Whitewashing The Vietnam War

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.

This is one of the photographs used in the Burns book. The caption starts with “Second Lieutenant Vincent Okamoto and his M16”. However the long gun in this photo is clearly an AK 47.

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.

12 Replies to “Whitewashing The Vietnam War”

  1. I was there. H&S 1st Bn, 1st Marines 69-70

    I’ve heard and seen so much bullshit about the war that anything written or produced these days is automatically suspect.

    Just finished Mark Bowden’s ” Hue 1968″. While I wasn’t there, the day after I finished it I ran into a guy who was with Bravo 1/1 during the battle and he corroborated a lot of what I read. We were not trained for nor well used in that battle because Westy refused to acknowledge there was a division size NVA/VC force occupying Hue. Consequently we sent in company sized units to clear house to house – and subsequently got our asses kicked. A pyrrhic victory if ever there was one.

    I too will watch with interest. Keep it up Tim. You are a voice of sanity in an increasingly insane world.


    (Sgt) Jesse Brown USMC

    PS: my grandson is entering his 2 nd month at PI. He writes that it is so easy he gets bored and is worried about losing weight ( he is 6′ 1″ and 200lbs) because he worked out so hard in prep. He played lacrosse in HS. I guess it ain’t what it used to be. Mine was 8 weeks and there was no mercy shown.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Jesse and I too read Bowden’s book on Hue and found that to be an interesting book that was historically accurate and revealed a lot of detail I didn’t know. Westy’s fixation on Khe Shan was a great example of confirmation bias and poor generalship; that the Marine CG also failed to realize what he was up against was disappointing too but not the performance of the Marines who fought there. Burn’s description of the fighting in Leatherneck square infuriated me and I’m itching to take that segment apart. My Dad fought there in 68-69 and his battalion didn’t wander on out of the wire to get it’s ass handed to them in point blank complex ambushes which is how Burn’s depicts the fighting. I was also a member of 1/9 and know his depiction of what happened to Bravo 1/9 is wrong. What is interesting about that is the Lt from A 1/9 who sortied out with his company to rescue them was Frank Libutti and the Bravo company commander was a Capt named Coates. In 1998 I did a WESTPAC with the 11th MEU (SOC) commanded by Frank Libutti and our Bravo company commander was named Coates. Weird isn’t it. Col Libbutti gave us a detailed class on how that day went down which I look forward to sharing.
      Interesting about your grandson. I was visiting with one of my oldest buddies in DC last month, Paul Kennedy, who heads up Marine Corps Recruiting today and he told me things are so easy these days that they no longer issue waivers for anything. I wrote about that in a prior post. I’m guessing the lack of intensity stems from the problems Parris Island has been having with DI abuse combined with the fact that the kids coming in have a higher degree of internal motivation and a little more G2. But allowing the boot camp experience to be not challenging or forcing the DI’s to ease up on their legendary craziness cannot portend well. Lacrosse players are a little harder than your average kid – I played in HS and college myself; those cats and wrestlers are tough nuts to crack; emphasis on nuts. Inshallah he’ll find himself in a school that smokes his little ass like the Amphib Recon Course…then he’ll understand what he has earned and feel the sense of accomplishment we all shared after finishing entry level training.

  2. Excellent piece. Much thanks for more details. It will be a tragedy if this series is adopted by high school history departments as their preferred teaching aid, but I have heard that plan/ offer is coming.

    1. It probably will be John and given the lack of knowledge about the topic in the general public that may not be a bad thing. The inconsistencies I’m pointing out about the book would be easy to spot to those who went on to study the war, especially from the perspective of the impact it had on our home front. The general history portion is accurate and knowing that much is better than knowing nothing at all. Studying the conflict from the Burn’s perspective will also raise some cognitive dissonance for young students. If the Vietnam War left the military a hollow, drug numbed force with constant racial strife how is it we have the military of today? That too is the story of the Vietnam generation. How they took the demoralized forces they inherited and built them into one of the most trusted institutions in American society will be an interesting avenue of exploration for students in the future. The one thing that cannot be denied about a Ken Burns Doco is that they are beautiful to watch and if he generates enough interest in the youth of today to embark on further exploration in order to gain a greater understanding he’s done us all a favor.

      1. If you’ve compared militaries across decades and countries since the 70’s the things that stands out most to be is how beneficial it was to get smaller. All have dropped in size in absolute and more importantly relative terms. Most NATO armies are 25% of the size per capita they were in 1975. On top of this all far more women.

        The overall result (combined with changes to rank structure, MOSs, improvements in pay, equipment and accommodation) is that the modern army has far fewer idiots than the 1975 version. At the time when someone announced they were joining as a private it was always accompanied with mumbled condolences and utter amazement if the recruit wasn’t a simpleton.

        Colin Powell et al have been given a lot of credit for “fixing” the US Army in the years before the 1st Gulf War but simply making the army smaller was the major factor.

        1. Shoot man I remember when I signed up in 1978 I was working as a dishwasher and my friends of the time thought I was taking a big step down the chain of respectability. There are two things to address in your comment J Harlin that also reflect on the upcoming Burns series. The first is that the military was fixed by the same demoralized or psychotic or cowardly (take you pick) officers that Burns writes about. The second was the impact made by McNamara’s 100,000. The book addresses that issue in about two sentences that tell the reader the military men called them McNamara’s Morons. But that’s all he says ignoring both the hubris and ignorance of McNamara as well as the cost (in blood) of putting idiots in combat. There is a reason the DoD is a largest tester of and has the most data on IQ. And that is it takes smart guys to develop into Apex predators.

          1. Funny and sad story recently from an allied army.

            A long service Sergeant Major retires from active duty and joins the reserves. He then applies to be the full time staff officer for an armory. All’s well until some nosy guy at brigade notices the job calls for a captain. Well commission me then! Sure but you don’t have grade 12 (or 11 for that matter)….so you’ll have to take the army aptitude test and score in the officer range. Test day came and he failed to score high enough to be enrolled as a private in any MOS. In no way did he stand out as being particularly thick for his vintage.

  3. An excellent article and accurate. Over the years I have “stopped” watching Burn’s productions. Even his classic Civil War series was loaded with (and here is where he shines) subtle inaccuracies that shift all of his efforts to the left and away from America and her people from ever being anything special. “Ride the Thunder: A Vietnam War Story of Honor and Triumph” is an excellent book that discusses some of the issues your article raises about ‘prejudicial’ treatment of the war by the media and self-appointed “fact finders” like Walter C. (“Report from Vietnam” Feb ’68) who more or less stated that Vietnam was unwinnable. In schools today, a battleground that rational and patriotic Americans are losing on, our progeny are learning lies and fabrications all leaning away from America ever being “the bright shining light of liberty” or anything near that accolade. We must take back our educational system from the NEA before we can start spreading the truth.

    1. Thanks Roger, If you look at the prior comments you’ll see one from John Del Vecchio and I didn’t recognize the name until a friend posted his article on the Burns Doco on Face Book. John is the author of an excellent Vietnam novel The 13th Valley – I read it long ago and re-reading it now. Here is the article John wrote on the same topic. https://www.peakingat70.com/lets-talk-america/2017/9/13/burning-history-ossifying-the-false-narrative
      When I read it I said to myself “Shit he expressed what I’m thinking so much better than I did that I feel like I’m writing on the 5th grader level on the subject. Mind you I didn’t even recognize that John had left a kind comment on my post. My point is that there are so many people who this the exact we see it and we’ll be pushing back episode by episode. I too haven’t watched a Burns Doco for years for exactly the same reason as you but this one I’m going to watch intently. I don’t have the interest to push back on WWII revisionist history; I don’t watch baseball (grew up playing Lacrosse) so I could care less what Ken Burns has to say on the topic. I do care about Vietnam for the reasons outlined in my post and I am excited by the prospect of using the technology of today to push back against seriously well produced propaganda. So stay tuned and book mark John’s blog too as we (and I suspect hundreds of others) push back in real time at a disservice to Vet’s who fought a difficult war with honor and dignity.

  4. It’s frustrating. You see all the other small docs that tell compelling stories of war, and the zero funding they get. They get good reviews, and some get accolades. But by and large they are self funded, by documentarians who carry on. So what happens is that corporationx knows corporation y, and then we get the mega event, told deftly by a ‘brand’ filmmakers. And it makes me wonder: What if 18 smaller documentaries telling the story of Vietnam had been funded equal to the amount of the entirety of this blockbuster event? More diverse storytelling? Less of an impulse to create gods and monsters? A more complex telling?

    This came out in the LA Times today: “Given the scope of the subject and the size of their series, and how many participants in the war and the war at home are still available, Burns and Novick use relatively few commentators to move their story along. But each has personal experience of Vietnam; there are no remote scholarly voices, but a well-chosen cast of soldiers, citizens, politicians, protesters and reporters.”

  5. The significant outcome of the Vietnam war is the end of the draft and the refusal of Americans to allow their offspring to serve in the military. Fragging is the apparent reason for the abolition; Christopher Hitchens indicates that Nixon and Kissinger made this determination. I doubt that Burns will touch on this, vets against the war, or those who went to Canada. His film is funded by a Koch brother and other dubious screeners who want certain facts covered.

    1. If the companion book is any indicator he is going to have an episode on draft dodgers and vets against the war with a special focus on the super fraud John Kerry. What he will not focus on is how the anti war movement disappeared overnight as soon as Nixon ended the draft. War protesters of that era want you to believe the narrative that they were acting on principal while the historical record clearly shows they were motivated by self interest.

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