Friday, October 06, 2017

A Review of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's Vietnam War documentary

One of the most emotional wars in human history was the Vietnam War. It was an unjust war. . Ken Burns and Lynn Novick made a historic documentary about the Vietnam War, which has spanned multiple decades. To be fair in the analysis of it, first, an introduction must be made, the documentary’s strengths will be outlined, the documentary’s weaknesses will be mentioned, and a fitting conclusion must be made. In introduction, the Vietnam War is part of American history and Vietnamese history. To this very day, soldiers among both sides are hesitant in talking about it, because of its brutal nature, its controversial compositions, and its turmoil that harmed the lives of millions of human beings. It was a war that divided America on many generational and cultural lines. It inspired many social activists and caused more Americans to question governmental policy, especially at it relates to foreign policy affairs (as we know that Western governments has used deception and manipulation for decades and centuries. The Pentagon Papers totally prove that to be true). The documentary is very lengthy with 10 episodes. There are strengths to the film. It took years of research for the organizers of the film to gather the images, the maps, the testimonies, and the rare interviews in order for them to cover the breadth of the conflict which lasted for three decades. The documentary had people who interviewed not only Americans, but Vietnamese soldiers, Vietnamese civilians, and other people who were involved in the Vietnam War era. It allowed the Vietnamese people, among its  many classes and its many walks of life, to express their honest feelings about the war conflict (including the American involvement in the war). It showed music that is diverse from soul music to rock music. It has articulate or eloquent commentaries about the different eras of the war from the beginning, the Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Accords of 1954, the migrations of peoples from North to South Vietnam (and vice versa), the American advisers, the Ap Bac battle of 1963, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the Operation Rolling Thunder, the Tet Offensive,  the evil shooting of students in the Kent State University location, the release of the Pentagon Papers to the public, the Paris Peace Accords, the Watergate scandal, Nixon's resignation from the White House, and the end of the war in 1975. There is a subsequent book (about the Vietnam War) with over 500 pages that outlines the war in its diverse history and its far reaching impact historically and socially. I brought the book and the book has extensive analysis about the time period. The movie made the accurate point that the roots of the war came long before 1945 (as after World War I, Ho Chi Minh desired freedom and independence for his people) and it involved the quest of the Vietnamese people to have independence from French colonial oppression. It gives especially young people a window for them to further research the Vietnam War.

The documentary showed how the U.S. made many mistakes during the time period. The documentary did a great job to show the history of the Vietnam War Memorial. The documentary showed the tapes of Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Those tapes prove that they said some words in public which contradicts their views in private. Many of them knew that the war would not be successful, but they continued in advancing the Vietnam War regardless for the sake of promoting the myth of the domino theory. Also, they had fears of being labeled "soft" on Communism. Now, a critique has to mention the documentary's weaknesses too. One weakness of the film was the omission of many important aspects of the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War omitted the many GI revolts in Vietnam that tried to end the war and promote social justice. The documentary was too critical at times of the anti-war movement. The anti-war movement included students, teachers, military soldiers, children, civil rights leaders, athletes, musicians, and a diverse amount of people who used eloquence, powerful arguments, protests, and courage to oppose the Vietnam War. The anti-war movement should never apologize for disagreeing with the war and desiring it to end. Many anti-war heroes risked their lives to speak truth to power about the evils of unwarranted militaristic aggression and any injustice. Ken Burns’ Vietnam ignored the complexities of communism and socialism. Communism is not monolithic and many communists and socialists opposed the authoritarianism plus the brutal anti civil liberty actions of Joseph Stalin. Before 1917, the Czars used anti-Semitism, violations of people's human rights, and other evils. Many Trotskyites were persecuted and murdered by many Stalinists. The episodes in the film definitely ignored the harshness of Western imperialism in an in-depth way. Western Imperialism (done by the French and the Americans in the region of Southeast Asia) was done out of a stone cold, ideological drive to get resources, control people, and enforce a radical anti-Communism in Southeast Asia. That is why they or Western political elites originally funded Diem since he was Western educated and he was a radical anti-Communist (Diem would make the mistake of being brutally vicious against dissidents and Buddhists in South Vietnam. That is why many Buddhists and dissidents readily protested against Diem's regime. The coup of November 1-2, 1963 caused Diem and his brother to be killed). Ken Burns and Lynn Novick put their thesis out in the following quotation:  “It was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation.”

Yet, the reality is that there was no misunderstanding on the part of the Western capitalists. They or the Western policy makers, who were involved in executing U.S. war strategies, wanted to go out and advance capitalist markets and further exploit the regions of the Third World continuously. This pattern has existed in the U.S. involvement in Operation Ajax in Iran and how the U.S. helped to overthrow Jacob Arbenz in Guatemala. Therefore, the war crimes of not only Diem, but other generals from America were not miscalculations. They were overt acts of terrorism against the people of Vietnam. The documentary used the argument of violence on both sides as a common theme to outline even the claim of moral equivalency when there is no comparison. The bad actions of some North Vietnamese forces involving torture and other acts are heinous and without justification. American soldiers being tortured and forced to make erroneous statements in prison camps is also evil and wrong. Likewise, American forces dropped bombs, dropped napalm, using Agent Orange, some were involved in free fire zones, and other atrocities came about in a higher level by U.S. forces than North Vietnamese forces. During the Vietnam War, no North Vietnamese soldier bombed an American city or town. No Vietnamese army regiment from the North invaded America. Many Americans suffered during the Vietnam War. Also, we should acknowledge the suffering of the Vietnamese people in which millions of Vietnamese men, women, and children died as a product of the conflict.  Eight million tons of bombs were dropped on North and South Vietnam alone, far more than in all theaters of World War II combined. In addition, US warplanes dropped 370,000 tons of napalm and sprayed 21 million gallons of toxic defoliant chemicals like Agent Orange. To this very day, Vietnamese babies suffer birth defects as a result of the chemical bombings of Vietnamese territories. Also, there is no excuse for the U.S. invasion of Vietnam when peaceful resolutions were especially available to resolve the conflict. The Pentagon, the State Department, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the rest of the military industrial complex had a vested interest in trying to prop up a pro-Western Southern Vietnamese state. When that failed, they cut their losses and left. Ironically, Vietnam is an American ally today via negotiation and trade deals. The documentary was funded by many corporate foundations and banking interests (like receiving grants from Bank of America and the Koch brothers). The documentary omitted the imperial defense contractors that financially benefited from the Vietnam War, except Dow Chemical funding napalm (which was used in the conflict. Napalm harmed many innocent Vietnamese men, women, and children). In the documentary, it showed many Americans and Vietnamese people coming together in trying to form reconciliation.

In conclusion, we would want a resolution to the Vietnam War. The problem is that ironically, many Westerners (plus others) haven’t learned the lessons from the Vietnam War conflict. We have a continued war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War existed (which existed as a product of the neo-conservatives showing a false premise among other reasons), the U.S. destabilized Libya, and other foreign policy crisis transpired. So, while we need dialogue about how the Vietnam War existed and ended, U.S. imperialistic arrogance, and criminality can never be omitted or sugarcoated. As Noam Chomsky accurately stated in 1969, “…There are, to be sure, costs of empire that benefit no one: 50,000 American corpses or the deterioration in the strength of the United States economy relative to its industrial rivals. The costs of empire to the imperial society as a whole may be considerable. These costs, however, are social costs, whereas, say, the profits from overseas investment guaranteed by military success are again highly concentrated in certain special segments of the society. The costs of empire are in general distributed over the society as a whole, while its profits revert to a few within…” By 1975 (when the war ended), 58,318 Americans died including about 3,000,000 Vietnamese human beings died as well from the Vietnam War. The crimes of imperialism must always be condemned period as imperialism is evil and unjust. We need more people to speak their minds among all sides. Yet, in order to find true peace, we have to organize the poor and the working class in order to defeat the same system that advances wars in the first place. In order to have reconciliation involving the Vietnam War, we have to discuss, form dialogue among Americans plus Vietnamese people, establish the fact permanently that the Vietnam War was a foreign policy disaster (plus an unjust war), and fight to end injustices worldwide (which is about promoting investments to help Vietnam War veterans suffering homelessness, economic exploitation, or other conditions in their lives. We should additionally express empathy and solidarity with the Vietnamese people too). That is how we honor the memories of those who passed away from this conflict.

By Timothy

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