Making history safe again: What Ken Burns gets wrong about Vietnam

Historian Christian Appy: Vietnam was not a "tragic misunderstanding" but a campaign of "imperial aggression"

Published October 15, 2017 8:00AM (EDT)

"The Vietnam War" (PBS)
"The Vietnam War" (PBS)

Three questions came to mind when news arrived that "The Vietnam War," the latest documentary film from Ken Burns (co-directed with Lynn Novick), would air this autumn. One, would the footage be interesting? It should be riveting, given that there is an infinite supply to draw from, a lot of it never shown. Two, would there be fiddle music this time? Hard to see how Burns could get the us-folks cornpone touch into a film about America's most disastrous imperial adventure to date.

Correct on both counts. Burns makes use of the documentary record in ways he has no business doing, but it is worth slogging through the 18 episodes of "The Vietnam War" to see it, once you are aware of his manipulations. And there's no fiddle music, I'm happy to report — but 1960s rock is used to achieve the same nostalgic effect.

The third question has to do with history. Burns trades in it, and it's always ours, meaning American history. Each of his previous films — 30 of them now — is flawed such that taking on the Vietnam War promised to turn the flaw fatal. It does. Burns is hopelessly, irretrievably exceptionalist. This trait colors all Burns’s work with an ersatz, conjured glory. The running strategy is to place the past high on a pedestal such that we are nearly coerced into admiring it — and through it ourselves. It is a familiar thread among American historians, from 19th-century “greats” such as Francis Parkman up to well-remunerated masters of postcard prose like David McCullough. One might get away with it in a film about baseball or the Brooklyn Bridge, but Vietnam — uh-uh.

Code red: "The Vietnam War" purports to be our document of record, a film meant to bring us all together in some kind of agree-to-disagree unity. Forget it. There are two sides to every story, but in this case one is right and the other very wrong. It cannot be made otherwise, and Burns’s failure lies in his failure to acknowledge this.  

Rather than write about "The Vietnam War" myself, I decided to sit with Christian Appy, a noted historian who lectures at the University of Massachusetts. Vietnam is Appy’s field, and his approach is very specific. No village studies or monographs on rice culture in the Mekong Delta. In his three books, all worth reading, Appy’s interest lies in the war, what the war did to the Vietnamese, and — this above all — what the war did to Americans. I first interviewed Appy for Salon when he published "American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity" two years ago. As the title suggests, Appy’s true topic is we Americans and how we account for ourselves to ourselves. He's perfect for a detached, professional analysis of the new Burns film, and that is what I got.

PBS will continue airing "The Vietnam War" through November. I spoke to Chris Appy in his living room in Amherst, Massachusetts, shortly after the first go-around concluded. As always, I thank Michael Conway Garofalo for his meticulous transcription of the audio recording.

You’ve already written extensively on the Burns film on the scholarly blog, Process. Can you summarize your thoughts on the project? Another way to ask this question: What do you think Burns and Novak were trying to do -- apart, of course, from what they say they’re trying to do? Do you think they’ve succeeded?

Well, as always, Florentine Films [Burns’ production company] is deeply committed to reaching a broad audience, and they’ve been vastly successful with that for more than 30 years. They talk about themselves as storytellers as much as historians, though the subjects of their 30 films have all been U.S. history. So you could count on them, with a budget of $30 million this time, to do a lot of compelling interviews and to recover an extraordinary amount of interesting archival footage. I was impressed that a lot of the images, watching over this 18-hour marathon, were footage I hadn’t seen in lots of other documentaries. That I admire.

They openly stated, when promoting the film throughout the country over at least the last half-year, that they hoped the film would somehow help to heal the bitter divisions and polarization that they saw born in the Vietnam War. Burns said he wanted the film to act as a kind of “vaccine.”

I'm always suspicious of people who are into healing anything, but go ahead.

I’m skeptical that you can do that. And my further, more significant question is: Even if you could, what would it require? What levels of avoidance of difficult questions and important debates would that require for us to overcome these divisions that the war spawned? That’s what I would suggest was the reason they avoided any effort to connect the debates of the Vietnam War to the present. Not a single mention of Afghanistan or Iraq or our 21st-century wars, which bear so much resemblance, in many ways, to Vietnam. We have no debate about that.

This gets at my most serious criticism of the film. That, in a way, as troubling as a lot of this great footage is, of battle after battle after battle — and you do see depictions of people who have died and are terribly wounded — it does somehow put that war safely in the past, in the rear-view mirror.

To me, this film is all about memory, forgetting and history — complicated, densely related topics I’ve been drawn to for years. I wonder if you agree with this point — that these lie at the heart of the film. The question concerns "social memory," as Maurice Halbwachs, the French scholar who defined the phenomenon, called it nearly a century ago. Another French scholar, Pierre Nora, would call this film un lieu de mémoire, a site of memory.

Such places or objects or productions are important, powerful exercises. They tell us to remember, but not only to remember —  they tell us what to remember and how to remember and then what to forget. Finally, they tell us that remembering in the indicated way is part of what it will mean to be — fill in the nationality — French or Chinese or American. I wonder if you agree this is a good way to look at the film. 

Absolutely. It is a way to understand the American public’s collective memory of this now 50-year-old war. There is a pretense of exhaustive coverage any time you present an 18-hour documentary. There is the expectation that everything will be remembered. But of course that couldn’t be the case. The film does give us a sort of index of the state of American memory, at least the dominant strain of it.

One of my disappointments is that we don’t have a wider range of responses. We don’t hear, for example, from an American who would take the view that this was without question a war of American imperial aggression in the pursuit of counterrevolution, as opposed to the dominant narrative told by Burns and Novick, which is that this was a great tragedy on all sides. That, I would submit, is the dominant American view. And maybe increasingly in Vietnam as well, as they look back on 3 million lost lives and ask, “Was it really worth it?” But it certainly doesn’t explain the mix of wartime feelings, when people would get into open battle over these different interpretations of the war.

When I told a friend I was coming to see you he replied that, for better or worse, this film will be understood as a definitive account of the war for many years to come. For worse, I would say, to the extent my friend’s point is true. What is your thought on this?

It’s quite likely. The Burns reach and brand is extraordinary. I can’t think of another person in our culture who has had a greater influence on public memory of U.S. history. But we’ll see. It’s hard to tell yet how many people have really been watching this, so I’ll withhold some judgment. But I worry about it, because I do think it reinforces, among other things, a really false memory of the antiwar movement.

Center stage is given over to American combat veterans. They’re the real stars of the show. They can speak with moral and political authority because of a whole host of editorial decisions, and there are really only one or two people who are interviewed on camera who were members of what I would call the civilian antiwar movement. That is, they had no family or personal connection to the military.

There are not, to say the least, particularly effective voices that give you a sense of how profound the antiwar critique was and how it was founded on deep convictions. There is the implication in a number of places in the film that the antiwar movement was driven primarily by self-interested desire to stay out of the war, and also that the antiwar movement commonly denigrated American military veterans. I think both of those ideas are misleading at best. If there had been a greater variety of antiwar voices I think we would have gotten a deeper sense of the sheer power of their ethical and principled stance.

I thought that was one of the functions of the music. I kept thinking when I was watching, I find this soundtrack really objectionable. I’ll figure out why. All I know now is I don’t approve. It turned out I had several reasons for finding it objectionable, but one of them was that it turned the war and the antiwar movement and everything going on back here into a kind of cultural phenomenon. It put it in there with health food stores and head shops and all that shit.

Yeah, that’s very astute. I remember the sequence when you’re seeing Woodstock, and it seems to just blend in with this sort of home-front gestalt that’s sort of vaguely against the war but really into having a good time, and then you flash back to Vietnam and you see boom, boom, boom.

They were veiling the serious dimensions of the antiwar movement.

Yeah, and its variety. By the end, it included even very respectable Americans.

Of the film's many failings and shortcomings, to me almost all of them relate to this question of history, so I want to stick with it. I’ll begin with Neil Sheehan, the UPI and later, New York Times man, who covered the war for years. In Episode 2, he says, “We thought we were the exceptions to history. History didn’t apply to us.” Arnold Toynbee, in another context entirely, was writing of his childhood memories in England once and said, “History was what happened to other people.” 

This is key to a lot of other problems, it seems to me. It’s the door to my reading of the film as an 18-hour hymn to American exceptionalism. Exceptionalism got us into the war, and the immense pity of the Burns film is that it simply carries our notion of exceptionalism forward. On we go.

I’m glad you brought up that Neil Sheehan moment. It’s a highlight of the film, and one of the few times that you have a commentator suggesting that Vietnam shows that the United States really is not an exceptional force for good in the world — a challenge to American exceptionalism. But I agree that the film, as a whole, is an effort to keep American exceptionalism alive and well. The joking title — that’s not really a joke — that I came up with is that instead of "The Vietnam War," it should be called That Awful War Americans Were So Brave to Fight. “Where do we produce these men?” A couple of people actually use that line: How do we produce soldiers that are so brave and kind?

I look at Burns over the whole 30 films as one long song of American exceptionalism. Everything: "The Civil War," "The Brooklyn Bridge," all of it. I had low expectations even before I started watching. Burns strikes me as a 64-year-old man wearing a Boy Scout uniform, honestly. He talks about balance and objectivity, but you’re not going to get either out of him, and especially not on a subject like this. In the opening minutes, he lays his cards out: The Vietnam War “was begun in good faith, by decent people.” This seems to me to be boyishly naive. Did you have high expectations for this film, as a historian?

No, I didn’t. And in some ways, I would have to say, as disappointing as it was, there were moments like the Sheehan moment that almost defied the film’s more blatant sympathies, and almost in spite of themselves they got some good material and some good history in there. Even though they pull punches repeatedly — they never use, for instance, the words “lie” or “defeat” — the lies are nonetheless unavoidable as you march through the years. The framing of it as a kind of “fateful misunderstanding” — the historical record does not support that naive assumption. At one point they do quote this CIA veteran who says that in Vietnam we misunderstood that this was part of a longer anti-colonial tradition and we put it into a Cold War context. Perfectly true, but that wasn’t the result of a misunderstanding. This was a result of a very powerful Cold War orthodoxy, an ideology that would disqualify any argument which would suggest that we were acting as counterrevolutionaries.

We did it with all of them — we did it in Africa, we did it with the non-aligned movement, we did it with Nehru [in India], we did it with Sukarno [in Indonesia].

Right. We did not unwittingly bungle into Vietnam. It was a quite conscious policy.

We Americans have always loved stories, and we’re going completely overboard for storytelling at the moment. I’m not surprised. Telling stories is not a value-free strategy. They are, in my read, a way of avoiding authentic history. You can say they are history privatized, if you want to put the point another way. In the final episode, the narrator mentions guilt and “lessons learned and not to be forgotten,” moving straight past what these might be and continuing, “but meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it, stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness, and, ultimately, reconciliation.” A Purple Star there for Geoffrey Ward’s writing, I have to say.

This is almost perfectly upside down, if you ask me. In all these stories, we find precisely an evasion of guilt and understanding. And this givenness to stories goes back very far. All of the “great” historians of the 19th century — Parkman, Bancroft, the other big names — took great pride in turning history into a long line of stories. I object strenuously to stories. You have a clear example of why in this film. They’re a way of avoiding all kinds of things: causality, responsibility, human agency. 

I don’t agree entirely. I do like stories. I wrote a whole long oral history of the war that was based on 135 stories. But it’s in the way they are used. I agree with you that they don’t clarify history in the way they are summed up at the end as stories of perseverance and courage. I don’t know what any of that means, really.

Within the stories that are told, there are some moments that do reveal important things about the history of the war. For example, there are a number of American soldiers who speak to the insanity of American military strategy: They’d be ordered to seize some hilltop, to try to kill as many people as possible, and then abandon it. So those soldiers were really, I think, effectively trying to tell us that this war was not to be determined by force of arms, that there were other factors involved.

The filmmakers don’t underline or explain that point to suggest what is in my mind a basic historical reality of this war. To understand the basic reality of this war, you have to understand that military force does not guarantee political legitimacy. The government you’re backing in South Vietnam never had sufficient political support from its own people, otherwise the outcome might have been different. So all of this battle-after-battle that the documentary reveals ultimately is meaningless except insofar as it did eventually wear down the political will of Americans and South Vietnamese — both soldiers and civilians — to keep fighting against their more resolute enemy.

It’s not so much the problem with using individual stories, but connecting them to larger stories, underlining the differences and not just pretending that one story sitting alongside another story can somehow all coexist peacefully and be reconciled.

I stand corrected. I have to modify my thought. I’m very suspicious and disapproving of stories the way that Americans commonly use them.

It is often a form of avoidance of these more difficult, important historical realities. I don’t know if it’s a panhuman trait or not, but I think if you want to reach people as a historian, there’s nothing wrong with engaging in communication and storytelling.

Let’s walk into the gaping hole in this film: the absence of authentic history, as I think of it. Vietnam is an example of what I call “history without memory.” Again, it is a very common American stunt. You have a grand tale full of stories, but there’s no context, no address of causality, collective agency, responsibility. This is how we Americans can claim to love history while being mortally fearful of it at the same time.

I think you’re asking about the historical evasions of the film. The historical framing that I take issue with, primarily, is this idea that the United States intervened, in the wake of French colonial rule, as the leader of the free world, into a civil war on the side of self-determination for this new country called South Vietnam. Yes, Vietnamese were fighting against Vietnamese, but it was not primarily a civil war by any stretch.

To understand the reality of that war and the Vietnamese experience of it and the ultimate victory of the communist side, you have to understand that the war against the Americans — the American War, as the Vietnamese would call it — was an extension of a historical quest for national liberation, and after 1954, for reunification. That was the compelling political cause during the war. It’s a way of, again, letting our leaders off the hook. It’s a way of avoiding responsibility. Had the United States not intervened, there never would have been a South Vietnam, or at least not a South Vietnam that would’ve existed more than a very short time. The film therefore avoids the issue of American aggression. It allows us to go on with this fantasy that, with good intentions, we got deeper and deeper into an impossible, tragic situation.

I don’t know that that word appears in the film, either: “Aggression.”

Perhaps from the Americans in the antiwar movement.

Actually, I did hear about North Vietnamese aggression.

Well, yes. This guy Lê Duẩn -- Burns and Novick think they’ve made this great historical discovery that Ho Chi Minh was just a figurehead.

I wanted to ask you about that. You have written that they overdid the prominence of Lê Duẩn?

He was important, but they make him out to be the only major figure calling the shots. I thought it was amusing that they repeatedly say, “Lê Duẩn is preparing yet another offensive,” as if our whole war isn’t an ongoing, perpetual offensive. He’s the great aggressor. [Laughs.]

I think that historical contribution is a modest one. Historians for years have understood that Ho Chi Minh and Gen. Giáp were not what they had been in the war against the French.

You mentioned in your blog post that Daniel Ellsberg never appears. For that matter Richard Falk never appears. Noam Chomsky. William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko -- nothing of the great American tradition of antiwar rhetoric appears. For that matter, you never appear. I take this as an omission, given your work. Were you consulted on this film? 

I was called by Lynn Novick some years ago and we spoke on the phone for about half an hour. She was interested in suggestions of people she might interview, particularly in Vietnam. It’s my understanding that she actually convinced Burns that Vietnamese voices did need to appear in this film. He was inclined, I think, to make it really just about the Americans and maybe some South Vietnamese who now live here.

But back to your point, you do not get the most radical critiques on the American side, except for the Vietnam veterans. There are those sequences where Vietnam veterans against the war speak out. So you do hear some of that from them. If you have military credibility, apparently, you have the legitimacy to make a strong critique of the war, but not as a civilian. They would defend that by saying that there’s some merit to this; we don’t want the film to be taken over by expert opinions of professors and historians.

Yet they do interview historians who have that military credential. Lewis Sorley, who’s a big defender of the war, thinks it should have been fought and could have been won, if only Creighton Abrams had been put in charge earlier. And there’s James Willbanks, who wrote "Abandoning Vietnam." He’s a historian with military experience. He gets interviewed on camera. [Sorley served in Vietnam as an intelligence officer. Abrams commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972. Willbanks is a former infantry officer.]

During the time when the opposition to the war that gradually accreted in the ’60s and into the ’70s, we were both a lot younger, but I learned to distinguish between those who opposed the war because we couldn’t win it and those who opposed the war because it was wrong, to put it in the simplest terms. How would you divide that up? I found far too many people at that time who didn’t want to fight the war anymore “because we can’t win it.” That’s a nonsense objection.

It’s complicated. That’s a more pragmatic criticism. It was more prevalent earlier on, but the moral critique does gain traction throughout the late ’60s. There’s this one amazing poll that, by 1971, something like 71 percent say the war was a mistake. So the question becomes: Of that 71 percent, how many think it’s a mistake because it’s simply too costly or unwinnable? But that same poll found that 58 percent of Americans said the war was immoral. I don’t think that has held up over time in our memory, looking back on it.

Going back to names, who would you have put in? What would be the main narrative threads you would have liked to see but weren’t there?

Let me start with somebody like Randy Kehler, a draft resister who said that he was not going to participate in an immoral war, so he went to prison for two years for that principled stand. Indeed, Daniel Ellsberg heard about Kehler, saw him speak, and was so moved — he tells this story often of going into a bathroom after hearing Kehler’s resistance story, sobbing uncontrollably, and then deciding, Well, what can I do that’s equally courageous to try to bring this war to an end? That was one of the founding moments that he decides to [leak] the Pentagon Papers.

What’s become of Randy Kehler?

He still lives up here in Colrain [Massachusetts] and is still an activist. He went on to be one of the cofounders of the Nuclear Freeze movement. He wouldn’t pay taxes to support the military, so he had his house confiscated at one point in the 1980s — there’s a little documentary about it. He’s an amazing guy.

So, certainly, more voices that represented that generation’s antiwar movement. But I also think it would have been valuable to have a variety of different critics, not just campus-based or professors. It would be nice to have some people like Chomsky or Ellsberg, but why not have self-described housewives who were caught up, or people who were turned against the war because of religious faith? Every religious denomination had an antiwar element to it. You don’t really get a sense of the diversity and vibrancy of that movement. They do a bit on congressional opposition, but more of those voices would have been interesting.

Was there significant congressional opposition at the time?

Yeah, you know, [Sen. George] McGovern makes sort of a brief appearance. This is a parenthetical aside, but some stuff does get in there that is pretty stunning and interesting. The coverage of the Chicago Democratic convention [in 1968], for example. In that footage, they do show you the massive amount of police force brought to bear on these protesters, and they even have Walter Cronkite saying on camera this shocking thing, calling it “a police state.” There’s no other way to describe what he says.

I stopped the film and went back. Did he really say that? I wanted to hear that again. Please talk about the lessons history could have taught us, the present-day consequences of our refusal of history. What do you see of Vietnam in American conduct today?

In the 21st century, as in Vietnam, we have fought more undeclared wars under false pretext. We sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to places on the other side of the globe where they were considered to be hostile invaders and given an impossible counterinsurgency mission, and failed to achieve our objectives by any measure. There are so many parallels that we have failed to address.

The biggest problem that underwrites that blindness, I think, is this insistence that even if we’ve made a bad foreign policy choice here or here or here, we still have the best of intentions. We still remain a force for good in the world. If it weren’t for us, the chaos, the anarchy, the violence would even be worse. The indispensable nation.

Not only does this film not address what lies at the heart of all these mistakes — if we can take Vietnam as an approximate template for Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other things — but it seems what lies at the core of it is a national mythology or, if you prefer, a set of ideological beliefs, in the way Richard Hofstadter used ideology. In street-corner language, they chickened out. We, as a nation, simply can’t climb that mountain — not yet, anyway.

Right. And you know, it wouldn’t have been that hard if they’d had the political courage to take it on. Even in a storytelling fashion you could have had some of these interesting Vietnam veterans, like John Musgrave, sitting down with some veterans of our recent wars and talking shop. Are there parallels? Back and forth. Instead, we have every interviewee speaking in close-up. There’s no debate. We see no discussion. That would have been so interesting.

Even in Vietnam, to get back to this issue of the whitewashing of civilian casualties — which are never really addressed, the fact that 2 million civilians were killed. Never does a camera go into a remote Vietnamese village and talk to people in their homes. They’re filmed so close you don’t know where they are. It could be anyplace. But if you’d go out into those villages and ask a group of people, "What it was like when American troops came through? What are your memories of that?"

In your blog you made an interesting point about how the film was framed. In a variety of ways, the mechanism was to place the war in the past as if it were some kind of found object. The way the war is spoken of, the way the documentary footage was produced and incorporated, the way every assertion by an interview subject was left unchallenged. I think this was another function of the music, this classic rock that’s not on the radio anymore: “That was all way back then.” And then the tight focus, as you say.

This is what I call history without memory. We love Paul Revere’s false teeth but we don’t know much about the story. We love George Washington’s wine bottles, but how many of us know  much about how he lived and who he was? I think that’s the function of the close-up. Lose them in the details, and it gives the impression of a great, crowded history. But there’s no memory. I call this “museum-ization.” It was the main device used to avoid facing the lessons you just reviewed.

For me, the film — and I think this is characteristic of Florentine Films in general — induces an elegiac reverence for the past rather than critical scrutiny of it. So it becomes a sort of homage to people who experienced very difficult times, suffered great hardship. We bow to them, respect them, revere them, but we’re freed from the responsibility of thinking too hard about the historical and political significance of what they did. It is sort of “healing over history.”

I think that the music functions just as you say. I spent a lot of time watching again and again the way the films end. A lot of them end in a kind of montage of photographs with a classic song over it. The one I really studied was this one at the end of Episode 5, where it’s the Rolling Stones playing “Paint It Black” — which is a very bleak song: “I look inside myself and see my heart is black” — but you’re seeing these very beautiful black-and-white pictures, they’re treated as works of art, really, mostly of American soldiers. It freezes them in the moment when this song came out and where this happened. It’s like a butterfly collection.

I wonder what you think the film did in regards to the question of moral choice. I didn’t go to Vietnam. I had a very high lottery number. I will say I had no intention of going no matter what my lottery number was, but I can’t stand by that. I simply didn’t go. This said, I’m not all that forgiving in the matter of moral choice: I had to go. These boys had no choice.

The film fails to address the most serious moral questions raised by the war and by the draft. What do you do? Should you fight a war you believe is wrong? A number of veterans do raise this question. Karl Marlantes and Tim O’Brien both say that they had moral objections to the war, and Marlantes reads this extraordinary letter to his parents where he says he’s going to give up his Rhodes scholarship to go on active duty, because even though he thinks it’s wrong and he may be participating in one of the great crimes of the century, he feels like he’s hiding, and the right thing to do is to join his buddies. [Marlantes served as a Marine officer. Tim O’Brien, the novelist, served in the Army 1968–1970.]

The film wants us, I think, to believe that he behaved with great honor, even heroism, to go fight a war that he had already judged a crime. He doesn’t express any misgivings about making that choice. O’Brien, to his credit, does. He said it was an act of moral cowardice to have gone against his intuition that this was not a righteous war. In a way, I can appreciate more the people like Bill Ehrhart, who’s in the film and grew up a Goldwater supporter thinking this was really fighting the good fight and only later became disillusioned.

Michael Herr, somebody else who might have been in the film, had a great line in "Dispatches." To paraphrase: At what point does running in front of a machine gun amount to an act of cowardice? I think this was his point, this question of moral choice. The more courageous choice, in my view, would have been to say, I’m not going and I’ll stand for the consequences.

It’s interesting that you should bring him up. In reference to the Geoffrey Ward script, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think he ever quotes a journalist or writer.

Only the approved ones: David Halberstam, Sheehan, Malcolm Browne. There’s the question of false equivalence. This pertains specifically to atrocity and violence on each side. Your points in your blog were two. The first: Whatever atrocities the North committed, they don’t justify an imperialist invasion. Your second point: There was no equivalence anyway in the matter of civilian casualties. I’d add a third: You can’t judge the conduct of any revolution without taking into account counterrevolution — a word I was very pleased to see you use. Can you elaborate on this question of false equivalence?

As you point out, the film is very careful. Every time there will be a war crime committed by the United States side, they’ll very carefully point out a war crime committed by the other side. You can just predict it. Even in Episode 1, they said, “. . . but the Viet Minh were every bit as ruthless as the French.”

A preposterous observation.

In the case of the United States, you have the most powerful and richest nation in the world coming from 10,000 miles away and bombarding this small country from offshore Navy vessels, from seven airbases in Thailand, from Guam -- never mind the airbases in South Vietnam itself -- with more bombs than had been dropped in all of World War II, times three. And suddenly, the communist side is every bit as ruthless as the American side. It’s totally apples and oranges.

And even if there were equivalence, in the cause of what? You had one side fighting for an indisputably honorable cause: independence, sovereignty, pride, self-determination. On the other, you had people fighting for the most astounding reasons. “I wanted to star in my own war movie.” “My girlfriend wouldn’t love me.” “The neighbors back home would think I was a traitor.” “I had to prove I was a man.” Nowhere in the film is this almost ridiculous disparity remarked upon.

That’s very well observed. I wish I had written just that paragraph.

As you say, political will won the Vietnam War. Armaments did not win the war.

We certainly had enough firepower to stay there indefinitely, therefore forestalling or delaying the collapse of this government we were propping up. But as soon as you remove that massive force, the political will really wilted out. It took longer than many people, even in the North, expected, but the final offensive was a complete rout. The film says, yes, there were some pockets of resistance, but mostly the South Vietnamese troops were ripping off their uniforms and boots and trying to hide. They were running away.

The pace of the last few weeks was extraordinary. One other thing was the horrific collapse of American morale. I didn’t know it sank that low. Michael Herr told us quite a lot of marijuana was smoked, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the American troops on the ground were completely busted in terms morale. Another point was the pointless sacrifice made to take territory, this hill or that, and then walk away immediately. These things really were new to me. I wonder whether there were things to you, as a professional historian, that were new.

The idea of seizing a hilltop and then abandoning it is hardly new. Anyone who has really studied it would know that that was typical, and one of the factors that deeply alienated the American troops over time, even from the beginning. Combat soldiers often talk about the sense of how gaining territory has some real meaning. You’ve lost friends trying to put the flag in this spot, and then to leave it totally undermines any sense of real achievement, other than the one achievement that the military obviously cared most about, which was amassing a body count. So you kill a bunch of people and then you go hunting somewhere else, and you may end up hunting back on the same ground.

But it also speaks to the lack of political support throughout the South. It could have been a war of territorial advancement if, once you’ve fought in this or that village, you can leave it because the village supports you and will keep bad guys out, then you can move on. But they never had that support.

One of the ironies of this film is that it makes a very serious commitment to telling the military history of the war from battle after battle, from Ap Bac to Binh Gia to the Ia Drang to Con Thien to the Tet Offensive to Hamburger Hill. It’s all there. Military historians, I think, would really relish a lot of this documentary. But again, they don’t remind us that a lot of it really doesn’t matter.

It’s combat for the sake of combat, after a time. The most profound untruth the film bears forward is its refusal to admit the original sin. This seems consequential, to me. In this specific respect, there was guilt and innocence, and it is never articulated. 

I would just add that they do acknowledge that there was a decision to be made in 1945 -- to recognize Ho Chi Minh and the independence of Vietnam under his government or not -- and we made a different decision. Or the decision in 1954 to intervene or not. At least it is presented as a decision. But what they back away from and don’t underline is that the original sin is that we did support the French reconquest of Indochina. We did stand against a democratic solution to Vietnam provided by the Geneva Accords. There was all this talk about fighting in the name of democracy and freedom, but we acted in a completely undemocratic fashion to initiate a war that way that killed 3 million people.

Sitting here in 2017, I read Vietnam, after this film, as one episode of many in pursuit of global hegemony that began in 1945 and continues as we speak. I think it’s one big reason among many that defeat was unacceptable. Washington could not tolerate a publicly visible stumble in what was one great, long campaign. As you say, a campaign of counterrevolution. Do you see it that way, or is this too much?

No, I don’t think that’s too much. I think the Cold War policies were an episode in a much longer history in which America is trying to assert global dominance. The fact that the Cold War ended is meaningless, because we continue. 

I remember so well the day Colin Powell said, “Actually, there really isn’t going to be a peace dividend.” Page one of the New York Times, above the fold. Someone in the film says roughly, “The Vietnam War drove a stake into the heart of this country and it’s still there.” I think it has. I think it’s a psychological question. It’s not to do with the Veterans of Foreign Wars versus the Vietnam Veterans Against the War or any such thing. It’s our exceptionalist psychology. It took a hit. We’ve been trying to repair it ever since.

I agree. That’s the whole basis of my last book: that we haven’t had the full reckoning with the war. We haven’t acknowledged all the deep sources for that wound and we’ve tried to patch it up, largely by ignoring that reckoning which would put us very much at the heart of a critical challenge to things like American exceptionalism.

It’s basic first aid. You’ve got to clean the wound before you dress it.

Yeah. You can’t just give the vaccine.

As a historian with a sharp focus on this subject of the film, where’s the work now for you? How hopeful are you for a better narrative, and what kind of national reckoning is required to establish such a narrative?

I think we need to think more seriously about the ways in which democracy has been degraded now for decades and how it might be revitalized. It’s not just degraded around foreign policy, but that’s an obvious area where citizens feel they have absolutely no say — the formulation of foreign policy.

I’m now working on issues of our nuclear history. I think the decision, codified by the Atomic Energy Act of 1947, to confer on the president the sole authority to use nuclear weapons at any time and on any target is both a template and a justification for further expansions of imperial presidential power and the creation of the national security apparatus. There are other explanations, of course — the Cold War and so on — but nuclear weapons are very much at the heart of the Cold War. I think that until we get rid of nuclear weapons, the idea of really trying to revitalize democracy is pretty much not going to happen.

That’s so interesting. You draw a connection between our insistence on maintaining a nuclear arsenal and the democratic process.

Yeah. I haven’t worked it all out yet, but I’m not alone. Elaine Scarry, a political philosopher at Harvard, wrote a book that got zero attention but is very important, called "Thermonuclear Monarchy," which makes precisely this kind of argument. 

By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at His web site is

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