Ken Burns’s ‘Vietnam’ revisits a barbaric war and asks, what went wrong?
How could this happen? In the years between the fall of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, two years after our troops left, the United States was severely divided by race, war and a generational split, a state of polarization not seen since the Civil War.
A member of a military family, I entered the Jesuits after serving two years in the antiaircraft artillery in Germany, where we had been advised that the Russians might attack at any time. Theology, just war ethics, the influence of fellow Jesuits, summer internships at America, the march against the Pentagon led by intellectuals like Norman Mailer, the riots in Detroit and New Jersey and, especially, the violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which I witnessed—all of these taught me that something was wrong with the U.S. value system expressed in our foreign policy.
Now, more than four decades after the end of the war, Ken Burns’s “The Vietnam War,” written by Geoffrey C. Ward as a 10-part documentary series totaling 18 hours, tries to answer what went wrong and what lessons are to be learned. Burns offers the testimony of 80 witnesses, including U.S. and Vietnamese participants on both sides—such as New York Times correspondent Neil Sheehan and soldier-turned-novelist Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried.
It all begins with the two-month battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which the French had fortified their position so as to draw the Vietnamese Army into an attack where they would all be killed. But the Vietnamese outsmarted the French, pounding them with artillery from higher slopes and shooting down planes delivering food and ammunition. The French artillery commander shot himself in his despair.
From then on the United States gradually replaced the French as a colonial occupying army, not realizing that as the French were hated so would we be. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural commitment to “pay any price” to protect liberty led him and his successors, step by step, to replace the French with what they considered a “limited war.” U.S. aircraft dropped napalm bombs and Agent Orange to kill the forests that hid the Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers, but these eventually also killed U.S. soldiers, as well as causing cancer, birth defects and psychological breakdowns.
We uprooted farming communities and forced the inhabitants into strategic hamlets, where we thought they would be safe from enemy influence. While we policed them we sometimes killed the wrong people, and every person killed would lead to 10 more Vietnamese willing to fight the U.S. intruders.
President Lyndon Johnson was constantly overwhelmed by the job: “What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? To the country?”
President Lyndon Johnson was constantly overwhelmed by the job: “What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? To the country?” He tells the leaders of South Vietnam to “get off their butts and leave me alone.” Still, Republican presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater claims Johnson is not tough enough. So, to flex a muscle, the United States charges, without evidence, that North Vietnam has attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, and our war expands its scope with our bombing North Vietnam.
Burns interrupts the combat narrative with personal stories. In one narrative, we meet Dinton (Mogie) Crocker, 17, who loves his country and, typical of many in his generation, wants to serve it. As his sister now recounts, Crocker’s parents resist, he is still too young. He leaves home for a while, returns, enlists, becomes bored and disillusioned, but now, at 19, in the 101st Airborne, he takes part in an attack on an enemy-occupied hill. He is up front, the point man; a machine gun cuts him down. We follow him home to burial in Arlington Cemetery and see his name engraved on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial.
General Westmoreland takes charge of the war. Back in the United States, antiwar movements begin to spring up, including the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and various student-led protests on college campuses across the country.
Two scenes linger. We see again, in more detail, the napalm landing on a family as they race out of their homes and down the road toward a group of cameras. The moment produces the infamous shot of the little naked girl running and crying down the road, 30 percent of her body burned with napalm. The reporters embrace and clothe her and get her to the hospital. Another scene is from the Tet offensive: A policeman has captured an enemy and, in front of a camera, blows his brains out.
Dead bodies clutter scene after scene of “The Vietnam War.” We do not get close enough to examine them, but they are in shambles, body parts spread around, limbs gone, chests crushed. Among both the Americans and the Vietnamese friends and enemies, the corpses are sacred, and both sides risk lives to collect them.
Both Presidents Johnson and Nixon must keep assuring the public that the United States is winning the war, providing shabby statistics of a “body count” that show we always kill more of them than they kill of us. They know the war cannot be won, but they pretend it can be by adding more troops. They repeatedly stop the bombing then bomb again, especially near election days.
In the 1968 Tet offensive, 84,000 North Vietnamese systematically move south, penetrating Saigon itself. Over the course of 26 days, 6,000 civilians die in battle, many shot in the head for supporting the wrong side. Walter Cronkite, at the end of his visit to Vietnam, reports the war to be in a stalemate. Robert Kennedy declares his candidacy for the presidency. President Johnson, aware that 63 percent of the public disapproves of his handling of the war, declines to run for re-election. Martin Luther King Jr., who has come out against the war, is assassinated. Robert Kennedy, too, is killed.
Missing from the documentary is Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and the role of religion in opposing the war.
On the home front, on Oct. 15, 1969, millions of U.S. citizens protest against the Vietnam War and take part in demonstrations across the country. Known as the Vietnam Moratorium, it is the largest outpouring of marches and demonstrations in U.S. history. In response, President Nixon goes on TV to argue for “patience” and unity. But reporter Seymour Hersh breaks the story of the massacre at My Lai, where, led by Lt. Calley, U.S. troops had systematically murdered 557 civilians in a little village. (A mile away, another village of 97 had been wiped out.) Asked why he participated in the atrocity, a soldier replies, “I was ordered to.” Lt. Calley is convicted of murder but has a life sentence reduced to a few months and house arrest. A half million protest at the Washington Monument. Nixon reacts: The “dirty rotten Jews were behind it.” In 1970 at Kent State University the National Guard shoots four student protesters to death.
Missing from the documentary is Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and the role of religion in opposing the war. John Kerry, a hero and a Catholic, helps fill that void. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, representing 2,000 Vietnam veterans against the war, he opposes the “glorification of body counts,” asks why we cannot admit a mistake. People must die lest Nixon be known as the “first president to lose a war.” Kerry asks, “Where are the leaders of the country?” He dares to open his talk with testimony of fellow soldiers of their own crimes, especially rapes and mutilations.
The war’s horrible climax is Nixon’s resumed bombing of the North, the “Christmas Bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong, in which B-52s sweep in every 15 minutes over 24 hours, leaving 1,600 civilians dead. On March 29, 1973, the troops leave. There is no bloodbath when the North eventually marches into Saigon. Over one million Vietnamese refugees leave, 400,000 to the United States, and thousands of children fathered by U.S. soldiers are left behind.
Burns hesitates to say that anyone won or lost the war. My visit to Vietnam in 1995 made it clear to me. The victors had built a War Crimes Museum in Saigon that included a guillotine, used to punish them during the French occupation. A photo on the wall showed smiling U.S. soldiers, posing like a group of fishermen, displaying the hideous shredded and blackened corpse of a Vietnamese young man. I also visited a hotel where U.S. correspondents had stayed in Saigon (Two hundred journalists and photographers gave their lives to cover the war.) It featured large pictures of two soldiers ready for battle: One was loaded down with ammunition, weapons, a helmet and grenades; the other was slight, shirtless, with nothing but his rifle. His side had won.
John Kerry deserves the last words: His last mission, he told Congress, is “to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our own hearts, to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last 10 years and more.” Amen.
Correction, Sept. 20: The nickname of the soldier mentioned who was killed in combat in Vietnam has been corrected to Mogie. Napalm was dropped from various American aircraft, not only helicopters.