Vietnam: A Television History, PBS

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“History,” wrote Simone Weil “is the propaganda of the victors.” To appreciate the force of this remark, try a mental experiment. Imagine that World War II had ended in a stalemate and that several years later a team of German writers, scholars, or filmmakers undertook a history of the war. There would doubtless be many interviews with former high government officials, who would explain that though the war had been launched with the best of intentions — to vindicate German honor, “credibility,” and global security interests (which, as everyone knew, were threatened by Communist expansionism) — nonetheless certain regrettable “excesses” had undeniably taken place. In particular, the Final Solution had been a serious “blunder,” for “pragmatic” reasons: It had diverted scarce resources from the war effort during a crucial phase. They themselves had opposed many of these excesses and blunders, the officials would assure us, and some had even foreseen from the outset that a full-scale war might become a “quagmire,” unwinnable at an “acceptable cost.” But rather than resign in protest, they had preferred to “work within the system,” where their efforts to urge prudence and restraint were hampered by the more vocal and “irresponsible” opponent the war, who often indulged in strident “anti-Germanism” and were even rumored to be in contact with foreign governments.

These officials would surely go onto urge “balance” upon the history’s readers ‘or viewers. After all, the Allies had also been guilty of excesses, even atrocities, including the terror bombing of German and Japanese cities and the cruel and reckless initiation of atomic warfare. Besides, the benign and peaceful German occupation had been followed by a “bloodbath” In many places, such as France, where 40,000 alleged collaborators were liquidated after the “liberation,” and Greece, where the British and Americans killed, imprisoned, or exiled tens of thousands of leftists and former Resistance fighters in order to reimpose a right-wing, pro-Western monarchy. In any case, the officials would conclude, all now agree that the war was a “tragic mistake.” The important thing is to “avoid recriminations” and join together to “get Germany moving again.”

Needless to say, this account of the war would not satisfy many in the West. But to West Germans, exposed to very different textbooks, teachers, and mass media and therefore inhabitants of a very different ideological universe, it would seem judicious, candid, even courageous, a sign of the health of their political culture. And there would have been no judgment at Nuremberg to disturb their satisfaction.

The experiment just outlined is not wholly fanciful. Nearly every rationalization advanced by these hypothetical German officials has its analogue in American political discourse during the post-Vietnam era. Of course, the Nazi phenomenon was sui generis. The United States did not erect crematoria in Vietnam, nor did it send dissidents to concentration camps (at least not American dissidents). Still, the analogy has a point. We all inhabit one or another ideological universe whose premises set for us the limits of the thinkable. No work of history, however ambitious or courageous, can easily transcend these limits; it is difficult even to recognize them. The difficulty will be even greater in a medium, like television, that does not encourage self-consciousness — something worth keeping in mind as one approaches “Vietnam: A Television History”, WGBH’s new, 13-part documentary (episodes one and two will be broadcast on Oct 4 and 5, at 9 p.m.; thereafter, episodes will be shown weekly, on Tuesdays).

Whatever its value as history, “Vietnam: A Television History” is highly charged television. Visually, everything is here. All the famous and infamous images of that era are reproduced: our leaders — Rusk and Kissinger stonewalling Congress and the press, McNamara and Westmoreland lying dutifully about the progress of the war, LBJ preaching and Nixon scolding; beefy, bereted American advisers towering over their South Vietnamese trainees; helmeted cops swinging nightsticks in the streets of Chicago; Saigon prostitutes dragging away bemused GIs; fireballs rising on lush green hills and plains with quaint straw huts exploding or smoldering; and always and everywhere, brown bodies strewn about, dazed, mangled, dying, or dead. We see Kissinger’s “Peace is at hand”, press conference from 1972 and moments later view the ruins of Bach Mai hospital after the Christmas bombing. We see President Johnson declaring earnestly that “we seek no wider war”; his aides now explain on camera that they seized on the second (and fictitious) Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext for rushing through Congress along- prepared resolution authorizing a wider war. And we see an NBC crew stand by as General Nguyen Noc Loan, the South Vietnamese security chief, steps up to a handcuffed civilian suspected of working with the Vietcong and shoots him in the head. These Images seared the best minds of a generation; brought together in this series, they have lost none of their former power.

There are powerful new images, too. After 20 years with the guerrillas, an NLF military photographer visits her family in the South and finds that her younger brothers have joined President Nguyen Van Thieu’s army. Another South Vietnamese woman recalls that after the Communists captured Hué, they asked her father, a government official, to report for “re-education,” just as, years before, they had asked her grandfather, also a government official, to report for “re-education”; neither returned. During the Tet offensive a group of NLF commandos captures a radio station. The men are surrounded by Marines, so they blow up the station and them selves with it, whereupon South Vietnamese Army soldiers comb the rubble for loot, gleefully rifling dead bodies. And in the penultimate episode, about the end of the war, there is shot after shot of panic-stricken civilians fleeing south, a crescendo of chaos and hysteria that should sober up, however belatedly, anyone who considered April 30, 1975, an occasion for merrymaking.

From the vast quantity of available footage (the series was coproduced with British and French networks and entailed research in the film archives of half a dozen other countries), producer Richard Ellison and his crew have chosen tellingly, though not polemically. The editing is seamless and unobtrusive. And in the early episodes, which narrate Indochina first contacts with the West, they have caught the pathos that catastrophe in retrospect bestows.

Most of this history is told and (to a far lesser extent) reflected on through interviews. In the course of 13 hours, a vast number of the mighty and the humble come on stage and speak their few or many lines. This, too, is moving, though sometimes in ways that the filmmakers may not have intended. There are interviews with a great many former American officials, among them Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Clark Clifford, George Ball, Walt Rostow, Maxwell Taylor, William Westmoreland, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Colby, Edward Lansdale, Roger Hilsman, and of course Henry Kissinger. From this gallery of eminences the filmmakers have managed to elicit not a single profound or original comment. The soporific effect of chatting cozily with interviewer Stanley Karnow, journalistic insider and chief correspondent for the series, may be partly responsible — or perhaps no one in this collection of the dumbest and the dimmest had anything profound or original to say. Still these interviews are not without interest. In one revealing scene Ray Cline, former deputy director of the CIA, admits 19 years later that at the time he realized reports of the second Gulf of Tonkin incident were “unsound” — now and then breaking- furtively into an un repentant grin. Clark Clifford recounts his disenchantment after arriving at the Pentagon: “How long would it take to succeed in Vietnam? They [joint Chiefs of Staff] didn’t know. How many more troops would it take? They couldn’t say. Were two hundred thousand the answer? They weren’t sure. Might they need more? Yes, they might need more. Could the enemy build up in exchange? Probably. So what was the plan to win the war? Well, the only plan was that attrition would wear out the Communists. Was there any indication that we’ve reached that point? No, there wasn’t.” He goes on to describe, with a twinkle in his eye, how he conspired with a few other doubters in the inner circle to turn the confused and frustrated Johnson against further escalation. Genial old Clark Clifford appears so engaging at this moment, so deserving of every reasonable person’s gratitude, that it seems churlish to hold his malefactions against him.

By and large, the Vietnamese eminences interviewed Premier Pham Van Dong and General Vo Nguyen Giap — are as bland and predictable as their American counterparts. (In contrast, former South Vietnamese vice-president Nguyen Cao Ky is such a jaunty, cynical bandit that he’s almost attractive.) But Ellison and his crew have also interviewed a great many ordinary Vietnamese, and their haggard, stoical faces, with cigarettes hanging down French-style, tell another, not altogether comprehensible story. It may be patronizing or even racist, to wonder what made the Vietnamese hold out for so long against what was in effect a limited nuclear war. (In “The Fate of the Earth” Jonathan Schell memorably described the probable effects of a one-megaton bomb on New York City; nine and a half mega tons were dropped on Indochina.) But for an American, the question is inevitable, it is also, perhaps, unanswerable. At least, it is unanswered here, for all the filmmakers’ respectful attention.

They have succeeded better- with ordinary Americans. The emotional high point of the documentary is a sequence of interviews with Vietnam veterans intercut with combat I footage. Their comments run the gamut, and every voice is distinctive. Robinson Risner, a bomber pilot and prisoner of war, primly explains that antiwar demonstrations boosted enemy morale and thus furthered the Communist cause. But one’s dislike for this little bantam dissipates as he goes on to confess, with pathetic nobility, that as an American officer he had always assumed he would never give the enemy any information, but that he was beaten, and he did. Jack Bill, a burly black Marine, delivers a stunning monologue, as vivid and terrible as anything in the literature of the Vietnam war:

“Waiting for the word to advance, but there wasn’t no advance. So we was pinned down, all day, all night. In the rain, and it rained like somethin’ pitiful. And we couldn’t see nothin’ we couldn’t see nothin’ we were just pinned down. And we had casualties, we took on a lot of casualties. I’d watch guys lay there and cry for their mothers all night long. Dyin’ slowly dyin’ askin’ to be shot because they can’t take it no more. And you up there, you’re a bundle of nerves and all you can do is waft wait, wait, wait, wait....

It lightened up and then we advanced toward the village. We was the first team in, we unloaded several rounds. We dropped a couple of grenades in the hootches to get the people out. I mean we didn’t speak perfect Vietnamese, so in order to get them out of there you either cranked off a couple of rounds or you dropped your M-26 grenade down there and they get the message.

It was mass chaos. We got in the village and asked where the VC were and people in the village were saying no VC, and like at one end of the village you could hear machine-gun fire going off sand people screaming. And you go into a hootch and you got tunnels in there, and you got old ladies and kids running out and we didn’t, I didn’t kill any old ladies and kids. I know half the guys in my squad didn’t kill no old ladies and kids....

Like I say, you get in the way of an M-14 or M-60 caliber machine gun and there’s no tellin’ who’s gonna get killed. And you got an angry 18-year-old kid be hind the gun and he’s just seen his buddy gettin’ killed. And he’s not gonna have no remorse for who’s on the receiving end of that 60- caliber machine gun.... The way I seen it, it was war.”

Quieter but equally moving is a long interview with a boyish- looking, likable ex-private, Bill Ehrhart. He joined up at 17. “My parents had to sign the enlistment contract, and I think that what tipped the scales in the discussion was at one point, after talking for long time, I said, ‘Mom, is this the way you raised me, to let other mothers’ sons fight America’s wars? ... And that was it. They hadn’t raised me that way.” Listening to this unaffectedly generous patriotism, those of us who took a deferment and let other mothers’ sons (and daughters) resist the war will swallow hard.

But Ehrhart was shrewd as well as generous, and he quickly saw through the war. “In grade school we learned about Redcoats, the nasty British soldiers who tried to stifle our freedom in the tyranny of King George III. I began increasingly to have the feeling that I was a Redcoat. I think it was one of the most staggering realizations of my life to suddenly understand that I wasn’t a hero, I wasn’t a good guy, I wasn’t handing out candy and cigarettes to the kids in the French villages.... Somehow in the space of eight months I’d reached the point from being a volunteer hurrying off to do his duty for his country, to seriously contemplating desertion.” He didn’t desert, but unlike those who sent him across the ocean — King Lyndon’s ministers — he paid dearly for his illusions. He continues, his voice breaking: “The thing I have the nightmares about is the woman in the rice field that I shot on day because she was running — for no other reason — because she was running away from the Americans who were going to kill her, and I killed her. Fifty-five, 60 years old, unarmed. And at the time I didn’t think twice about it.” It is an undefended moment, beyond judgment; a moment that perhaps only the immediacy and intimacy of television could generate.

The makers of a television history have two tasks: to dramatize and to analyze. In general, the makers of “Vietnam: A Television History” have dramatized the Indochina war superbly. The series is full of skillfully but responsibly evoked sensations. Like a successful tragedy; it arouses pity and terror in its spectators.

Analytically, the series is less successful. The filmmakers fail to ask the most complex and fundamental questions about the war— a failure that may have more to do with the limits of the medium than with any lack of diligence or dispassion. Certainly this is as careful and intelligent a television documentary as is like y to be made about Vietnam. It conveys a good deal of information, some of it crucial and unfamiliar, and it avoids most (though not all) pernicious clichés. For example, the filmmakers have taken the trouble to put the refugee flights of 1954 and 1975 in perspective: in the former case, Catholics were encouraged to flee to the Catholic-controlled South by CIA propaganda (“pretty strong stuff,” one of its creators admits); in the 1atter, many of the refugees were the families of retreating ARVN troops. They stress that it was Thieu who broke the 1973 cease-fire. An early episode points out that after World War II the British occupiers used the defeated Japanese forces to control the population and suppress Vietminh partisans until the French could resume their colonial authority. (The use of right-wing collaborators and the suppression of antifascist resistance movements was a consistent British-American postwar policy.) And most usefully, they have traced the roots of Vietnamese civil conflict to Ngo Dinh Diem’s refusal to implement the election provisions of the 1954 Geneva accords and his resort to American-supported programs of population transfer and political assassination.

But they do not begin to get at the roots of American intervention. That would require pursuing some highly abstract and elusive questions. How do you dramatize the domino theory, at least in its more complicated and plausible versions? How do you show an ideology taking on a life of its own, as American anticommunism did in the 1950s, to such an extent that a rational, cost-effective imperialist venture, like supporting French colonial wars in Indochina, be came a ruinously expensive, cataclysmically destructive night mare? Most important and intractable, how do you explore the sources within American culture of genocidal high-tech violence? It has taken an entire literature — the scholarship of Gabriel Kolko and William A. Williams, the polemics of Carl Oglesby and Noam Chomsky, among others— merely to raise the first two of these questions. Only a few flawed, ambitious works, like Peter Davis’s “Hearts and Minds” and Norman Mailer’s “Why Are We in Vietnam?” have approached the third. They are impossible questions; one is bound to fail. But one is bound to try, or else achieve no more than “Vietnam: A Television History” — a compelling chronicle, not a groundbreaking inquiry.

And then there are the inevitable simplifications. The narrator of this 13-part documentary speaks no more than a few thousand words and so is liable to fall into verbal shorthand. At one point the narrator remarks in passing that the American goal of preserving an “independent South Vietnam” was fading. “Independent”? The documentary has already presented abundant evidence that every South Vietnamese government for the preceding 15 years had been wholly dependent on the United States. Another episode opens with the narrator saying: “American combat troops went into Vietnam to prevent the Communists from taking over.” That’s one way of putting it. Here’s another: “American troops went into Vietnam to consolidate its takeover by a corrupt, repressive ruling elite, in opposition to what even American policymakers recognized was the only popular, honest, competent, genuinely nationalist political movement in the country.” The latter formulation is no less accurate, as the documentary makes clear. But imagine hearing it, flat out like that, in a narrator’s authoritative baritone voice, on national television: inconceivable. It would sound stilted, strident, propagandistic. In the ideological universe of American mass media, radical truth risks sounding like propaganda.

The point is worth insisting on— it may well be the most important of all the lessons of Vietnam. Only recently Stanley Hoffmann, at the far left of the political mainstream, could write in the “New York Review of Books” that America’s purpose in Vietnam was to “protect a small country from aggression.” This commonplace statement is almost Orwellian in its neat reversal of the facts. Remember: in support of a tiny, unrepresentative, wholly dependent ruling elite, and in violation of the Geneva accords and the United Nations Charter, the United States sent 500,000 troops into a “small country” (more precisely, into one half of a small country), bombing and shelling it to rubble, in order to suppress an insurgency that American policymakers privately admitted was largely recruited from the local population (at least until 1969, by which time most Southern Insurgents had been killed or imprisoned). If this is not “aggression,” then the word is of no use. And if it is still not possible in polite intellectual society (no less on national television) to apply the words “aggression” — and “invasion” to American behavior in Indochina, then the government has won and the peace movement has lost their unequal battle for American hearts and minds.

Contemplating America’s heart and mind in 1966, Susan Sontag wrote despairingly:

“Everything that one feels about this country is, or ought to be, conditioned by the awareness of American power: of America as the arch-imperium of the planet, holding man’s biological as well as his historical future in its King Kong paws. Today’s America, with Ronald Reagan the new daddy of California and John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House, is pretty much the same Yahooland that Mencken was describing. The main difference is that what’s happening in America matters so much more in the late 1960’s than it did in the 1920’s. Then, if one had tough innards, one might jeer, sometimes affectionately, at American barbarism and find American innocence somewhat endearing. Both the barbarism and the innocence are lethal, outsized today."

American barbarism and American innocence come together for an instant during “Vietnam: A Television History.” The narrator says: “The Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army controlled large parts of South Vietnam. GIs called these areas ‘Indian country.’ ” In the documentary, this remark appears out of nowhere and leads nowhere; yet it leaves one breathless. After all, most of what GIs and the rest of us know about Indians comes from cowboy movies and TV shows. “Nation building” was what Americans frequently told themselves they were doing in Vietnam; the building of an American nation, in opposition to indigenous non-whites, was what those movies and TV shows mythicized. Perhaps this is the deepest sense in which Vietnam was the first “television war” — it was the first war fought by people whose fantasy life was formed by television. And Sontag’s categories take us even further. Perhaps there is some thing at once barbarous and innocent about the medium itself, in its combination of energy, spontaneity abundance, crudity, and naiveté.

Television’s mythic power is precious. But myth needs to be controlled by criticism — the world cannot afford much more American innocence. Central America is literally “Indian country” And if the Rapid Deployment Force (the cavalry?) invades the Middle East, Arabs will soon be the new redskins. “Two, three, many Vietnams,” said Che Guevara brashly. But we know, and “Vietnam: A Television History” reminds us, that while the first time was indeed tragedy, the next will be something other, and more awful, than farce.


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George Scialabba