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Selling a Bill of Goods on PBS about the Vietnam War

Burns and Novick want viewers to believe that the Vietnam War was a mistake undertaken by those with noble intentions in the U.S. government. We had good intentions going into Vietnam, but The Vietnam War, which aired on PBS, would like viewers to believe that the grotesque consequences of that war… millions dead and wounded… were never really intended. They were in the vernacular, unintended consequences of men with good intentions.

It’s the same kind of justification and rationalization that then secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, made in The Fog of War and it’s all bullshit plain and simple. These opinion molders want people to believe that we occasionally stumble on the way to the nirvana that is American Exceptionalism and national purity.

But they didn’t stumble and we are most certainly not exceptional. If readers want to gauge how unexceptional our “leaders” are, then look to Trump and Congress and their neoliberal facilitators. The duopoly planned the anti-communist crusade from the beginning of the Cold War until there were so many dead bodies and so much protest that the government had to walk away. It wasn’t a matter of dollars and cents, as some would like readers to believe, as this predatory system leaves lots of spare pocket change to throw away on immoral wars.

Here’s student/civil rights leader Mario Savio, of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, only a few short months before the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave Lyndon Johnson carte blanche in waging his genocidal, anti-communist crusade in Southeast Asia.

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!

Those in power and their talking heads have to sanitize their past wars to make new wars palatable. Mass murder is not the natural or normal state of humankind. George Orwell grasped this concept in 1984 when his character Winston is tortured because of his individualism and humanism, and at the end of the novel he’ll say anything that the government wants him to and that includes rewriting history to agree to whichever foreign enemy the government targets. It’s the same hogwash that the neofascists and neo-Nazis are pumping out from the Trump administration in support of the trillions of dollars being stolen by the military-industrial complex. Trillions of dollars that otherwise could go to unmet human needs.

In relation to how the Vietnam War is portrayed, the left has not been asleep at the wheel. On the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, people like the late protester, politician, and writer, Tom Hayden, spearheaded an attempt to correctly document the Vietnam War in the face of the Pentagon’s propaganda.

The group Veterans for Peace has produced the resource Vietnam: Full Disclosure to tell the truth about what the U.S. carnage was all about in Vietnam. Full Disclosure takes its rightful place in a long line of history like that disseminated by Daniel Ellsberg in the The Pentagon Papers.

This from VFP’s Vietnam Full Disclosure:

Despite the counter-cultural veneer, however, and admirable efforts to provide a Vietnamese perspective, Burns and Novick’s film in its first episode provides conventional analysis about the war’s outbreak and can be understood as a sophisticated exercise in empire denial. (“Ken Burns’s Vietnam Documentary Promotes Misleading History,” Veterans For Peace, September 18, 2017).

Full Disclosure continues: “A voice-over by Peter Coyote subsequently claims that the Vietnam War was ‘started in good faith by decent men.’”

Go to the primary and secondary sources about the war: there are enough volumes to fill a medium-size library on the war. View the 1971 Winter Soldier testimonials of Vietnam veterans in Chicago and their testimony before the U.S. Congress. Read Born on The Fourth Of July by Ron Kovic, A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, Dispatches by Michael Kerr, Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow, and Four Hours in My Lai by Michael Bilton, among the many illuminating volumes of writing about the carefully planned catastrophe that was the Vietnam War.

These books will illuminate how colonialism by France and anti-communism on the part of the U.S. and its allies led to the thwarting of the Geneva Accords that called for free elections in Vietnam. They will tell how the U.S. backed murderous and unpopular regimes that tore Vietnam apart for 30 years until North Vietnam drove the forces of the South to defeat. The U.S. knew that Ho Chi Minh, leader of the North, would have won the election mandated by the Accords.

Read about the atrocities that took place in My Lai and by the rogue Tiger Force and numerous other examples of war crimes in which the military took part. The latter does not mean that a majority of soldiers took part in atrocities, but enough did to make atrocities the hallmark of the Vietnam War. Military training was fine-tuned to cast the Vietnamese people as “gooks” and “Charlie,” thus dehumanizing them and facilitating their slaughter.

Read to learn how untold numbers of veterans were thrown into the apparatus of the Veterans Administration and how the care many of those veterans received was shameful.

Learn about how tens of thousands of men and women sought refuge and sanctuary from the war in places like Canada and Sweden, where thousands remain today. Learn how the American Veterans of Foreign Wars led a campaign in 2004 to deny the people of Canada the right to erect a monument to the heroic acts of war resistance in their country by war resisters.

Dig into the history of the defoliant Agent Orange to learn how both the Vietnamese people and U.S. veterans were made to suffer the dreadful and deadly consequences of its use during the war.

Pay attention to how the Trump administration’s militarists have expanded contemporary warfare (“‘Blank Check to Kill With Impunity’: Trump to Quietly Slap Drone Restrictions,” Common Dreams, September 22, 2017). Then pay close attention when documentary makers try to sell the public a bill of goods and pass off mass atrocities and immorality as simply being careless mistakes that were carried out by well-intentioned leaders. Those “good” intentions took place during the Vietnam War and they’re taking place today. They threaten the life of every living being on Earth.

The antiwar movement has been largely inactive in the first months of the Trump administration despite the fact that this is the most bellicose administration, with the exception of the administration of George W. Bush, since the Vietnam War. Although Senator Bernie Sanders gave a speech that addressed war and the military-industrial complex at Westminster College on September 21, 2017, it wandered into assertions about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, an issue that only serves to further deteriorate relations between Russia and the U.S., and in fact feeds the very military-industrial complex that Sanders criticized in his speech.

The antiwar movement suffered self-inflicted wounds when it caught the faux hope and change rhetoric of the Obama administration and largely left the expansion of drone warfare, including targeting U.S. citizens for death without due process of the law, while expanding war in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Perhaps it was narrow self-interest, ignorance, and the effects of the September 11, 2001 attacks that were at play here, but society-wide malaise may be another factor for this inaction. Perhaps war is so prevalent and unreported that it became an excepted part of life in the U.S. Only a small segment of the population fight U.S. wars and it is almost never the man or woman next door or in a community as it was during the Vietnam War.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Black Panther Party leader Jamil Abdullah Al- Amin (a.k.a. H. Rap Brown) said “violence is as American as cherry pie.” It is also as American as apple pie. Now, we face the prospect of the very real threat of Armageddon because the far right has placed a bellicose moron in the White House.

More articles by:

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

March 18, 2019
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