Last night the first episode of the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary titled Deja Vu aired and it was pretty good. It was visually stimulating, had an excellent musical score and told a sweeping (yet selective) narrative of history leading up to the American involvement in Vietnam.
The back story on how we became entangled in Vietnam is rather straight forward. In hindsight it seems to be a series of miscalculations and poor assumptions. How could we, after supporting Ho Chi Min and his Viet Minh fighters in their fight against the Japanese in World War II turn against them in support of French imperialism? Part of the reason, which is covered in the documentary, was our experience with communist aggression in Korea and Europe.
Communism was perceived as an existential threat to the West at the time and for good reason. That it would ultimately fail was not a foregone conclusion and as we look back it is hard to put decision making in the proper context. To illustrate the point; in 2003 how many Americans thought that invading Iraq to remove a brutal dictator was a bad idea? I didn’t, the democrats in congress didn’t, most of America didn’t…in fact one of the few people in the country who did was Marine General Tony Zinni who, unfortunately, had just retired.
What is not examined in the Burns film was why the French allowed Cambodia and Laos their independence. Knowing why that happened may have explained why they chose to make a stand in Vietnam. What is also not examined or explained is why North Vietnam continued their aggression in the south. South Vietnam was content to consolidate it’s holdings; they didn’t attack the north or fund subversive elements in that country in an effort to destabilize it.
South Vietnamese political corruption, which included the execution of hundreds and imprisonment of thousands, was mentioned last night as was the trials in North Vietnam of land owners and the redistribution of land to the peasant class. What was not mentioned is the death toll from the North’s pogroms, the famine that followed (as it has at all times and in all places after communist land reforms) or the reduction camps in the North. What will never be mentioned in the 18 episodes of Ken Burns film is that every socialist regime in history has been irredeemably corrupt. It’s a feature; not a bug.
The brief interview excerpts of Americans and Vietnamese who fought in the war and quick snap shots of iconic photographs set the tone for subsequent episodes. In the American interviews former Marine Roger Harris recounts telling his mother that he would not be coming home as he is sure to be killed. Former soldier Tim O’Brien talks about his fear of getting up and walking through the country side. The impression is that these men were out classed by an enemy who was invisible, tactically better, tougher and more dedicated. This is the liberal anti Vietnam War narrative that was dominate back in the day, perpetuated in popular films like Platoon, and the origins of the myth that war destroys all who participate.
Jordan Peterson gave an interesting take on men put into “warrior mode” when they are committed to combat. On psychological level when a man advances on an enemy who can do so as a predator or prey. Obviously being in predator mode is preferable, it opens up different neurochemical approach circuits, enhances performance and is a good indicator of a positive psychological outcome (such as no PTSD).
The Burn’s documentary indicates clearly the men he interviewed felt they were prey. I bet those same vets take issue with that characterization but they didn’t control the editing process so there it is. Nowhere in the companion book are there indications of American units taking the field in predator mode with one glaring exception. That is when they are killing unarmed civilians instead of taking on the NVA or Viet Cong. Nothing could have been further from the truth and there are several stories in the companion book I flat out do not believe but we’ll get to them in due time.
There are dozens of novels written by Vietnam veterans that dispute this interpretation. My favorites include The 13th Valley by John Del Vecchio, Fields of Fire by James Webb and Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (Karl is one of the interviewees in the Burns documentary).
John M. Del Vecchio, in an excellent post on the peaking at 70 blog has this to say about Burns’ documentary. “Pretending to honor those who served while subtly and falsely subverting the reasons and justifications for that service is a con man’s game . . . From a cinematic perspective it will be exceptional. Burns knows how to make great scenes. But through the lens of history it appears to reinforce a highly skewed narrative and to be an attempt to ossify false cultural memory. The lies and fallacies will be by omission, not by overt falsehoods.”
The iconic photos from last nights show includes this Pulitzer Prize winner of Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s Chief of National Police.
This is a great example to unpack and examine in detail. In the companion book the picture is describe as follows:
The prisoner was brought before him (General Loan). He was an NLF agent named Nguyen Van Lem and may have been the head of an assassination squad. (He had been found with a pistol adjacent to a hastily dug grave that held the bodies of seven South Vietnamese policemen and their families.) He and Loan exchanged words that no one else heard. Loan ordered one of the soldiers to shoot the prisoner. When the men hesitated, Loan drew his own pistol and shot him through the head.
Everything in the explanation is sort of true except the “may have been” part in describing Nguyen Van Lem as the head of a assassination squad. This is a classic example of lying by omission. Here is a more comprehensive background on Mr. Lem: note what has been left out by the Burns team.
In the morning of the second day of Tet, January 31st, 1968, when general Nguyen Ngoc Loan was leading a fierce fight near An Quang Pagoda in Saigon’s Chinese quarter, two of his officers brought to him a communist cadre who had murdered many innocents in cold-blood in the past couple days. He was Captain Nguyen Van Lem, alias Bay Lop.
Minutes before he was captured, Bay Lop had killed a RVN policeman’s wife and all of his family members including his children. Around 4:30 A.M., Nguyen Van Lem led a sabotage unit along with Viet Cong tanks to attack the Armor Camp in Go Vap. After communist troops took control of the base, Bay Lop arrested Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan with his family and forced him to show them how to drive tanks. When Lieutenant Colonel Tuan refused to cooperate, Bay Lop killed all members of his family including his 80-year-old mother. There was only one survivor, a seriously injured 10-year-old boy.
Nguyen Van Lem was captured near a mass grave with 34 innocent civilian bodies. Lem admitted that he was proud to carry out his unit leader’s order to kill these people. Lem was in his shorts and shirt. His arms were tied from the back. The pistol was still in his possession. General Loan executed Nguyen Van Lem on the spot.
America was appalled by that photograph and the accompanying video footage. The fact that the man being shot had admitted to killing dozens of people to include young children was studiously ignored. That General Loan was the Godfather of six of those young children who were murdered that morning was never mentioned. What General Loan did that day was legal under Vietnamese law and also accepted within the Geneva conventions. This is the explanation from the Geneva Convention concerning summary executions:
However, some classes of combatants may not be accorded POW status, though that definition has broadened to cover more classes of combatants over time. In the past, summary execution of pirates, spies, and francs-tireurs have been performed and considered legal under existing international law. Francs-tireurs (a term originating in the Franco-Prussian War) are enemy civilians or militia who continue to fight in territory occupied by a warring party and do not wear military uniforms, and may otherwise be known as guerrillas, partisans, insurgents, etc.
AP photographer Eddie Adams, that man who took the picture of General Nguyen Loan and knew him well went on to apologized in person to General Loan and his family for the damage it did to his reputation. When Loan died of cancer in Virginia, Adams praised him:
“The guy was a hero. America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.”.
What America didn’t know was Loan was a fierce patriot and one of the few of his rank who was not corrupt. He was no American puppet and refused to give Americans special treatment in his jurisdiction. Severely wounded later in the war (he ended up losing a leg) he was not evacuated when America withdrew from Vietnam but did manage to escape by piloting an abandoned plane (he was a respected Air Force pilot before being assigned leadership of Saigon’s police forces) to freedom.
General Loan arrived in America with a family, the clothes on their back, one leg and not much else. He quietly re-built a modest American life by opening and running a small pizzeria in Northern Virginia. In 1991 he was identified by the “Democracy Die in Darkness” Washington Post. Proto social justice warriors then drove him out of business. He died soon after that.
As an American I am embarrassed at how one of our allies, a man of courage and conviction, was treated by my fellow citizens. Many of us believe that, if placed in similar circumstances, we would “do the right thing” and not summarily execute a captured terrorist who had his hands bound behind his back. I’m not one of those people and know I’d smoke check that murdering bastard (under similar circumstances) in a heartbeat. I know what I’m capable of and knowing my demons; overcoming them and controlling them is what makes me a good human. If that sounds crazy to you take 3 minutes to let Dr Peterson explain the concept to you.
The vast majority of the men who fought in Vietnam were good men who did a hard job in an unpopular war. Ken Burns was given millions of dollars and several years to do a documentary about them. But they were ignored by Burns and his crew in favor of justifying the narrative of the anti war left. That is a damn shame; our Vietnam Vets deserved better.