Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 9: “A Disrespectful Loyalty” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

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

Last night’s “feature” was the ninth and next-to-last episode of the mega-documentary The Viet Nam War by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward, called “A Disrespectful Loyalty” after a statement one of the interviewees, John Musgrave, made about his evolution from front-line soldier in Viet Nam to critic of the war and participant in the famous demonstration at which members of the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War organization threw their service medals over a crudely erected wooden fence blocking themselves off from the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Their original plan, Musgrave mentioned in his interview, was to collect their medals in a body bag and deliver the lot of them to Congress, but the barrier made that impossible, so they threw the medals over the fence and each servicemember made a bitter little speech about how these pieces of metal and cloth, which they had been told meant so much and were such a major validation of their service to their country and their worth as men (I’m saying “men” because the women who served the U.S. military in Viet Nam did so as nurses and in the other traditional “support” category, and the idea that someday American servicewomen would be permitted to see combat would have been regarded as outrageous by people on both sides of the debate over whether the war was worth supporting) now meant nothing, or even less, to them since they’d seen the war as a futile enterprise. This episode took the story from the immediate aftermath of the Kent State shootings in 1970 (which was overwhelming support for the National Guardsmen who had gunned down students in cold blood — the polls registered 58 percent support for the Guard, which as I pointed out in my comments on the previous episode tallied with the 56 percent support for the Chicago police actions against unarmed demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the 57 percent combined vote total for Richard Nixon and George Wallace in the 1968 Presidential election) to the final withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Viet Nam following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973.

One can’t watch The Viet Nam War in the Trump era without realizing how much Donald Trump is the modern face of the reaction that began with the 1968 Nixon and Wallace campaigns, particularly the use of “law and order” as a slogan by both Nixon and Trump, who really meant the same thing by it: a promise to white America to use the full force of law enforcement, backed if necessary by military personnel, to keep Black America repressed, suppressed and oppressed. What was different between Nixon and Trump was that what Nixon said behind closed doors to his favorite advisers — Henry Kissinger, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell — his vicious references to the “lying media” and the “bums” who were demonstrating against the war, and also all the social anxieties and racist animadversions — Trump has said openly and proudly to rallies drawing tens of thousands of people. Indeed, one of the reasons Trump’s fans love him so much is that he dares to say publicly what they really think, but felt too ashamed of being considered “politically incorrect” to say in public. (Few people know this — and when I tell it to them they’re flabbergasted — but the phrase “politically correct” actually originated in the late 1970’s on the American Left, as a way for Leftists to criticize other Leftists for being too dogmatic in their application of Leftist principles. I know that because I was there and heard the phrase many times before the Right co-opted it and turned it into an attack on all Leftists.) The sheer length and scope of The Viet Nam War has the consequence — intended or not (and I suspect Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are good enough filmmakers that they intended it) — of making the film seem as oppressively long and seemingly endless as the war itself. The ninth episode does seem a bit rushed given all it has to cover — not only in Viet Nam itself (the increasing sense that the people fighting the war had of the pointlessness of it all and the ways they handled that — through heavy use of drugs, particularly marijuana and heroin, and in some cases by “fragging,” i.e. murdering, gung-ho officers who either still believed in the mission or at least acted like it and ordered potentially deadly offensives when the troops cared only about surviving their tours with their lives and limbs intact and then going home) but also at home, with the rising numbers of people demonstrating against the war and the increasing desperation Nixon and Kissinger felt in their desire to have the whole bloody business of Viet Nam over and done with before Nixon came up for re-election in November 1972.

The film mentions the Pentagon Papers and the Nixon administration’s prosecution/persecution of Daniel Ellsberg for stealing them and leaking them to the media — and the almost unprecedented U.S. court ruling enjoining the New York Times from publishing them until the U.S. Supreme Court reversed it 15 days later: the very sort of “prior restraint” censorship the First Amendment was designed to prevent. What it doesn’t mention is that after Nixon organized the “plumbers” to gain information on Ellsberg, including a bombing of the Brookings Institution (which never happened) and a break-in at the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist (which did, but it didn’t find his files), and (not mentioned here) they tried to bribe the judge in Ellsberg’s case by offering him the directorship of the FBI, Ellsberg’s prosecution was finally thrown out of court due to government misconduct. So were the charges against the Weather Underground, the offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) which had come full-circle from opposing the Viet Nam war as an act of violence to plotting and carrying out violent actions themselves, including homemade bombs (though they were such inept terrorists the only people they killed with their bombs were three of their own number in a townhouse in New York City where they were assembling bombs, and a college student in Ann Arbor, Michigan who was studying at 2 a.m. in a library the people bombing it thought would be closed). They also were involved in bank robberies, in one of which a police officer was fatally shot, but for the most part the Weather Underground were among the most incompetent terrorists of all time. As luck would have it, I met and got a chance to interview Mark Rudd, one of the leaders in the student strike at Columbia University in 1968, later a founder of the Weather Underground and still later a fierce critic of domestic terrorism whose advice, he told me, to would-be urban revolutionaries in the 2000’s who might want to follow the Weather Underground’s example was “don’t do it again.” Like Ellsberg, Rudd and most of the Weather Underground members who were arrested and prosecuted were ultimately freed because the government had broken the law itself in gathering evidence against them — though I noted grimly that all the government tactics, including entrapment and infiltration, that had been illegal in the 1970’s were made legal when Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, the USA PATRIOT Act in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

What also doesn’t get mentioned in this show is that the Watergate break-in in June 1972 was not just a scheme cooked up by Nixon’s “Plumbers” because after the failure of their campaign against Ellsberg they had nothing better to do; rather, it was literally the tip of the iceberg, the one part of a giant scheme Nixon and his advisors had to rig the U.S. Presidential election of 1972 so that Nixon would not only win, but be re-elected in such a landslide his legitimacy would no longer be in doubt. Part of the Nixon strategy was to sabotage the campaigns of the more electable potential opponents in the Democratic Party — Senator Ed Muskie, Hubert Humphrey’s running mate in 1968 and the early front-runner for the 1972 Presidential nomination, in particular — so that George McGovern, whom the Nixon people considered the Democrat easiest to beat, would be the party’s nominee. One of the most fascinating clips in episode nine of The Viet Nam War was the appearance of Valerie Kushner, wife of Viet Cong prisoner Dr. Hal Kushner, on the podium of the 1972 Democratic convention giving a seconding speech for McGovern’s nomination; the years without any contact between her and her husband had moved her to the Left (while most of the POW’s wives remained staunch and public supporters of the war and expressed nothing but confidence in Nixon’s tactics for winning the war and bringing their menfolk home), while he had been kept so isolated, not being allowed any contact with his family until he was permitted to record a tape for them just a few months before his release, that on that tape he refers to the child his wife was pregnant with when he shipped out as “he or she” because he had no way of knowing whether the kid was a boy or girl. (It was a boy.) The show covers the denouement of Viet Nam, at least as far as the American involvement was concerned — the negotiators in Paris, Henry Kissinger representing the U.S. and Le Duc Tho representing the North Viet Namese government (both sides deliberately kept the two other parties to the talks — the National Liberation Front and the South Viet Namese government of President Nguyen Van Thieu — out of the loop), cut a deal in October, the North Viet Namese government asked for time to review it, and Nixon responded by ordering the worst bombings of the war on North Viet Nam’s key port city of Haiphong (one person called it “the first bombing ever ordered by tantrum,” to which I could only think, “If you think Nixon’s tantrums were bad, just wait until you see Trump’s!”) as well as on Hanoi, which led to both sides ultimately agreeing to the same deal they could have had in October with that last nasty fillip of bloodshed.

The show also contained a fascinating digression on Jane Fonda — in the middle of the blood and guts Burns and Novick suddenly cut to the opening credits of Barbarella, the sci-fi sexploitation film Fonda and her first husband, French director Roger Vadim, had made in 1968 — and John Musgrave explains that though a number of Left-leaning celebrities from the U.S. visited North Viet Nam during the war, the GI reaction against Fonda was particularly nasty because she had been their fantasy object, the personification of what they’d been fighting for. (What he really meant, of course, was that she’d been their jack-off fantasy; it’s hard to imagine Jane Fonda being to the Viet Nam war what Betty Grable had been to World War II, but that’s what Musgrave was basically saying.) Burns, Novick and Ward also mention Joan Baez’s visit to Hanoi during the war (she made amateur recordings while she was there during the Christmas 1972 bombing and wove snippets of them into a song called “Where Are You Now, My Son?” that took up the entire second side of her album of that title) but do not mention that, while Fonda’s statements in Hanoi (in which she called the U.S. POW’s “war criminals” and called for their trials and even their executions) followed their party line — and, even more infuriatingly for many Viet Nam vets, she was photographed taking a joy ride on an anti-aircraft gun turret that was used to shoot down U.S. bombers — Baez took a different stand, calling the North Viet Namese government out on its political repression and telling them to their faces that just because she was opposed to the U.S. attack on their country, she was not an uncritical supporter of the North Viet Namese Communist government either. Indeed, if there’s any message in The Viet Nam War it’s one of the sheer evil of all war; the segment on episode eight detailing the way North Viet Namese captors treated U.S. prisoners of war was followed by one in which a North Viet Namese recalled how people on her side who were captured were tortured by Americans, often in the same ways (especially electrocution and waterboarding) later used at Abu Ghraib and other locations in which the U.S. held people in Iraq. Many of us in the peace movement slowly reached the conclusion that since our country had gone so wrong in Viet Nam, the side we were fighting must be “right,” and that’s why people in the later peace marches carried North Viet Namese and NLF flags and openly rooted for a North Viet Namese victory.

The extent to which the political and cultural battles from the Viet Nam era are still being fought in the U.S. is exemplified by the reviews on the site of the various episodes in Burns’ film by someone calling himself (or, much less likely I suspect, herself) “dncorp,” who’s basically making the arguments supporters of the war have been making from then till now: the U.S. should have deployed everything it had in Viet Nam (the fact that a total war in Viet Nam would have amounted to genocide against the Viet Namese people doesn’t seem to bother “dncorp”); the U.S. military won all the battles in Viet Nam but were stabbed in the back by disloyal or incompetent politicians (does “dncorp” even know that that was also the argument Adolf Hitler used to gain power in Germany — that the German military had won World War I but the disloyal politicians had stabbed them in the back and given up, allowing Germany and its power to be shackled by the Treaty of Versailles?), and that all the people protesting the war should have been rounded up and dumped in the middle of the combat zone, where they could either have taken up guns and found their courage at last or met the brutal deaths he seems to think they deserved. So much of President Trump’s support seems to go back to this atavistic demand for revenge — not only “America, love it or leave it,” but “America, love it or die, and good riddance” — even his recent tweets criticizing African-American players in the National Football League for doing gestures of protest when the national anthem is played before games hearken back to one of the most famous protests in the 1960’s, when Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their arms in the clenched-fist Black Power salute during their medal ceremony — and got roundly criticized, including the usual death threats, by the radical Rightists of their time. I’m sure “dncorp” would bristle at being called a fascist, but as Jesus Christ said, “By their fruits ye shall know them” — certainly his ideology, which goes beyond even the usual defense of the war (there’s actually something to the argument that so-called “limited war” is an oxymoron: if a war is worth fighting at all, it’s worth fighting to the max and going all-out to win) to a kind of outraged brutality that’s been at the center of a large part of the American Right ever since and now, with Donald Trump as President and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, is essentially running the country.