Commentary — October 20, 2017, 3:10 pm

American Rage

On Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

This is a condensed version of an essay published this month by Revue Défense Nationale. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

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

Share
Single Page

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Post
CamperForce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Cost of a baby-stroller cleaning, with wheel detailing, at Tot Squad in New York City:

$119.99

Australian biologists trained monitor lizards not to eat cane toads.

Trump tweeted that he had created “jobs, jobs, jobs” since becoming president, and it was reported that Trump plans to bolster job creation by loosening regulations on the global sale of US-made artillery, warships, fighter jets, and drones.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today