As we cross the finish line of The Vietnam War marathon, I want to offer some thoughts about the documentary as a whole. First, despite all the Vietnamese voices it includes, this is a remarkably American film. The soundtrack, for example, is loaded with dozens of familiar and well-amplified 1960s rock songs while the music provided by the multicultural Silk Road Ensemble tends to hum quietly in the background. American soldiers, veterans, and their families get the first and last word of almost every episode and are granted the lion’s share of moral and political authority by a host of editorial decisions. There is another form of Americentrism, however, that may not be so obvious: the historical framing of the subject as a Cold War struggle in which the United States, acting on behalf of the “Free World,” intervened in a civil war to contain the spread of communism.
While that lens helps us understand the official American justification for war, it does not adequately explain the war itself, the Vietnamese experience, or the reason for U.S. defeat (a word the film’s narration avoids, preferring “failure” or “tragedy” instead). In the eyes of the Vietnamese victors—as for hundreds of millions of people around the world who sought to free themselves from colonial domination in the aftermath of World War II—the United States was not defending freedom and self-determination in Southeast Asia, but was waging an imperialist war of counterrevolution. The communist-led forces in North and South Vietnam did not think they were engaging in a civil war, but in a war of national liberation to achieve reunification and independence. True, as veteran and author Bao Ninh concedes, there was intense fighting between Vietnamese on different sides. However, for him and others who fought against the United States and its southern allies, the key symbolic map did not feature a red tide of communism spreading over Asia and Africa, but showed instead all the new nations recently liberated from colonial rule: India, Kenya, Senegal, Algeria, Ghana, and dozens of others. For them, the Americans were simply a new version of the old colonialists, or neocolonialists, who would seek to impose their authority by proxy.
Although this anticolonial framework is introduced in this film by a few, mostly Vietnamese voices, it falls away almost entirely after the Americans come fully on the scene at the end of Episode 1. And after the last American troops leave in 1973, at the beginning of Episode 10 the narrator makes a stunningly misleading historical summation: “The Vietnamese people would find themselves back where they were at the beginning, engulfed in an apparently endless civil war.” The war was never primarily a civil war and after the United States ended its massive support of the South, the collapse of the Saigon government was inevitable. The Final Offensive by the North Vietnamese in spring 1975 was a rout.
Without a fuller appreciation of the powerful appeal of national liberation, the war’s outcome remains a mystery. Several American officers express their deep admiration for the skill and fervor of their enemy. Indeed, General Merrill McPeak even says, “we were fighting on the wrong side,” adding, “I would have been proud to fight with those [North Vietnamese] truck drivers.” But why were they so tough, for so long, despite unimaginably difficult conditions and devastating U.S. firepower? Part of the answer is the sheer anger generated by the violence and destruction brought by the U.S. military, particularly its bombing. But the larger answer is simply this: the communist side had much deeper and broader political support than the Saigon government.
The war’s outcome was not determined by force of arms, but by political will. The United States had the military power to avoid defeat indefinitely, but military dominance does not guarantee political legitimacy. The U.S.-backed government in South Vietnam never gained enough political support from its population to subdue its opponents and survive on its own. That, I believe, is the essential explanation of defeat.
The film makes a number of references to the corruption and unpopularity of the Saigon regime, but it devotes far more attention to the military history of the war. What was the political significance of all those battles? Eventually they wore down the will of South Vietnamese and American citizens (soldiers and civilians alike) to keep fighting against their still resolute enemy.
The film’s lengthy attention to ground combat in Vietnam invites another observation about the documentary as a whole. Despite its extraordinary length, the vast range of historical events it covers, its wealth of archival footage, and its eighty interviews, The Vietnam War has a surprisingly tight focus. The decision to feature so many combat veterans preempts a more expansive understanding of what the war meant in the United States and Vietnam.
For example, viewers might imagine that the vast majority of American troops were engaged in combat when, in fact, fewer than twenty percent were. Greater attention to the gigantic American bases in rear areas would have graphically illustrated the imperial scale of the U.S presence in Vietnam. By the late 1960s, the largest bases featured swimming pools, clubs, American TV shows, Vietnamese women who served as “hootch maids,” and PXs stocked with everything from the latest stereo equipment to perfume (see Meredith Lair’s book Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War).
The film also gives little, if any, attention to the imperial footprint that stretched far beyond Vietnam to the many U.S. bases in Okinawa, Thailand, the Philippines, and even as far away as Guam where U.S. pilots flew 12-hour round-trip missions in planes loaded with 30 tons of explosives each to carpet bomb South Vietnam from an altitude of five miles. Nor do we get a full sense of the constant shelling and bombing carried out by U.S. ships off Vietnam’s coast. We do see plenty of pictures of the dead and wounded, and some dramatic color footage of fiery orange napalm explosions. But nothing in The Vietnam War offers as haunting and visceral a feel for the sheer magnitude of American firepower as a two-minute black-and-white sequence in the middle of Emile de Antonio’s 1968 documentary In The Year of the Pig in which we see and hear the relentless attack from sea and sky.
A consideration of U.S. firepower raises a larger concern: the film’s failure to acknowledge fully the war’s civilian casualties. Some two million Vietnamese civilians died in the war, most of them killed by the United States. This figure does not even include the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian and Laotian civilians killed by U.S. bombing. In its last episode, The Vietnam War offers only a vague and misleading tally: “After thirty years of war, much of Vietnam lay in ruins. Three million people were thought to have died, north and south.” The thirty-year timeframe distorts the total by including the French war in which nearly another one million were killed. Moreover, the civilian portion of the total is unmentioned. And the “north and south” formulation implies that the deaths were caused equally by both sides. Not so. Most civilian casualties occurred in the South and were caused by the United States and the government of South Vietnam. And in the North, all of the casualties, military and civilian, were caused by the United States.
A more honest accounting of Vietnamese suffering would help explain one of the film’s positive contributions: its attention to the history of antiwar activism among Vietnam veterans. In Episode 9, we see the 1971 demonstration in Washington, D.C., organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, in which one veteran after another makes a brief statement and then throws the medals he earned in Vietnam against the steps of the U.S. Capitol, offering the most graphic possible demonstration of their opposition to the ongoing war. Among the antiwar vets we see John Musgrave, with very long curly hair and a full beard, wearing his old combat fatigues and a peace symbol button on his chest. This arresting image dramatically conveys the shock many Americans felt seeing military veterans looking every bit like countercultural rebels and adding their voices to the diverse and enormous chorus of antiwar opposition. Musgrave describes his “long painful process” of turning against the war and concludes, “Standing up to your government and saying no when it’s doing something that you think is not in this nation’s best interest—that is the most important job that every citizen has.”
Important as it is to recover memories of GI and veteran opposition to the war—the subject of an excellent 2005 documentary, Sir! No Sir!—we still need documentaries that do full justice to the larger antiwar movement. The Vietnam War does not. Instead, the most enduring impression of this film is the unfounded claim that peace activists often called veterans “baby killers, and worse.”
A bigger concern is the film’s avoidance of any discussion of how the experience of the Vietnam War might illuminate our understanding of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only one hour of the final episode is devoted to postwar legacies, a tiny portion of an eighteen-hour opus. Here the emphasis is still on the need to heal the wounds of war and to overcome wartime divisions. This therapeutic approach displaces any consideration of how American imperial power is still being brandished throughout the world.
When the film takes us to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, completed in Washington, D.C., in 1982, we hear again from John Musgrave, who describes his first visit to the Wall. “I didn’t cry,” he recalls, “I sobbed. I was on my knees, I couldn’t stop … and I was so thankful to God it was there. I thought, this is gonna save lives, this is gonna save lives.”
But did it? Filmmakers Burns and Novick prefer to leave us with a positive, unifying sentiment rather than a critical set of questions. Why not take to heart Musgrave’s great point about a citizen’s duty to protest and scrutinize contemporary foreign policy through the lens of the Vietnam War experience? After all, the Wall did not save lives. More than 7,000 Americans have died in foreign wars since 9/11, as have hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other sites of U.S. military involvement.
Here are some of the troubling similarities between past and present, none of which is addressed in the film. During the twenty-first century, as in Vietnam a half century ago:
- The United States once again waged undeclared war under false pretexts.
- Once again, hundreds of thousands of American troops were deployed to distant lands where they were widely perceived as hostile invaders.
- Once again, the mission was to prop up foreign governments that could not gain the broad support of their own people.
- Once again, we fought brutal counterinsurgences guaranteed to maim, kill, or displace countless civilians.
- Once again, U.S. officials insisted that victory depended on winning the “hearts and minds” of ordinary people even as our warfare was endangering those very people and driving them into the arms of the enemy.
- Once again, the fighting persisted long after a majority of Americans had deemed it mistaken or even immoral.
- And once again the government failed to achieve its stated objectives and sought face-saving exits to disguise the disasters it had created.
Burns and Novick have frequently stated their desire that The Vietnam War will help to heal the bitter and polarizing divisions created by the war. But even if that were possible, would it be desirable? What forms of forgetting and avoidance would that healing require? Would we have to ignore the most important lesson from the Vietnam War: that the United States is not an exceptional force for good around the world? Is the primary job of history to pay homage to “stories of courage, and comradeship, and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation”? Or is it to awaken our critical understanding of how the past has brought us to this precarious present?
Christian G. Appy is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts. He is the author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (2015), Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (2003), and Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (1993). He also serves as an OAH Distinguished.