Ken Burns’s Vietnam, Part 4

This episode’s theme was ‘The Home Front.’ The experiences of North and South Vietnam and the US were presented as equivalent in their social violence, but these are false equivalents. Burns presents the North as undergoing the ravages of bombing. The South undergoes successive political coups, creating a ‘flavor of the month’ mentality that erases security. The US experiences a purely organic – and this is stupidly stressed – Antiwar movement, which opportunistically linked itself to racial and political movements. Purely. Organic. Like astroturf is organic. Burns missed an incredible opportunity to tell the story of the Vietnam War on the home fronts.

Home front is the informal term for the civilian populace of the nation at war as an active support system of their military. Military forces depend on “home front” civilian support services such as factories that build materiel to support the military front.

I call these false equivalents because each is unique in their primary stressors and actors and effects. Burns presents what was a massive logistics enterprise on the part of the USSR and Communist China to give North Vietnam the means to fight. What we don’t see is that the logistics is enough to survive to fight, but not sufficient to prosper and to absorb the South and eventually their Laotian and Cambodian puppets. This was an effective strategy on the USSR’s and China’s part to ensure Vietnam would willingly enslave themselves to foreign masters in exchange for the means to survive the post-war challenges of life.

North Vietnam’s way of life was abandoned after the French left. Le Duan put the country on the warpath so being bombed and being reliant on European and Chinese allies was not a new thing. Being in this mindset, and the subsequent organization of society allowed the North Vietnamese to absorb the abuse and keep on fighting.

The South’s experience was significantly different because the military junta ruling the South was filled with infighting, regular coups d’etat, and riots in the cities that distracted from the existential threat outside of Saigon. The people were preyed on by the communists, and then victimized by the South. These many changes created internal contradictions: who is in charge – today? In this location? At this moment? If I live my life as a Vietnamese commoner, who will kill me for harvesting my rice and raising my family?

The cities remained French in aspect, and were considered safe. They weren’t safe, and neither were the fortified villages scattered across the provinces. Civilization gave the illusion of security that the South Vietnamese could not reconcile among themselves.

Like the North, the South’s economy – it’s essential means of surviving as a society is not discussed by Burns. What is presented is the friction of four distinct groups: farmers, Buddhist monks and nuns, white collar professionals and students (who were from the white collar group). There is a fifth group, the soldiers, but they are a blend of the other four. We don’t see a middle class, we don’t see industry outside of farming and servicing the war. There was no ‘after the war’ thoughts.

Meanwhile, in America, there was a desperation to get to ‘after the war.’ The prime movers of that desperation were a highly organized “antiwar” movement and sheer, unadulterated fear of combat. Bill Zimmerman, a career antiwar activist who provided genuine material aid to North Vietnam is presented. He gives a very honest assessment: when the antiwar movement was billed as an ethical response to war, it failed. But, when America’s young men were faced with combat, they signed on with the antiwar movement. From principles to self interest. I find little to wonder where the idea that the protesters were less than men, beta males whose genes were passed on to children and grandchildren who fought against OIF and OEF, and today fight as Antifa. I can respect genuinely held beliefs, such as religious objections. But decadence-grown fear of doing man things? No.

My other objection is, once again, the concrete Leftism of Burns’s editorial view. The Antiwar movement was not organic. It was brilliant in linking itself to racial and political change movements, but it was still a KGB and GRU-run operation. Burns’s flippant dismissal of that fact relegates genuine history to a conspiracy theory. Burns is a story teller, not a historian, but the story dies with this 2-second burial of fact. Beyond that, Burns gives us nothing new. Everything presented isn’t worthy of second thought. It’s what Burns leaves out, what he just can’t explain that is interesting. Like Holmes’s dog that didn’t bark in the night, the absence is the key to unlocking the mystery.

What was absent? The economies and the societies were examined beyond the surface. There is a lot missing and it took 20 years before the effects of the war on Vietnam leaked out. Did anyone examine and learn from that?

Another discussion absent was the global strategic/operational activities going on in Europe, Africa, Central and South America as well as the civil war next door in Laos. What are the lessons in this?

What were the pro-communist operations going on in the US, as an extension of the operational arts in the major muscle movements on the continents and areas listed above. How can similar be applied today in order to produce victory in places like Lebanon and Afghanistan?

It’s a shame. So much to cover, but even in music Burns lets his audience down. Perhaps if he changed his editorial bent, we wouldn’t have had the same old song inflicted on us. The 4 Tops do it so much better.

About DaveO

Retired soldier, micro-farmer, raconteur and pet owner from the great state of Oklahoma. Wandered in as a frequent commenter and have been enjoying blogging ever since.
This entry was posted in Defending the Homeland, History, Leadership, Strategy. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ken Burns’s Vietnam, Part 4

  1. burkemblog says:

    I think you may be overstating the influence of the Soviets on the peace movement. It was pretty much as Burns says it was, from my limited experience with it–while it may well be the case that some funding did come from outside the US, the sources you cite are assertions made by those who would stand to gain from making them rather than what we might consider verifiable facts. It may also be the case that those sources are talking about different organizations than those with which I was familiar.

    Point taken about the self-serving nature of much of the resistance to the draft. As I commented before, however, the draft really was terribly unfair. It got better in 1969, but then it ended barely three years later–so whatever redemption it might have achieved was ultimately short-lived and pointless.

    You seldom mention the wider points Burns makes, which are aired in the first episode–we really had no idea what we were getting into, or why, exactly; we had no real idea what we were doing there at the operational level; what decisions we did make were largely based on domestic political considerations rather than the nature of the country and the conflict in question. That’s at the heart of this story.

    I take this all somewhat personally, as the Vietnam war was the single most complex experience of my life–it affected me from 1965 to 1975, from my dad’s first (of four) tours as a ship’s captain to my decisions about where to go to college (and how) and what to do afterwards. Burns gets that in the sense that he shows how this war played out for the real people on both sides who fought it or were influenced by it in the ways I and the rest of my family were. All the higher level geopolitical stuff is just intellectual theorizing, really, an attempt on your part to shape the facts to a pre-existing conception of how the narrative should play out to get to the conclusion you think it should have. Because humans fight wars (so far), the human experience is the important part (I am thinking here of W.H. Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux-Arts: http://english.emory.edu/classes/paintings&poems/auden.html).

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  2. DaveO says:

    Burns is not adding to our body of knowledge, and is instead barring the door to knowing and understanding. I’m not sparing Westmoreland insomuch as I’m looking at what I believe to be some peculiar coincidences between the Harkins-Westmoreland leadership and what I saw in Afghanistan. In over 50 years we did not demonstrate learning a single thing.

    I will respond to your points in a post Monday evening. Your points are good but a response takes more time than a one-liner. I am hoping Burns grows into this project and stops pushing garbage myths.

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  3. DLunsford says:

    Only the second KB documentary I’ve watched on PBS. Like most things on this network you have to constantly be reading between the lines and figuring out the libtard angles they’re feeding you. It really gets tiring after a while and leaves me fleeing back to books and original source documents. I do however like the old LBJ tapes they’ve been playing. Only thing missing is that incessant cicada chorus in the background and Shelby Foote popping out every now and then.

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