Vietnam will be revisited starting September 17th by a Ken Burns documentary series. Greg Laxer is a Vietnam-era army veteran who refused to go to Vietnam on principal, and was subsequently court-martialled for this. It affected his entire life, and even as he ages, he has not softened his critical views of state misuse of power. Now he has observed how our country has made war a perpetual venture in bringing “peace and democracy” to all parts of the world….- but it is still the same old war. In this discussion he shows his concern that Burns may use his prestigious reputation as a documentary film maker to obfuscate the real disaster that war was.
Many of our readers are Vietnam veterans and this is an invitation to hear from them and other veterans on what their assessment of post-Vietnam official policy is. As a veteran of WW II my feelings are that we cannot trust our two major parties to make wise decisions on war and cannot trust our military bureaucracy to give honest counsel on those wars of choice since WW II. We are in a mess! b. traven
Greg Laxer, US Army Medical Corps, 1967-71
Dear Mr. Burns,
I only learned relatively recently that you had undertaken a documentary project on the Vietnam War, running about 18 hours total, due to air on PBS television in September of this year. I’m sure you are aware that the Federal Government launched a multi-year Vietnam War 50th [Anniversary] Commemoration program during the Obama administration, scheduled to run well into next decade. Its website states that 9,852 events are being held under its aegis. That website has a Timeline which infamously downgraded the 1968 My Lai Massacre of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by US troops to the My Lai “incident.” We who opposed this criminal war while it transpired, and oppose historical revision of it, cannot but suspect that the government effort’s intent is to whitewash this utter waste of lives and resources as something somehow “noble” and “well intentioned.” And I am concerned that your upcoming series may have the same effect, if not intent.
In the official online preview material for the series (where it’s proclaimed “the television event of the year”), you state that a complex issue needs 20 to 30 years’ perspective to be fully understood and fairly evaluated. Yet you go on to state that, “This film is not an answer, but a set of questions about what happened.” It appears that you will give a lot of attention to the issue of “Vietnamese versus Vietnamese.” If you are attempting to paint this war as a civil war among Vietnamese, you will start right off by perpetuating the foundational lie of the mountain of lies stacked up by the US government to try to justify the carnage. Vietnam is one nation that was artificially divided by an imaginary border at the behest of President Eisenhower, who later admitted that had the election scheduled for 1956 been allowed to take place, Ho Chi Minh would have been elected president. How does a nation commit “aggression” against itself, Mr. Burns? There was only one aggressor in this war, and it wore a flag with 13 stripes and 50 stars on its uniform. The southern “Army of the Republic of Viet Nam” (ARVN) largely consisted of conscripted, poor, frightened young men who hated being put in a position of being puppets for an invading foreign force, not believers in the need to “stop another Communist domino from falling.”
To put it succinctly, there was no “noble cause” for which more than 58,000 US personnel and an unfathomable number of Southeast Asian civilians (some in Cambodia and Laos) had their lives snuffed out. Was the war a “well intentioned mistake”? With close to 600,000 US personnel (counting Naval units off the coast) deployed at the peak, that’s one massive “mistake”! Veterans For Peace, of which I am a member, launched the Vietnam Full Disclosure initiative (www.vietnamfulldisclosure.org) to try to counter the government’s distortions in trying to rewrite the history of this thoroughly sordid episode of our country’s 20th Century history. I understand that you have characterized your series as an attempt to finally heal the wounds of divisiveness over this war. In my opinion, these wounds can never be healed without a full admission by the US government of its crimes in Southeast Asia, an official apology to its victims–which include American veterans, of course–and the payment of adequate reparations to the Southeast Asian nations affected. What is truly sad to observe is that the course of US military adventures since 1975 reflects a remarkable ability to learn nothing from past experience!
If there is to be any roundtable discussion of your Vietnam War project at its conclusion, as part of the series itself, on “The Charlie Rose Show” or any other forum, I feel very strongly that a representative of Veterans For Peace’s Vietnam Full Disclosure campaign merits a place at the table. That is the best way to ensure that “all sides of the story” are presented to the public.