At one point, the American military had over half a million people stationed in Vietnam, and yet they never managed to overthrow the communist incursion. This epic documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick sets out to explain why.
The PBS series (now on Netflix) is groundbreaking. Unlike the deferential documentaries of times past, when the great and the good would be filmed against a dark background, repeating the same old lies, this series concentrates on interviews with ordinary people and combatants on both sides.
We also hear the private conversations between presidents and their advisers, and have access to confidential memos, with shocking results. Right from the early 1960s, American leaders such as the secretary of defence, Robert McNamara, knew that they could not win the war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, they perpetuated the conflict, sending thousands of troops to their deaths simply to save national and political pride. Their own words condemn them.
One reason why the Americans could not win was that the leadership believed that they could bomb the North Vietnamese into submission. The amount of bombs you see dropped from a single B-52 in this film chills the blood, and this was happening on a massive scale, landing intentionally on civilian as well as military targets, such as oil storage tanks.
It is obvious that you can break the will of an invading force using bombs, but you can’t break the will of a people who are being bombed on their own territory – for one simple reason. They have nowhere else to go. It fascinates me that the American military leaders never compare the bombed inhabitants of Hanoi with those of London during the Blitz. We never gave in to the Germans, so why would they?
Furthermore, it is clear that the maps of the country gave a false impression of what was happening on the ground. Those maps showed neat lines between communist North Vietnam and republican (but barely democratic) South Vietnam as two distinct countries, with a demilitarised zone (DMZ) between them.
In fact, South Vietnam was little more than Saigon because the villages, towns and hamlets of the south had been infiltrated by the Vietcong on a massive scale. I had never realised before watching this series of ten films that the Vietcong was not actually the North Vietnamese army. It was a separate, guerrilla organisation fighting a civil war inside the south, aided and abetted by the regular troops.
In this video, we see US veterans holding their heads in their hands as they describe the stupidity of their senior officers. Troops were ordered to burn houses, clear villages, and shoot suspected Vietcong operatives, all on the flimsiest of evidence. The ‘grunts’ knew that they were losing the battle for hearts and minds every time they torched the thatched roofs of the local villagers, but they had no other choice.
They were the professionals, those who had signed up to fight. By the end of the war, much of the US army in Vietnam was a shambles, made up of conscripts who had no wish to be there and had no desire to die. Many had never even fired their weapons, nor had any wish to do so.
Indeed, these draftees often sympathised with the protesters on the home front, who were tired of hearing about people burned to death by napalm, the forest wiped out by Agent Orange, and young men coming home in body bags, all to prop up the corrupt and sadistic South Vietnamese regime.
As one of the North Vietnamese interviewees says, it’s only the non-combatants who talk about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ a war. Those who actually did the fighting know what war means. Devastation.