Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 3: “The River Styx” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

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

My “feature” last night was the third episode in Ken Burns’ 10-part mega-series The Viet Nam War, “The River Styx,” a title which seemed at first to be crossing his classical allusions — usually the river whose crossing is supposed to seal one’s fate is the Rubicon, not the Styx: the Rubicon was the real river outside Rome which Julius Caesar marched his legions across, thereby essentially declaring war against the Roman Republic, signaling his decision to take power as an absolute ruler, and thereby triggering his assassination — while the Styx was the river that led into the Greco-Roman underworld, Hades, and you usually didn’t cross it until you were already dead. As the show (two hours long instead of the 1 ½-hour length of each of the two previous episodes) wound on, the meaning of the title became more apparent: Burns and his collaborators, Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward, were clearly depicting the Viet Nam war as a sort of American descent into hell. They included actual tape recordings of President Lyndon Johnson talking to advisors like Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and national security advisor McGeorge Bundy (one wonders what his parents were thinking giving him such a preposterous first name as “McGeorge,” especially since they gave his brother, also a member of the Johnson administration, a normal name, “William”) and his lifelong friend, Senator Richard Russell (D-Georgia), whom Johnson remained close to even though they had fought fiercely on opposite sides over the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Johnson knew instinctively what hasn’t dawned on Donald Trump: you don’t personally insult your political adversaries because you may need their vote on the next big issue). 

All the Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt through Richard Nixon had recording equipment installed in the White House, and sometimes on the phones as well as in person, though all of them from FDR to Johnson had a switch by which they could control the system so they decided which conversations they would record and which they wouldn’t: Nixon seems to be the only President who made his taping system automatic, so it would record everything without his or anybody else’s human intervention. Johnson’s recordings indicate a President deeply frustrated by Viet Nam, not really believing that the U.S. had any business there but feeling hamstrung by the political imperatives of the Cold War not to show “weakness” in the face of self-proclaimed Communists anywhere in the world, no matter how unimportant the region might be by the usual criteria of rational imperialists (i.e., does it have exploitable natural resources, cheap labor pools or markets?). That’s why I’ve often said that my answer to the question often posed about Viet Nam while the war was still going on — was it a “mistake” of U.S. foreign policy or a deliberate act of U.S. imperialism — was it was both: it was certainly an act of imperialism, but at the same time the U.S. squandered far more blood and money on it than was merited by its usefulness as an imperialist possession. (What makes that even more ironic is that, though the U.S. lost the Viet Nam war, they finally won the peace: today nominally “Communist” Viet Nam has, like Bangladesh, become a source of ultra-cheap labor for multinational corporations who decide that even China’s workers are being overpaid.) This third episode finds Ken Burns and his collaborators in more familiar and comfortable territory than the previous two: they can focus on individual battles and even individual soldiers (this is the first Viet Nam War episode that featured what’s become one of the hallmarks of the Ken Burns style: an actor reading, in a sepulchral voice, surviving letters from a participant in the war), where they can get out of discussing the political motives behind the war and focus on acts of individual heroism and bravery … on both sides, for one of the nicest things about this show is the sheer number of Viet Namese Burns, Novick and Ward scored interviews with, on the Northern as well as the Southern side. 

The show has also introduced me to a figure in the North Viet Namese government I’d frankly never heard of before: Le Duan (whose name narrator Peter Coyote pronounces “Lay Zwan”), who was the general secretary of the Viet Namese Communist Party and, Burns, Novick and Ward argue, was the real ruler of North Viet Nam during the mid-1960’s, having relegated the ostensible head of state, Ho Chi Minh, to figurehead status. Le Duan also, it’s argued here, pursued a much harder-line policy than Ho and was more willing to resist direct involvement by the North Viet Namese military instead of keeping up the pretense that the so-called “Viet Cong” (a derisive term coined by their enemies; their official name was “National Liberation Front,” a nomenclature that would be copied by revolutionary movements around the world). Mostly “The River Styx” is an account of the big battles in the war during 1965, including some at places I’d heard of (like the U.S. Marine base at Pleiku, where the first American ground troops landed and from which they operated), others I hadn’t — including Bin Ja, where U.S. troops fought for the first time in Viet Nam under their own command instead of supposedly just “advising” the South Viet Namese. The show concludes with an in-depth account of the fighting in the valley of the Ia Drang River in November 1965 — the first time it was definitively established that North Viet Nam was sending in regular troops from their army to fight alongside the NLF — and it depicted such interesting American characters as Major Charles Beckwith, who asked about the capabilities of the NLF’s fighters said, “I’d like to have 200 of them under my command”; Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who commanded the U.S. forces in the Ia Drang battle and was shown in an archival TV interview; and Joe Galloway, who was ostensibly an Associated Press reporter but got pressed into service when the unit he was covering came under attack and Moore gave him a machine gun and a quick course on how to use it to fight back. 

Interestingly, U.S. reporters in Viet Nam were probably less censored than in any other war, before or since; they didn’t have to submit their copy to military censors before they dispatched it, and all they were told not to do was write about ongoing troop movements or give their exact locations. Indeed, it was precisely because a lot of the reporters in Viet Nam used that freedom to portray the war in strongly unflattering terms that in later U.S. wars reporters were virtually locked in boxes, “embedded” in individual units and forbidden from traveling through the countryside looking for stories. One of the most chilling moments in the film was its inclusion of a famous CBS news report from late 1965 showing U.S. troops invading a Viet Namese village, supposedly in search of caches of equipment and food being used by the NLF, and literally burning down the entire village, setting fire to the thatched roofs with Zippo lighters and destroying the entire food supply on which the villagers were relying. The reporter, a young Morley Safer, concluded his report that with tactics like these “it will be difficult to convince the villagers that we are on their side” — words I remember hearing when I saw the story as it first aired, and which vividly stuck in my mind as endemic of the blinders with which the U.S. fought the entire war. It never seemed to occur to anyone in the U.S. government that if we were really serious about winning the “hearts and minds” of the Viet Namese people the last thing we should be doing was destroying their homes and food supplies; we were so convinced that we knew what was best for them, that anything was better than the presumed horror of living under a Communist government, that they’d just accept us as heroes and liberators. It was an illusion we tragically did not abandon when it turned out so badly in Viet Nam: I can remember President George W. Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, telling the Iraqi people, “We come as liberators, not conquerators” [sic] — a gaffe that led me to joke that Fleischer had been working for Bush so long he was beginning to sound like him. 

This idea that no matter how many unspeakable atrocities we commit against a civilian population, in the end they’re going to love us for it, has haunted us again and again in various military misadventures, including Iraq and Afghanistan (which has now surpassed the American Revolution and Viet Nam as the longest war the U.S. has ever been involved in — 16 years and counting), also places we’ve gone into blessedly ignorant of the local language and culture, and contemptuous of the idea that that might even be a problem. If anything, President Trump’s recent fulmination at the United Nations that he will “totally destroy” North Korea if Kim Jong “Rocket Man” Un keeps acting up is at least being honest — if your leader gets out of line, Trump is telling all 25 million North Koreans, we’re just going to kill you all and we’re not even going to pretend we’re fighting a war of liberation on your behalf. The show also parallels the rise of the U.S. anti-war movement — and the hopes of the North Viet Namese and the NLF that the U.S. anti-war movement would eventually sap the war-fighting spirit of the U.S. and help them defeat us — which is actually how all guerrilla movements work: keep the war going on for so long that ultimately your enemies get tired of it, their populations can’t sustain the effort any longer and therefore they withdraw and let you have your country back. (This was also one of the two things the Confederacy was counting on in the U.S. Civil War: there were two ways the South could have won — either by engendering enough war-weariness in the North that Lincoln would either have been forced to settle or have been defeated in his 1864 re-election bid, or by getting foreign intervention from Britain and/or France the way the U.S. revolutionaries had got from France to win their war in the 1770’s. Indeed, they came closer than a lot of people realize; George McClellan, the Civil War general turned anti-war Presidential candidate, was leading in the 1864 election by such a margin that in August Lincoln was convinced he was going to lose — until Grant and Sherman won such smashing victories on the battlefield in October 1864 that Northern voters realized the victorious end of the war was in sight and decided to stay the course.)

Interestingly, when I looked up episode three of The Viet Nam War on the user review that came up was from someone or something named “ducorp” who took the “Democrat” President Lyndon Johnson to task for not having launched an all-out war, including the total destruction of Hanoi and Haiphong, mining the North Viet Namese harbors and committing half a million troops immediately instead of dribbling them in a few at a time — this was a common view among Americans at the time and in 1968 pollsters reported that what a lot of people they surveyed liked least about the war in Viet Nam was the deliberate strategy of fighting a “limited war” — they got people who said, “We should go all out to win in Viet Nam, and if we’re not willing to do that we should get out,” and other people who said, “We should get out of Viet Nam, but if we’re not willing to do that we should go all out to win.” Though the military commanders in the 1990’s proclaimed the (first) Persian Gulf War as the end of what they called the “Viet Nam Syndrome” in the U.S. — the gun-shy unwillingness of the U.S. population to support a war elsewhere in the world for unclear goals and aims — and then-U.S. Army chief Colin Powell proclaimed the “Powell Doctrine” that the U.S. should never again intervene and fight without a clear set of war aims and a willingness to end the war as soon as those aims were achieved, the national trauma of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 changed all that and led us back into the quagmire business in Afghanistan, Iraq (where bringing down Saddam Hussein’s repressive but secular government brought about the formation of ISIS and created more, not less, of a terrorism threat than had existed previously) and now quite likely North Korea, Venezuela, Iran or wherever else the dyspeptic President currently in the White House decides his ego has been bruised so badly he needs to use American lives and treasure to take the miscreants down a few pegs.