Find the full documentary at PBS.org.
The good . . .
The film follows previous Burns works in providing poignant footage mixed with compelling interviews and a backdrop of good music, starting in this case with Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.
The bad . . .
Despite the counter-cultural veneer, however, and admirable efforts to provide a Vietnamese perspective, Burns and Novick’s film in its first episode provides conventional analysis about the war’s outbreak and can be understood as a sophisticated exercise in empire denial.
The film is misleading at the outset in quoting an American soldier who recounts the pain of his homecoming, insinuating that veterans were maltreated in the United States–a trope often used to blame antiwar activists for creating this allegedly anti-veteran and divisive climate.
The indictment only gets worse. Here Burns and Novick justify Washington’s mass murder. I wonder. Did Burns and Novick not see these images?
I find sometimes that the war monsters need reminders. But they may find offense in such a suggestion, for they feel that their fight embodies ideals than mere mortals are poorly equipped to understand. Yet it is precisely body count of mortals that counts for a win or loss in American military engagement. So the objectives change when it suits them in the press. They’ll even tell their soldier, again mere mortals, what’s at stake, and what’s at stake for soldiers is obviously different than what’s at stake for civilians at home. But we don’t know anymore because the U.S. bombs indiscriminately any town it wants. Civilians are clearly targets. They might be called soft targets used to destabilize the enemy or demoralize him. Either way, each man and woman on this planet is within range of a U.S. military target. How many victims does the U.S. need to cool its jets? See this man who survived the atomic blasts at Hiroshima. The perpetrators of this deed are not heroes; they are monsters. And the U.S. has been exporting war . . . well always. For those of you born in the 20th century, can you remember a time when the U.S. hasn’t bombed, mass murdered, droned, poisoned, or otherwise killed folks from another nation, always under the dumbest pretense of national security somewhere on the other side of the globe?
But I digress.
The ugly . . .
Burns and Novick mislead viewers further by showing footage of North Vietnamese migrating to the South fleeing communist terror and interviewing a woman whose family fled while leaving out the fact that the CIA worked to sabotage North Vietnam’s economy, created a fake resistance movement and coerced many Catholics and others to flee by spreading false rumors about Vietminh atrocities and promising them 40 acres and a mule.
Burns and Novick depict the southern guerrilla movement as being controlled by the Hanoi Politburo when the National Liberation Front (NLF) was founded in direct response to the 10/59 law passed by South Vietnamese premier Ngo Dinh Diem that allowed for the execution of regime opponents after a military trial.
Burns and Novick also leave out some of the sinister aspects of nation building in the late 1950s, such as the police training program led by CIA advisers working under the cover of Michigan State University (MSU) who imported surveillance equipment and built up Diem’s secret police.
It’s disappointing to see this. I’ve liked Burns’ previous documentaries, not all of them, but the ones on the Dust Bowl and Baseball. But here he is toeing the official line, the official narrative which never brings restitution or free trade or freedom only a mountain of skulls.