Be skeptical of Ken Burns’ documentary: The Vietnam War by Terry Garlock
Some months ago I and a dozen other local veterans attended a screening at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta – preview of a new documentary on The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The screening was a one hour summation of this 10-part documentary, 18 hours long.
The series began showing on PBS Sunday Sep 17, and with Burns’ renowned talent mixing photos, video clips and compelling mood music in documentary form, the series promises to be compelling to watch. That doesn’t mean it tells the truth.
For many years I have been presenting to high school classes a 90 minute session titled The Myths and Truths of the Vietnam War. One of my opening comments is, “The truth about Vietnam is bad enough without twisting it all out of shape with myths, half-truths and outright lies from the anti-war left.” The overall message to students is advising them to learn to think for themselves, be informed by reading one newspaper that leans left, one that leans right, and be skeptical of TV news.
Part of my presentation is showing them four iconic photos from Vietnam, aired publicly around the world countless times to portray America’s evil involvement in Vietnam. I tell the students “the rest of the story” excluded by the news media about each photo, then ask, “Wouldn’t you want the whole story before you decide for yourself what to think?”
One of those photos is the summary execution of a Viet Cong soldier in Saigon, capital city of South Vietnam, during the battles of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Our dishonorable enemy negotiated a cease-fire for that holiday then on that holiday attacked in about 100 places all over the country. Here’s what I tell students about the execution in the photo.
“Before you decide what to think, here’s what the news media never told us. This enemy soldier had just been caught after he murdered a Saigon police officer, the officer’s wife, and the officer’s six children. The man pulling the trigger was Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s Chief of National Police. His actions were supported by South Vietnamese law, and by the Geneva Convention since he was an un-uniformed illegal combatant. Now, you might still be disgusted by the summary execution, but wouldn’t you want all the facts before you decide what to think?”
The other one-sided stories about iconic photos I use are a nine year old girl named Kim Phuc, running down a road after her clothes were burned off by a napalm bomb, a lady kneeling by the body of a student at Kent State University, and a helicopter on top of a building with too many evacuees trying to climb aboard. Each one had only the half of the story told by news media during the war, the half that supported the anti-war narrative.
Our group of vets left the Ken Burns documentary screening . . . disappointed. As one example, all four of the photos I use were shown, with only the anti-war narrative. Will the whole truth be told in the full 18 hours? I have my doubts but we’ll see.
On the drive home with Mike King, Bob Grove and Terry Ernst, Ernst asked the other three of us who had been in Vietnam, “How does it make you feel seeing those photos and videos?” I answered, “I just wish for once they would get it right.”
Will the full documentary show John Kerry’s covert meeting in Paris with the leadership of the Viet Cong while he was still an officer in the US Naval Reserve and a leader in the anti-war movement? Will it show how Watergate crippled the Republicans and swept Democrats into Congress in 1974, and their rapid defunding of South Vietnamese promised support after Americans had been gone from Vietnam two years? Will it show Congress violating America’s pledge to defend South Vietnam if the North Vietnamese ever broke their pledge to never attack the south? Will it portray America’s shame in letting our ally fall, the tens of thousands executed for working with Americans, the hundreds of thousands who perished fleeing in overpacked, rickety boats, the million or so sent to brutal re-education camps? Will it show the North Vietnamese victors bringing an influx from the north to take over South Vietnam’s businesses, the best jobs, farms, all the good housing, or committing the culturally ruthless sin of bulldozing grave monuments of the South Vietnamese?
Will Burns show how the North Vietnamese took the city of Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, bringing lists of names of political leaders, business owners, doctors, nurses, teachers and other “enemies of the people,” and how they went from street to street, dragging people out of their homes, and that in the aftermath of the Battle of Hue, only when thousands of people were missing and the search began did they find the mass graves where they had been tied together and buried alive?
Will Burns show how America, after finally withdrawing from Vietnam and shamefully standing by while our ally was brutalized, did nothing while next door in Cambodia the Communists murdered two million of their own people as they tried to mimic Mao’s “worker paradise” in China?
Will Burns show how American troops conducted themselves with honor, skill and courage, never lost a major battle, and helped the South Vietnamese people in many ways like building roads and schools, digging wells, teaching improved farming methods and bringing medical care where it had never been seen before? Will he show that American war crimes, exaggerated by the left, were even more rare in Vietnam than in WWII? Will he show how a naïve young Jane Fonda betrayed her country with multiple radio broadcasts from North Vietnam, pleading with American troops to refuse their orders to fight, and calling American pilots and our President war criminals?
Color me doubtful about these and many other questions.
Being in a war doesn’t make anyone an expert on the geopolitical issues, it’s a bit like seeing history through a straw with your limited view. But my perspective has come from many years of reflection and absorbing a multitude of facts and opinions, because I was interested. My belief is that America’s involvement in Vietnam was a noble cause trying to stop the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, while it had spread its miserable oppression in Eastern Europe and was gaining traction in Central America, Africa and other places around the world. This noble cause was, indeed, screwed up to a fare-thee-well by the Pentagon and White House, which multiplied American casualties.
The tone of the screening was altogether different, that our part in the war was a sad mistake. It seemed like Burns and Novick took photos, video clips, artifacts and interviews from involved Americans, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, civilians from south and north, reporters and others, threw it all in a blender to puree into a new form of moral equivalence. Good for spreading a thin layer of blame and innocence, not so good for finding the truth.
John M. Del Vecchio, author of The 13th Valley, a book considered by many Vietnam vets to be the literary touchstone of how they served and suffered in the jungles of Vietnam, has this to say about Burns’ documentary. “Pretending to honor those who served while subtly and falsely subverting the reasons and justifications for that service is a con man’s game . . . From a cinematic perspective it will be exceptional. Burns knows how to make great scenes. But through the lens of history it appears to reinforce a highly skewed narrative and to be an attempt to ossify false cultural memory. The lies and fallacies will be by omission, not by overt falsehoods.”
I expect to see American virtue minimized, American missteps emphasized, to fit the left-leaning narrative about the Vietnam War that, to this day, prevents our country from learning the real lessons from that war.
When we came home from Vietnam, we thought the country had lost its mind. Wearing the uniform was for fools too dimwitted to escape service. Burning draft cards, protesting the war in ways that insulted our own troops was cool, as was fleeing to Canada.
America’s current turmoil reminds me of those days, since so many of American traditional values are being turned upside down. Even saying words defending free speech on a university campus feels completely absurd, but here we are.
So Ken Burns’ new documentary on the Vietnam War promises to solidify him as the documentary king, breathes new life into the anti-war message, and fits perfectly into the current practice of revising history to make us feel good.
Perhaps you will prove me wrong. Watch carefully, but I would advise a heavy dose of skepticism.
33 thoughts on “Be skeptical of Ken Burns’ documentary: The Vietnam War by Terry Garlock”
Thank *YOU* *Terry*.
It isn’t enough just to say, “Thank You.” You hit the 16 penny nail on the head with a ball-peen hammer and drove it in with one strike; in my honest opinion. I did serve at the Station Hospital, Danang, a Navy Corpsman assigned to the ICU. Being a “non-combatant” was “luck of the draw.” To this day I am thankful to God; and I’m certain so are my wife, children and grandchildren. I’m also thankful I had the privilege to take care of those who needed me and for those with whom I worked. May you be blessed beyond what you can think or ask.
I’m 70 years old and had my husband and brother serve in the Vietnam War simultaneously in 1967-1968. I was only 20-21 at the time and had no idea what it was all about so I’ve always had a curosity about its history and the reasons for our involvement, other than fighting the spread of Communism.
I’ve just finished watching Episode One of the series and found it to be informative, answering most of my questions about the history of Vietnam since the mid-19th century when the French first colonized the region.
I’m aware if Burns’ political bent so I will be cautiously looking for errors and omissions in the documentary that will serve to support the Left’s position.
Nevertheless, as I watch the remainder of the series I hope to garner more information that will answer some of my questions on the subject.
As a lifelong political Conservative, I’d like to thank you for writing this article from the Conservative point of view and for providing more factual references to the famed pictures taken during the war that are burned in my memory, thanks to TIME, LIFE, The WashPost, NY Times, etc.
Thanks also for the referral to Del Vecchio’s book, The 13th Valley, which I plan to read as soon as possible. It’s so difficult to be confident in choosing a book that will tell the truth.
I applaud your intended skepticism, but if you are unaware of the history, how will you recognize the errors and omissions?
Ken Burns and Pbs,you both suck.Letting people watch the first 5 shows and than wanting to charge everyone for watch the last 5.I am a Vietnam Vet 1967-68 and find the first 5 parts that I watched nothing at all like my tour of duty. Just another rip off as far as I am concerned.
I also served in Vietname 4/67 thru 4/68, and I always felt that the war was lost at home by the democracts, not by the men and women who fought and died there. The war was won by those Americans who served, and then given away by the cowards.
You are so correct in what to expect from Ken Burns and his liberal work force. I’ve watched the first 2 chapters and feel there’s a blame on the French and America for even being in “their” country! I see and hear fictional events and descriptions and anti American sediment… I’m not impressed!
The circumstances of the shooting by Nguyen Ngoc Loan was new to me. I would like to hear about the other examples the author cited.
I too was curious about the iconic shooting photo. Accounts vary, but all confirm the civilian was an out of uniform soldier who was observed killing a policeman. The widow of the assailant has been interviewed many times, and published articles show her resolve.
ALL of Ken Burns films have a leftist spin to them. It’s intentionally subtle so that the un- and under-educated will not notice and think that it is actually how things happened. Dangerous propaganda.
I have only watched the first episode so far, but I will eventually watch the rest with a skeptical eye. I would be surprised if is “fair & balanced” since he has always tended to spin left.
What is notable to me, is that Uncle Ho is continually portrayed as a nationalist, with little said about being a Marxist.
This is significant due to this time in history when colonialism is coming to an end. In reality Ho had more ruthless communists directing
operations that savaged villages and committed war crimes were never revealed. While our efforts were aimed at stopping
communism, the left made it seem that we opposed unification to a country that had been ravaged by centuries of exploitation.
The Cold War was at a crossroads with the end of colonialism; two historical time lines that became twisted into a knot.
That is excellent analysis, John.
Subtle alterations, quiet omissions, and outright misrepresentations are all it takes to deceive a nation.
Thank you for writing this article. I am a Vietnamese American and served as a finance officer in the South Vietnamese Air Force stationed in Pleiku Airbase from 1971-1975. After watching the 2nd episode of Burns’ movie, I got really upset and just wanted to turn the TV off and going to bed. The movie is so biased against the US soldiers and also the ARVN. We felt left out, betrayed and abandoned. Burns’ movie epitomized the narratives of the anti-war left. I am wondering the same when will they show the truth and not the onesided story so the American people can see the war as it happened for themselves. It’s almost 43 years after the war was over, and they still haven’t get the story right.
Bad enough that the US abandoned Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge, then they had to invent this fairy tale that the rise of the Khmer Rouge was Nixon and Kissinger’s fault because they bombed the Cambodian border, not because the Democrats cut off all aid. Also, I once read James Lowen’s LIES MY TRACHER TOLD ME, and he noted that most draft-age Americans who weren’t going to college told survey takers that they were in favor of the war. Lowen insisted in the book that these respondents were only making the best of a bad situation, that they didn’t really mean that they were for the War! Isn’t it within the realm of possibility that they MEANT the answers they gave? The book ought to be called “Lies James Lowen’s Telling Me”!
Read,”Dereliction of Duty” by MacMasters and you will find the political underhandedness of LBJ, Robert McNamara, ETAL.
You are right to be skeptical, but in fact Burns did not put as much leftish, anti-war spin as one might expect. The background of the shooting photo was given (the guy was a NVA murderer), the background of the napalm girl was given (plus a photo of her today), and there was a section about the total lack of any attempt towards reconciliation by the N Vietnamese gov’t after the war. One Vietnamese guy was quoted as saying that the Vietnamese have never been so divided as today. So the series was more balanced than I expected.
A Korean all-girl band lip-syncing Iron Butterfly’s ‘In a Gadda da Vida’ complete with fifteen minute drum solo. Those were the days.
I’ve commented about the Burns’ documentary in two other venues. I, too, am a Vietnam Vet. I served as a Paratrooper in the 173d Airborne in 1968-69. I got to RVN as an enlisted, airborne light-weapons infantryman and left a non-commissioned officer. I was 20 when I arrived and spent my 21st birthday in Harm’s Way ridding shotgun in a jeep outside the Village of An Khe. I went from boy to man during that tour, and am immensely proud of what my unit did during my time there.
However, I’ve also read General McMasters’ book: “Dereliction of Duty.” In his thoroughly researched and well-reasoned work, he catalogues the motives of Kennedy, Johnson, McNamara, Bundy, Taylor and the rest of the “best and brightest” in the Democratic administrations that took the US military from a mere advisory role to the primary combatants. Though this is an oversimplification, McMasters’ compellingly demonstrates that Kennedy and Johnson intentionally lied to the American public and withheld vital information to justify increasing our military role in RVN even though they knew that we could not win the war (as winning was defined after WWII).
The Democrats engaged in this perfidy to protect their political viability. So, it turns out that they were willing to sacrifices the lives of tens of thousands of American boys, like me, to advance their personal political agendas. This, of course, is far worse than mere ‘dereliction of duty.’ It is criminal and a travesty of historical proportions.
But, I was there. I was a smart young man. I personally encountered scores (hundreds probably) of South Vietnamese of various ethnicities (Chinese, Annamese, Montagnards, etc) who wanted the Americans to be there to help them defend themselves from their vicious communist northern cousins.
So, despite the vile behavior and selfish friggin’ motives of the scurrilous Democrats, I have absolutely no regrets for anything that I or my unit did in my time there.
I watched 9 episodes of the Burns documentary. I did learn some things that I did not know before. However, since Burns and McMasters have had over 50 years to compile their data, I don’t feel too badly about missing a few small details. Both Burns and McMasters have the advantage of hindsight w/ which to make their cases. Neither has convinced me that my time in RVN was a fool’s errand.
I’m bolstered in my conclusion by the immutable fact that in 1975, when the South crumbled, in part because the US w/held aid, millions of South Vietnamese trekked through dangerous jungles to get to Thailand; or, they got into leaky boats and braved the South China sea; all to escape their glorious liberators.
I’m glad they are here. My cardiac specialist is the gifted son of Annamese refugees. I’m only sorry that the USA let them down in the hour of need and made their escapes necessary. God Bless them.
I don’t know … I went in apprehensive because of the points you make … but I watched the entire thing and thought it was pretty even-handed. A lot of the things you assumed he wouldn’t show, he actually did.
I’d love to see a post-viewing article by Mr. Garlock, since he was so very prescient with this article. I was a grunt in Vietnam in ’69 -’70, and I just finished sitting through the entire Burns project. What an incredibly biased and hateful load of crap! Episodes 8 and 9, in particular, were downright stomach-churning in how they glorified our protesters, the anti-war movement, and especially the vets against the war. I felt like some sort of knucklehead or idiot for simply serving my country, coming home and going to work. Burns should be ashamed of himself. Wait! I take that back. WE should be ashamed of ourselves for watching this malarky with the hope of seeing a true telling of our experience. Any Ken Burns project is always an agenda-driven screed against anything positive about America.
I offer my respect and gratitude for the brave American men and women who served in Vietnam. Your sacrifice is not forgotten.
Terry, you’re sugar coating it. The Viet Cong captain, Bay Lop or Nguyễn Văn Lém, executed in Saigon by General Loan was worse than you claim. South Vietnamese soldiers caught him executing a family.
He was holding the smoking gun and told them he was proud to kill them. He was caught next to a trench filled with the bound bodies of 34 people he had killed. He had been killing people in that neighborhood for a couple days.
Not sure why people say the war wasn’t winnable when one side DID win.
In spring of 1953 during my senior year at Yale, I was enrolled in a history course about China and its culture. My course project was a research report on the Chinese railroad system, built by British companies before WW2. I observed that as soon as the Korean War wound down after 1953, War picked up in Indochina, initially supplied over the double-track RR system from the Soviet border with Manchuria to Vietnam. Thus I never had any doubt about the Soviet strategy to enlarge its global empire in SE Asia and elsewhere by using subsidized local personnel in place of Soviet troops. Thanks to Soviet spies in America and U.K. who supplied atomic bomb secrets, the Soviets were able to blackmail the US into allowing Soviet ships to supply advanced military equipment to the Vietcong. The USA and its allies had to spill our own blood in an eventually-losing war, but kept the rest of SE Asia mostly free from Soviet takeover. That’s the Big Story, unrecognized by both Left and Right. In other words, we WON the big picture, the domino theory, so denigrated by the Left.
Ironically, Vietnam today is more of a US ally against Red china, openings its nation’s doors to American investment and tourism and assistance in finding and identifying US
MIAs and KIAs from the Vietnam war. ‘Nam’s traditional enemy remains China. So it now could be argued that, after all, we won that war, too.
I served in Veet-Nam in the U.S. Army 1970-1971. As to the Ken Burns 10-parter on PBS, I noticed that the directors neglected to have enough “gun shooters” in those shows.
I started watching the first episode on PBS, but it quickly became obvious it would be a left wing skewed version, so I turned it of. My fear is that it will become the “standard version” of the war much as Oliver Stones’s version of JFK is still out there misleading the public,
The war was certainly lost by the cowards at home and, yes, the same ones and their progeny are attacking it now. Our men and women served well against all those odds. BUT, I’m not certain the intent of the war was to win. Another story from days gone by is Kennedy got us involved just to show the communists we would stand against them, and I can believe that to be possible. Also the general of the North Vietnamese army stated in his bio that had we continued with the bombing of Hanoi for another month they would have surrendered but it was stopped by Nixon. Some say how can you believe him? Why would he write that 30 years later? For fun? SMH.
“Will Burns show how American troops conducted themselves with honor…”
To learn more about this conduct of honor you should read Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse.
“Based on classified documents and first-person interviews, a startling history of the American war on Vietnamese civilians.”
“Americans have long been taught that events such as the notorious My Lai massacre were isolated incidents in the Vietnam War, carried out by just a few “bad apples.” But as award-winning journalist and historian Nick Turse demonstrates in this groundbreaking investigation, violence against Vietnamese noncombatants was not at all exceptional during the conflict. Rather, it was pervasive and systematic, the predictable consequence of official orders to “kill anything that moves.”
Drawing on more than a decade of research into secret Pentagon archives and extensive interviews with American veterans and Vietnamese survivors, Turse reveals for the first time the workings of a military machine that resulted in millions of innocent civilians killed and wounded–what one soldier called “a My Lai a month.” Devastating and definitive, “Kill Anything That Moves” finally brings us face-to-face with the truth of a war that haunts America to this day.”
I agree with the sentiment but the author is also guilty of ignoring truths.
That is the problem with the US nowadays – too much emphasis on what political spectrum you fall under and an almost religous-like adherence and protectionism of whatever political idealism you follow or promote. The result is, at the very least, a reluctance to accept convenient truths.