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Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s ‘The Vietnam War’ mandates we examine ourselves, our nation

September 21, 2017

by Anh Lê

Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s documentary series, “The Vietnam War,” provides us a new opportunity to examine the history of the war and to examine ourselves and our nation.

A B-52 Stratofortress drops a string of 750-pound bombs over a coastal target in Vietnam in October 1965. This was called “carpet bombing,” destroying Vietnam “wall to wall.” – Photo: U.S. Air Force

During the French-Indochina War, my father was imprisoned and tortured by the French for two years. He was beaten and tortured with electric shocks all over his body, including his genitals. He was imprisoned because he was a Vietnamese, and a highly educated one, a graduate of the University of Hanoi. My mother was raped.

During the American War, my father, a diplomat in Europe and later a professor, yearned and prayed for peace in his homeland of Vietnam. My mother did not see her family for decades due to the war. Our family prayed for peace daily, hoping that the raining of bombs from B-52s would cease.

Since the war ended, on April 30, 1975, Vietnamese Americans have referred to the anniversary with different words. Some call it “mat nuoc” (“loss of country”), but most commemorate the day as “giai phong” (“liberation”).

“Ngay thong nhat” (“day of reunification”) and “Bac va Nam thong thuong” (“42 years of the Vietnamese people in the North and South traveling freely in their reunified country”) are also phrases used to refer to the end of the war. Regardless of one’s perspective, “Ngay thong nhat” and “Bac va Nam thong thuong” – reunification and free travel throughout the country – are incontrovertible facts.

The war was a tragedy. It was waged due to a post-colonial and Cold War mentality, a misguided American foreign policy, and anti-Communist propaganda from the White House, Congress, the American government, the Pentagon and military, and the series of propped-up governments in Saigon.

The U.S. government propped up the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem convinced the U.S. that Ho Chi Minh, who had defeated the French, was a Communist and would take over Vietnam. All Diem had to say was the word “Communist”; he knew to expect the Americans’ knee-jerk response.

The war was a tragedy. It was waged due to a post-colonial and Cold War mentality, a misguided American foreign policy, and anti-Communist propaganda from the White House, Congress, the American government, the Pentagon and military, and the series of propped-up governments in Saigon.

The American people were deceived and misled by their government and Diem, indoctrinated into believing that the U.S. must send economic and military aid to South Vietnam to defeat Communism and fed the propaganda of the “domino theory”: “If South Vietnam falls to the ‘Commies,’ the entire region would collapse like dominos.”

President Lyndon Baines Johnson deceived the American people with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, claiming that North Vietnamese boats had attacked an American destroyer. Congress gave Johnson the authority to escalate the war. Only two senators voted against the resolution. There had been no attack.

Vietnamese people rescue victims of the American air raids on Hanoi and North Vietnam in December 1972 by more than 100 B-52s – the so-called Christmas bombing. The raids leveled swaths of Hanoi and killed hundreds of residents to push the North Vietnamese into peace negotiations. North Vietnamese troops shot down 15 B-52s during the 12-day campaign. A peace accord was signed a month later. – Photo: Agence France-Presse

The U.S. bombing in Vietnam was four times more destructive than U.S. and British bombing of Germany in World War II. The U.S. unleashed all its armaments on the people of Vietnam: B-52s, napalm, cluster bombs, Agent Orange and herbicides, mining of the port of Haiphong, aircraft carriers and jet fighters.

The My Lai Massacre, where American soldiers killed over 500 babies, women and men, was not an isolated incident. The My Lai Massacre was not an aberration. U.S. soldiers were brainwashed to believe that Vietnamese were “the enemy,” “gooks,” “dinks.”

The destruction of villages and towns, rapes, tortures, “shoot anything that moves,” Kim Phuc, the naked young girl running down the country road and screaming with pain from the napalm on her body, are seared in our collective conscience.

When Saigon fell and the war ended in 1975, who was the victor and who the vanquished? Regardless of one’s perspective, certain facts left their indelible marks: More than 58,000 Americans died. Millions of Vietnamese troops from all regions of Vietnam were killed. More than 3 million Vietnamese children and adult civilians perished. Millions more were left widowed and orphaned.

The spraying of Agent Orange not only destroyed much of Vietnam’s landscape, these herbicides remain in Vietnam’s soil and waterways, causing birth defects, deformities and cancers. Yet, the U.S. government has not rendered any assistance to the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and their families for life long care and medical treatment.

The My Lai Massacre, where American soldiers killed over 500 babies, women and men, was not an isolated incident. The My Lai Massacre was not an aberration.

As I reflect on the history of the Vietnam War, I honor the precious memory of my parents.

I honor the memory of my uncle, Dr. Pham Van Can, who died during the Vietnam War.

My uncle Can (“Cau Can”) was killed in Saigon when a bomb detonated at a nightclub while he and his wife were there. The bombing occurred during Sen. George McGovern’s visit to Saigon. Sen. McGovern strongly opposed the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and called for the U.S. to get out of Vietnam.

A U.S. Marine sets fire to the thatched roof of a brick home in Cam Ne, South Vietnam. Countless American veterans of the Vietnam War who can’t escape memories like this make up a disproportionate number of people who have no home and live on the streets. – Photo: CBS Evening News

The evening news in the U.S. that day reported that the South Vietnam government blamed the “Viet Cong” for the bomb detonation. One can be skeptical of the news report and question the veracity of the news source. I do not know who really planned the bombing that killed my Uncle Can.

This I know: When my uncle was killed, his young son Dung was orphaned. His son sobbed as he embraced his father’s coffin. My uncle’s young wife, Nhung (“Co Nhung”), was widowed and she was seriously injured from the bomb blast, her face severely deformed, her family’s life scarred forever.

My Uncle Can, who had been drafted into the South Vietnam Army, was serving in the military. A top graduate of the University of Saigon School of Dentistry, he never had a chance to practice dentistry when his life was cut short.

I honor the memory of Wyley Wright. Wright, a U.S. Army sergeant, not only had to deal with the realities of war, he, a Black American, had to deal with the racism in the military. Wright was killed in Long Binh in 1964 when the helicopter he was riding in crashed because its pilot was inexperienced. Wright left behind four young children and his widow. Two of his children, Jackie Wright and Phillis Cameron, travelled to Vietnam in 2015 to honor the memory of their father at the banks of the Mekong River.

I honor the memory of Muhammad Ali, who, with courage and dignity, refused to be drafted into the Army. Ali said, “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

I also remember and honor the memory of all the Vietnamese children, women and men who perished during the Vietnam War.

I remember and honor all the Vietnamese orphans and all the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and their families.

I honor the Americans who perished in Vietnam. Many went to Vietnam because they did not have college deferments, many were poor, many were Black.

American C-123 Providers spray Agent Orange over Vietnam. An estimated 17-19 million gallons of the herbicide – called Agent Orange for the identifying stripe around 55-gallon storage drums – were sprayed over some 6 million acres of Vietnam during the war.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that he could no longer remain silent while bearing witness to the slaughter of Vietnamese children, women and men. “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’”

Dr. King stated that a nation “sending men home from bloody battlefields, physically damaged and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.” Many condemned him when he said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

But times changed, and Sen. George McGovern observed in 2011: “I don’t know anybody alive today that thinks the war in Vietnam was a good investment for the U.S. It weakened us militarily, economically and morally. We went against our moral principles when we were carpet bombing a little country like Vietnam.”

Today, the Vietnamese people are enjoying the normalcy of a nation free of war and with a higher standard of living. Vietnam’s natural beauty, rich culture and friendly people make it one of the top 20 travel destinations in the world. It is a strong developing economic power in Asia.

But challenges remain.

* Vietnam’s security is challenged by territorial conflicts over the Spratly Islands between Vietnam and China, as well as China and her other neighbors, the threat of war looming over this oil-and-gas-rich region. In 2014, when Vietnam called for international negotiations and adherence to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, China rejected it. When the International Court made a ruling in a lawsuit filed by the Philippines regarding the Spratly Islands, China said it would not adhere to it, as it continued to build military bases and claim absolute ownership over all the Islands.

The fight for power between the U.S. and China in Asia and the Pacific region, and the risk of potential war from that competition, requires Vietnam to tread carefully. Since Vietnam is located in a strategic geopolitical area, it must tread very cautiously yet assertively with both China and the U.S. in all matters, diplomatic and military.

This photo of the “black blouse girl,” who, moments later, would be executed in the My Lai Massacre, tells more than is usually noted. These women and children of My Lai are indeed huddling in terror, as the photo is usually captioned. What goes untold is that the reason the teenage girl on the right is buttoning up her blouse is that U.S. soldiers raped and molested many of the women before mowing them down. But this girl’s enraged mother, standing in front, had been “biting and kicking and scratching and fighting off” the soldiers, preventing the rape of her daughter, according to testimony by the photographer to the Peers Inquiry on My Lai. – Photo: Ronald S. Haeberle, Time Life

* Vietnam must be careful as it develops into an economic power. There is evidence that rapid economic growth has resulted in environmental degradation of marine and river waterways and in air pollution. Vietnam must address these problems seriously, as they pose significant public health risks now and in the future.

* Vietnam faces an ever-widening gap between the richest and the poorest among the populace. The increasing economic inequality, unless addressed and resolved, does not bode well for the overall quality of life in Vietnam.

In Burns’ and Novick’s documentary, the inclusion of Vietnamese voices is laudable.

“Deja Vu,” the first segment, is a powerful introduction. However, in “Riding the Tiger,” the second segment, in the early part when film footage showing American aircraft firepower shooting indiscriminately at farmers tending their fields and ordinary Vietnamese peasants being rounded up by GIs, the narrator describes these Vietnamese as the “Viet Cong.” That narrative seems lifted from the Pentagon’s archives and perpetuates the same false narrative, false information and propaganda fed to the American people during the war.

Burns’ and Novick’s documentary will be evaluated based on the historiography they employ, the balance and fairness of their approach, whether they give equal weight to the Vietnamese voices as to the American voices, and their objectivity in looking at the history of the Vietnam War.

President Barack Obama has visited Ho Chi Minh City, Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor. I look forward to the day when an American president will visit My Lai, to honor all who perished in Vietnam.

Let us not forget the Vietnam War. Let us not, in the name of misguided foreign policy, allow the government to send our young men and women abroad to kill and to be killed.

Let us respect the humanity and dignity of the people of other nations around the world. Let us shed the false myth and belief of “exceptionalism.” It justified our government and our nation to wage war in Vietnam and to regard the Vietnamese people as “the enemy,” as “gooks,” as “dinks.”

Let us strive to learn the lessons from the tragedy of the Vietnam War. Unless we do, the Holocaust of the Vietnam War will be repeated over and over again.

Let us strive to work for a peaceful world, for ourselves, for our children and for all future generations. Let us reclaim our belief in the sanctity of human life, and turn swords into plowshares. As brothers and sisters, we deserve to live in peace.

Let us not forget the Vietnam War. Let us not, in the name of misguided foreign policy, allow the government to send our young men and women abroad to kill and to be killed.

Chuc Nuoc Vietnam Hoa Binh Mai Mai. May Vietnam Enjoy Everlasting Peace.

Copyright © Anh Lê, September 2017. Anh Lê is a San Francisco writer and activist born in Vietnam who has worked in the Black community for decades, especially with seniors and young people. To contact him, email editor@sfbayview.com.

Note from Jackie Wright, Wright Enterprises

“War, huh, good God, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing,” sang Edwin Starr and War in 1970. Today, as Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) kicks off the Days of Awe, Anh Lê reacts to Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s PBS series “The Vietnam War.”

Lê shares the impact of the war on his family and their country. He mentions my family, the Wright family as Sp5 Wyley Wright Jr. died in a helicopter crash, March 9, 1964, as an honor guard for Secretary of Defense McNamara, who was in Vietnam to view the troops. (The incident is recorded in the Gold Book by Commander George Young: http://560mp.tripod.com/560MP/Shea.htm).

Lê also makes reference to our trip to Vinh Long to find the Shannon Wright Compound named in honor of father (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-Drc0kdRxw, posted below). I was the oldest of the four siblings left behind with our mother, Ouida Wright, after his tragic death two weeks before he was to return home.

The trip to Vietnam gave solace to my perpetual “10-year-old Daddy’s Girl heart,” as I remember my father, who was among the early “advisors,” telling me at 5337 Brett Drive at Fort Knox, Kentucky, that President Kennedy was sending him “to help bring freedom and democracy to the Vietnamese people.” The rage in my heart subsided with my Dad’s smile and a tight hug since I knew he was going to “do good.”

Over the years it rises and falls, the rage. What can one do but remember the good in a bad situation?

I agree with Lê: The Burns and Novick series gives our nation an opportunity to examine itself. One of the most telling and heart stopping and rendering paragraphs in Lê’s op-ed is the reference to “agent orange,” a combination of science, business and government corporate action that in my mind is unconscionable and must be held accountable for the destruction it caused.

“The spraying of Agent Orange not only destroyed much of Vietnam’s landscape,” Lê writes, “these herbicides remain in Vietnam’s soil and waterways, causing birth defects, deformities and cancers. Yet, the U.S. government has not rendered any assistance to the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and their families for life long care and medical treatment.”

If it’s difficult to look at the legacy of birth defects and deformities caused by Agent Orange, what is it like to live the reality of that legacy? A New York Times article on Agent Orange published Sept. 15, 2017, gives some indication.

Let’s not forget the work of Getty photographer Paula Bronstein, who traveled to Vietnam in 2011 to document the third generation effects of Agent Orange: http://www.businessinsider.com/paula-bronsteins-photos-of-disabled-agent-orange-vietnamese-2014-7.

Jackie Wright is the president of Wright Enterprises, a full service public relations. She has over 20 years of media experience as an award-winning journalist in radio, television and print. She can be reached at jackiewright@wrightnow.biz or twitter.com/wrightenternow.

This short documentary of the Wrights’ journey to Vietnam, “Love Separated in Life … Love Reunited in Honor,” debuted at the 2017 San Francisco Black Film Festival, thanks to Director Kali O’Ray.

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