Someone asked what I think of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War. So far, I think it’s telling some much-needed truths. I have embarked on a journey, over the last year or so, to study that period of our country’s history. It is a tangled mess. Maybe the film can untangle it a bit.
It was what one might call a “political ass-covering war.” Of course, there was no real threat to our country or our way of life. There were threats to politicians. Political parties and individual politicians stood poised like demons of the night to swoop upon any opponent that showed the slightest inclination to question the myth of American invincibility. Gathering votes proved to be the dominant motivator, along with the chance to make money of course. Some things never change.
There was this shibboleth, you see, that Harry Truman had “lost” China, as if other countries were our property to own or not own, even countries with a population of 500M people. No current president was going to lose another country, or there would be political hell to pay.
It didn’t matter to them how many 18-year-olds died while they played their games.
The word that came to mind during last evening’s episode was “hubris.” In short, it refers to a sense of excessive pride or self-confidence. The Greeks broadened it to include excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis. I guess we could include the gods of war and finance.
Remember when the criminals at the Enron Corporation were instituting schemes that financial experts said would never work? They warned that others had tried them and all had failed. “Not to worry,” the whiz-kids said. “They never worked before because we weren’t the ones in charge.” Now, that corporation lies in the same smoldering trash heap of history as the former Republic of South Vietnam. Hubris is a cruel mistress.
The makers of the film might have lingered a bit longer on the Westmoreland strategy (if one stoops to call it that) of “We’re going to kill you until you quit fighting us.” That had worked with Germany, Italy, and Japan. It just had to work on this backward little nation with an army of half-starved peasants in black pajamas. It didn’t, though. Those little men and women were just the latest in a line of fanatical patriots who had been fighting foreign invaders for 300 years. We were simply next in line
Joe Galloway, the journalist-hero at the Ia Drang Valley did point out, in the documentary, that the emphasis on body counts made warriors into liars. Thomas Ricks, in his book The Generals, goes much further, talking about how officers would count scattered body parts each as a separate corpse, and how two commanders almost came to blows over the ownership of a severed arm.
And we wonder why our country is still where it started in Afghanistan 16 bloody years ago.
So, to answer the question about my view of the documentary, I find it accurate based on my experience and readings. Am I bitter, as a veteran? No, I never experienced the horrors of the band of brothers following Hal Moore or the Marines abandoned at Hue. Was I ever scared s**tless? Well yeah. But I’m also scared when I think that some of the people who post pure insanity on the internet are out there driving cars with pistols beside them on the seat.
No, I think I’m fascinated and intrigued. There are lots of dots to be connected. Go back and watch the scene in which the Vietnamese man describes Nguyễn Cao Kỳ. It’s pretty funny, actually, given our current predicament.
I’ll stick with “intrigued,” maybe with a dash of impending doom. Until March 20, 2003, I had always assumed—hoped maybe—that our country would never make a strategic blunder as great and tragic as the decision to go to war in Vietnam. Of course, we did, only to see that decision itself eclipsed on November 9, 2016.
As F. Scott Fitzgerald had a character observe, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Maybe that wouldn’t be too bad. Right now, our past looks better than our future.