Reflections on the Burns-Novick Vietnam Documentary Film

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Reflections on Burns-Novick Viet Nam Documentary Film

By Frank Scotton

Friends who have read UPHILL BATTLE, an account of events observed in Viet Nam 1962 through 1975, and who know that I met twice with Lynn Novick; have asked me to share thoughts about the recently televised Burns - Novick multi-chapter film account portraying the Vietnamese and American experience in Viet Nam from after World War II through 1975.

This is the most important film description of the subject that we will have. It will be available for audiences around the world and intensely viewed in America and Viet Nam. Researchers, students, policy analysts, will plumb this series and associated archived material (collected by the Burns – Novick team) for decades, long after those of us with intimate experience have fallen to the actuarial axe. It will never be matched in scope because no future directorial team will have equivalent resources, time, and access to living participants of the multiple sides engaged.

There are two fundamental errors. (1) Viet Nam should be spelled as two separate words, not run together for (originally) telex convenience. (2) There was no NLF in Viet Nam (as there had been in Algeria) because the Vietnamese title for the organization sponsored by the communist party to agitate and operate militarily in the south of Viet Nam was: Mat Tran Dan Toc Giai Phong Mien Nam Viet Nam, translating as Peoples Front for the Liberation of the South of Viet Nam. From the perspective of party headquarters in Hanoi it would be absurd to have a national liberation entity because the north was already “liberated”. Those two ignorant errors persist almost universally today. It is no excuse to argue that an article, book, film or telecast is simply adopting conventional usage for simplicity's sake. Think how aggrieved we would feel if our own country was referenced as Unitedstatesofamerica. The Burns - Novick project should have been an important bench-mark corrective. They were let down by their research group and I feel guilt for not stressing the importance of correct terminology when speaking with Lynn.

There are minor mistakes that could have been caught by researchers. The origin of the term “gook” was during the American “pacification” campaigns in the Philippines...not elsewhere as suggested early in the series. I am pretty sure that the M-16 difficulty was not due to design flaw, but instead to a change of ammunition during which a manufacturer slightly altered production characteristics. On a very few occasions narration and visual do not accord, but the incidence is far less than observed in other film/television presentations.

There are vacuums that ought to have been filled. For the benefit of viewers decades to come, mention should have been made of pre-Ho Chi Minh resistance against the French (Cuong De and De Tham could have been easily noted) and the more contemporary (for Ho while in Comintern service) Yen Bay (alternate spelling Yen Bai) uprising. Ho, and not to diminish his historic significance, was more inheritor of resistance spirit than initiator. The most sensitive vacuum is lack, or insignificant mention, of South Viet Nam (RVN/GVN/2nd RVN) district (nghia quan) and province (dia phuong quan) defense forces. Especially during early years they were inadequately trained, poorly armed, misemployed; but rarely defected and suffered significant casualties.

Another important vacuum is bare mention of important subdivisions within the southern portion of Viet Nam: the central highlands tribal attitude to Saigon governance and consequent dearth of friendly eyes and ears in the western border region, origin of Buddhist/Catholic tension and the divisions within each faith, why President Diem was incapable of resolving Buddhist anger in Hue 1963, and not mentioning persons like Phan Quang Dan, Dang Van Sung, and Nguyen Van Bong, implies that the only people of note in Saigon were military figures. If that were so, the communists would not have felt that assassinating Nguyen Van Bong was a necessary action.

Every Vietnamese-American with whom I have recently mentioned the Burns-Novick production feels, very strongly, that presentation “balance” depicting opposing sides during war in Viet Nam is prejudicial. It does appear to me that the weight of visuals is primarily on communist troops (whether PAVN or SVNLF) versus Americans with far less depiction of ARVN elements. I note that visuals and narration, emotionally moving, of Americans meeting former communist combatants while visiting contemporary Viet Nam is not matched by scenes of Americans meeting with former RVNAF friends in Viet Nam. Now, despite numbers having departed Viet Nam or deceased, there are still survivors. So the question arises, why no on camera reunions? Fear of Cong An? Not permitted? I apprehend that some future time will see the communist government of Viet Nam using edited versions of Burns – Novick (deleting their own veterans speaking variant from party dogma) to demonstrate that the war was a two-sided conflict between righteous nationalistic Vietnamese communist party and bumbling intrusive Americans.

OK. There are some really good points and visuals to long remember, so noteworthy that it will be impossible to forget. Especially the helicopters, every model, from the clumsy and regrettable H-21 to the ubiquitous UH-1series (original HU-1), landing us in, taking us out, resupplying, saving lives. They were overwhelmingly much more than the jeeps of our fathers' and uncles' generation. Description of Ho Chi Minh communist party leadership replaced by Le Duan, with Ho shuffled into subordinate honorary chairman of the board, is correct and necessary to understanding that Le Duan vehemence in pursuit of unification was at least in part for taking his province of birth. Explanation of how enemy casualties were miscalculated, failure to account for inclusion of noncombat categories and civilians, all warping our strategy, is properly not overlooked. I appreciate the inclusion of Nixon and Kissinger audio tapes revealing the duplicitous character of both men as they rationalized maintaining the war on life support until the Republic of Viet Nam could be dumped. Our American shameful cutting and running should never be blamed entirely on congress when it is so demonstrable that the executive branch made that choice much earlier. And John Negroponte convincingly posits Kissinger as “the emperor's counselor” with “no clothes” by having negotiated the fate of Viet Nam absent even a courtesy copy of the draft agreement in Vietnamese. Two former PAVN members from the north confirming communist atrocities in Hue surprised me, because when accompanied by Bill Bach and conversing with party members in that city 1996, communists were still in denial. I expect that right now those two truth-tellers within the Burns – Novick film are adopting a very low profile. There are other riveting individual appearances by persons who I know and respect. Frank Snepp allows viewers a peek at the confused mind set of Ambassador Martin as our 1975 tattered policy went down the garbage disposal. Bob Sorley honestly, and with pain, shares his evolving appreciation of the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial. Earlier appearances by Rufus Philipps, Tran Ngoc Chau, and Sam Wilson would have been enhanced by a short narrator sentence or two citing the significance of each.

Ken Burns is frequently referred to as America's Storyteller. We need to remind ourselves that any campfire storyteller has difficulty completely and factually reciting grand scale events, tragedies, for listeners. Every storyteller makes mistakes or tells the tale partially. Every author makes mistakes and tells the story partially. I am as scrupulously intent a viewer as reader, and grade the entire Burns- Novick production by beginning with an assigned numeric perfect 100, and then arbitrarily subtracting points for errors or omissions, or adding points for an especially valuable/instructive/illustrative point. We mustl recognize that there never will be a perfect documentary that satisfies all of us. My personal exercise provides the Burns – Novick production with an 89 score, solid B+. Despite my reservations, and this evaluation not withstanding, there has never been a better, and doubtful there ever will be a better, visual documentary of what we in America call the “Viet Nam War”, and which in Viet Nam is frequently called the “American War”.

Here follows some specific notes section by section.

Chapter One: Viet Nam is misspelled as Vietnam and that is inexcusable, especially by copping out that everyone else does it. Likewise, using abbreviation NLF to describe southern raised, trained, and operative communist directed forces is faulty. Use of that term demonstrates disregard of Vietnamese language and ignorance of the political point made by use of specific terminology. It can be argued that changing from a common erroneous usage would confuse program viewers, but is not the purpose of documentary to educate, to illuminate?

Something could have been said about the Nguyen dynasty having achieved power by benefit of French assistance; pre-Ho Chi Minh resistance is important to note, as well as other individual Vietnamese, contemporary with Ho, who organized politically.

The maturation of Ho by photographic portrayal through decades is important refutation of the occasional assertion that the Ho of 1945 was a Chinese substitute for the younger man of other names.

Chapter Two: continues faulty use of NLF. There was no such thing. The southern organization established by the national communist party was deliberately named Mat Tran Dan Toc Giai Phong Mien Nam Viet Nam. Nothing national about that, because from the party's point of view the north was already liberated. An accurate translation is: Peoples Front for the Liberation of the South of Viet Nam. A useful and meaningful abbreviation is SVNLF.

Chapter Three: Transition of real authority from Ho to Le Duan, mentioned in the preceding chapter and further developed here, nicely portrays greater commitment to southern strategy and national unification.

The material describing 1964 naval activity along the coast of northern Viet Nam is offered nonjudgmentally and, I believe, accurately. This is still a controversial topic, but I believe Burns – Novick have it correct.

Depiction of Washington leadership flailing around the issue of what ought to be done, and LBJ frustration is very good. This begins a painful real world depiction of the “Ellsberg Paradox” that posits study of a specific ongoing problem, consideration of alternative strategy, followed by a decision to continue what has already been proven to fail.

Chapter Four: I know that the organization tasked with maintaining the trail/road system through Laos was unit 559, but I have not heard that the trail/road system itself was called 559. If accurate, this is a new nugget for me.

Presentation of the HES system correctly refers to it as a sort of chop suey; but ignores the usefulness of observing trends over time.

Comments by American interviewees reveal the usual foreign confusion between villages and hamlets, soldiers referring to difficulty entering a “village” when the visual is obviously a hamlet. Portrayal of “collateral” damage in the countryside was, if anything, understated; and even so (based on my experience in central Viet Nam) disturbingly and unpleasantly, familiar. Providing viewers with exposure to vicious nature of combat in Kontum Province by detailing the 173rd ABN Brigade experience in June 1967 wherein American casualties were more than 130 killed, is grim corrective to the assertion that we always won.

There is good explanation of the relationship between increasing American casualties and exaggeration, mistaken, falsification, of enemy bodycount, estimates, and the inclusion of noncombatants.

Chapter Five: I am sure that the origin of “gook” was derived from American operations in the Philippines, not otherwise as suggested by the documentary film.

A different USMC approach to rural security was noted in this chapter but not sufficiently explained.

The assertion of M-16 design flaw is, I think, mistaken. Discussion, decades ago, with experts persuaded me that the field problem was due to increased rifle production necessitating a contract change,with new company, for ammunition by which slightly altered specifications negatively affected blow-back and ejection of spent cartridges.

Mention of racist attitudes in Viet Nam is uncomfortable reminder that killing is facilitated by first dehumanizing.

Mention within this chapter that prisoners were well-treated, but had to be transferred to the rear area (Catch 22) in order to be so classified. Obvious implications.

Descriptions of Con Thien geography and intense sitting duck circumstance, formulation of 1967 Thieu/Ky elections ticket, both very good.

Presentation of Le Duan and colleagues planning for the 1968 Offensive is fine illustration that opponents, like ourselves, do confusing possible, desirable, outcomes with probabilities.

Chapter Six: Portrayal of the “helicopter war” excellent, although it seems to me that something could have been said by the Vietnamese pilots flying SOG special missions in what I felt were obsolescent models.

Overall, episode by episode of the documentary, especially from this point forward I begin to feel that there is uncomfortable and undeniable lack of balance in portrayal of opposing sides; much more SVNLF and PAVN (NVA) depiction than ARVN, leading viewer to false conclusions.

Compared with other Viet Nam documentary programs of the past, there is much better, almost perfect, alignment of narration and visuals. Here and there we do catch an exception. In this chapter there is a short clip of countryside people warmly sending off communist soldiers for the Tet Offensive, and the context suggests that these people were southerners, but by their clothing they appear to be a northern tribal group. Footage from previous French period?

Impact of the Loan photo is correctly noted, although actually the man shot was not a combatant as defined by international law. The context by which the man had operated as a terrorist should have been adequately described. Loan should not have summarily executed the bound captive, but the man was not a prisoner of war.

Two former communist officers (PAVN) confirming communist Hue atrocity is noteworthy because this is a “first”. One hopes that those two well be lightly treated by the Viet Nam communist government.

The impact of 1968 communist offensives on American public opinion accords with what I understood at the time; but I do think that presentation and description of the American “peace movement” is too acceptant of the image that the movement leaders promoted for themselves. Otherwise, much of the movement was focused on keeping themselves, or people like themselves, out of combat; and I think it is pretty clear, after discussion with Roger Canfield on this point, that some peace movement people did make contact with communists.

I understand that events in Viet Nam had impact within America, and that there were great social changes underway, but the relationship projected by this documentary was a bit (for me) distorted, resulting in Bobby Kennedy footage that did not tell the viewer anything about Viet Nam. Is this an American tendency to make everything all about us?

Chapter Seven: By this point in the series it is impossible to ignore the lack of time allocated to discussion of RVNAF, including Dia Phuong Quan and Nghia Quan, resulting in conveyance of message that this was a war between America and Viet Nam (communist) with non-communist southerners being tag-alongs.

I like Bob Sorley speaking of General Abrams personality and morning (beware) temperament. There is interesting discussion of communist party leadership. We could have also benefited from mention of leadership alterations in the Republic of Viet Nam since this is the period when Thieu eclipsed Ky.

There is important, well-considered, note that despite all, Vietnamese in Saigon at war were far more free than Vietnamese living in North Viet Nam: exemplified by critical newspapers and opposition figures in the National Assembly.

The segment on the US 9th Division rampage through the upper Mekong Delta with a 46/1 kill ratio is accurately portrayed; but other damning statistics could also have been mentioned: and it ought to be noted that General Julian Ewell subordinate officers were all promoted.

Notation of phony BDAs allows viewers to winder about contemporary claimed results for drone strike missions.

Kissinger hand in requiring phony target mission reports attendant to bombing Cambodia could have mentioned corrosive effect on USAF officer ethics, morale, and consequences for General Lavelle.... but no problems for the professor from Harvard.

Episode Eight: portrayal of A Shau Valley “hamburger hill” is important illustration of our folly in fighting a “wack a mole” war rather than in 1967 denying the opponent use of the Lao Corridor by establishing and holding a line from Lao Bao (Quang Tri) to the Mekong.

The segment highlighting departure of US maneuver units as sealing the “south fate” includes visual of a 5th Special Forces Group advisor working with trainees on a target range, that I am sure is stock footage from a period few years earlier.

Depiction of Nixon and Kissinger consciously formulating a surrender strategy with theatre curtain fall delayed until after the 1972 election is damning.

Lightly touched upon, but mentioned, is the argument advanced around Washington that we needed to continue combat in order to maintain “credibility” whereas in fact nothing is more destructive of creditability than defeat.

Account of war crimes in Quang Ngai could have explained that some maps colored areas pink to indicate relative population density. Officers and NCOs knew that did not mean concentration of communists. Should also have noted that the correct name of hamlet is Tu Cung of Son My Village, not My Lai. In that place, and nearby, on one ugly day, Americans were as cruel, arguably even worse, than Ratko's gang at Srebrenica decades later. AND, RVN and American officers participated in general cover-up.

Nice note that while 30,000 Americans evaded draft by moving to Canada, an equal number of Canadians came south and served in American armed forces.

Episode Nine: statement that ARVN was main opposition to communist armed forces from 1970 onward ignores RVNAF having been the prime opposition to communists from 1955 to 1965 and at least half the opposition to communist units 1965 through 1970.

Depicting ARVN for the first time on its own during Lam Son 719 is flawed because it fails to account for our controversially compelling Viet Nam to do what we had previously considered and then decided not to do ourselves. And secondly, because during this operation ARVN was importantly supported by American helicopters throughout.

Bao Ninh's comments are, for most viewers, revelatory. His novel will be as revealing a read for anyone now as when first published postwar.

The tape recordings of Nixon and Kssinger betray the shabby nature of Both men.

The fundamental question as to whether the war itself was crazy OR crazily waged, was placed before viewers, but left hanging. Intentional?

A few visual seconds of opposition demonstrations in Saigon include mention of a “third force” in Viet Nam politics, but the term was not defined and should have been dismissed as the illusion that it really was.

Calloused Kissinger on tape recordings prove that he had written off the Republic of Viet Nam, and that his objective, set with Nixon, was to postpone collapse of our ally until after Nixon reelection in 1972. The indecent interval, set in place before the widely cited congressional betrayal, was that first betrayal initiated by a president and his advisor.

The 1972 Spring Offensive is partially described by mention of ARVN 3rd Division collapse in Quang Tri and the RVNAF stand at An Loc; but mention should also have noted a difficult situation in northern Binh Dinh Province and the ARVN 23rd Division holding Kontum.

It should have been noted that PAVN committed two important errors in 1972: failure to make the needed mix of infantry and armor for assault; and encircling rather than allowing opening for opponent retreat with consequent chaos.

Candid commentary by John Negroponte witnessed Kissinger lack of professional competence. An agreement that allows the communist government of the northern half of Viet Nam to maintain (with right to resupply and replace personnel) an army within the Republic of Viet Nam! Holy Shit! Tradeoff for return of American prisoners. Welcome to 1972 capitulation, but do not ever again place all the blame on 1975 congressional malfeasance.

Episode 10: Congress took the signal of executive branch disinterest concerning future viability of the Republic of Viet Nam and acted accordingly, forbidding in June all American combat operations effective August 15. And of course, funding later disappears with American troop disappearance. Bob Sorley's point that it is immoral to be so unfaithful to those who we had induced to battle, needs painful recollection while we ponder future national security policies.

I think asserting that RVANAF began to disintegrate almost immediately is exaggerated. There was unused equipment because the logistics system was overwhelmed. 85 bullets and 1 hand grenade per soldier: I will accept as being so in some circumstances, but I think not everywhere. Distribution was a problem, complicated by some RVN thinking that conservation ought to be applied until 1976 when it was thought need would be greater.

The film footage and narration gives viewer impression that the December 1974 battle for Phuoc Long featured PAVN armor, but I believe only about a dozen T-54s were available and they were introduced piece meal late in support, not leading the charge.

The decision to withdraw abruptly from the II Corps Highland Provinces was a strategic turning point inadequately discussed.

There is short narrative discussion of civil airlines used for airlift from country during beginning of exit phase; but visual shows an Air America C-46 taxiing in background. Should have been possible to see Air Viet Nam or even Pan Am aircraft.

Frank Snepp gives us excellent description of the peculiarity of Ambassador Martin while all around eroded.

Bob Sorley's honest and painful expression of feeling on the final day of collapse and his first visit to the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial fairly mirrors my own.

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