To: Detroit/Seattle Workers' Voice mailing list
September 24, 2017
RE: Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War

  1. To those of my classmates who are watching the documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on the Vietnam War 
  2. Stuck in the mud:  The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

To those of my classmates who are watching the documentary
by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on the Vietnam War 

From a Facebook posting by a comrade:

So am I. For those of our generation, the Vietnam War was one of the major traumatic events of our lives. It changed the lives of all those who were sent to Vietnam and were forced to kill in an unjust cause; not only did many die, but many more were haunted by the war for the rest of their lives, even if they were among the many, many heroic GIs who opposed the war and the slaughter. But it also changed the lives of those like myself who were fortunate enough to stay out of the army. Millions of Americans hated this war and took part in the struggle against it; many -- inside and outside the army -- suffered reprisals for their opposition. As for myself, this war was one of the main reasons I abandoned the aim of becoming a mathematician, although I loved mathematics and science, and instead devoted my life to the struggle to build a revolutionary working class movement.

The Burns/Novick documentary "The Vietnam War" is not perfect. Nothing sponsored by ruling class foundations and even the reactionary David H. Koch could be. So far, it neglects, for example, to talk about the struggle in country after country against colonialism that was going on while the Vietnam War raged. But I've seen so far the first four parts, and it's detailed enough that it gives a picture of the racism, atrocities, massacres, lies, lies, lies, and mass slaughter that accompanied this imperialist war. Watching it is like living through these years again.

* This war was a colonial war, which continued the war which had been waged by the the French.

* This war was fought by an army which trained its soldiers in basic training to hold subject peoples in contempt as subhuman gooks, and whose mode of operation was mass slaughter. Torture, devastation, mass slaughter, and more mass slaughter.

* The burden of this war in the US fell disproportionately on poor working people, African Americans, and other oppressed peoples. The war was not only based on racism against the Vietnamese, but was carried out in a racist way inside the US.

* This war was brought to us by the Democrats as well as the Republicans, by JFK and LBJ, as well as the reactionary dreg Nixon. The run-up to this war was brought to us by Truman as well as Eisenhower. The liberal Democratic heroes like JFK were just as willing to wade through the blood of the Vietnamese people as any other American capitalist leaders.

* The warmongers kept insisting that the US government could win the war in Vietnam if only more troops were committed, but they lost the war anyway.

* This war was justified by fanatical anti-communism as well as racism. It showed that there is no crime that the ruling class isn't willing to justify under the name of anti-communism.

* Ho Chi Minh and many other Vietnamese patriots turned to communism because it was the communist movement that really backed the anti-colonial struggle. None of the other main political forces in the West really did, not even most socialists who had at one time pledged to do so.  This was still true after World War II, when the victorious powers, despite their democratic rhetoric,  sought to reestablish their colonial empires.

There are important things not in the documentary, or which it gets wrong. And there are a number of left-wing commentaries that describe these things.

It's also the case that the Vietnamese communists were subject to the same problems that also afflicted the world revolutionary movement; the building of state-capitalism in Russia and China affected the working class movement around the world. So while the Vietnamese communists remained independent of outside powers, Eastern or Western, the regime they built was not one of real communism. They successfully defeated French and American colonial domination, but the subsequent history of their joining together with Washington in spreading market capitalism is one of the things that shows that none of the present-day "socialist" or "communist" regimes are actually socialist or communist or Marxist. It may also be one of the reasons that some of our filthy-rich ruling class is willing to finance a documentary showing some of the crimes of the war.

But that's another story. What the documentary illustrates is the nature of the militarist system here. No doubt everyone takes from history and from documentaries different lessons, depending on their standpoint. And the Burns/Novick documentary has the explicit aim of trying to reconcile fundamentally opposing views. But millions of people who sympathized with the struggle of the downtrodden against colonialism and racism saw in the Vietnam war a sign of the rottenness of the system in the US that brought us this war.

And since the Vietnam War, we have seen one war after another, and we also see resurgent racism around the world. And militarists galore: we still see those that say that if "we" are only more ruthless, kill more, maybe destroy entire nations as Trump wants, the world will be safe for ExxonMobil, David Koch, climate change deniers, and the neoliberal 1% who want to own everything and make working people the world over into a giant "precariat", with no rights that a capitalist is bound to respect. So the same question that millions worried about during the Vietnam War remains today: what is the system that keeps bringing us these wars? How can we find an alternative? How can we build a movement that really opposes these crimes? How can we really support working people around the world?

These wars aren't just tragic mistakes. A tragic mistake is something that happens once. Something that happens over and over and over again is the fault of an entire system, of a ruling class, and of an outdated economic system that is being protected by this ruling class. <>

Stuck in the mud:  The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

By Pete Brown, Detroit Workers' Voice

PBS is currently airing the series The Vietnam War which, like Ken Burns' other video series, is eclectic in outlook and not at all leftist. But it is educational, especially for those born in later years who may not know much about the war. No doubt they have grown up with values passed on by their elders, values gained by experience with the war, but it would be helpful for them to see first-hand the video of that era, to see where those values came from. In later years, in movies like the Jason Bourne series or TV shows like "The X-Files", it became commonplace to see themes like "You can't trust the government" and "Politicians are all liars". The Burns/Novick series on Vietnam shows where those lessons came from and how they were hammered home to a generation of Americans during the war.

Lies, lies and more lies

The Burns/Novick series continually shows American politicians lying to the public. Over and again political and military leaders are given sober assessments of the situation in Vietnam which show that the United States is on the wrong side, is betting on a losing horse, and will end up defeated and humiliated. And over and over again the political leaders go to the public to gain support for the war, promising them victory is soon at hand and that they love peace more than anything. A good example is John F. Kennedy, who as a young Congressman from Massachusetts assessed that the French were simply defending colonialism in Vietnam, and that the U.S. had no business supporting them. This was when Kennedy was young, something of an idealist, and had no real power. But later, when he got to be a Senator, Kennedy is quoted as insisting on opposing the communist revolutionaries. Then when he got to be president, Kennedy continued support for the savage Diem regime in South Vietnam until that became untenable, and he then switched to supporting a military coup against Diem. In his inaugural speech Kennedy is seen insisting that U.S. support has nothing to do with old-style colonialism, but it's clear that the U.S. was simply stepping into the shoes of the French.

Late in his presidency, Kennedy commissioned and received a very pessimistic assessment of the U.S. position in Vietnam. Kennedy confides to a private notebook that it looks like the U.S. is on the wrong side and is bound to lose. But that is kept confidential, and probably no one except Ken Burns has ever seen it until now. What JFK said publicly was, "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, ..." etc., and he continued expanding the American role. With LBJ and later Nixon, of course, the lies only became more frequent and more ridiculous. By 1967 the military claimed it had already killed 200,000 North Vietnamese troops, and that it was no longer possible for the North to continue their effort to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. But the war continued for years afterward and ended in victory for the North.

Probably the dominant image in the PBS series is of the U.S. being "stuck." In one scene, the video shows black-and-white film of French soldiers slogging through mud in the 50s toward their eventual defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Then the video shifts to color film of American soldiers slogging through mud on one of their hopeless operations. Like the French before them, the Americans are stuck in a winless war.

So why not withdraw? This was the question many Americans wrestled with during the war. Burns and Novick provide many hints, but they never give a definitive answer, preferring to keep it in the realm of tragedy or irony. They quote North Vietnamese soldiers calling the Americans "imperialists", but are far from endorsing that phrase themselves. Nonetheless, their video bears witness to the facts: the American government was stuck because of its imperialist ties and its single-minded devotion to anti-communism. These ties and this dedication overrode any consideration of costs, human or financial. Bodies could be stacked up, trillions of dollars wasted on armaments, taxes would have to be raised and social programs scrapped -- none of that mattered so long as the American leaders could stand up and say they took a stand against communism.

Lessons for today

Today the U.S. is again involved in imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is likely to engage in other follies around the world. So why don't American politicians ever learn? Are they just stupid? No, the problem lies in the nature of the system and where power lies in the American government system. And that has not changed since the days of the Vietnam war. Many valuable lessons were gained by American working people during the war about the nature of their government, its imperialist ties, and its dedication to untruth. But these lessons did not result in a radical change of the system. Until that happens, White House spokespeople will continue to be mouthpieces for the most reactionary -- and richest -- segments of the American population. <>

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Posted on October 3, 2017.