The Franco-German TV channel ARTE recently broadcast Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new documentary on the American war in Vietnam. ARTE had touted the nine-episode series as the last word on the subject, and the French press responded with praised. The Vietnam War, the trailer claimed, offered an unprecedented view of a conflict that claimed the lives of millions of Vietnamese.
In the past half-century, there has been no shortage of documentaries that tell the story of the war—or certain parts of it—using a combination of archival footage, analyses, and eyewitness statements. There are plenty of all these things in this new and very long series, which, it must be admitted, does enrich our understanding of the foundation and evolution of the Vietminh and Vietcong during the Indochina wars. And the scale of the suffering endured by the South Vietnamese, much neglected in previous works, is revealed here: a million and a half people were “reeducated,” and hundreds of thousands forced to flee the country.
But Burns and Novick’s series offers no great epiphanies about the Vietnam War. Their story—told through interviews with veterans, former Vietcong, and members of the Vietnamese diaspora—is a familiar American history, a self-portrait of a breathless, vertiginous, discordant United States.
Oddly enough, French media outlets all saluted the documentary. They heaped particular praise on its soundtrack—which included music by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane—without expressing the least bit of surprise that there was not a note of Vietnamese music, even though the 1960s produced such artists as the guitarist and poet Trinh Công Son, whose compositions filled the Saigon honky-tonks frequented by American soldiers. Instead, it was rock-and-roll that played over photomontages of corpses of Asian people, often accompanied by a meandering voiceover, as if in an attempt to silence the images. The music paused only when a young American recruit died, allowing for a slow, searching study of the fallen hero.
This Hollywood treatment runs throughout The Vietnam War. It is hardly surprising that Le Monde opened its criticism of the film with a reference to The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and other films in the Full Metal Jacket genre. The media has not considered the skeptical views expressed by the Vietnamese diaspora in France and in the United States, including writers like Viet Thanh Nguyen, who has declared, unequivocally, that “Hollywood is racist.”
The film goes to great lengths to push America’s narrative of the war, even at the cost of contradicting itself. In an episode on the My Lai massacre, durring which U.S. soldiers executed hundreds of unarmed civilians, the atrocity is declared neither a “policy” nor a “habit,” but “a separate case.” This assertion ignores the brutal operations conducted in villages in the South and later also in the North, which were presented without any qualms in many of the preceding episodes, and were no different from what the press would finally reveal about My Lai.
Many viewers will be shocked to hear such declarations as “the day I saw my friend die, I decided I’d never again kill a man, but I decided I’d kill as many Vietnamese as possible, I’d waste as many gooks as possible”—a reminder that racism was the indispensable foundation of this war. Another veteran, who fought alongside the South Vietnamese army, recalls that he “didn’t want the Vietnamese touching the bodies of American soldiers.” It is only at the end of the series that someone admits that “we hadn’t understood that we were dealing with human beings.” (On their behalf, thanks.)
The Vietnam War tends to say more about the United States than it does about anything else. However, it is far from being a study of a newfound national awareness that may have emerged after the murder of nearly 3 million people—Burns and Novick wait until the eighth hour to evoke “the agony of killing.” The country’s conscience instead fluctuates according to the times: 1946, 1954, 1963, 1966, the shock of the Tet offensive. In depicting the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the film features a speech by Robert Kennedy who, in messianic tones, evokes God descending upon the United States: “Violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.” What could have followed was a profound reexamination of American values. Instead, the documentary concludes with an exercise in evasion: the portrayal of the Vietnam War as a civil war. It is a glimpse into America’s blindness toward its own demons—namely domination, violence, and the spectacle of violence—which have motivated every US war since 1975.
In Albert Camus’s final, unfinished novel, The First Man, a soldier must confront acts of torture and barbarism in Algeria. He grows pale and withdraws into his tent, and when someone explains to him that in war everybody commits such acts, he responds, “A man can hold himself back.”
America, however, doesn’t hold back.
Véronique Truong is a lawyer based in Paris