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Ken Burn’s Vietnam Documentary Misses Mark ( Anh Le)

Beyond Chron

October 10, 2017



by Anh Le

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary, “The Vietnam War,” is a misnomer.

The title suggests that it is a definitive history of the War in Viet Nam.  It is not.

Burns and Novick’s title suggests that it offers a critical, objective, and unbiased examination and analysis of the War in Viet Nam.  It does not.

The title suggests that the documentary employs the best approach and methods to look in-depth at the history of the War in Viet Nam, to search for the truth that it reveals, so that we – Vietnamese, Vietnamese Americans, and Americans, alike, and our fellow human beings, “can learn from the lessons of the Viet Nam War.”  It does not.

The best and most rigorous approaches and methods to studying history – historiography – are not present in Burns and Novick’s work.

This is unfortunate and disappointing, considering that the 10-parts series took 10 years to produce.

One acknowledges that this documentary contains elements which deserve credit.

For example, Burns and Novick does utilize some interviews of Vietnamese.

The amount of archival materials and film footage is impressive.

Some of the staged film footage, however, is misleading, as it is in the “made for TV drama” and “Hollywood-ish” genre, especially when it supports a narrative or script that is flawed, incorrect, or false.

While watching this documentary, as one listens to the narrator, it is fairly clear that some or many parts of the script itself and the narrative of the script itself, are based simply on the press releases, narratives, and archival materials which originated from the Pentagon, the White House, the U.S. military in Viet Nam, and the United States government.  In that sense, it, unfortunately, perpetuates still today a very warped, biased, pro-U.S. military, pro-U.S. government view of the history of the Viet Nam War.

It perpetuates and glorifies the U.S. government’s and U.S. military’s own justification of their waging the war in Viet Nam: “the United States’ idealism;” “the United States’ view of itself,” and its sense of ‘Exceptionalism.’”

As long as such views of the Viet Nam War continue to be perpetuated, the “lessons of the Viet Nam War” will never be learned, and “What have we learned from the Viet Nam War?,” is just a farcifal rhetorical phrase and hypocritical and self-deluding so-called question.

The early part of the documentary begins with, “the war was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings.”

Burns and Novicks’ thesis not only displays their bias, but results in the perpetuation of a false and misleading narrative of why the U.S. waged war in Viet Nam and how and why it continued to escalate it, at the cost of the deaths of over 58,000 American soldiers and the killings and slaughter of up to 4 million Vietnamese.  Millions of Vietnamese were orphaned and widowed.

Throughout Burns and Novick’s documentary, whenever Vietnamese women, men, and young people are rounded up and captured by U.S. soldiers and ARVN soldiers, they are referred to as “Viet Cong,” “Viet Cong sympathizers,” and “North Vietnamese soldiers.”  This narrative is false.  Ordinary Vietnamese people dressed in black clothing are not “Viet Cong,” “Viet Cong sympathizers,” nor “North Vietnamese soldiers.”

Similarly, throughout the documentary, whenever dead Vietnamese bodies are shown, they are referred to as “Viet Cong,” “Viet Cong sympathizers,” and “North Vietnamese soldiers.”  Again, this narrative is completely false.

In his book, “Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson,” Willson described what he witnessed in Viet Nam conducting military assessments of the results of U.S. bombing missions.

“On my trips in April to visit the ‘targets’ of our bombings, what I found were the blackened, mangled and maimed bodies of women and children, innocents who had been destroyed by U.S. napalm.”

“The war did not stop to allow me time to assimilate the tragic deaths of young women, children, and old men.”

“Pilots knew they were targeting civilian villages, but that no longer mattered.  By 1969, the vast majority of land in the Delta was designated as lying within ‘free-fire zones.’  These were areas in which the U.S. and South Vietnamese military forces were authorized to shoot or bomb any person, animal, or object, no questions asked – in effect, genocide zones.  All buildings destroyed by bombs in such zones were considered ‘VC structures,’ a policy that originated as early as October 1961, despite the fact that almost all of them were peasant homes and farm buildings.  The aim appeared to be solely to increase body counts.  Certainly, no none seemed worried if planes missed their targets or killed civilians. ”

“The U.S. military’s official reports were listing the mass murders of civilians as military deaths of enemy combatants.  Viet Nam, as it turned out , was a war of body counts.  Who the bodies were did not matter.  Just as earlier in U.S. history, it was said that the ‘only good Indian was a dead Indian,’ now official U.S. reports were essentially saying, the ‘only good Vietnamese is a dead Vietnamese.’  Human beings were reduced to ‘VC dead’; villages reduced to (bombing) grid coordinates.  We had lost our humanity.”

In his book, “Kill Anything That Moves,” Nick Turse, a historian and investigative journalist, states, “Murder, torture, rape, abuse…were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam…they were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military.

In “America’s Needless Wars: Cautionary Tales of U.S. Involvement in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Iraq,” historian David Contosta writes that in Turse’s analysis of the records of the War Crimes Working Group stored at the U.S. National Archives, the eyewitness testimonies of American soldiers showed that “every major army unit in Vietnam had committed atrocities against civilians.”  According to Turse, “every infantry, cavalry, and airborne division, and every separate brigade that deployed.”

Burns and Novick conveniently leave out many facts regarding the history of the Viet Nam War.

U.S. Archives records show that President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger discussed dropping nuclear bombs over North Viet Nam.  Their scheme was vetoed by Secretary of State William Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.

Leslie Gelb, who worked in the Defense and State Departments during the Viet Nam War, and who is interviewed in the documentary, reveals in his book, “The Irony of Vietnam,” that Gen. William Westmoreland commissioned a study in 1967 of the potential for use of tactical nuclear weapons in Viet Nam.

Westmoreland reportedly referred to Vietnamese people as “termites,” not human.

Why do Burns and Novick not mention these facts?

In the documentary, a brief portion mentions the role of Black soldiers in Viet Nam, the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yet Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the military, his refusal to go to Viet Nam to kill Vietnamese, his being stripped of his heavyweight boxing title, passport, and boxing licenses, are ignored.

Ali stated in April 1967, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those (Vietnamese).  My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America.  And shoot them for what?  They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… How can I shoot them poor people?  Just take me to jail.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, condemned the U.S.’ war in Viet Nam and its slaughter of Vietnamese children, women, and men, called for the immediate halt of the U.S. bombings, a negotiated peace settlement, and the end of the war.  Dr. King stated that he could no longer remain silent while bearing witness to the slaughter of Vietnamese people.

I.F. Stone, regarded as one of the best journalists of this country, produced “I.F. Stone’s Weekly,” which reported facts and analyses about the Viet Nam War which Americans could not get from their mainstream print and broadcast media.  Yet I.F. Stone is left out of the documentary.

In the documentary, film footages of Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, are included.  We are reminded that these network news anchormen on their evening news programs, for the most part, simply reported the body count figures that appeared on the press releases issued by the Defense Department.

There were, of course, excellent news reporting from Viet Nam from such correspondents as CBS News’ Morley Safer and John Laurence.

And Walter Cronkite (“Uncle Walt”) deserves credit for reporting from Viet Nam that in his view, the Viet Nam War cannot be won militarily, and that the U.S. getting out of Viet Nam would be the honorable thing to do.

A number of reviews critical of the documentary have been published.

Frank Joyce, a journalist, wrote in “A Ball O’ Confusion Is Coming To Your TV: Ken Burns’ Series On Viet Nam Gives Its Corporate Sponsors Little To Worry About” (AlterNet, September 15, 2017), “Don’t expect an honest account of the atrocities committed by the U.S.”

Joyce wrote that when he attended a preview of the documentary in April 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ken Burns, in answering a question from the audience, labeled “the Vietnamese who fought to repel the U.S. invasion as ‘impressionable peasants.’” Is Burns’ characterization of Vietnamese people glaringly racist and arrogant?

Joyce observed that the documentary was co-sponsored and funded by corporate Bank of America, as well as by the Koch Brothers.

John Pilger, an award winning Australian journalist, wrote, “The Killing of History” (, September 21, 2017), stating that the documentary is Burns and Novick’s effort to re-write the history of the Viet Nam War.

Pilger wrote that when he visited the Quang Ngai province as a reporter in the 1970’s, “50,000 people had been slaughtered during the era of American free-fire zones.  Mass homicide.  This was not news.”

Pilger also wrote, “Since 1975, exploded ordnance has resulted in more than 40,000 deaths mostly in South Viet Nam (region).”

For me personally, the Viet Nam War is a tragedy.

The Viet Nam War is a tragedy for the Vietnamese and for Americans.

For my own family, my father, a diplomat and professor, yearned and prayed for peace in his homeland.  My mother did not see her family for decades because of the war.  Our family prayed for peace daily.

Since the war ended on April 30, 1975, Vietnamese Americans have referred to that date in different words.  Some refer to it as “mat nuoc” (“loss of country”).  Most commemorate that day as “giai phong” (“liberation”).

Vietnamese Americans also refer to this date as “ngay thong nhat” (“reunification”) and “ngay Bac va Nam thong thuong” (“42 years of the Vietnamese people in the North and South traveling freely in their reunified country”).  Regardless of one’s perspective, “ngay thong nhat” and “ngay Bac va Nam thong thuong” are incontrovertible facts.

When I watched the documentary, I felt deeply moved and saddened to listen to Jean Marie Crocker share about her son Denton, Jr., and to listen to Carol Crocker talk about her older brother, who, despite their urging him not to sign up for the military, joined the Army, went to Viet Nam, and was killed there.

I was deeply moved not only by the Crockers’ bearing witness to their sorrow and loss for us to hear and see and feel, but also by their own human strength and resilience to carry on.

A reading of Denton Crocker, Jr.’s, obituary, shows that the cause of his death was not clearly given to his family by the Army.

I honor the memory of all the Vietnamese babies, children, women, and men who were killed in Viet Nam.

I honor the memory of all the Americans who died in Viet Nam.

I honor the memory of Dr. Pham Van Can, my uncle, a top graduate of his class at the University of Saigon School of Dentistry, who never got to practice dentistry, because he was killed by a bomb detonation at a Saigon restaurant during Senator George McGovern’s visit to Saigon.  “Cau Can,” my Uncle Can, had been drafted into the South Viet Nam Army.  When “Cau Can” was killed, his young bride “Co My” was severely injured, her face disfigured. She was widowed. Their young son, “Dung,” sobbed over his father’s coffin, and became orphaned.

I honor the precious memory of my father and my mother, who taught me the values of life, and to value the sanctity of human life.

And I honor all the victims of Agent Orange, those who have died from it, as well as those who now live with the consequences of its use in Viet Nam, Vietnamese and Americans.

I honor all the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, who, along with their family members, must bear the brunt of the results of the horrific chemical warfare that was perpetrated on the Vietnamese people.  The chemical warfare unleashed on the Vietnamese people and their land, the consequences which will be borne by the Vietnamese people for untold generations to come.

The United States government, along with Dow Chemical Company, which manufactured Agent Orange and the other dioxins sprayed over Viet Nam, both bear the moral responsibility to provide Viet Nam the necessary technical assistance to help remove Agent Orange from Viet Nam’s contaminated soil and waterways, and to offer medical treatment and aid for lifelong care to the Agent Orange victims and their families, and full compensation to the victims and their families.

Such concrete actions by the government, and Dow Chemical Company, for the Agent Orange victims and their families will not erase the tragedy of the Viet Nam War, but it would be the morally imperative thing to do, even after more than 42 years after the war’s end.  Such actions would bring further healing for both Viet Nam and the United States.

Just as Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa instituted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there to address the wrongs against the African people perpetrated by whites during the Apartheid period, it is morally imperative to address the Agent Orange tragedy in Viet Nam.

President Barack Obama visited Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan to honor those who perished at both places.  In May 2016, President Obama also visited Ho Chi Minh City to celebrate the strong relations and good will between Viet Nam and the U.S. and the Vietnamese people and the American people.

I hope that someday, in the not too distant future, an American President will visit the village of My Lai to honor the memory of all the Vietnamese babies, children, women, and men, who were killed there.

Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of “The Sympathizer,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, in his writings reminds us that when looking at the experience of the Vietnamese people, it is critical to see it from the Vietnamese person’s perspective.  To understand the Vietnamese people’s experience, it is essential to have the voice of the Vietnamese people.  Only then, can we hope for a meaningful understanding of the Vietnamese.

Christian G. Appy, one of the foremost historians on the Viet Nam War, in his book, “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War And Our National Identity,” states:

“The Vietnam War and the history that followed exposed the myth of America’s persistent claim to unique power and virtue.  Despite our awesome military, we are not invincible.  Despite our vast wealth, we have gaping inequalities.  Despite our professed desire for global peace and human rights, since World War II we have aggressively intervened with armed force far more than any nation on earth.  Despite our claim to have the highest regard for human life, we have killed, wounded, and uprooted many millions of people, and unnecessarily sacrificed many of our own.

Since the height of the Vietnam War many Americans have challenged the idea that their nation has the right or capacity to assert global dominance.  Yet there remains a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain.  That machine has been under construction for seventy- five years and has taken on a virtual life of its own, committed to its own survival and growth, unaccountable to the public, and protected by many layers of secrecy.  It defends itself against anyone who seeks to curb its power.  The tiny elite that makes U.S. foreign policy enhances and deploys the nation’s imperial power, but has never fundamentally questioned or reduced it.  Congress has consistently been bypassed or has itself abdicated its constitutional responsibility to play a decisive role in matters of war and peace.  When it does act, it is mostly to rubber-stamp military spending and defer to executive branch authority.  The persistence of warmongering in the corridors of power has systematically eroded the foundations of democratic will and governance.  The institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy.

But the public is not blameless.  As long as we continue to be seduced by the myth of American exceptionalism, we will too easily acquiesce to the misuse of power, all too readily trust that our force is used only with the best of intentions for the greatest good.  If so, a future of further militarism and war is virtually guaranteed.  Perhaps the only basis to begin real change is to seek the fuller reckoning of our role in the world that the Vietnam War so powerfully awakened – to confront the evidence what we have done.  It is our record; it is who we are.”

Let us not forget the Viet Nam War.  Let us not, in the name of misguided foreign policy, allow the government to send our young men and women abroad to kill and to be killed.

Let us respect the humanity and dignity of our fellow human beings around the world.

Let us respect the sovereignty of each nation in the world community.

Let us shed the false myth and belief of “exceptionalism.”  It justified our government and our nation to wage war in Viet Nam, to regard the Vietnamese as “the enemy,” “gooks,” “dinks,” and to kill and slaughter Vietnamese people that would call on us to remember the Nuremberg Principles on War Crimes.

Let us strive to learn the lessons from the history of the Viet Nam War.  Unless we do, the Holocaust of the Viet Nam War will be repeated again and again.

Let us strive to work for a peaceful world for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren, and for all future generations.

Let us reclaim our belief in the sanctity of human life, and turn swords into plowshares.  As brothers and sisters, we deserve to live in peace.

Chuc Nuoc Viet Nam Hoa Binh Mai Mai.  May Viet Nam Enjoy Everlasting Peace.

Anh Lee is a Vietnamese immigrant who now lives in San Francisco.

Copyright Anh Le, October 2017

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