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Remembering Vietnam

By Titus Techera

Memorial Day is the one federal holiday that connects the nation to war and requires sustained reflection on the most serious actions the government asks of the citizens. Since Vietnam, this has been made difficult by the loss of national unity. The major facts are known. The WWII-era draft was replaced by the all-volunteer army, the elites did not serve as they had in WWII, and the college class protested the war. Indeed, half the young men received deferments, so division was what is now called structural. At the same time, Vietnam was a very popular war. For all the difficulty, we must reflect on our history, since we are always reminded of it when we visit the war dead and it is somehow also alive in our policies.

Ken Burns’ ten-episode series The Vietnam War (2017) is the most impressive artifact of this reflection. Burns, who is as close to being able to speak both to America and for America as any liberal figure in our time, and whose concern for a liberal history of America post-Vietnam has only been approached by Spielberg, made a documentary intended to promote national reconciliation. This is not the same thing as saying he’s non-partisan, but he is public spirited and has ambitions as a national storyteller that are not just unmatched, but not even understood in our media. He has tried to attract attention to the major cultural developments that brought Americans together in the 20th century, and deserves applause and attention.

The first voice we hear in the series is Karl Marlantes’, an officer in the Marines and author of the acclaimed novel Matterhorn (2009). Marlantes talks about the national silence that fell over the Vietnam War after the very strange defeat and retreat that ended with Americans fleeing the fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975. Marlantes calls Vietnam the most divisive phenomenon since the Civil War, which is probably true.

The 17 hours series falls into three parts corresponding to the three presidents involved in the war. The liberal contour of the story is as follows: French colonization of Vietnam was bad; JFK was well-intentioned, a Cold Warrior, but indecisive and weak—events moved him, he was not the leader he was advertised as being. Burns doesn’t blame JFK for anything, but leaves the viewers to ask themselves whether the president is responsible for foreign policy and presents JFK dithering over the coup that led to Diem’s assassination just a few weeks before being assassinated himself.

Burns prefers truth-telling journalists on the scene: David Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer for his war reporting in 1964 and later wrote a scathing attack on elite academic liberalism, The Best And The Brightest, blaming them for the foreign policy catastrophe; and another Pulitzer Prize winner, Neil Sheehan, who appears on screen. This makes sense for a documentary and it saves the liberal concern for tolerance, including to the Vietnamese. (The series features the smiling reminiscences of slaughters by old Vietnamese men.) But this attitude implies a certain political irresponsibility, abandoning the questions of policy elite liberals at the time had to face.

The basis, therefore, on which Burns proposes national reconciliation might be affected is to consider the war a tragic mistake. This again flatters liberals: Americans were too afraid of communism, implying that the danger was not severe. The liberator of his people Ho Chi Minh, a moderate in liberal parlance, was pushed to commit horrors in South Vietnam by his extremist right-hand man and successor Le Duan. The tyrant who ruled South Vietnam, Diem, was against human rights and an extremist; but once he was overthrown, that, too, was bad, possibly worse. The effect of humanitarianism, with its distinction between extremists and moderates, is to preclude choice and leave victory to the extremists—Le Duan ruled Vietnam for two decades until his death at 81 in 1986. If, for example, one turned to Aristotle instead, he would say that things not choice worthy in themselves become choice worthy in trying circumstances and action undertaken in those cases is still voluntary, because one reasons about what is better and what worse. Compared to that, we get a vision in which all choices are rejected, yet the liberals who ran the country should keep running it without making decisions. The implication is then that no war should be fought, since it would require the same decisions, choices, and actions. Here, the series abandons its documentary stance and emphasizes throughout anti-war protests that were deeply unpopular well into 1968 while giving only rare notices to viewers that most Americans, young and old, were pro-war. This prejudice, I have tried to show, is too deeply ingrained to be fixed, and presumably it will simply be abandoned once Burns’ generation dies off.

As a consequence of this implicit pacifism, LBJ gets most of the blame, as do his National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, and his Secretary of Defense, McNamara, both Kennedy men. His voice in private White House recordings is quoted repeatedly, giving a democratic equivalent of fate. He doesn’t want a war, but he can’t stop giving the orders to escalate that war. He doesn’t believe there is victory ahead, but he keeps sending troops into battle in ever larger numbers. The president is all but powerless, except in lying to the nation. This is as much a betrayal of the basic faith of American politics as one can imagine.

LBJ is quoted speaking to the American people about building a bigger TVA on the Mekong River, to bring prosperity to all of Indochina, while declaring the war full of bitter irony. On the other hand, the documentary as a whole avoids asking what victory in war would require, since the first thing it would require is taking seriously the question of identifying the enemy, then the way to defeat him, and then the victory that would achieve a desirable peace. Burns instead presents LBJ throughout as split between seeking a truce with North Vietnam while also giving Gen. Westmoreland more troops, micromanaging to the point of constantly pausing bombing campaigns and picking targets himself from the White House while also allowing signing off on every new bombing run.

Burns repeatedly shows us American interviewees saying that the Vietnamese understood the Americans better than the Americans understood the Vietnamese. Intelligence—i.e. the CIA—is invariably bad, a somewhat surprising decision, but one executed with some discretion, by using scattered statements instead of any thematic treatment. Thus, the interviews with Vietnamese people serve the purpose of revealing how different a way of life and how different an outlook on politics Americans encountered; one hesitates to say how much anyone really learned. We learn instead much of the way the war changed the Americans fighting it, who started out quite innocent, though perhaps arrogant, and who faced a brutality they couldn’t imagine. With one limitation which viewers must supply for themselves, that is, it is impossible to fully understand a war without thinking about victory, the documentary is invaluable for facing the event with calm and humanity.

The oddity is that the major strategic fact regarding Vietnam presented by Burns was the same as in Korea, which he lets some interviewees mention, and in Japan, too: An unrelenting willingness of enemy troops to march into gunfire, sustaining casualties at least an order of magnitude higher than the Americans, with no hope of military victory. The Vietnamese troops, both Viet Cong and Viet Minh, are described practicing cruelties with their own hands, including mutilating corpses or booby-trapping them; in the American case, it’s primarily done technologically. Burns presents the Vietnamese troops as acting on their beliefs with full governmental support; the American troops act on their beliefs, but without their government supporting them. It is as much a theological as a political conflict. At this level, Burns shows liberal elites so divided against themselves—especially the televised 1966 Fulbright hearings in the Senate, the major Congressional discussion of the war—that they neither can nor deserve to lead the nation.

The conclusion of the war for Burns is turning soldiers into a facsimile of the liberal elites, recording Marines talking about how they were racist because they hated their enemy. This is of course rightly unacceptable to most Americans; perhaps that’s why it has to come from the mouth of combat veterans, not just the narration, which dwells on racial insults, as though such things compare to the necessities or horrors of war. From the point of view of liberal pacifism, war is racism; but no serious person can think this way and it is not possible to win wars while retaining sentimentality. This is ultimately the cause of the breaking of national solidarity in America and reconciliation requires a return to a reasonable distinction between patriotism and racism. The Vietnam War shows many of the steps to that reconciliation: The troops are not blamed, but instead politicians; the division at the elite level is emphasized, leaving the country to find its way to unity, since that elite has since lost office and most of its influence; and Burns also has a certain sensitivity to the right all people have to tell their story, which again encourages the deeper sentiments of Americans to rise to speech and demand that reconciliation. It is not a restoration of innocence, but a resolve to stop damning patriotism in the ordinary understanding.

In 2023, Peter Farrelly, famous for making comedies like Dumb and Dumber with his brother Bobby, made a Vietnam movie, The Greatest Beer Run Ever, for AppleTV+. It’s an only-in-America story starring Zac Efron as John Donohue—everyone calls him Chickie—a merchant marine sailor (oiler) who in 1967 gets a job running beer on a munitions ship headed to Vietnam.

Chick starts on his journey with a boast among his drinking buddies at the local watering hole, run by Colonel (Bill Murray), a vet who’s against televising war and is angry at protesters. All patriotic Americans want to do something to support the troops; Colonel wishes he could give them a beer, a paternal sentiment that covers up helplessness; Chickie, the life of the party, boasts that he can get it done, a sentiment concealing his own helplessness, somehow worse for never having proved himself—he only served in the peacetime military between wars. Soon the entire neighborhood—Inwood, NYC—wants to send something to their kid in Vietnam; opinion of him is as low as these hopes are high and the mix is enough to shame him into proving himself as good as his word. It seems an accident that he ends up in a warzone, but it turns out to be the patriotism that binds the neighborhood. This is a subtler element of storytelling than anything else in the movie…

So, 20 some minutes into the two-hour movie Chickie gets to Vietnam and slowly begins to face the seriousness of the war, getting through the press (Russell Crowe) to the frontlines by impersonating a CIA man, becoming a witness to the suffering and a kind of stupid but loving friend to his friends. The movie is careful to offer as a bad guy a cruel CIA agent, not the military, while also not supporting the war. The working class patriots are treated respectfully whereas the Columbia college protesters are portrayed as the irresponsible obnoxious hippies they were.

The moral drama of the movie is visible in a conversation between Efron, the small-town patriot, and Russell Crowe, the worldly-wise journalist, on the eve of the Tet Offensive; it’s as obviously stacked in favor of the liberal as truth-teller exposing the lies of the politicians as the acting talent suggests. But the moral core of the movie is a remarkably rare attempt to focus on the kind of lifelong friendships men used to form in their neighborhood, a good preparation for the camaraderie of soldiers and opposed in character to liberal sanctimony.

The silence on Vietnam is over, but this silence only fell over American society. At the elite level of Hollywood, it was otherwise, and the ‘80s were full of movies about that war that almost always favored views that humiliated or displeased the patriotic majority of Americans who had reelected Nixon with a remarkable landslide and also later favored Reagan. Probably national memory will not be kind to these liberal visions. Already there is a noticeable change and at some point, patriotism will demand a new revision. Memorial Day shows Americans’ deeper feelings and the dead in war are held not only blameless, but they are honored.

Titus Techera is the Executive Director of the American Cinema Foundation and hosts the ACF podcasts. He tweets as @titusfilm.


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