communist takeover is a biased reading of history. And to pretend that Vietnam would become, or was, a proxy for China, belies an unacceptable ignorance of Vietnam's long history of fighting China to maintain its independence.
But the key to understanding the Burns-Koch-Bank of America perspective is through the selection and narratives of the talking heads.
"Vietnam" opens with the voice of Karl Marlantes, a gung ho Marine combat officer, famous for "Matterthorn" and "What It Is Like to Go to War," where he espouses how exhilarated he felt killing a man and/or winning a battle—something I never came close to feeling as a combat soldier. Exhilaration came in the lull of battle when I, and my buddies, could thank our lucky stars we were still alive. To tell a new, young generation of video-game warriors and virtual reality killers that in real life killing is exhilarating is at best a moral malaise, and at worse a sociopathic character flaw.
And to invoke Marlantes at the beginning, essentially the introduction, bookends the point of view they want to drive home.
Marlantes is also the poster child for two other nefarious myths that Burns wants to portray: the alienated veteran who never speaks about the war because he did such horrific things he can't talk about them, or because no one would understand and might shame him for his actions. And the myth that everyone during the sixties and seventies saw Vietnam veteran in negative terms, i.e. "baby killers."
The intent behind this is to kill or diminish dissent for future wars. We should honor the exhilarated, lonely killer because God was on his side and he was killing communists, to do otherwise is unpatriotic.
But Marlantes is an anomaly among Vietnam Veterans. We talked all the time about our war experiences. We gave speeches, organized protests, wrote newsletters, shared our stories at Winter Soldier. We created talk groups to purge our demons and our guilt. And we did these acts of moral cleansing and reconciliation because they helped titrate our night terrors and numerous other ailments the VA didn't want to hear about. And we talked so loud and for so long about our PTSD and our Agent Orange diseases that PTSD was put into the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," and Agent Orange became a medical diagnosis.
John Musgrave, another talking head, adds "fear" and "hate" to The Noble Cause mantra. He was terrified of the Vietnamese—they were gook commies so they had to be "feared." If they were like us, I guess he couldn't have killed or fought against them.
This undercuts the many acts of kindness I witnessed by my fellow soldiers, medics, and officers. I rarely saw "pure hate" from a combat soldier. Moments of pure anger and grief when one of our friends got killed, but what we mostly hated was the war, not the people.
The civil war "myth" is perpetrated by a Vietnamese talking head whose father was an official for the French. Her sister joined Ho Chi Minh's army and this is meant as an example of how families were divided like in our own civil war. The problem here is that a Vietnamese working for the French is akin to the French working for the Nazis during World War II. After the French and its allies overthrew the Nazis, many of them were shot as traitors. So, the moral and historical equivalency is misguided at best.
As this is an abbreviated critique, (I've only seen the first two episodes) I'd like to end on this note: We—VVAW—changed history and ended the war, not alone of course, but we were the vanguard. Vietnam was a draftee war; in 1968-70, 60-80% of the combat soldiers were draftees who for the most part could care less about Communism, or flag, or country. And over 60% of the causalities were suffered by draftees. We weren't groupies of the "noble cause" band. We just wanted to survive our tours. And when the draftees AND enlisted men started to refuse to fight, along with millions of us and others marched in protest, our government was forced to negotiate an end.
That is our legacy and what we should be proud of. We knew the war was wrong, that our government was lying to the populace, and few of us believed there was anything to win. This is not a question of could we have won. There was nothing to win. And the wound we carry is knowing that so many young men and women died needlessly to promote this "ignoble cause," the American War in Vietnam.
rg cantalupo, (Ross Canton), is a poet, playwright, filmmaker, novelist, and director. His work has been published widely in literary journals in the United States, England, and Australia. He served in the 25th Infantry Division as an RTO for an infantry company from 1968-69 and received three purple hearts and a Bronze Star with a combat V for Valor under fire.