Monday, February 24, 2014

Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War

            Another DVD series.  I’ve been trying to work my way through the history documentaries at the DVD stores in Cambodia, and when I saw this DVD set near the riverside I snatched it up.
            Among the DVD and book sellers in Phnom Penh there seems to be an assumption that people traveling through Southeast Asia are perhaps likely to be interested in Southeast Asian history, so - some - books and documentaries about Vietnam and Cambodia which would be obscure back home are given greater prominence over here.  
            Internet research (W, IMBD) reveals that this documentary series was originally produced for Canadian TV CBC back in 1980.  It aired in Canada as a series of 26 half-hour episodes, and it aired in the US in as 13 hour-long episodes.  The DVD set I got is 13 hour long episodes.

            The style of the documentary is somewhat dated, and the opening credits and theme song especially is reminiscent of the old style documentary film so often parodied on shows like The Simpsons.  The slow pace of some of the episodes indicates that 30 years ago people had longer attention spans than today’s generation.
            And yet, for the history geek, I found it generally interesting viewing, even if I was somewhat frustrated by the documentary’s failure to critically examine some of the key issues behind the war.

The Politics
          During the Vietnam War, the official story sold to the American public was that South Vietnam was a free and democratic country which was in danger of being conquered by the foreign aggressors in North Vietnam.
            This was completely false.  South Vietnam was never a democracy, but a series of increasingly unstable military dictatorship during which basic freedoms, like free speech, free press, and free religion, were denied to the people.
            The Communists in South Vietnam were not a foreign army from the North, but mostly made up of South Vietnamese guerrillas who were unhappy with the government that the Americans had imposed on them.
            According to the 1954 peace agreement, all of Vietnam was supposed to be united in a general democratic election in 1956, but the United States cancelled this election when it became clear Ho Chi Minh was going to win.  Thus the “War for Democracy” began with the United States forbidding free elections.

            At the height of the anti-war movement (during the late 60s and early 70s) these basic facts about the war were becoming widely known, and were even appearing in the mainstream media. 
            But after the War ended, there has been a concerted effort to erase this history.  So the version of history I learned in school (in the 1990s) was back to the old official story—democratic South Vietnam was a victim of North Vietnamese aggression.

            This documentary largely parrots the official version of the War.  It doesn’t commit outright falsehoods, but it puts all the emphases on the wrong places.
            For instance the documentary spends a lot of time describing how North Vietnamese soldiers travelled to the South.  Only buried in the middle of the tenth episode, mentioned briefly as an almost irrelevant fact, does the narrator tell us that most of the communist guerrillas are from the South.
            It’s mentioned a couple times that the majority of the South Vietnamese countryside supported the communists, but I think this point should have been emphasized a bit more in the course of 13 hours. 
            Also the documentarians choose their words very carefully.  They are loath to say that the South Vietnamese villagers actually support the communists, so they usually will phrase things like “the villages are controlled by the communists.” 

            In the same way, the documentarians don’t really hide the fact that the South Vietnamese government (or more accurately “governments”, as the several regimes were overthrown during the course of the war) were military dictators.  But they don’t emphasize this point as much as they could.   And many of the talking heads on the program still talk about fighting for democracy in South Vietnam, and nowhere are they corrected.

            The cancellation of the elections in 1956 is mentioned, but again very briefly.  No mention is made of the fact that the elections were cancelled because US intelligence knew Ho Chi Minh would win.  And the significance of these cancelled elections was not emphasized.  (Thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese would still be alive today if these elections had just been allowed to proceed.)

            The Phoenix program (a CIA program to assassinate political leaders in South Vietnam) is mentioned briefly, and the CIA director is not corrected when he insists that it was not an assassination program.

            The documentarians acknowledge briefly that the Pentagon Papers showed that the US government had been systematically lying about the war, but never detail what exactly those lies were.
            The Gulf of Tonkin incident, even though it had been debunked by the time this documentary was made, is never questioned.  However even back in the 1970s, the official story of the Gulf of Tonkin had been thoroughly discredited.
            Since the release of the Pentagon Papers, it had been revealed that the US government was already committed to sending troops to Vietnam, and the Gulf of Tonkin incident simply provided a convenient excuse for what had already been decided.  Furthermore, the U.S.’s own intelligence was unsure if there was actually a second attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, or just electronic radar confusion.  (President Johnson said privately he thought the sailors were probably just shooting at fish.)
            This was all knowledge in the public domain at the time of this documentary, but they never go into that.  Instead they just largely repeat the official government story.

            It was briefly mentioned that the American bombing of Vietnam was the largest bombardment in history, but the full brutality of this bombing was not explored.

            During the end of the documentary, there’s considerable emphasis on the panic and desperateness in South Vietnam at the end of the war, but it’s only mentioned briefly that when the communists did capture Saigon, the expected bloodbath never took place.

            Again, they’re not lying necessarily, but they’re sure putting the emphases on all the wrong places.

          I actually enjoyed this documentary for the most part.  If don’t get frustrated about what they’re leaving out, and just concentrate on what they choose to leave in, it can be very informative.
            I learned a lot about several battles during the war that I hadn’t known about before.
            I thought the section on the American pilots held captive in North Vietnam was interesting.  (I hadn’t known this before, but about half of the American prisoners of war in Vietnam actually turned against the war and made public anti-war statements during their captivity.)

* One of the more shocking moments in the series was documentary footage of the army chaplain praying with the pilots, and asking God’s blessing on them, before they left on their mission to bomb Vietnam.  My jaw just about hit the floor when I saw that!

* Another interesting moment is a CIA operative talking about his frustrations with South Vietnamese president Diem.  Diem was told by the CIA to rig the election results, but to make sure he only won by a small percentage so as to make it look believable.  “I told him that I didn’t want to read in the papers that he had the election by 99.9%” says one of the ex-CIA advisors.  “And the next day the paper shows he won by 98% of the vote”.  (All misquoted here as I’m quoting from memory, but something like that.)
            I’ve read somewhere else (don’t remember the source now) that Diem felt that it would be a loss of face if any more than 2% of the country didn’t vote for him.

* Interesting to hear the American soldiers complaining about the big rats in Vietnam.  I’ve frequently seen those rats in Phnom Penh as well, and they are pretty huge.

* Having visited Saigon and Hanoi, it was interesting for me to pick out in the documentary footage places that I had actually been to.

* I've used this Chomsky quote before, but it's probably relevant again here, so I'm going to re-post it.

"....It's also necessary to completely falsify history. That's another way to overcome these sickly inhibitions. To make it look as if when we attack and destroy somebody we're really protecting ourselves and defending ourselves against major aggressors and, you know, monsters and so on. There's been a huge effort since the Vietnam War to reconstruct the history of that. Too many people got to understand what was really going on and that was bad. Including plenty of soldiers and a lot of young people who were involved in the peace movement and many others. And it was necessary to re-arrange those bad thoughts and to restore some form of sanity, namely a recognition that whatever we do is noble and right, and if we're bombing South Vietnam that's because we're defending South Vietnam against somebody, namely the South Vietnamese, because nobody else was there. It's what the Kennedy intellectuals called, "Defense against internal aggression in South Vietnam"-- that was the phrase that Adlai Stevenson used. It's necessary to make that the official picture and the well understood picture. And that's worked pretty well actually. When you have total control over the media and the educational system and scholarship is conformist and so on you can get that across. One indication of it was actually revealed in a study that was done at the University of Massachusetts on attitudes towards the current Gulf crisis. A study of beliefs and attitudes and television watching. One of the questions that was asked in that study, people were asked: how many Vietnamese casualties would you estimate that there were during the Vietnam War? The average response on the part of Americans today is about 100,000. Now the official figure is about 2 million. The actual figure is probably 3 to 4 million or something like that. The people who conducted this study raised the appropriate question. They asked the question: what would we think about German political culture if when you asked people today how many Jews died in the holocaust they estimated about 300,000. What would that tell us about German political culture? Well, they leave the question unanswered but you can pursue it. What does that tell us about our culture? It tells us quite a bit. That's necessary to overcome the sickly inhibitions against the use of military force and other democratic deviations. And the same is true on every topic. Pick the topic you like: the Middle East, international terrorism, Central America, whatever it is, the picture of the world that's presented to the public has only the remotest relation to reality. The truth of the matter is buried under edifice and edifice of lies..."

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Mass Media and Control

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