By Tarak Kauff
The Vietnam War documentary attempted to show the courage and some of the heroism of “our kids” from small-town USA, who went to war with noble intentions, who fought to keep themselves and their buddies alive as they found themselves in the middle of a horrific situation that none of them could have foreseen – the common grunt and young officers doing their best, betrayed by inane orders to take hills at great cost that they would then leave, for what? The documentary wants us to come away with a feeling of renewed respect and gratitude for our warriors in uniform who defend the ideals of this country. These soldiers and Marines went through hell and we should respect and honor them for that, right? Well, not if we don’t want the same thing to happen again and again, with the worst hell, as war is always and as was in Viet Nam, reserved for terrified civilians, women, children, noncombatants, and old men. That is why I won’t honor and make heroes of the warriors, part of an invading army who were not defending their country.
Have we ever seen the Wehrmacht or the SS portrayed as heroes? When the side you are fighting on is the aggressor side and when your invading military collectively commits massive brutal, murderous atrocities, such as the German military did, and the U.S. in Viet Nam, no one fighting on that side deserves the status of “hero.” They forfeit that distinction precisely because they are the aggressors. To prevent wars of aggression, to prevent atrocities in the future, to ensure peace, there is no glorification for criminal behavior.
If we want to talk of heroics, there were the thousands who deserted, or just left their country and went to Sweden or Canada rather than participate in a totally unjust war. Many of us knew the war was a lie, the evidence was there, by the early 1960s. Think about the Berrigan brothers and those who risked jail or did jail time for burning draft records, or about Howard Zinn, Dave Dellinger, and others who risked plenty just by going to North Viet Nam, and Joan Baez, even Jane Fonda, who said some regrettable things but risked her career (and life) by taking a stand against the American War. How about Susan Schnall’s real heroics, and Gerry Condon, Bruce Beyer and others who refused to fight in an imperialist war of oppression and domination? How about Mark Foreman, a Marine medic who refused to carry a weapon and was just there to save lives and came very close to losing his own? These were the heroes and many more, who didn’t carry a weapon.
But there were other heroes; it was the Vietnamese people, many of whom sacrificed everything to defend and free their country from first the French and then the Americans, who would continue to wage war, to devastate the country, and allow their installed and supported South Vietnamese governing puppets to oppress, imprison and exploit the people into unbearable poverty and dehumanizing virtual slavery.
Yes, a few of the talking heads in the documentary came over eventually to the anti-war side, joined VVAW, but with the exception of Tim O’Brian and Bill Ehrhart, bless them both, I did not see, either in the faces or words of the others any remorse for what they had participated in. Musgrave and Malantes and other talking heads seemed to be quite comfortable, calm and rational, almost enthusiastic at times, about what they did. We can understand their need, after the trauma of intense combat, the need to somewhat justify what they did and what they stood for, for it was apparent that on a certain level, they still believed in the basic goodness of U.S. America. The noble cause principle, taught to us from early childhood, had sunk in too deeply. It is not easy to realize that your own country, that you grew up worshipping and adoring, the land of the free, home of the brave, was, in reality, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
We can’t help but think of what Hannah Arendt said about the banality of evil.
Musgrave, even after being part of VVAW and throwing his medals, and later sobbing at the Wall, which we give him much credit for, still bemoans the U.S. abandoning the South Vietnamese in Saigon, saying, “To see America leaving like that after giving sixty thousand of their sons and daughters. I knew we were abandoning millions of Vietnamese … “ After all these years, to still have not broken through the lies is sad.
U.S. Army medic Mike Hastie, who was there, has often said, “We just never want to see the truth, because the truth violates our entire core belief system.” It takes moral courage to examine deeply and see through the myths one has built a life upon. To see the naked truth.
So very little or nothing from the talking heads about the millions killed by U.S. forces, nothing, no sorrow for the destruction wrought on Viet Nam by U.S. bombs, bullets and long-lasting chemicals like Agent Orange. No sorrow about the land, destroyed, the elephants, tigers forever destroyed. A country in ruins. That Wall would be some nine miles long if the Vietnamese who died were on it. Is it only about American lives? God damnit, Musgrave, you fought for the wrong side all along, and for a good part of this documentary, you gloried in it. Where is the remorse, where is the apology, for what this country and its military did to the Vietnamese, to their country, the effects of which are still very manifest today? Where are the tears?
I was not even there, having gotten out of the Army in mid-1962 after 3 1/2 years, most of that time as a recon-trained machine gunner in the 101st Airborne, so tarnished by their actions in Viet Nam, and I have guilt, I have remorse, I often cry over Viet Nam. By 1963-64 the evidence was there, it was blatant, so that many of us, who were looking for truth, were well aware of what was happening in Vietnam, what the U.S. was doing. I was investigated by the FBI for anti-war activities. My deepest regret, that I have to live with for the rest of my life, is that I did not do enough, sacrifice enough, to stop the carnage.
And yet, this documentary, as flawed as it is, as Amerocentric as it is, has opened a door for us and much of the information contained in it is valuable and does indeed reflect the lies, deception and inhumanity of our leaders, and some, certainly not enough, of the anti-war resistance. We, those who have seen through the myths of U.S.exceptionalism, should expand upon those elements, but the thrust of it, the first and last episodes especially, do not deserve our praise or defense. As others more articulate than I, like Christian Appy
, I also find Ken Burns to be a liberal apologist for the worst crimes. And there was so much, I cannot help but conclude, that was intentionally left out. The Pentagon must love this film.
Randy Rowland said in a previous brilliant analysis of the Vietnam War documentary “In case we were slow to get the point, the series ends with protesters apologizing for their protests, while the so-called patriots weep for their fallen heroes. (When’s the last time somebody wept for Auschwitz guards, or SS Stormtroopers?) Instead of thanking protesters for keeping their moral compass in confusing times, the series ends up spanking demonstrators and thanking those who obeyed rather than challenge their country’s call to arms. Our moral outrage against the war, and US imperialism in general, is deflected by the moral outrage of a narrowly defined patriotism.”
And the huge lie, this portraying in the documentary over and over, of the war as a civil war, to absolve us of our guilt, the truth is, as Christian Appy writes – “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.”
This poster, (above) sent by Ann Wright and Paul Appell, says it all about heroics.
Veterans For Peace
National Board of Directors