Friday, September 29, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 10: “The Weight of Memory” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was the 10th and final episode of the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick-Geoffrey C. Ward documentary series The Viet Nam War, “The Weight of Memory,” which takes up the story from the official U.S. withdrawal of military troops in early 1973 under the Paris Peace Accords to more or less the present. The first half of the program dealt with the final stages of the war, the last two years during which the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN), the military force of the South Viet Namese government, vainly — and, at least in this telling, heroically — tried to resist the onslaught of the North Viet Namese army and the National Liberation Front (the so-called “Viet Cong”) and held out for two years even though the NVA and the NLF were fully armed with Soviet and Chinese weaponry (more Soviet than Chinese because the Soviets had long since enthusiastically accepted North Viet Nam as an ally while the Chinese were considerably warier — a feeling that went both ways since for about 1,000 years before the French conquered it in the 1850’s Viet Nam had been a Chinese dependency, nominally independent but subject to what the Chinese called “suzerainty and tribute” — meaning that the Viet Namese had to accept the Chinese as ultimate authorities and pay them large amounts of money — and the Viet Namese had long enough memories not to embrace the Chinese as friends) while the U.S. Congress voted down any more military spending on Viet Nam and thus neither Richard Nixon nor his successor, Gerald Ford, were able to come up with the equipment and air support Nixon had promised in writing to South Viet Namese president Nguyen Van Thieu to get him to sign the Paris accords in 1973. The war didn’t really stop until the Communists finally took Saigon in April 1975 — and of course Burns, Novick and Ward couldn’t resist a fairly lengthy sequence detailing the fiasco the American evacuation of Saigon became, thanks (at least in this telling) largely to the obstinacy of the last U.S. ambassador to South Viet Nam, Graham Martin, who delayed the evacuation until literally the last days (by which it had become impossible to evacuate anybody by land or through a Viet Namese port — the only thing that could be done in those final days was to fly them out by helicopter, and even that was delayed because the only place the large ’copters could land was the parking lot on the U.S. Embassy grounds, and there was a tamarind tree blocking the way that Ambassador Martin wouldn’t allow to be cut down until literally the final day — whereupon crews had not only to cut down the tree but sweep the parking lot of any debris that might have got sucked into the helicopters and screwed up their engines) out of some crack-brained idea that there was still going to be a South Viet Namese government and he needed to show them that the Americans were still their allies — either that or he just didn’t want to lose “face” by leading a tails-between-their-legs evacuation. Of course, a tails-between-their-legs evacuation was exactly what happened, made even more bitter by the decision at the last minute that since the ships the ’copters were flying too were getting too crowded, they would evacuate only Americans: the Viet Namese who had helped us, either by working as translators or support staff for the U.S. presence or being officials in the South Viet Namese government, were left behind (a shameful practice we duplicated when we more or less left Iraq in 2008 and left our Iraqi support people, especially the translators, to their fate). 

It was a sad ending to an incredibly sad, tragic and traumatic episode in U.S. history — as I’ve pointed out in comments on the earlier episodes, there was a lot of debate within the anti-war movement in the U.S. over whether Viet Nam was a “mistake” or a war deliberately fought as part of U.S. imperialism. As the movement radicalized, its leaders (the ones I knew about, anyway) made it clear that “mistake” was the “wrong” answer and “imperialism” was the right one — though it occurred to me that the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam was both an imperialist war and a mistake: the U.S. spent way too much blood and treasure in Viet Nam than it would have been worth to any rational imperialists (like the French, who had had the good sense to get out after their debacle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954). Once the North won the Viet Nam war — though one of the most tragic moments in this whole long film was one Viet Namese ruing the fact that with the U.S. withdrawal, instead of a struggle for national liberation it was one in which Viet Namese were killing each other (which I don’t think is what Mao Zedong meant when he wrote about “turning imperialist wars into civil wars” — what he did mean was an analogy to Russia in 1917, when Russia’s involvement in World War I led to the collapse of the Czarist regime and a civil war in which the Russian Communists prevailed) — the fabled “dominoes” fell in Cambodia and Laos but no farther. Thailand remained a non-Communist constitutional monarchy (and a favored location for shooting films about the Viet Nam war, notably Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, because it was as close as filmmakers could get to Viet Nam while the U.S. still didn’t recognize or have diplomatic relations with it), and ironically Viet Namese people found themselves at war again when, with the support of their Soviet patrons, they invaded Cambodia in 1979 to bring down the horrendous Chinese-backed regime of Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and the Khmer Rouge. Geoffrey Ward’s script for The Viet Nam War acknowledges that, despite the fears of a lot of U.S. policymakers (especially once the North Viet Namese captured enough classified documents from the U.S. Embassy, despite the efforts of Embassy personnel to destroy them, to piece together the names and locations of most of the Viet Namese people who’d helped the U.S. war effort) that there would be a bloodbath against anyone who’d worked for the South Viet Namese government or supported the U.S. war effort, there wasn’t (as there was in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge’s real or supposed “enemies”), though members of the former South Viet Namese army were ordered into “re-education centers” and told that enlisted men would need only a few days there while officers would require a month. In fact the “centers” were really prisons and the people incarcerated there were held, in some cases, for years — one of the most poignant stories told here was of a former South Viet Namese army officer who was imprisoned in a “re-education center” for nine years, allowed to leave the country when he got out, and relocated to the U.S. and established himself but still, much to the consternation of his family, wants to return to Viet Nam and die there. The program also told of Viet Nam’s fate after the war, in which Viet Namese Communist Party general secretary Le Duan (described throughout the program as the real power behind the throne in the 1960’s even though Ho Chi Minh was the front person for the North Viet Namese government until his death in 1969) took a hard-line policy including the collectivization of agriculture. 

Exactly why so many Communist governments have copied Stalin’s deadly mistake about the collectivization of agriculture when it inevitably leads to under-production and mass starvation and famine is a mystery; there may be advantages to public ownership of industry but attempts to organize farming along industrial lines, whether by Stalinist government fiat or capitalist agribusiness, seem only to demoralize farmers and plunge yields. The result in North Viet Nam — as in the Soviet Union, China and every other country that tried this madness — was a decade-long famine and economic collapse until Le Duan finally croaked and his successors instituted something called doi moi, similar to Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in the Soviet Union and Deng Xaioping’s market-based reforms in China, which allowed some amount of private enterprise, encouraged foreign investment and — an irony totally unmentioned here — eventually led to Viet Nam becoming an outpost of multinational capitalism, a pool of cheap labor companies could exploit when they decided that even Chinese labor had got too expensive. (In other words, in Viet Nam as well as in China the structure of Communist dictatorship, especially its suppression of independent labor unions, ultimately became the basis of capitalist dictatorship; the nominal Communists running both China and Viet Nam have essentially turned their countries into giant sweatshops for the multinational business elite.) The film ends with the tale of how relations between the U.S. and Viet Nam were finally normalized thanks largely, Ward’s script argues, to the efforts of three U.S. Senators who had actually served in the Viet Nam war: John McCain (R-Arizona), whose capture as a POW when his bomber was shot down over Hanoi had been a major propaganda coup for the North Viet Namese because he was the son and grandson of Navy Admirals and at the time McCain’s father was the admiral in charge of the U.S. fleet in Europe (this story is told in episode five and the contrast between North Viet Namese propaganda footage of the young McCain with what he looks like now was dramatic); John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), who had been one of the leaders of Viet Nam Veterans Against the War and had given the dramatic Congressional testimony in which he asked the rhetorical question, “How do you ask the last man to die for a mistake?” (words that came back to haunt him when he ran for President in 2004 and Republican propagandists savaged his war record!); and Bob Kerrey (D-Nebraska). The film closes with President Obama visiting Viet Nam in 2016 — the first U.S. President since Nixon to do so — and making one of his typical speeches about bringing unity and bridging the gaps between former enemies. 

Like so much of Obama’s rhetoric, this rings pretty hollow in the context of who’s succeeded him as President and the fact that Donald Trump’s whole strategy as a leader, as CNN commentator Chris Cilizza recently wrote (, Trump “seems bent on reminding us on what divides us rather than what unites us. … Whether he wants to admit it to himself or not, Trump is purposely playing on lingering racial resentment and animus in the country to remind people of what divides us. And he is doing so because he knows it will work.” The Viet Nam war divided this country into two large camps, the people who were horrified at the way the war seemed to contradict our stated ideals of individual self-determination for both people and nations, and those who saw it as a Holy Cause on behalf of Truth, Justice and The American Way and felt that war opponents should at best be forcibly silenced and at worst should be beaten, jailed or even killed. One of the quirkiest things about The Viet Nam War (the movie) is that it’s illustrated just how the divisions within America that emerged in the 1960’s have dominated and defined our politics ever since — and Trump’s election was a huge triumph for the love-it-or-leave-it crowd, who despite Trump’s paucity of any real achievements nonetheless love him for articulating their rage in his rhetoric. In that sense we’re still fighting the Viet Nam war (and the civil rights battles that also took place in the 1960’s), with Trump’s base viewing him as the ideal vehicle to rid the American polity of all those radical Commie nigger and  fag ingrates who “lost” us the Viet Nam war and challenged what they see as the undeniable, unchallengeable “truths” that whites are superior to people of color, men are better than women and Queers are creeps who dwell under rocks from whom our children need to be protected. Just as the U.S. lost the war in Viet Nam but “won the peace” (we turned Viet Nam into an emporium of capitalist exploitation, much the way the South lost the U.S. Civil War but “won the peace” by being able to re-subjugate African-Americans into menial jobs, segregated everything and permanent second-class status), so the American Right lost the war over whether the U.S. should stay militarily involved in Viet Nam but “won the peace” in terms of getting their representatives elected and adjusting U.S. policy as a direct assault on African-Americans, Latinos, women, Queers and whites who reject the “timeless” values of masculinity and militarism as the American political and cultural Right defines them.