Merely an Empire

David Thomson

Roger Harris is from Roxbury, in Boston. For decades he taught in the school system there. He wears a grey pinstripe suit; his smart bow-tie has a purple streak. He looks patient yet tough, as durable as a former athlete. But he had days in 1967 as a young Marine near the DMZ in Vietnam – the demilitarised zone, aka the ‘dead Marine zone’ – that he can’t talk about:

You go over there with one mindset and then you adapt. You adapt to the atrocities of war. You adapt to killing and dying, whatever … When I first arrived in Vietnam there were some interesting things that happened and I questioned some of the Marines. I was made to realise that this is war – and this is what we do.

Harris gives the camera a funny look, half shy, half guilty, all of him doubtful that we can understand. It reminded me of the opening of Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), where the French woman talks about all she has seen in Hiroshima and the Japanese man responds: ‘You saw nothing in Hiroshima.’

Marines marching in Danang in 1965.
Marines marching in Danang in 1965.

Is it a sign of civilisation that we want to tell the story of our disasters without breaking down? Isn’t it human to remain brave and lucid in the face of catastrophe? Will we find mercy in the particular stories of men and women, soldiers and onlookers? If we insist that these disasters happened to humans, because of humans, can humanism be persevered with? Or is a faith in humanism now wishful thinking? Perhaps our best chance of advancing through the minefield is to be a fool, to kid ourselves, and try to think of courage.

The Vietnam War, a film made by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, comes in ten parts, with beginnings, middles and end credits; and lasts 18 hours altogether, which some may feel is a lot to ask of busy, anxious wrecks who have their own troubles to patrol. Not that 18 hours on your couch, attending to war, is really so much if you need courage and history in your life. The film took ten years to make, at a cost of $30 million. That’s a lot of money by documentary standards, but it was done in the Burns tradition: there was a seeding deal with PBS, but the greater part of the money was raised by Burns himself, a visionary documenter of America’s past and a model businessman too. Even as he was launching the Vietnam series, he was working on another show, about country music.

The Vietnam War starts at the end of the Second World War, with the Japanese finished in Indochina, the uneasy resumption of French control, and their attempts to ignore the pressures of nationalism and the push for independence. And you follow it through to the end of the era called ‘Vietnam’, knowing that that time did not end in 1975, but will last as long as the walking wounded trudge on, and for as long as there is anyone left who understands the remark, made in the film, that ‘Vietnam drove a stake in the heart of this country’ – and knows that the country spoken of here is not Vietnam, despite its three million lost lives. In the course of the film you hear all the reasons there were for being in Vietnam, and how inadequate and confounding they were, because no one had a better explanation than was latent in every bright blade of grass in the paddy-fields, where the greens could be so pretty.

The US entered Indochina as the French backed away from defeat and humiliation. (The shock of the most significant battle in the prolonged conflict, at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, was so great that one French commander committed suicide. It also gave a warning: don’t attempt pitched battles.) The American motivation was to save South-East Asia from communism, but long before the end of that crusade the damage was etched deeper by America’s loss of faith in itself. A malaise was setting in. The country wasn’t necessarily ‘great’ after all; it was merely an empire, subject to the erosions and infections that wait on such organisms.

But some of the fighting forces in Vietnam had been raised on a previous war and its heroic tales. Joan Furey recalls watching a movie from 1943, So Proudly We Hail!, in which Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake played nurses on Corregidor. That blithe make-believe inspired Furey in the late 1960s to enlist as a nurse. She was trained and idealistic and brave, which meant learning to ‘swallow your own fear’ when artillery fire came down on her field hospital. She saw the triage doctors checking out the stretcher cases – save that one, not that one, try for those two, not that one – and she resisted the professionalism that said some deaths were ‘expected’. There are snapshots of Joan as a wide-eyed, dark-haired kid, swallowing hard, desperate to hope, more endearing than Colbert or Goddard. She made up her mind that one guy, this one particular guy, would not die. She gave him blood transfusions. But when she came to redo his dressing she saw that ‘the whole back of his head was gone … and all the blood I had been giving him came out.’ It came out, and So Proudly We Hail! took on an unbearable nostalgia. The Second World War was our last opportunity for assured war movies.

Furey must be seventy now; the veterans who bear witness in The Vietnam War are about the same age. Vincent Okamoto grew up in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona. In Vietnam he saw horrors unfit for words: it was not an honourable war. Later he became a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles. Others still buzz with the adrenaline of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Whatever else, it was a wild time to be alive and come close to death. The fierce young had never seemed more vivid. This is what one flier, Merrill McPeak, remembers from 269 missions:

The late 1960s were a kind of confluence of several rivulets – there was the anti-war movement itself, the whole movement towards racial equality, the environment, the role of women. And the anthems for that counter-culture were provided by the most brilliant rock and roll music that you can imagine. I don’t know how we could exist today as a country without that experience. With all of its warts and ups and downs that produced the America that we have today and we are better for it … I turned the volume up on all that stuff. That, for me, represented what I was trying to defend.

McPeak is 81 now, a fighter pilot who became a four-star general and chief of staff of the air force and helped plan Desert Storm. He was a Republican under George H.W. Bush, yet he went on to campaign for the Democratic senator Bob Kerrey and Barack Obama. He leaves drugs out of his list of rivulets because, I’d guess, he was above them. In close-up he has a white-bearded hawk of a face, with the clear eyes of a fighter pilot. He made me think of James Salter and his code of taciturn manliness.

But then you meet another witness who explains the big gap between ordering the death of your enemy from 15,000 feet and being in the dark in a Viet Cong tunnel. This is James Gillam, a soldier with a sweet, sad smile, who became a professor of Chinese history:

There are rules in tunnel warfare: don’t turn on the light, and don’t fire your gun. I chased somebody into a tunnel, met them at a bend in the corner in the dark. I thought I was alone, and then I smelled their breath, and we had a wrestling match in the dark and I got the upper hand and I crushed this person’s trachea. Held him down while he died. And then got up. I beat and strangled someone to death in a tunnel, in the dark. But that wasn’t the only casualty. The other casualty was the civilised version of me.

The five voices I have mentioned so far among the eighty in the film show the range: a Marine, a woman, a Japanese American, a WASP officer and a grunt. I’ll add Bao Ninh, who enlisted in the North Vietnamese army at 17. He remembers that the strongest reason for killing American soldiers was to eat: ‘A GI carried enough food for a picnic.’ Bao Ninh is quiet, sardonic – a dandy almost – and a good novelist (The Sorrows of War). He seems resolute in looking back, but he knows the war was hideous: ‘Only a stone would not be terrified.’

These witnesses – so moving and so believable, yet not telling the same story – all come within the space of about thirty minutes in episode eight. So there is much more to attend to in a movie that can feel as diverse and all-encompassing as Dos Passos’s USA. It seems to me the best film I have ever seen, but in saying that I am not thinking of its aesthetic elements, its storyline or cinematic elegance. The ten episodes are laid out in sequence, with dates and agendas. The voiceover narrative, written by Geoffrey Ward, is remorseless and untheatrical, just as Peter Coyote’s spoken narration is dry, unaccented and a little formal, as if reading out a casualty report. But Burns and Novick seem to understand how specious it would be to make this a tidy, organised report – a history – instead of attempting to confront the simultaneity and the tumult. (The same cannot be said about the book accompanying the film, which is aggressively sumptuous and self-satisfied: large, beautiful and as inappropriate as a 5.4-pound souvenir added to an infantryman’s pack.)[*] We are in the sky, as the jungle is painted with napalm; in Washington DC, studying maps with optimistic generals; at home waiting, when American day is night in Vietnam; on the ground, as desperate dots struggle to occupy a hill scraped bare by artillery, then abandon it as soon as it is taken.

Everyone was in the dark in Vietnam, in a tunnel, and that enclosure was called loneliness, or doing your best, acting under orders – trying to survive the war, and the orders. You come away from this film, your head filled with the clashes between the indecent arrogance of the policymakers and the helpless obedience of the people who had to be there. There were sensible actions that drove people crazy, and mishaps that made sense. The Tet offensive of 1968 was a disaster for the North in terms of military losses, but the sight of VC in the streets of Saigon overawed Americans. They had been told they were winning. Hardly an American who went there was unchanged. Years later, vets back home were still shooting themselves. Many more Vietnamese were destroyed, and Vietnam’s wholeness isn’t quite achieved even now, but it isn’t clear that the Vietnamese were so changed. They had no option but to defend or define their land.

A scene from the show.
A scene from the show.

What do we do in infinite crisis? What did they do in Europe after 1938? What are we doing now? Ordinary people wait to be rescued by time or consumed by the decisions of their leaders. ‘They’ knew where the trains were going in 1942. ‘We’ know what is happening to our climate. We recognise that democracy has no better chance than the fitful spasms of war. Nothing will be convincing until the devastation we have prepared takes place. The Vietnam War isn’t just happy binge-watching for harrowed liberals; it is diagnosis in the form of autopsy. The message creeps in on us: in a wasteland humanism may be a fools’ version of survival. It is an idea lost in grass and jungle and the oblivion of our errors.

*

We started trying to tell the Vietnam story long before the war was over – it was one of the few ways of making the chaos presentable. The politicians told its story in advance, lying in varying degrees, to save face and to reinforce the notion that war was necessary as a way of identifying and protecting what is good. The Vietnam War does not break new historical ground, though it does redress imbalances. So ‘Uncle Ho’ is recognised for his steadfastness against the Japanese and the French, but it becomes clear that his deputy, Le Duan, was running the Viet Cong show long before Ho died in 1969. And while we take it for granted that Johnson and McNamara, and then Nixon and Kissinger, misrepresented the war and the facts on the ground, the film nevertheless spells out their cynicism and subterfuges in such a way as to make them unforgivable. They knew the war was unwinnable and so betrayed the people they sent to Vietnam (many of them unable or unwilling to evade it), and the people who lived there. Until the very end, in accordance with the theory of ‘Vietnamisation’, Nixon was scuttling sideways, telling the world the South could now look after itself. Let the Vietnamese decide on Vietnam? He never believed the South Vietnamese army could manage that, but if he was bothering to watch by the end he should have been impressed and appalled by the courage of the South, which made the most futile sacrifices of the war as the Americans withdrew and the last choppers were tipped into the sea. (More than three thousand helicopters were ‘lost’ in the war.)

Once, every American knew the outline and the stock images of that chronicle. Because of largely unhindered television news coverage and the cameras that soldiers carried with them, this was the most visible war ever fought. Never again would the government allow reporters to go wherever daring took them. Night after night, bodies appeared on TV as a stew of red and green (colour was arriving during the war), with a layer of sweat on the fighting men like a patina of fever. The war took place in a climate that was itself an assault. Humidity was often 100 per cent and temperatures were regularly in the eighties. Soldiers carried maybe eighty pounds of equipment, treading lightly in case they stepped on the eggshell of a landmine.

American public broadcasting has not neglected or evaded the war in Vietnam. In 1983 WGBH, the Boston affiliate to PBS, made Vietnam: A Television History. It was 13 episodes long, 780 minutes in total – not so different in scale from the Burns/Novick production. It deserved its prizes and high viewing figures, and its narrator, Will Lyman, became the voice of PBS for many years. As a film (if I may call it that), it was an accomplished organisation of footage and storytelling. It understood that Vietnam had been a misguided tragedy, but still it was coherent and clear-cut, and wanted to believe that America’s sense of history could contain that war.

Burns and Novick have transcended that approach not just by finding witnesses from South and North Vietnam, but by presenting a panorama of views, not necessarily complete, but so diverse that we can imagine those we haven’t actually heard. The film could have used these witnesses as and when needed, to talk about particular moments and situations. Instead they reappear throughout the whole series. Carol Crocker’s brother was killed quite early in the war; I don’t think she has ever been to Vietnam. But she is there to the end, talking persuasively about the healing quality of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Being in the film may be as important to her as visiting the memorial.

There is a family of these witnesses; we never hear the voice of an interviewer. One of the most beguiling is John Musgrave, a Marine so badly wounded in Vietnam that several doctors rated him ‘expected’. He became a drop-out and an alcoholic, a would-be suicide and a protester who is still battling the melodrama of the war and the effects of his wounds. He is now a poet and a spokesman for veterans. We feel his romantic recklessness, as he tries to reconcile what happened to him with what he wished had happened. Another witness, Tim O’Brien (author of Going after Cacciato and The Things They Carried), has been a success in life, but is so anguished still that he has difficulty looking at the camera. Musgrave, on the other hand, stares into the lens as if it were his mirror. He deserves a novel or a movie, and because so many of the witnesses are just as conflicted as he is The Vietnam War acquires the density of a sprawling work of fiction.

*

Is this film simply a documentary? PBS will broadcast it as such. It will likely get awards and nominations in that category. There really was a war in Vietnam. The people in the film were involved. The footage we see of soldiers, dead bodies, of guns fired and explosions on the ground: these things were real once, even if their context has now been arranged for film. (What was slaughter then may be a kind of play now.) If the film seems like an epic of fiction, it’s because it is less engaged in a quest for historical truth than it is in getting closer to some verities about life and death. If there had been a Truth, America would not have been in Vietnam. It went there to obviate the doubt empires cannot endure. The implication is that there may be no purpose we can rely on – yet purpose is the justification for most of our wars. Are the witnesses telling us the truth on the oath of a verité camera? Or are they dreaming of a truth that might explain them – to themselves as much as to us?

It’s at this point that we need to think about the role that ‘documentary’ plays in our culture. It’s an orthodoxy now that a certain section of the film audience is more hopeful about documentaries than they can be about Marvel effulgence and computer-generated apocalypses. The staleness of story outlines set in before Jaws, and impossible horrors have not made up for that. So we tell ourselves the world is in ferment and if fiction won’t handle it then let’s go with purported fact. In just the last few years we have had the enchanting enigma of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (the most Nabokovian film yet made), Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, and the landmark of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, the most complete and scary portrait of a very weird guy (our next comeback kid?), and a triumph in its description of race, sport, celebrity and Los Angeles. The Vietnam War is in that bracket. There have been vivid Vietnam movies, but don’t kid yourself: the ‘horror’ of Apocalypse Now is escapist stuff next to the implacable record of the Burns/Novick movie.

Not that documentary should relax or trust itself. For all my admiration, I have one worry about The Vietnam War. The project involved searching for film and stills of the war, and the stuff that was unearthed was bound to be used. Some of the footage we see is of the fighting being talked about, but gunfire has been added in – most Vietnam newsreel was shot silent. It takes skill to match one shot of a gun firing with another of a blast somewhere else – and soon we are into the suspenseful strategies of war films, or even the video games that are more popular than movies. The artifice extends beyond combat. The film has a close-up of Joan Furey, the field-hospital nurse, talking in the present; it has her voiceover; it has those precious still shots of Joan back then, in her own darkness yet lit up by the camera; and it has vague footage of life in a field hospital. That can leave us thinking that we have seen her actual crisis and its arresting incident. Not so. Film has made that magic. And fluent combat is beguiling enough for armchair warriors – it may hold many viewers who can smother the tragedy beneath the poetry of firepower. It is so hard to film war, or cut it together, while maintaining the imperative of terror and cowardice. We are suckers for courage.

Some will track this film like combat groupies. They revere the line that leads from So Proudly We Hail! or Men in War by way of Full Metal Jacket, Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan to Dunkirk. Military buffs know about weapons and uniforms, though they may prefer to pass over the story of My Lai, or Burns and Novick’s concession that Vietnam was rife with small massacres and crimes against the codes of warfare. Over-aggressive officers yearning to attack were sometimes killed by their own troops, who were more committed to survival. In the dark, in the tunnel, the fighting life does what it must, then tries to digest the damage.

There is a larger problem. Among liberals and media mavens, the hope persists that it was exposure to colour footage from Vietnam that turned America against the war. We do not know how to prove that. We can’t be sure that the nightly coverage didn’t do the opposite, and make the public more belligerent (combat video games are used now to train soldiers). Burns and Novick make it clear that despite the passionate opposition to the war, and not only among young people, the preponderance of Americans said they believed in it. They supported the Ohio National Guard for firing on students at Kent State. Their numb assent was brilliantly captured by Nixon with his phrase ‘the silent majority’.

This is the point: The Vietnam War isn’t just about the war but the consequences it had for Americans. There is a great deal from the home front here, and while the jukebox of great rock and roll on the soundtrack makes the ordeal seem exciting sometimes, it leaves little doubt that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s – Merrill McPeak’s ‘rivulets’ – were a liberation for a minority and one that left a schism in America still emphatically evident in the 2016 election.

I will close with another witness, Jan Howard from Tennessee. She’s a country singer, well preserved and vigorous, a little tough in her look, but not the most unsettling face in this film (that would be Commander Nguyen Cao Ky, later prime minister of South Vietnam). She had had a son killed in the war when one day a student demonstrator called on her, asking if she would like to join their march:

I said: ‘Yes, my son is dead … One of the reasons he died was so you’d have the right to do this, so go ahead and demonstrate. Have at it. No, I won’t be joining you. But I tell you what, if you ever ring my doorbell again I’ll blow your damned head off with a .357 Magnum.’

She says she said that in 1969, but she says it again now on film. The country is armed. Its people are afraid. We cannot make a movie that will save us. And good filmmakers now can hardly do their work without illustrating dismay.

[*] The Vietnam War: An Intimate History by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns (Knopf, 612 pp., $60, September, 978 0 307 70025 4).