Friday, September 22, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 5: “This Is What We Do” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

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

Charles and I watched the fifth episode of the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick-Geoffrey C. Ward documentary The Viet Nam War (incidentally Charles challenged my insistence on spelling “Viet Nam” as two words, unhyphenated, saying that the Viet Namese consulate in the U.S. uses the “Vietnam” spelling that was commonplace in the American media when the Viet Nam war was actually happening), which was called “This Is What We Do” — after the reminiscence of a soldier who fought in the war who when he complained, early on in his tour, about the inhumane things he was expected to do, was told by his commanding officer, “This is war. This is what we do.” The period covered in this episode was from July to December 1967, during which North Viet Namese Communist Party general secretary Le Duan (who according to this series was the real power running North Viet Nam; by that time, Ward’s script argues, Ho Chi Minh was just a figurehead) decided the North Viet Namese army and their allies, the National Liberation Front (so-called “Viet Cong”) in the south would launch a major offensive starting on the date of the Viet Namese lunar new year, Tet, on January 31, 1968. (Tet was a defeat for the North Viet Namese in military terms but a triumph for them politically: though they weren’t able to bring down the South Viet Namese government or conquer any major cities, they virtually destroyed the support base for the war among the American people, boosted the anti-war insurgent candidacies of Eugene McCarthy — who makes what amounts to a cameo appearance at the end of this show — and Robert Kennedy and brought down Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency. But then, as I’ve pointed out before, that’s how all successful guerrilla armies win: they wear down the will of the occupying country’s people to fight.) 

There were some fascinating stories, including one from Jim Musgraves (at least I think I’m recalling his name right), a quite personable (and attractive, even 50 years later) man from Missouri who like a lot of other boys from America’s heartland bought into the idea that the Viet Nam war was a) a noble struggle against Communism any right-thinking American male of military age would want to be part of, and b) his generation’s opportunity to serve the country the way World War II had been for his parents’ generation. He was so severely wounded in one firefight his chest was literally ripped open, and though he was evacuated by helicopter he was visited by about four or five doctors who gave up on him, saying there was nothing they could do for him — one even asked what religion he was so he could call the appropriate chaplain to give him last rites — until finally he lucked out with a doctor who said, “Why isn’t this man being treated?” Musgraves also said that after his first week in Viet Nam “I never killed another human being” — not because he stopped fatally shooting the people who were shooting at him, or trying to, or might have been there to do so, or even looked vaguely like people who might have been trying to do so, but because he started thinking of them as “dinks,” “slopes” and “gooks” (all terms of abuse that had come from previous U.S. war or racism against Asians — Ward’s narration includes a brief etymology for each) and he could therefore kill them with a clear conscience — just as people on the other side (one of the best aspects of this program is the fact that they extensively interviewed people who fought on the Northern side — even though between them and the South Viet Namese who were also interviewed, and Burns’ and Novick’s decision to give the translations via subtitles instead of voice-overs, leads to an awful lot of Viet Namese on the soundtrack) called Americans “puppets,” “imperialists” and “monsters.” 

The story of the part of the war covered in “This Is What We Do” (a title with an oddly fatalistic air) is one of a steady escalation on both sides, and President Johnson’s response to Robert McNamara’s series of secret memos explaining that the current strategy was not working and the war could not be won, which was to arrange for him to be appointed president of the World Bank and for long-time Democratic fixer Clark Clifford to replace McNamara as Secretary of Defense. It also covered the disputed 1967 election in South Viet Nam, in which the U.S. prevailed on the principal rivals in the government, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky, not to run against each other but instead to form a ticket with Thieu as President and Ky as Vice-President — and despite extensive election rigging and fraud the Thieu-Ky ticket only got 35 percent of the vote, though without provision for a runoff they were declared elected. (Shortly after the election, one of the rival candidates, General “Big” Minh — who’d also been a player in the period between November 1963 and June 1965 in which there were no fewer than eight South Viet Namese governments — “Musical Governments,” Mad magazine called it — asked for permission to leave the country, and instead was arrested. Some democracy.) The elections were held largely to placate opposition both in South Viet Nam and the U.S.; American critics of the war were wondering why we were being told we were fighting for “democracy” when the local government we were allied with was being run by military officers who’d taken power in coups, and Viet Namese Buddhists (which was about nine-tenths of the country) were once again mounting resistance actions and claiming that they were the victims of discrimination by the Roman Catholic minority who were actually running the South Viet Namese government and had been since the formation of the rump state of South Viet Nam and the installation of its first president, Ngo Dinh Diem, in 1955. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the war in Viet Nam was a misguided misadventure that didn’t even make sense as an act of imperialism — Viet Nam had no resources to speak of (about all that could be said for it in terms of its value in international trade was it was a great place to grow rice), nor was it strategically located in terms of confronting China (as Korea was), and any value it could have had to the international capitalist ruling class was hardly worth the toll in human lives, financial resources and overall national energy the American elite put into it. It will be interesting to see how this series develops — even though, in one of the dorkiest decisions any American broadcasting network has ever made, they’re putting the series on pause for the next few days and won’t resume it until this Sunday night (with “Things Fall Apart,” the episode that will cover the Tet offensive); either way, the conflicts that drove U.S. politics and society apart over Viet Nam — and the other two big things that happened to America, politically and socially, in the 1960’s, the African-American civil rights struggle and the emergence of the counterculture (which in the 1960’s meant the hippies and today mostly means Queers) — still divide the country, and Donald Trump’s election as President was in large measure a triumph of the racist, pro-war and anti-counterculture movement that emerged in the 1960’s on the American Right to support the war in Viet Nam and drive — politically and, sometimes, physically — the war’s likely opponents out of any influence in what went on in American governance and society.