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Ken Burns Vietnam War Documentary

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Posted by Jack Heslin on 21:00:56 09/29/17

Ken Burns Vietnam War Documentary Episode 10

Last night my wife and I watched Episode 10 of the Ken Burns Vietnam War Documentary. It was painful for us to watch. The scenes of the crushing destruction of South Vietnam by one of the most brutal Communist regimes in the world, at that time, was as appalling as it was when we first witnessed it in April 1975 on television.

In 1975, my wife and I decided that the only thing we could do was to offer our home to Vietnamese refugees, so we did. We had four little children at the time, and I was an ROTC instructor at the University of Rhode Island. We modified our house to accommodate what we thought would be a Vietnamese refugee family. However, since we were living in Rhode Island, many Vietnamese feared the very cold winters.

In the fall of 1975 we were notified that there was a group of difficult-to-place refugees: single males who could not speak English, and we were asked to take one. We agreed, and he arrived shortly after. Some months later, we met a second single Vietnamese man, whose sponsor had just passed away unexpectedly, leaving a wife and nine children. This man also came to live with us. All of this started a two-year journey with Vietnamese men living in our home.

On most Sundays, my wife and I hosted a group of 6 - 8 Vietnamese men coming into her kitchen to cook their own food and spend hours talking together and sharing, with my wife, the incredible suffering they felt for the loss of their families and their country. They shared these horrific stories with my wife; but, when in my presence, they never cried or complained. One of them eventually married my wife's youngest sister and has been part of our family now for more than 40 years.

I am telling this story to explain the unmitigated horror we felt when we saw the most powerful nation in the world, America, stand back and watch the total destruction of a longtime ally to whom we had made "blood" commitments. To this day, we feel that we as a nation utterly betrayed a people who had totally committed their lives and fortunes to our word; that failure in our view is a blood stain that will not be easily washed away, and it should never happen again.

My disappointment with the Ken Burns series is more in the omissions, what was not told, than the commissions, what was said.

The opening story of the Battle of Ap Bac told only one side of the story, although there are sources that could have been reviewed for a different view, namely the work of Ly Tong Ba, the young ARVN Captain who commanded the M-113 armored personal carrier company. I have read it and heard it directly from Ba.

The report of that battle by the American press, of "the failure, incompetence and cowardliness of the ARVN military" was the first major nail in the coffin of President Ngo Dinh Diem and the beginning of years of the American Press's derision of the ARVN forces and leadership. The Burns documentary supported that view almost exclusively, even though there were passing affirming statements by the narrator. On the other hand, we were listening to a "drum beat" of accolades about the bravery, tenacity, and combat skill of the Communist forces both VC and NVA.

In spite of a brief fleeting comment, that maybe a Communist spy had tipped off the VC at Ap Bac, Burns totally disregarded the role that the Communist super spy Pham Xuan An, Colonel in the NVA, the go-to reporter for many American reporters, played in that preset ambush. His story and his role is readily available in the open sources.

We watched in excruciating detail the battle of Ap Bac that lasted a total of 2 - 3 days and was portrayed as a great VC victory and ARVN defeat. However, the three month long Easter Offensive of 1972, where ARVN soldiers fought with great courage and success, is covered in the documentary in a matter of a few minutes. And not once was there any mention that as the Vietnamese civilian refugees poured out of the Northern part of South Vietnam, they were under almost continuous artillery fire from the advancing NVA forces.

I know for many it was interesting to hear the detailed story of truck drivers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, especially the women, but where was there even a single story of an American helicopter pilot? The men who fought in the ever-present helicopters for ten years were never heard from, but the NVA truck drivers were heard repeatedly.

While I think Burns and company were respectful and did a good job in portraying the effort and final dedication of the American Vietnam War Memorial, I was disappointed that more time was not given to the incredible story of the South Vietnamese people and veterans assimilating into our country and the contributions they have made. It is the only memorial they will ever have: their lives here and what they have given back to us, the United States of America.

Several years ago, I had General Ly Tong Ba visit my home for several days and during that stay, at his request, we had his cousin and her husband, who live not far away, come to our home for dinner. During the dinner, the husband who had been a South Vietnamese Air Force officer told his story of coming to America as a refugee with a total of one US dollar in his shirt pocket and nothing else. With a quivering voice he asked me point blank how we could have betrayed them and completely abandoned them on the field of battle. General Ba looked shocked at the question as did the man’s wife. I had no answer but to say how deeply sorry I was for the actions of our government at that time. There was no other mention of any of that during the rest of the two-hour visit we had. In fact, in all my many contacts with Vietnamese military refugees, that was the only time I have had anyone say anything negative about how they were treated by the U.S. in the end. In contrast, many have expressed their gratitude that we (the U.S.) gave them 20 more years of freedom.

I was pleased to hear the voice of the woman who had been an anti-war activist as she apologized for her actions so many years ago. I am pleased that I have personally heard that from others; that is healing for me. Some people have truthfully acknowledged that their actions at that time were not only hurtful to those of us who served with honor but also aided the enemy during the time Americans were still fighting and dying on the field of battle.

If those members in the American Press who aided and abetted the North Vietnamese Communist government with their false reporting would finally admit their error and apologize to the American people, the South Vietnamese people, and the American Vietnam War veterans for what they did, that would represent a huge step forward in the healing process of that very painful war. It is not without precedence that they do that; others have.

In his 1981 paper "How to Lose a War: The Press and Viet Nam" Robert Elegant gave voice to some reporters who recognized what they had done.

"During the latter half of the fifteen-year American involvement in Viet Nam, the media became the primary battlefield. Illusory events reported by the press as well as real events within the press corps were more decisive than the clash of arms or the contention of ideologies. For the first time in modern history, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen. Looking back coolly, I believe it can be said (surprising as it may still sound) that South Vietnamese and American forces actually won the limited military struggle. They virtually crushed the Viet Cong in the South, the 'native' guerrillas who were directed, reinforced, and equipped from Hanoi; and thereafter they threw back the invasion by regular North Vietnamese divisions. Nonetheless, the war was finally lost to the invaders after the U.S. disengagement because the political pressures built up by the media had made it quite impossible for Washington to maintain even the minimal material and moral support that would have enabled the Saigon regime to continue effective resistance.".....

"I found few American correspondents to be as tough-minded as one Briton I knew who was very close to the action for many years in the employ of an American wire-news service. 'Im ashamed of most of what I wrote in Viet Nam,'' he told me recently. 'But I was a new boy, and I took my lead from the Americans, who were afire with the crusading spirit of '60s journalism- the involvement, man, in the good fight. When I look at what's happened now, I'm ashamed of my ignorance- and what I helped to do to the Vietnamese."

"As one West German correspondent has confessed (Uwe Siemon-Netto in the International Herald Tribune, reprinted in Encounter, October 1979):

Having covered the Viet Nam war over a period of five years for West German publications, I am now haunted by the role we journalists have played over there."

The fact that TOP SECRET US documents were stolen and published during a time when American service men and women were still on the field of battle was then and is now appalling to me. That release of those TOP SECRET documents, the Pentagon Papers, was divisive to the support of the war effort at home and therefore it too aided and abetted the enemy who were killing American service men on the field of battle. The fact that the crime of those people who released the documents was almost totally overlooked and in fact applauded, while a low level, amateurish break-in to the Democratic campaign offices became the focal point of bringing down a President who had been elected overwhelmingly a year earlier is amazing to me. The result was devastating to millions of free South Vietnamese people who had put their trust in the hands of that President. We still live today with the effects of pursuing that petty crime.

I realize that now the Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary is likely to go down in history as the "Gold Standard," but I truly regret that the opportunity to heal the wounds of that war have been lost through Burns' and Novick's acts of omission.

"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."
-John Stuart Mill

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