“The Veneer of Civilization” (June 1968-May 1969) and “The History of the World” (April 1969-May 1970)

September 26, 2017

Midway through Episode 7 of The Vietnam War, Karl Marlantes, a Vietnam veteran in his early seventies, reads an extraordinary letter. He had written it a half century ago from Oxford, England, where he was beginning his studies as a Rhodes Scholar, to let his parents know that he had decided to give up his scholarship to go on active military duty. Before his freshman year at Yale, Marlantes had enlisted in Marine reserve officer training, but upon his graduation, the Corps had allowed him to defer his service until he completed his postgraduate studies at Oxford.

Why did Marlantes cast aside one of the world’s most prestigious academic honors? Before explaining, he reminded his parents that he opposed the Vietnam War. “As you know,” he wrote, “I feel the U.S. is absolutely wrong to be in the war. . . . I guess I’m about to do a highly immoral thing. I will be taking part in one of the greatest crimes of our century.” Nevertheless, he believed he was “hiding” at Oxford and that his overriding obligation was to share the burden of fighting. Marlantes went on to become a highly decorated officer in Vietnam and, in 2010, he published a bestselling Vietnam War combat novel called Matterhorn.

A black and white image shows a close up of a soldier who appears to be sitting and smoking a cigarette.

Soldier of the 25th Infantry Division, c., 1969. Courtesy of Charles O. Haughey.

The film turns next to Tim O’Brien, another Vietnam veteran and an even better-known novelist. O’Brien also had major reservations about fighting in Vietnam. He did not think it a “crime,” but he certainly believed it was “less than righteous.” After graduating from college in the spring of 1968, he received a draft notice. Whether to evade the draft or submit to it was a moral dilemma “more devastating and emotionally painful than anything that happened in Vietnam,” O’Brien recalls. His conscience told him that fighting in the war would be “evil and stupid and unpatriotic.” But he “capitulated” to his fears about what the people in his small hometown of Worthington, Minnesota, would think of him if he took refuge in Canada. As his fictional character famously put it in The Things They Carried, “I was a coward. I went to the war.”

What do we make of these stories? I believe that they raise a profound moral question: should you fight in a war you regard as wrong? Unfortunately, the film forecloses further reflection on the matter. We may empathize with Marlantes’ and O’Brien’s conflicted feelings, but we are not challenged to think of their final decision as anything other than honorable, even heroic. Nor does the film direct sufficient critical attention to the policymakers who put young men in such moral jeopardy. That’s primarily because we are never introduced to people who chose a very different path: resistance.

Nowhere in The Vietnam War do we hear from any of the thousands of young Americans who were willing to be locked up rather than to participate in a war they believed unjust. We never meet Randy Kehler, for example, who served two years in prison for his antiwar convictions and whose moral courage partly inspired military analyst Daniel Ellsberg to turn over 7,000 pages of secret government documents about the history of the Vietnam War—the so-called “Pentagon Papers.” (Nor do we hear from Ellsberg himself.) Had the film presented a passionate and persuasive civilian activist like Kehler, viewers might be less inclined to accept the verdict of a number of the film’s interviewees that the antiwar movement acted primarily out of self-interest rather than fervent commitment to ethical values.

Although the individual stories in The Vietnam War rarely challenge conventional thinking about the war or its current relevance, the history told with archival film footage can still shock. For example, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick vividly represent the size and brutality of the forces marshalled by Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley to suppress antiwar protesters during the 1968 Democratic convention. The on-air comment by CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite is also stunning: “In the name of security, freedom of the press, freedom of movement, [and] even freedom of speech have been severely restricted. A Democratic convention is about to begin in a police state. There just doesn’t seem to be any other way to say it.”

The film also tells part of an important story that is still not widely known: the efforts of Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon to improve his chances of victory in 1968 by sending an emissary, Anna Chennault, to urge South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to boycott the peace talks in Paris. Nixon worried that any sign of progress in Paris might help his opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, win the presidency. Thieu did indeed denounce the peace talks and Nixon won the election by a sliver. However, it would be a mistake to believe that Nixon’s actions scuttled a realistic opportunity for peace; all sides had irresolvable differences and Thieu had his own reasons for objecting to the talks. Nonetheless, Nixon’s undeniable treachery is dramatically exposed. We hear his bold-faced lie in a taped phone call to President Lyndon Johnson: “My God,” Nixon tells LBJ, “I would never do anything to encourage Saigon not to come to the table!”

It is more characteristic of The Vietnam War to back away from its most damning criticisms of U.S. policymakers in the name of balance and neutrality. For example, after a number of allusions in earlier episodes to corruption in the South Vietnamese government and military, Episodes 7 and 8 take us directly into the capital city of Saigon, swollen with refugees from the countryside, riddled with black-market war profiteering, and flooded with young bar girls and prostitutes. The next logical step might be a full examination of American complicity in creating those conditions, such as the fact that U.S. bombing policies and the creation of “free fire zones” were intended to drive millions of rural peasants into urban areas where they could no longer support the Viet Cong. Instead, the narrator describes communist efforts to “make the most” of these horrid conditions by “accusing the United States and its puppet government in Saigon of destroying Vietnamese culture in the South,” then adds, “But the citizens of Saigon were far freer than the North Vietnamese.” This is perhaps the film’s most jarring example of false equivalency. Somehow the disaster the United States created in the South is mitigated by the existence of a one-party state in the North. And even the claim about freedom is undercut elsewhere in the documentary where we learn that South Vietnamese “elections” were rigged and tens of thousands of political dissenters were imprisoned, although the narrator insists that, “The South Vietnamese could express their views for and against their government.”

With Episode 8 Vietnam becomes Nixon’s war, the antiwar movement is in full flower, and the counter-culture announces itself most dramatically at Woodstock. Some historians may raise an eyebrow at the uncontested claim that Nixon began his presidency assuming that military victory in Vietnam was impossible and the implication that he and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger immediately began looking for an American exit. Nonetheless, the film’s lengthy attention to ground combat makes clear that U.S. troops remained at great risk. The coverage of Hamburger Hill reinforces one of the documentary’s most common themes: the U.S. military repeatedly put its troops at risk by ordering them to seize positions that had no strategic significance. The goal was simply to make contact with the enemy, kill as many as possible, and move on in search of more. After a position was taken, often at a horrific cost in lives, it was invariably abandoned. Perhaps nothing so fueled the widespread feeling among GIs that the war was futile and meaningless than this pattern of bloody sacrifice followed by withdrawal.

This is also the episode that covers the My Lai massacre, the slaughter of more than 500 unarmed and unresisting Vietnamese men, women, and children by U.S. infantry units in the Americal Division. Although the massacre took place just after the Tet Offensive in 1968, it is presented in the film’s chronology at the time when it was exposed to the American public, following a twenty-month-long military cover-up (the army actually reported initially that it had waged a successful battle at My Lai, killing more than hundred enemy troops). The filmmakers offer vivid evidence of the war crime, but refrain from using the word murder to describe it (although one of the consultants on the film, General Merrill McPeak, advised otherwise). Instead, we are assured that “the killing of civilians has happened in every war.”

However, as often happens in The Vietnam War, another voice intervenes on an entirely different topic. And so, in the midst of the My Lai sequence we hear from Bao Ninh, a veteran of the North Vietnamese Army and the author of The Sorrow of War, the best-known novel about the war from that side. While expressing empathy for U.S. soldiers, Bao Ninh makes clear that there were important distinctions between the two sides. He and his comrades were fighting in their own country “so there would be no more bombing” and had been doing so for many years in desperate conditions. “Even American soldiers were miserable . . . but they weren’t starving. We had to forage for food . . . [while] a regular American soldier carried enough food for a picnic, everything you’d want.” It’s a great point but not clearly related to what comes before or after.

The final fifteen minutes of this episode are devoted to Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the storm of protest it awakened, particularly at Kent State University in Ohio where four students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen. Predictably, we do not hear the memories of any of the students who were present there on May 4, 1970, but we do hear from three Vietnam veterans whose responses may surprise those who think all vets were disdainful of antiwar protesters. Tim O’Brien, John Musgrave, and Bill Ehrhart all report that they were so shocked and angered by the killings that they were moved to protest the war themselves.

Unfortunately, we never hear expressions of empathy from civilian activists toward soldiers and veterans. Had Burns and Novick interviewed Tom Grace—one of the nine wounded students—they would have discovered that he and his antiwar activist friends had great compassion for American troops in Vietnam and that their lives often intersected. Tom’s girlfriend lost a brother in Vietnam and less than one week before the shootings at Kent State, Tom attended the funeral of William Caldwell who had been killed near the Cambodian border and was the best childhood friend of another Kent State antiwar activist, Alan Canfora.

Nor does the film include one of the antiwar movement’s most compelling innovations—the establishment of coffeehouses near U.S. military bases to promote interactions between GIs and civilians. Those efforts, documented in David Parsons’ important new book, Dangerous Grounds: Antiwar Coffeehouses and Military Dissent in the Vietnam Era, produced some of the era’s most interesting alliances that have particular relevance today as the divide between civil and military life and culture grows ever more extreme. Lacking a full and fair treatment of the antiwar movement, The Vietnam War contributes to the myth that antiwar activists routinely denigrated American soldiers and veterans.

Christian G. Appy is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts. His final post, about Episodes 9 and 10, will appear following the latter’s East Coast broadcast on Thursday, September 28. He is the author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (2015), Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (2003), and Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (1993). He also serves as an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.