The Vietnam War
The BBC should be praised for showing all ten episodes of this unique, informative and shattering American series on the Vietnamese war, despite screening eight fewer hours than in the original. Before each episode the BBC warned that ‘some viewers may find some scenes upsetting’. Which ones? A frog jumping in a pool of blood from the head of a dead Vietcong (NLF) fighter? The Saigon police chief shooting a prisoner in the head? The American colonel offering a case of whiskey to the first man to bring him the severed head of an enemy soldier? Which he gets. The eager US soldier on his first day in Vietnam noticing strings of what he thought were leaves, which he realised were the ears of dead enemies? (In Vietnam I saw marines wearing necklaces made of ears.) The My Lai massacre of 407 women, men, and children in a village with no enemy opposition? Or, most telling, the American corporal describing how he had entered a black hole looking for enemy soldiers. He smelled someone’s breath, they grappled in he dark, and he broke his adversary’s thorax. ‘The other casualty was the civilized part of me.’
Working for ten years, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick used often violent film footage, interviews with veteran fighters from both sides, all of them now old, in which some of the north Vietnamese and NLF veterans refer to the horrors of killing. Much here will remind viewers of Iraq, where Washington looked away as Saddam Hussein was murdered by his own side, just as Saigon’s President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu, who had been installed by Washington, were executed by their own army – for which President Kennedy later apologised. Also familiar will be presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon lying to the public about how well the war was going when they knew victory was an illusion.
The series starts with the 19th-century French conquest of Indochina –Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – in which France, ignorant of these ancient cultures, claimed it was ‘civilising’ the conquered peoples. But after collaborating with the Japanese in their conquest of the Vietnamese, the newly liberated French successfully warned Washington that unless it paid most of the bills for their continued military rule, Paris would move into the Soviet orbit.
From then on, the US was hooked into decades of losing tens of thousands of its own soldiers while killing, as this film shows, millions of Vietnamese, most of them innocent civilians. The American soldiers are shown burning down villages as watching reporters, initially pro-war, warn that hundreds of new enemies were being created. Hanoi and its southern allies murdered hundreds of those deemed to be collaborators with the Communists’ adversaries.
Each side maltreated its prisoners. Hanoi insisted that all the American captives were war criminals. The final hour of this agonising film about wars beginning in the 19th century must have astonished and – I hope – troubled British viewers. South Vietnamese civilians climb on to Saigon roofs to crowd into helicopters to flee the on-rushing Hanoi forces. Useless helicopters are pushed off the carriers. Over a million South Vietnamese suffer Communist ‘re-education’. Thousands are executed. 1.5 million fled abroad. Aged, weeping Communist and American veterans wonder what the war was for. A laughing President Clinton, who escaped the war, shakes hands in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Over 58,000 names of US soldiers on a memorial in Washington. Millions of Vietnamese, North and South, died. As the song asks, ‘When will they ever learn?’