Monday, September 18, 2017

Ken Burns on Vietnam - a first look

We watched the first episode, “Déjà Vu,” of Ken Burns and Lynn Novik’s history of the Vietnam War last night. I’d been looking forward to it with considerable restlessness. The Vietnam Era is my coming-of-age era, so there’s no escaping its impact. There was no way I was going to not be sitting in front of the tube.

Once we got into it, I became aware that I had somehow managed to assume it would be “entertaining,” probably because nothing in the media these days is acceptable if it is merely instructive, but not simultaneously entertaining. It wasn’t entertaining. It was like sitting through a university lecture. A course I’d taken before. And while it was speckled with new bits of information for me – I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that Ho Chi Minh had worked as a pastry chef in the U.S., as well as Britain and France (these “facts” are contested) – it was pretty much a review of information I had absorbed almost fifty years ago now.

Try as I may to approach this history with a fresh openness, I find myself still summarizing the era as the time America might have joined with a freedom fighter (Ho Chi Minh) but threw its lot in with the colonizers (the French) he was trying to free his country from instead. America’s tragic moral misstep into the era we now live in, where “land of the free, home of the brave” revealed itself to be a largely hollow slogan. Whether it was ever thus is debatable. After Vietnam, there was no denying it anymore.

I’m also aware that this view of mine marks me as a lefty ideologue, one who misses the reality of the struggle against communism and the need for Realpolitik. And there you have it. Fifty years and we’re still fighting that ideological battle. It has not been resolved, and if anything Americans have only sunk deeper into the mire of hypocrisy and deception, albeit (if you listen to those who claim to be patriots) for a good cause.

A Huffington Post review  of the first episode backs up my lefty take on things. They write:

… the film … recount(s) a history in which the United States failed to allow for elections in the South after Vietnam had been divided following the French defeat at Dienbienphu. Everybody knew North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh would win the election, and so the United States set about building a client regime in the South which rigged a referendum and then massacred thousands of suspected communists.

These facts point to the United States violating the sovereignty of Vietnam and betraying the American mission of supporting democracy around the world.

Where I differ with Huffpost is that they think this is covered up in the documentary. I found it plain to see. I don’t think I was projecting; I think the facts were presented accurately.

I share with Huffpost the notion that the documentary reflects too closely the imperialist views of the Nixon, Kennedy and Johnson administrations and misses the fact that efforts at self-determination around the world – in Greece, for example, and Okinawa – were actually supported not by us but by our arch-nemesis, the Soviet Union.  Which, of course, was in the end just another empire, so don't paint me all Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, now.  In any case, there is no escaping the political context in which we live, where we routinely misrepresent ourselves as a force for self-determination and justify the hypocrisy by pointing out (with considerable justification) how dastardly and authoritarian our opponents are.

I'm reminded of what a Korean friend once told me. "Korea can only be truly be in control of its own fate once the last of the Japan-educated members of the Ministry of Education are gone." He had less to say about whether the presence of North Korea today should give me pause in thinking fighting communism in Vietnam was a mistake.

It remains to be seen what comes from watching further episodes, whether it’s just more of history as “just one damn thing after another,” bombarding us with war porn and mind-numbing repetitive detail. Or whether something new and enlightening will come from watching.

My expectations are still high. As Burns and Novick tell us, this is not an attempt to provide answers; the film's intent is to generate more questions. It's time for America to deal with Vietnam. We never have. Not really. Not adequately.

No way I’m going to miss it, in any case.


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