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Review : The Vietnam War Documentary Series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick PBS-BBC 2017.

By Gerry Fitzpatrick

1 November 2017

The scene: The check-in at Tan Son Nhat International Airport Saigon.

The Time: A Last Day of the Vietnam War.

John Pilger, an Australian Journalist, who had been covering the war since its beginning waits to board his plane to return home. In a queue parallel to the one he is standing in, is a line of military veterans waiting to depart for America. Well dressed and looking healthy, they stand calmly with their wives and children. These waiting veterans, Pilger would later recall, were there to receive their penultimate payment: evacuation to the United States. For they were members of a special forces group of South Vietnamese intelligence officers (i.e. assassins)who had worked for the Phoenix Programme—the last of the CIA's attempts to gather intelligence on and neutralize and eliminate people who were thought to be part of the Vietnamese infrastructure that was working in the south against the American occupation of Vietnam.

Later as Pilger's plane left the runway and began to climb into the night he reported seeing the head lights of the trucks of the North Vietnamese Army arriving to reclaim Saigon. This contrast of perspectives—the knowledgeable reporter on the ground and the perspective of seeing events from above, dictates much of the form and the content of The Vietnam War a new American documentary series, which has just finished airing on the BBC. For Pilger the shift in perspective was not a flaw or a disadvantage – he would return to Vietnam and South East Asia a number of times to report on Cambodia and the Vietnam War's aftermath.

For this new series however, the split between perspectives is unbridgeable. To find out why we must first ask, What job was this series trying to do? The series attempts to be a requiem for the fallen US soldiers and by extension a therapeutic coming to terms with domestic division and oppositional politics. That much is clear from the longer version that only aired in the US (see for a review). What balance there is between the American and Vietnamese accounts acts as a moral equivalence that only serves one side—the American side.

All of the Americans are given an actuality that is unmistakably deliberate and direct—in much the same way it's documentary predecessor Vietnam A Television history (PBS 1982), tried to ensure that the Vietnamese had something more than the meaning and presence of subtitles. In many ways this new series is in answer to Vietnam a Television History that had been deeply resented and opposed by the right and the military—Charlton Heston the NRA gun lobbyist funding and presenting his own “reply”.

Heston’s reply provides the moral basis for the new series: Vietnam A Television History was charged with dishonouring the military our (Burns and Novick's) series will not do this. Now the Americans are heard in full voice the Vietnamese are represented by Burns and Novick with subtitles. Significantly, Vietnam a Television History's production team used interpretive voice over translations of the Vietnamese contributions, which gave them more human depth and individuality.

Moreover, the new series attempts to offer the Vietnam War as something that was simply “experienced” by Americans as “getting to know the unknown and trying to destroy it”. That the Vietnamese knew what was involved in fighting a stronger opponent and had successfully done this twice—is something that the previous television history establishes and maintains from the outset. Knowing the terrain and how best to use it would be the decisive military factor.

The new series establishes right from its outset a difference in tone and commentary which tries to answer the question, “what happened that unavoidably compromised our moral right to make war against communism in Vietnam?” Unmistakably,  that question is answered through Lyndon Baines Johnson presidency—his taped presidential conversations about the war being heard here for the first time. These tapes are used with the expressed cooperation of the Lyndon Johnson Library and they are used here not in an investigative way, but to suggest his journey into Vietnam and ultimately how it first frustrated and then “tragically” personally defeated him.

While the tapes add more detail to the known facts (again established by the previous series) they track Johnson's journey from elation to anger and ultimately despair following the Tet offensive of January 1968. By March of 1968 Johnson effectively announced his resignation from the War and the office of president.

The Wider Effect of Tet

Understandably, therefore the turning point for the series is Tet and how it rendered Johnson helpless. I use the word “helpless” advisedly – for once again the military are wheeled out to say that the guerrillas of Tet were “completely defeated”, to which the film makers add LBJ's voice who can be heard in Trumpian mode calling the press SOB's for not showing an interest in reporting his, and his administrations victory. This after all was not just a fight over the control of images it was what they gave rise to — the fight over consciousness. For this reason alone (not the film makers) it is worth examining this moment to try to establish why this American military victory quickly became a political defeat.

The Ultimate effect of Tet

Watching the Vietnam correspondents on the nightly news the public knew them and cared about them. They had watched the best known like Cronkite of CBS, lose faith and leave Vietnam in despair. But it was watching the television correspondents during the actual fighting of Tet that changed how people thought about the war. For here they saw people they knew and trusted, risk their lives to give a moment to moment commentary—some forced to crouch down as bullets from several fire-fights raged around them. These correspondents showed their fear, but still went on reporting—is it any wonder that the overwhelming emotions from the American's watching were “please don't get shot” and “get out as soon as you can”. For those who had family members in the war and for those who didn’t—both felt the same about those who were still fighting in Vietnam – that the war should be stopped and all Americans who were there should be brought home.

That became the private view of middle America. But the film makers in showing more of the Tet footage do so to make the point that it was peoples’ misconception of the meaning of the coverage that gave Johnson's administration an unexpected problem, which led to his unlikely leaving the office of the presidency.

In other words it wasn’t his fault – he had beaten the insurgent Vietnamese but somehow they had beaten him politically—in defeat. Apart from the fact that this outcome probably amounts to the first greatest reverse pyrrhic victory of all time (it was the American's that had won at little cost to themselves but who had politically lost, while the Vietnamese that had objectively gained nothing militarily—losing many in the fighting—had now gained widespread political influence in America itself). Looking at the footage again it puts another question into the mind: What exactly had the American's won that day – the day of Tet?

The answer lies in the heaps of bodies that the camera rests on for a few seconds and in the pathos of small bodies being dragged out and added to the pile. It could only have been a shock to Americans that these wretched of the earth had managed to stand up to Americans who appeared in the coverage as rampaging bull elephants:

The key section of the footage is of the very large CIA agent trying to regain control of his own embassy. The irreducible psychological effect of watching this act of desperation subconsciously convinced many that the American war in Vietnam had become just that – an act of endless desperation which could only produce endless slaughter—without honour.

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