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PBS Should’ve Left the “P” Out of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Vietnam War Documentary Printer friendly page Print This
By Dallas Darling
Submitted by Author
Tuesday, Oct 17, 2017

Having served in the U.S. Army with several veterans of the Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese call the “American War,” PBS should’ve left the “P” out of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour-long Vietnam War documentary. Not only did it seem like a lot of “bull shit,” in other words, but since the war was misreported then, it will surely be misremembered now. It’ll moreover instill into future generations additional propaganda regarding America’s military interventions and covert operations.

Only Reliable Indicator Is Often Missing In Documentaries

Given the fact that it’s also nearly impossible to “properly” conduct interviews with Vietnam veterans, in that many can’t question-let alone make public-their beliefs without running the risk of losing support, status, or a sense of identity that comes with belonging to a particular society; I always considered it an honor to have listened to them when others weren’t around. In fact, from the tribal instincts to keep quiet to blind patriotism, they usually expressed gratitude that someone was willing to listen.

The series, for instance, didn’t interview a Green Beret who told me how the press reported there was no war and Americans were only there as “advisors.” But on patrol, he awoke the next morning to find every other man’s throat slit. As remnants of his squad made the long trek back to base, they no longer laughed or marveled at pigs eating roasted people in a poverty-stricken village they had torched earlier. Meanwhile, a “toe popper” ensured one more casualty, his mangled, bloody foot barely hanging by a shred of skin.

Neither did I see a Major discuss how he still had nightmares from “eradicating” villages in order to “root out” Vietcong. Testimonials to “kill everything that moves,“ including livestock, or seeing women and children burned alive with napalm, or fragmentation bombs ripping people in shreds, doesn’t make for good patriotic documentaries. What does make good patriotic documentaries however is portraying the perpetrators as victims, while demonizing the guerilla movement fighting to expel American troops.

He said friends bragged about him being a terrific killer, wiping out up to half a squad all by himself. They in fact nicknamed him “crazy.” Back stateside, he told me what to do if he had a “flashback.” Two times I witnessed him break down, as he relived jumping onto a helicopter with a pile of mangled corpses and upon takeoff, suddenly sliding out while barely catching and dangling onto the landing skids. I wonder if he still sticks a hunting rifle out the window, putting its bead on pedestrians. He wasn’t interviewed either.

Neither was the chaplain who witnessed Operation Ranch Hand-another euphemism like “strategic hamlet.” After witnessing planes shower the countryside with dioxin to destroy the jungle that concealed the guerilla “enemy,” he couldn’t help but notice how villagers suffered diarrhea, blindness, and still births. The orphanage where he volunteered, filled with children with birth defects, changed him forever too. Knowing now who the real enemy is, he devotes his time protesting at army bases and insane foreign policies.

No mention was ever made about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and its impact on black troops. Though the Pentagon hastily denied reports of a conspiracy, some knew better. Fragging and stabbings in the U.S. armed forces increased, especially since black men pondered the absurdity of killing yellow men for white men who hated them back home. While some openly called for an end to the slaughter, and wore black armbands, black naval personnel told me how they mutinied and walked off their ships.

Things Fall Apart Right Away-And Are Disproportionate

The series didn’t have to wait until the 6th episode for “Things Fall Apart.” To be sure, the killing of thousands of Vietnamese in a campaign of relentless terror in the south to subvert free and agreed upon elections to unify was censored. So too was a series of military puppets propped up by the U.S., or the elimination of General Nguyen Khanh for attempting to form a coalition with the Buddhists. Meanwhile, President John F. Kennedy and the CIA’s role in Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination was ambiguous at best.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident that triggered the war was made to look vague too. Despite leaving an impression that there was a possible attack, an individual familiar with the night a U.S. destroyer was “allegedly” fired upon told me Captain John Herrick’s After Action Report-discrediting the first report-was intentionally withheld from the president. Massive retaliatory bombing campaigns against North Vietnam were ordered, including the “any means necessary” doctrine to win the war. The report was never mentioned.

And though the documentary addressed “strategic hamlets,” it was always in the context of safeguarding the Vietnamese. But forcibly moving over half the population into 16,000 resettlement camps to perform forced labor didn’t sit well with most Vietnamese. Neither did the 1,000 temples destroyed, the 31,000 women and girls raped, the 700,000 tortured and maimed, or the 150,000 Vietcong killed from U.S. bombing and defoliation. It’s moreover always hard to mobilize support among the exterminated’s next of kin.

Contrary to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Vietnam War documentary, the U.S. achieved its primary political objective in Vietnam. Indeed, the enemy in Vietnam, as elsewhere, was independent nationalism and self-determination. Any such successful experiment in non-Western developing countries that could serve as a model was a clear and present danger. As a result, those countries who sought the same goals could expect 8 million tons of bombs, 400,000 tons of napalm, and the deaths of  4 million people.

Those nations who attempted neutrality instead of embracing American hegemony and exceptionalism could also plan for the raining down of 18 million gallons of Agent Orange and other defoliants, all of which led to extraordinary rates of liver disease, cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects. In addition to 83,000 amputees, such a nation would have to endure 40,000 blind or deaf people, and hundreds of thousands of orphans, prostitutes, mentally ill patients, and drug addicts.

If the purpose of history is to learn from the past, or to engage with those hard truths that have something to teach us, then Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Vietnam War Documentary falls short. To be sure, it’s a lesson in disproportionate documentation and verbiage, prioritizing a hubris-like U.S. perspective at the expense of anti-war protesters or those who fled to Canada. Above all, it diminishes the stories of the Vietnamese, the real victims of a far too tragic and common war that’s usually perpetuated by America.

Dallas Darling is the author of Politics 501: An A-Z Reading on Conscientious Political Thought and Action, Some Nations Above God: 52 Weekly Reflections On Modern-Day Imperialism, Militarism, And Consumerism in the Context of John‘s Apocalyptic Vision, and The Other Side Of Christianity: Reflections on Faith, Politics, Spirituality, History, and Peace. He is a correspondent for You can read more of Dallas’ writings at and

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