Obfuscating the Truths of Vietnam

I have hesitated to comment on the instructive discussion on VFP’s Full Disclosure page about the Burns-Novick Vietnam PBS series because I am not watching it. I have enjoyed reading many of the comments, and have communicated with people who have seen advance screenings.

In 2014, I heard Burns’ publicly discuss his pending PBS Vietnam series. He responded to a question about Agent Orange with a “safe” position that damage to human beings from the chemical herbicide was scientifically inconclusive. This was not surprising given that Burns is a popular, established film maker of various aspects of history from jazz, to baseball, to the Civil War. However, any deep threat to the US American basic “good guy” self-image would likely curtail his continued popularity, not likely to lend itself to corporate funding on PBS, whether from Bank of America, the Rockefeller or Koch Brothers.

Any treatment of the US War against the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians that does not establish the historic foundation of the US criminal invasion, occupation, and destruction of an innocent country, murdering and maiming millions – profound moral issues – flunks authentic history. And, equally, if the presentation ignores the US creation of a fictional puppet government in the South that was so unpopular that the US was forced to deploy 3 million troops and massive airpower to protect it from the Vietnamese people themselves, it will fail miserably to do justice to genuine history.

Despite this history, Viet Nam is still commonly called a “Civil War” of relative “equivalencies”, a preposterous representation suggesting an “enemy” of basically poor people 8-10,000 miles distant on their own ground who for some unknown reason might threaten the wealthy US with bombs or naval and ground invasions, or….. ? And to represent that the war was “begun in good faith by decent people”, ignores the revelations of the Pentagon Papers.

Thus, Burns’s and Novick’s 18-hour “The Vietnam War” series severely obfuscates the most significant great truths of the US war – that “The Vietnam War” was and remains a Great Lie. Provoking national discussion about the war is important, but for it to be acceptable to a national PBS audience, the producers had to assure that in the framing the US remains basically the good guy against evil.

The honest portrayal of a people who wanted authentic autonomy from a stream of colonial intervenors seems outside our capacity to embrace, and certainly we were not able to comprehend the deep Vietnamese commitment to do whatever they believed necessary to rid itself of its latest occupier. Instead, the US created and funded a fictitious government with a corresponding enemy to justify our intervention against the shadowy, deceitful, evil, though tenacious “communists”. This US policy was intended to prevent a successful “Third World” post-WWII revolutionary movement that possessed the potential to spread to other restive peoples.

Without establishing this fundamental immoral foundation to the history of the US intervention, this Burns-Novick documentary history safely avoids provoking the US American people into an overdue, painful self-examination of its cultural “DNA”. Our geltanshauung was cast as a divinely guided “predestination” for goodness in 1630 when Puritan John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “that we shall be as a city upon a hill” and “the eyes of all people are upon us”.

We are reminded of such arrogance in “Founding Father” Thomas Jefferson’s hypocritical words penned in the 1776 Declaration of Independence that claimed “all men are created equal”, yet a few words later declared the King of England using the “merciless Indian savages” to attack with “known rule of warfare” the new settlors with “undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”.

Let’s see…. those words describe well our behavior in Viet Nam, genocidal behavior then, as in Viet Nam, off limits for US to consider.

*The US destroyed more than 60 percent of Viet Nam’s 21,000 inhabited, undefended villages, including use of unprecedented 8 million tons of bombs and 370,000 tons of napalm, murdering 4 to 5 million, leaving a decimated landscape with 26 million bomb craters and as many as 300,000 tons of unexploded ordnance that continue to kill and injure thousands every year;

*USAF manuals instructed the intentional bombings of the “psycho-social structure” of Viet Nam such as pagodas and churches (950 of them), schools (over 3,000) and hospitals and maternity wards (1,850, many with large red crosses painted on their roofs);

*US and South Vietnamese pilots were trained to “cut people down like little cloth dummies” during daytime raids;

*US employed the most intensive use of chemical warfare in human history, spraying 21 million gallons of lethal poison leaving millions deformed, sick and dead, now with third generation birth deformities;

*The US used torture in every southern province to extract confessions;

*The US imposed free fire (genocide) zones over 75 percent of the South, mass murdering villagers on the ground, etc.

In fact, our behavior was unspeakable, but similar to what our forebears did against our Indigenous inhabitants. Viet Nam was no aberration.

Yes, the PBS series will present much important history for the viewers through its artful selection of dramatic war footage and wide-ranging interviews with Vietnamese and US Americans. It will indeed educate and raise questions….as long as the storyline essentially preserves the US as the better of two basically equivalent fighting forces. It admits making terrible mistakes, but not crimes, implying or expressing justification for our intervention against evil – here the convenient Cold War Pavlovian “communist” bogeyman.

This PBS series is being aired as the US deepens its atrocious pattern of perpetual war around the globe since Viet Nam, the chess pieces continually moving from Viet Nam to almost everywhere else under a philosophy of “full spectrum dominance”. This includes use of the ultimate wholesale terror from the sky using missile-laden drones.

The nature of US behavior in Viet Nam, and in the little understood tragic Korean war more than a decade earlier, and in virtually all countries in which it intervenes, covertly or overtly, is virtually ungraspable to the majority of US Americans. In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his anti-Vietnam War speech, declaring that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government”. Hmm!

Without a willingness to honestly address our long pattern of immoral and criminal military and covert interventions to preserve essentially selfish, narcissistic values, utilizing deceit and grotesque barbaric techniques, when and how might the US people be awakened to discover a political consciousness of mutual respect? The Burns-Novick series will produce healthy debates about the US War in Southeast Asia, but it will tragically steer clear of revealing, while obscuring, the Grand Lie of the war itself, even as the documentary is touted by observers and viewers as monumental history. What a lost opportunity!

So, as people are glued to this intriguing PBS series, they will nonetheless continue to shop, their government will continue to bomb, and the warmakers will continue to get richer. Nothing changes.

S. Brian Willson, USAF Combat Security Police Officer, Viet Nam, 1969.


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S. Brian Willson, as a 1st lieutenant, served as commander of a US Air Force combat security police unit in Viet Nam’s Mekong Delta in 1969. He is a trained lawyer who has been an anti-war, peace and justice activist for more than forty years. His psychohistorical memoir, “Blood On The Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson” was published in 2011 by PM Press. A long time member of Veterans For Peace, he currently resides in Portland, Oregon

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