The popular fiction writer Dan Brown wrote:
History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books – books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’
That quote unquestionably applies to early Christian history, the topic Mr. Brown has gained a worldwide following writing about. It is probably true about our history up to and including World War II. It is demonstrably not true about our more recent history; mostly because we have had no clash of cultures; just clashes.
This Sunday (17 September) is the premier of a 10 part Ken Burns PBS documentary titled The Vietnam War. The premise behind this series is enough time has passed to allow us to go back and “remind ourselves of the things we don’t want to talk about”. The series will unquestionably be an excellent feat of journalistic production; visually stimulating and emotionally resonating. I’m looking forward to watching it.
What it will not be is what the producers, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick promise it to be and that is a fair, unbiased accounting. I have spent the last four days pouring over the companion book to this series with growing concern. There is no indication in the book that the liberal narrative regarding the men and woman who fought that war is being challenged. Given the amount of turmoil this war caused in the American public; creating fracture lines that exist to this day, reinforcing a discredited narrative from the past is a grave disservice to both our military and nation.
I paid an inordinate amount of attention to Vietnam while growing up. My father and two of my three uncles were career Marine Corps officers; from the mid 60’s to the early 70’s one of them was in Vietnam and all them saw heavy combat. As I was raised on or near Marine Corps bases most of my friends fathers were also participants in that war. My father and my friends fathers were heroes to us when we were young. I am blessed that I am able to say they remain so to this day. There are not many books or novels about the war I have not read so my baseline knowledge runs deep.
The book (also titled The Vietnam War) has a rhythm to it. It’s organized as a comprehensive history explaining how the United States went from supporting Vietnamese freedom fighters in World War II to fighting those same men a decade after the war. Dispersed throughout the chapters are side bars that contain the personal stories of the participants. The stories told in those sidebars are consistent; the young Americans were patriotic, motivated, idealistic, innocents who became disillusioned by what they saw and did. Those that survived (and many did not) emerged damaged, bitter, and pissed off. The Vietnamese on the other side were also patriotic, idealistic and innocent; they battled against extraordinary hardships, fought for years on end and emerged as proud paragons of virtue who were ennobled by the experience.
American generals from that conflict are depicted as clueless liars focused on the lavish use of firepower and dated, inappropriate tactics. American field grade officers were murderous psychopaths focused on killing as many people as possible while ignoring their own casualty rates as they sought ever higher body counts to further their careers. The American junior officers experience mirrored those of the enlisted men; tricked into going they rapidly became bitterly disillusioned by what they saw and did.
The Vietnamese general officer and Colonels are uniformly portrayed as tactical geniuses who developed the perfect battle plan to use America’s strengths against her while continually besting American and South Vietnamese forces in the field. They too emerged from their decades of war wise and ennobled.
Keep in mind I’m talking about the side bars. The narrative does admit that the North Vietnamese made serious strategic errors especially when they launched their Tet Offensive in 1968. There is also a side bar that describes the massacre of Vietnamese men, women and children by the North in Hue City during the 1968 Tet offensive. Yet the book focuses a majority of it’s narrative on American malfeasance of which there was plenty. While doing so it perpetuates some stories I’ve never heard and don’t believe.
One of these was the story of Private Dennis Stout who served with Company B of the First Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne. He contends that in April of 1967 his platoon captured, interrogated and then spent two day raping a Vietnamese teenager before murdering her. That is an extraordinary claim that requires an extraordinary amount of proof to be taken seriously. None is provided.
Where would a platoon find a place in the rear area to house, torture, rape and then murder a captured female? Why would anyone believe that a platoon could even accomplish such a deed on the off chance they even wanted to? Platoons are not independent entities, they are part of a rifle company which is part of an infantry battalion and as such they are not allocated offices or rooms or building in which they can conduct themselves unsupervised. I’ll address this incident in detail when the segment containing it is aired.
The American military did rape women and kill children in cold blood on at least one occasion; the My Lai massacre. Yet that story too is incorrect as written in the book. The photographs of that odious deed came from an Army public affairs correspondent, Sergeant Ronald L Haeberle. What the book fails to mention is that then Sgt Haeberle did not release the photos he took with his army equipment; he had a personal camera with him that day which he used to take the photos and then hid so that the real story could eventually come out. That was a brave move by a good man and the vast majority of those who fought in Vietnam were just like him; good men.
I suspected, as I read the book, that the hundreds of people who worked on this documentary had limited knowledge about the American military. That suspicion was confirmed when I got to the story of an infantry officer who was born during WW II in an Arizona Japanese American interment camp named Vincent Okamoto.
Vincent Okamoto is the most highly decorated Japanese American of the Vietnam war where he was awarded three Purple Hearts, The Distinguished Service Cross, both a Silver and a Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. He went on to lead an exemplary life retiring as a judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court.
Here is the description from the book telling the story of his incredible bravery under fire.
On the morning of August 23, he made his twenty-third assault. Nineteen helicopters ferried the first and second platoons to a new landing zone just thirteen miles from the Cambodian border. Their task was to dig in, stay put, and somehow block a battalion of some eight hundred North Vietnamese troops, who were trying to escape back across the border. Okamoto’s unit was reinforced by a platoon of mechanized infantry, three APCs, and a tank, but they were still badly outnumbered. He and the fewer than 150 men under his command spent the rest of that day and all of the next preparing for an attack as best they could—setting Claymore mines and hanging coils of razor wire.
At about ten o’clock on the night of August 24, Okamoto remembered, “we got hit with a very heavy mortar barrage. Within the first ten seconds, all three of those armored personnel carriers and tanks were knocked out with rocket-propelled grenades.” Trip flares briefly lit up the landscape. Scores of enemy troops were running at the Americans through the elephant grass. Enemy mortar shells blasted two gaps in the razor wire. If Okamoto and his outnumbered men couldn’t plug them, they were sure to be overrun. He and the four men closest to him held their M16s above their heads and fired blindly.
The enemy kept coming. “I had my four people. And through the light of the flares, I said, ‘A couple of you guys go and man the machine guns out on those APCs.’ Well, the response I got was, like, ‘Fuck you, I ain’t going up there.’ So I ran to the first armored personnel carrier, and I pulled the dead gunner out of the turret. I jumped in there, manned the machine gun, and fired until it ran out of ammo.” Okamoto moved to the second disabled APC, then the third, emptying their guns.
That’s a great story but one that, to a military professional, makes little sense. Obviously a reinforced rifle company fought that battle so I’m not sure why a second lieutenant would be in charge. He had a mechanized platoon and tank attached yet in the opening barrage the APC’s and tank were disabled by rockets. What the hell were they doing up in the front of the D to start with? A reinforced company with attached armor should have easily been able to not only block but to destroy an NVA battalion fighting in the mountains near Cambodia. To do that they would have needed to build a defense in depth where the armor is kept to the rear and brought up as needed to hose down the enemy and then returned back into the D to reload. That is infantry tactics 101; armor is great in the D because it is mobile and has heavy firepower. Placing them up front in a linear defense is a ridiculously amateur move.
I mean no disrespect to Judge Okamoto who is a great example of the American fighting man. Brave, resolute, and a man who lead from the front. The story here if true (and I don’t believe a second lieutenant was in charge of a company (rein) task force at this battle) is why would he, as a very junior officer, be placed in charge of this task force? It takes somebody with military knowledge to recognize this and that’s my point. The people who put this series together did not include any experts on the topic at hand.
Mr Burns and Ms Novick did interview dozens of former military men and women who served in Vietnam. My favorite of that group would be Karl Marlantes who wrote the books Matterhorn and What it is Like to Go to War. I heard about this series during an interview Karl did with Mac on All Marine Radio. I’ll be interested in what he has to say but it is also clear that the majority of the material in this series was produced by people who know very little about the military or war.
There was plenty of incompetence at every level on all sides of this conflict. Focusing on American and South Vietnamese incompetence while giving the NVA and NLF a pass is dishonest and it sticks in my craw. The series is also promotes the lingering suspicion that the men who fought this war came home as damaged goods. Which brings us back to Judge Okamoto.
Vincent Okamoto had a successful legal career after the war and his experience matches the vast majority of his fellow Vietnam Vets. I suspect that in this series/book he’s singled out for positive treatment due to his racial background and the circumstances of his birth. I may be wrong but regardless, his success in later life is the common story for most Vietnam Vets. The media never mentioned this fact over the years and instead perpetrated a series of hoaxes like the famous CNN Tailwind story (alleging the use of Sarin gas in Cambodia) or this 1983 article about traumatized vets living in the wilderness of Washington State (not one of them, it turned out, had served in Vietnam). To this day the media narrative regarding Vietnam Vets is seldom accurate or positive.
In 1994 a Vietnam Vet named B.G. Burkett self published the book Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of it’s Heroes and it’s History. The book unmasked hundreds of media and political frauds. It told the truth about the subsequent lives of the men who served and prompted congress to write into federal law the Stolen Valor Act which made lying about military service a crime. That law was quickly overturned as the Supreme Court correctly decided that lying about being a hero, although odious, is still protected under the first amendment.
I believe, based on the companion book, that PBS is once again trying to rob the Vietnam Vet’s of their heroes and history. That is why I feel compelled to critique each episode. Our country is divided enough as it is and doesn’t need more liberal propaganda shoved down our throats. I hope the series deviates from the companion book and presents a less “nuance” and more “reality” view on the subject of the Vietnam War. If it does I’ll be the first to point it out but I don’t think I’ll be doing any backtracking over the next few months. And that’s a pity.
I intend to publish a blog post weekly recapping the episodes while pointing out the bias and distortions that deviate from the true history. Judging from the companion book that is not going to be hard to do.