The Vietnam War - a 17-hour US documentary spread over ten episodes, recently broadcast in Britain in a truncated form on the BBC - may well be the best such film yet produced on this still-controversial subject.
The documentary, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, took over ten years to finish and makes available an astonishing quantity of rare archive film and photographic footage, much of which will be new even to those already familiar with the subject.
What separates this new documentary from most previous efforts - of both fact and fiction - is that finally the North Vietnamese are given at least something approaching equal weight in the story. This is in sharp contrast to high profile Hollywood films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, where the emphasis is clearly just on the Americans. The US lost 58,318 men during the war - but, over a thirty-year period of struggle, three million Vietnamese troops and civilians were also killed.
Fighting for independence
The series rightly begins not with the start of direct US military intervention in 1960, but with the events following the end of the Second World War. The former colonial masters sought to reassert French power in Indochina (as the region including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and other adjoining countries was called) after the defeat of the Japanese, who had taken direct control of Vietnam in 1945 after the fall of Vichy France and its stooge regime in Saigon.
Indochina had been under colonial rule by the French since 1883, and they now wanted a return to the pre-war status, starting with Vietnam. The communist Viet Minh forces based in the North, led by Ho Chi Minh, had fought the Japanese and now believed that the West would in turn support independence from colonial rule.
The US was hostile to attempts by the French to reassert their colonial position in Vietnam but did not act. In September 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared that Vietnam was now an independent country and that colonial domination was ended. However, French and British forces quickly moved to retake control and reimposed French authority.
For the next nine years a bloody civil war would take place between the French, based in the south, and the Viet Minh in the north of the country. Like many colonial powers, the French believed that their “superiority” would be the telling factor in maintaining power and defeating the insurgents.
At the battle of Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954 they found out differently. The documentary shows the French forces confidently smiling and unaware that they were being lured into an obvious trap where they would be surrounded and cut off. After a two-month siege, the remnants of the French forces surrendered, soundly beaten.
The shattering defeat at Dien Bien Phu would be a key factor in the resignation of the French government, with the incoming regime coming out against a continuation of the “dirty” war. As fate would have it, the defeat would also act as a trigger in the growing movement for Algerian independence, a bloody struggle that would occupy the French over the next few years.
The 1954 Geneva Accords spelt the official end of French involvement in Indochina. Vietnam was divided into two states: the North under Ho Chi Minh and the South under the technical rule of the old emperor based in Saigon.
The understanding was that, after a brief period, a free election would be held in South Vietnam and everybody expected Ho Chi Minh to win that election and reunify the country. However, the stooge regime of prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem - which had used a rigged referendum to take full power in 1955 - promptly cancelled elections, with Ngo Dinh Diem being made president for good measure.
In effect the French had just been replaced by ruthless and corrupt agents of a US administration that now wished to use Vietnam to prevent what they called the Domino Effect: a process where one country after another in the region would fall to the communists, just as China had done, unless “action” was taken.
The Ngo Dinh Diem regime was brutal in carrying out repression, not only against communists but against anyone who might be a threat, including Buddhists. The images of Buddhist monks setting light to themselves in protest would been seen around the world. It was a severe embarrassment to the US government.
By 1963, the US had grown more than tired of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was seen as hopelessly corrupt and useless. They backed a military coup (the documentary is a bit vague on whether Washington gave this the OK, but evidence suggests they must have) and on 1st November, Ngo Dinh Diem was removed by force. Within a few hours, the puppet president was shot dead by the military. The documentary notes that far from stabilising the situation, these events opened up a period of coup after coup, with a “revolving door” of governments coming and going.
It is at this point, as we move from the second to the third episode of the documentary, that we enter more familiar territory from an historical point of view.
Space does not allow even a brief outline of what happened over the next decade. However, the remaining eight parts of the documentary present a vivid depiction of how the US, often lying to its own people, were sucked ever more deeply into sending more and more troops into Vietnam to fight the North Vietnamese insurgency, now being led by the newly-formed National Liberation Front.
The US started by sending just a few so-called “advisers” to back the South Vietnamese forces. As has been seen with so many other imperialist interventions over the years, however, ‘mission creep’ quickly set in. In the end, the Americans were dispatching thousands and thousands of new troops each month to hold the line.
Armed with the might of the most powerful country on earth, the US ruling class could not understand how they could not simply and quickly crush the peasant army of the North Vietnamese. As one Saigon official later put it: they (the communists) were fighting for something; what were we fighting for?
The US military commanders are rightly portrayed as clueless, fighting the battles as if they were General Custer - and with the same outcome. Unable to understand how to defeat the enemy in battle, and with no obvious winnable targets to be taken and held, they resorted to the one tangible measure of victory and defeat left to them: the body count.
The US became obsessed with recording the numbers of enemy troops killed in order to report back their supposed victories. Of course, in battle after battle, nothing was really ever won. One interviewee in the documentary describes a long bloody battle to take a hill, with many soldiers killed, only to then all march away afterwards. He notes that he suspects no American has ever stepped foot on that hill since. So hopeless was the progress in Vietnam that officials in Saigon started joking about organising parties so that people could have a look at “the light at the end of the tunnel”.
Trouble at home
The war was also being lost at home, however, as the conflict started to impact on those back in America. The military draft was widely seen as targeting poor people, whereas the rich could always find ways of avoiding it. “If you have the dough, you don’t go.”
One marine talks in the documentary about how, after he was drafted, he met black and Latino people for the first time and soon realised that they all had two things in common: they were working class and they were poor.
The war was being photographed and filmed by journalists and then shown on TV each night. No war had ever been so subjected to media coverage as this one and the impact was telling. Much of the film footage we see in the documentary is harrowing and at times unwatchable, such is the violence and brutality of what is taking place. No wonder such an effort would be made in future conflicts to limit and control the media; this was one lesson the armed forces would learn from Vietnam.
Over time, the war would trigger huge movements of opposition inside US universities (and around the world), and also in the black ghettos of the main cities of America, where the bulk of the draftees were coming from. Millions were being politicised.
Even those who had joined the US army and fought with great valour soon started to openly question the war. One moving scene shows US veterans of the conflict, now organised, marching in Washington against the war and arriving outside a White House that has been fenced-off on the orders of Nixon to stop them getting any further. The soldiers start throwing their medals over the barrier. One soldier points out that he has some of the highest medals that can be given in armed conflict before shouting out the names of his dead comrades. Asking what do these medals mean for them, he then throws the lot over the fence as well.
The movement against the war would prove to be a telling factor, acting as a focal point for the wider discontent against the system that was starting to emerge in the US and internationally.
Secrets and lies
Time and again, the US government knowingly hid things from the general public and even from Congress itself. Mass bombing campaigns were illegally conducted, both in Vietnam and later in Cambodia.
When Nixon discovered that many of the secrets about the war were set to come out in the press in the form of published extracts from a leaked copy of the so-called Pentagon Papers, a secret Department of Defense analysis of the whole history of the conflict, the President tried to get a White House black ops unit, “the plumbers,” to burgle an office where it was believed a copy of the papers was being kept safe. The fact that in the documentary you can hear an audio recording of Nixon actually saying that this burglary should be done is still quite shocking, despite all that would happen soon after following the break in, on 17th June 1972, at the DNC offices in the Watergate hotel in Washington.
The documentary is at pains to emphasise that senior politicians, including all the various presidents, from Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon, knew quite quickly that they would not be able to win the war and the task was simply to find a way out “with honour”. Army commanders all conceded that a ground war was hopeless and were reduced to demanding more and more bombing raids, killing soldiers and civilians alike. Some were even demanding the use of thermo-nuclear weapons.
They all hoped that the sheer weight of losses on the side of the North Vietnamese would be enough to force them to negotiate the settlement. After years of talks, a deal would be struck, but by then it was only a matter of time before the North Vietnam forces pushed for a final victory.
Nixon had finally been forced to withdraw all US forces under the illusion of arming the Vietnamese army of the South (the ARVN) to fight for itself - something that was never going to work without the help of US troops. He had promised Saigon that the US would act if the North invaded the South. When that finally happened in 1975, the US did nothing other than to evacuate their own staff from the country. The fear of continued division within the US itself was enough to prevent any military intervention, promised or not.
History repeats itself
The documentary gains much of its power not from the often-graphic film footage but from the modern-day interviews with those from both sides who were involved in one way or another.
Many are intensely moving. The mother of a young man who has gone to fight in Vietnam describes her dread when hearing the sound of a car drawing up and stopping, in case it was army representatives arriving to tell her that her son was dead. Another man, back in the US having finished his term of duty, describes how he sat in his chair with a gun in his hand trying to decide which way to blow his brains out because he could not live with what happened. A North Vietnamese veteran describes how he could accept the death of his brother but not that of his brother’s wife-to-be, who could not take the loss and killed herself.
One area that the documentary does not give sufficient attention to is the impact that the defeat of the US would later have on America itself. For years America struggled to come to terms with the fact that they had been defeated and everybody knew it.
The documentary tries to suggest that in retrospect both sides could see that the war had been a “terrible tragedy” and a “huge waste” for which both must take responsibility. This is wrong. The blame for the brutal conflict lies solely with the imperialists, starting with the French and later the US.
In the 1980s the US tried to rewrite history so that the Vietnam war would not been seen as a defeat. One particular obsession was the myth of secret US prisoners apparently still in Vietnam waiting to be rescued by square-jawed Americans from their brutal keepers.
Many in the film express the hope that lessons were learnt. What the American military did learn was that, in future conflicts, it would be best to lie and hide from the public what was happening and why - be it over Kuwait, Iraq, or Afghanistan.
The collapse of the Soviet Union would embolden the US ruling class into believing that the Vietnam war was just a one-off blip and that US forces could do what they like with impunity. The fiasco of the Iraq war and the quagmire of Afghanistan, however, would once again bring people out onto the streets to protest and challenge the system. In that sense the story told by this excellent documentary is more relevant today than ever.