"We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by lovingkindness -- make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it." The Buddha

Monday, February 3, 2020

Too many blue eyes in Ken Burns's Vietnam War documentary

Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap

Originally aired on PBS in 2017, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War documentary is now widely available on Netflix. The documentary has 10 episodes that last a total of over 17 hours. It took more than 10 years and $30 million to produce. Despite its claims of being different, the documentary is arguably similar to another PBS documentary, Vietnam: A Television History, which first aired in 1983 with 13 episodes lasting a total of 13 hours. The claim was that unlike Vietnam:  A Television History where the interviews were with notable historians and dignitaries (both Vietnamese and Americans), The Vietnam War aimed to interview everyday Vietnamese and Americans about their experiences. It seemed like a good start.

But my article's title is provocative for a reason. I wanted to underline The Vietnam War's striking shortcoming. The documentary failed to achieve an essential objective on why a new Vietnam War documentary is even needed: a cogent explanation of the rectitude of the war, if any. The reason why it failed was the film missed the opportunity to focus on a key set of people: the South Vietnamese. More South Vietnamese perspectives would definitively fulfill that objective. The Vietnam War isn't the only Vietnam War film that fell short; it is simply a continuation of the failure of film directors and producers to fill in a crucial missing piece by thoroughly examining the thoughts of the South Vietnamese. Those thoughts can illuminate unanswered questions that remain about the war for many Americans. Disappointingly, the documentary spent over 80 percent of the time bogged down in battle details involving Americans, the deliberations of White House leaders, and American sentiment for and against the war. Their perspectives were needed, of course, but let's not label it The Vietnam War if it doesn't highlight the Vietnamese. Given the content, a more accurate title for the documentary is The American War in Vietnam. Therefore, without a full presentation of South Vietnamese beliefs and experiences, we cannot possibly understand the crux of the Vietnam War, since the main reason why the war started in the first place and why we continued to fight it was hinged on the South Vietnamese. 

However, there were two notable bright spots in the documentary, both interviewees.

The first bright spot was Tran Ngoc Toan, a South Vietnamese Marine, who graduated from the Military Academy of Vietnam, Vietnam's equivalent of West Point. Mr. Tran told us that during the demoralizing battle of Binh Gia against the Viet Cong (southern communist fighters), American helicopters refused to help the South Vietnamese recover their dead despite those choppers picking up dead bodies of the Americans. In contrast, the Viet Cong didn't leave one dead body on the battlefield. The event symbolizes well how little some Americans value the views and lives of the South Vietnamese. Tran impressed me by his continued bravery during and after the war. He suffered several wounds to his body during his 13-year fight against the communists and suffered further through nine years of re-education camp (i.e., prison), much like my own father.

The second bright spot was Duong Van Mai Elliott, an American author who was born in north Vietnam. Her experience was pivotal to the documentary because it gave a balanced perspective of both northern and southern political views. At least one of her relatives joined the communist forces (Viet Minh). Ms. Elliott has a similar history as my family's: a north Vietnamese whose family migrated to the south during the land reforms of the 1950s, although unlike her family, we stayed in Saigon like Tran Ngoc Toan did and experienced the aftermath of the communist invasion. Like Mr. Tran, we felt we could not leave our country simply because of fear, and only left Vietnam when we observed firsthand that our very own Vietnamese people were every bit as oppressive as the French who they themselves complained about before they rose to power. Both Tran and Elliott's insightful South Vietnamese accounts were credits to The Vietnam War, and I'm glad the documentary presented their perspectives.

As some of you know, I'm a student of Chinese philosophy, especially Sun Tzu's Art of War, an immensely influential book on strategy and leadership. The Art of War is applied in the modern military, politics, business, and sports all around the world. Sun Tzu said the best accomplishment of a general isn't to win 100 battles, but to win without fighting at all. There is much loss and destruction in war, even if you manage to win it. In addition, a leader can only be famous by fighting in great battles, not by preventing them -- how can you be praised for events that never happened? -- so the best leaders of history are often unknown to historians. They did their jobs effectively and effortlessly without the need for shallow fanfare. In contrast, the Vietnam War was a sad display of such poor strategy and leadership that there were many famous people from the war.

If more leaders fully understood how a typical South Vietnamese think, they could have prevented many problems experienced during the Vietnam War. For instance, they would immediately understand the problem with individuals like Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt and autocratic South Vietnamese president. They would also have discerned the problem with accepting terms in the 1954 Geneva Conference for a nationwide election in Vietnam after two years when clearly most educated South Vietnamese wanted nothing to do with communism. Few Americans know that during the 1950s, close to a million north Vietnamese migrated to the south to get away from communism and its cruel policies. To leave your roots and home that your family has known for generations isn't a flippant decision. I know because my family did exactly that. It required the communists taking our family's property by force and my grandfather (along with 13,500 other farm owners) fighting and dying that caused his widow (my grandmother) and their daughter (my mother) to migrate south. These land grabs and killings took place for more than two years in north Vietnam. Despite such a consequential event, The Vietnam War documentary discussed it for less than one minute in the entire 17-hour series. This equates to less than one-tenth of one percent of the series! As a South Vietnamese, I could have personally told the documentary's directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick of their egregious error. Many South Vietnamese intuitively understand that liberty and private property are paramount for happiness and prosperity. Those core principles are easily understood by many Americans who believe in free enterprise, to be able to keep what they earn.

We South Vietnamese wanted to determine our own independent path, much like the Americans did during the Revolutionary War. Did the Minutemen have doubts on whether their fight against the British monarchy was worth it? Patrick Henry didn't doubt it when he said, "Give me liberty or give me death!" Thus, like our fellow colonialists (Vietnam was a colony of France), we South Vietnamese detested oppressive systems, regardless of whether they were foreign or domestic. Although the north and south consisted of the same Vietnamese people, the south didn't want to unite with the north because of their vastly different way of governance. The north had adopted the ways of the Chinese and Russians. The south wanted to be left alone to implement a truly independent Vietnamese government, free from outside influence. Only a few American leaders, such as US President John F. Kennedy, understood that. Sadly, Kennedy was assassinated only 18 days after the coup d'Γ©tat to oust Diem and his ruthless brother Nhu.

Therefore, nothing short of a negotiated agreement for a division along the 17th parallel in Vietnam but without any promise of a nationwide election -- more like the Korean Armistice Agreement -- would be necessary to prevent the Vietnam War from happening as we know it today. There would have probably been continued conflict and battles with the north, but the length of time and level of atrocities and suffering would have been much less, similar to Korea's situation. Expectations from Ho Chi Minh and his war monger co-leader Le Duan would have been tempered. If the Americans, French, and English understood and were aligned with South Vietnamese determination, then north Vietnam would have no choice but be satisfied with a divided Vietnam. The north Vietnamese government's fear of Americans being involved was quite conspicuous even after all regular American soldiers left Vietnam in 1973. They cautiously took another two years to finally invade a significantly weakened South Vietnam. As I mentioned in a previous article, I debated with an American college professor who claimed Diem was South Vietnam's best hope for survival. In his narrow-minded Western-centric view, he didn't realize South Vietnam has survived for centuries, even through oppressive Chinese, French, and north Vietnamese communist rule. We are still living history. The Vietnamese people are surviving. The Vietnamese will outlast any tyrannical system. If a college professor couldn't comprehend that, what are the chances of an average American comprehending it?

The Vietnam War documentary mostly presented non-South Vietnamese who tried to explain the whys of the Vietnam War -- its necessity, complexity, and rectitude. Not surprisingly they seemed confused on why they fought and whether it was worth it. And they remained perplexed throughout the 17-hour series. They were confused, because like the college professor, they hadn't firmly grasped how South Vietnamese think. But to the South Vietnamese, the answer was obvious and natural. We were the Vietnamese version of the Minutemen and Patrick Henry who found tyranny unacceptable despite the risk of being attacked and invaded for not acquiescing. If The Vietnam War documentary focused more on the mindset of the South Vietnamese, it could have accomplished something that no previous Vietnam War documentary had accomplished before: explain fully and convincingly why the Vietnam War was inevitable and why it continued for so long. Unfortunately, the documentary blew by more than 100 years (1858–1961) of Vietnamese history and context in only an hour and a half, but took over 14 hours going through only a dozen years (1961-1973) mostly detailing battle deliberations and results. The film directors fell into the same trap of explaining the whats and not enough about the whys, which can only be deciphered from the Vietnamese psyche. From that psyche, the moral question can be clearly and directly addressed, specifically in that the South Vietnamese would never accept a communist takeover. To educated South Vietnamese, the north Vietnamese government's totalitarian policies were repulsive, which are still evident to this very day, further proof that the fight wasn't at all in vain. Except for the elite few, the voice of the Vietnamese people in Vietnam has been silenced for over 45 years. America, of all nations, can understand the importance of free speech. Freedom of speech isn't free, and all Americans understand the price we need to pay to ensure that right. So it should make perfect sense the logic and righteousness of those fighting in the Vietnam War. The reason spoken was we didn't like the idea of the spread of communism -- the Domino Effect -- but in reality and in practice, the fight and sacrifice were for something much more tangible: basic inalienable rights.

It irks me greatly when people praise how courageous and tenacious the Viet Cong and northern Vietnamese soldiers were. What they failed to realize is how much more courageous and tenacious the South Vietnamese soldiers were in comparison. The South Vietnamese were outnumbered and disadvantaged in almost every major category and were literally formed from scratch, decades behind an already entrenched and established communist military force. The South Vietnamese were further hampered by a long string of corrupt and incompetent South Vietnamese leaders. Add on top of that ignorant American advice, war crimes, and eventual abandonment in 1973, I can't help but be amazed that the South Vietnamese army lasted as long as it did, ending with the fall of Saigon in 1975. While the north Vietnamese army had consistent material and troop support from two major allies (China and Russia), the south Vietnamese army ended up with no major allies. Even general Washington's ragtag Continental Army had France as an ally.

Of course the perspectives of north Vietnamese communists were also important. But there was little new information watching this documentary. Like the Vietnam War documentary Vietnam: A Television History of 1983, the The Vietnam War documentary of 2017 interviewed several north Vietnamese. But I question whether everything the north Vietnamese truly believed in was conveyed in the documentary. I must remind you that all Vietnamese who are living in Vietnam right now can receive a minimum sentence of six years in prison simply by criticizing the Vietnamese government. Such criticisms can be in the form of protesting in the town center of Saigon -or- simply sharing an anti-communist Facebook post. It happens regularly. In fact, two north Vietnamese interviewed in The Vietnam War, journalist Huy Duc and author-soldier Bao Ninh, endured interrogations and censorship by their own Vietnamese government. The only opinions of Vietnamese that can be reliably candid are from Vietnamese living outside of Vietnam, like Tran Ngoc Toan, who currently lives in Houston, Texas, USA, and Duong Van Mai Elliott, who is an American citizen.

Another failure of The Vietnam War was although it spent a large portion of the last episode discussing how Americans and the communist Vietnamese reconciled after the war, virtually nothing was discussed about the South Vietnamese diaspora. How can that possibly be overlooked? I often argue that the only real Vietnamese culture that is being practiced freely today is mostly found in Western nations. The Vietnamese in Vietnam are stifled by their own autocratic government, all the while the much improved Vietnamese economy benefits only a small percentage of factory owners and governmental officials. How ironic this is happening in a communist system.

When I was in Saigon, nobody was happy with the communist government but nobody complained. They couldn't unless they were willing to accept the penalties that would result from them speaking out. People hung pictures of Ho Chi Minh in their homes even if they didn't like him to appease government officials who can legally enter your house at any time for any reason. Sometimes petty neighbors would inform the authorities on those not supportive of the government, simply to receive a small gain or favor from the communists. Even today, the struggles of the average Vietnamese are evident, from the recent tragedy of 39 native Vietnamese found dead inside a truck container in England to 133,000 Vietnamese women being married to foreigners between 2005 and 2010 (according to the UN's International Organization for Migration) and its related human trafficking problem. The litmus test is to ask whether Vietnamese in Vietnam would rather stay in Vietnam or be in another country if they had a choice. According to the Henley Passport Index, Vietnam is ranked 95th in terms of travel freedom out of 109 total nations ranked. Rwanda, Cuba, and Algeria have more travel freedom. The official motto of Vietnam is "Independence, Freedom, and Happiness." Ho Chi Minh, as witnessed by American advisers on September 2, 1945, gave a speech that repeated verbatim the famous second paragraph of Thomas Jefferson's 1776 Declaration of Independence:

"All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Describing a Vietnamese as free is redundant. There are certain beings in nature who cannot live in captivity. No Vietnamese who embodies the Vietnamese spirit would accept living if it meant living in a cage. My grandfather and father possessed that spirit. They refused to be victims and instead fought back in spite of the risk of death. That's why we fought against the Chinese. That's why we fought against the French. That's why we fought against even our own Vietnamese people. They were all forces that would have us live in cages. Perhaps those cages provide safety but they certainly don't provide freedom, something we South Vietnamese cherish.

Therefore, I can confidently conclude that the best path for the Vietnamese people is to realize the vision that even Ho Chi Minh shared: the path of freedom, which we all can agree is the path to happiness. The Vietnamese currently walking in that path is the South Vietnamese diaspora. So The Vietnam War documentary could have benefited greatly in educating its viewers by emphasizing the one true objective of the Vietnam War: it was a fight for freedom. More specifically, that fight wasn't at all for the Americans, which the documentary focused on, but rather, solely for the South Vietnamese, and ultimately, by the South Vietnamese. Although the series was made for a largely non-Vietnamese audience, that doesn't necessarily mean the majority of the contributors need be non-Vietnamese. It might be more comforting to see familiar faces with blue eyes but it wouldn't be more educational and enlightening. In the words of Sun Tzu, "One who does not use local guides cannot take advantage of the ground." Thus, Ken Burns's Vietnam War didn't break much new ground. Like the many Americans engaged in the Vietnam War before them, the directors of the Vietnam War documentary largely neglected to turn to the South Vietnamese for guidance to understand with depth the Vietnam War -- a war that took place on Vietnamese soil and involved primarily Vietnamese people -- but instead focused more on themselves as if the series was really called The American War in Vietnam.

To summarize, I watched a 17-hour documentary on the war in Vietnam that talks mostly of the war from the American perspective and how it affected America and American politics. It's a documentary on a war in a specific country -- why not talk about the Vietnamese and not Americans for once? As I mentioned previously, the documentary spent less than one minute talking about the 1950s communist property confiscation of the north Vietnamese people that led to one million of them to migrate south. Those Vietnamese would later resist with all their might the northern communist invasion and was critical to know why the war dragged on as long as it did. They were fighting for their freedom from oppression. About 1.6 million Vietnamese would later leave Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. But those events didn't affect Americans much so they were largely ignored. Such ignorance plagued that era, perhaps to this very day. πŸ’›


  1. So very thought out and balanced view.

    I have to admit, going into this I held some differing views on a few points but your POV was so well thought out that you compelled me to do some more research and pondering of my own only to come to the same conclusion as you’ve presented here.

    Great blog, great opinions and articles. As a 2nd generation of the Vietnamese diaspora I’m going to be keeping up to date to hear more of your well thought out thoughts.

    1. Lew, thank you for reading and understanding were I was coming from. There have been many views on this subject and so many have been disappointing simply for the issues I discussed in this post. I would love to hear your POV in other posts. Cuong


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"Irrigators channel waters; fletchers straighten arrows; carpenters shape wood; the wise master themselves." The Buddha