Tuesday 31 December 2019

The Vietnam War (Ken Burns)

The Vietnam War was fought between 1955 and 1975. Millions of civilians and military personnel were killed and the war caused massive political upheaval in the United States, which had committed troops to the conflict but then found itself in a quagmire it could not extract itself from. The war ended with an American withdrawal followed by the Communist North overrunning the entire country. It was a crushing defeat for the United States, one which it still hasn't entirely recovered from, and one that continues to cause massive controversy.

This documentary series attempts to tell the full story of the war and also establish context for the conflict. The opening episode goes back a full century to tell the story of the French colonial occupation of the country, followed by its occupation by Japan during the Second World War. Hồ Chí Minh, a revolutionary leader who had spent time in the USA, petitioned the United States government (then pursuing the decolonisation of the former colonial empires of Britain and France) to recognise Vietnam's independence but was horrified when France was allowed to reassert control of the colony. This triggered a brutal war of independence lasting some eight years and ending with the country being petitioned pending fresh elections. With it being clear that the now-communist North Vietnam would win such elections (given the North's greater population), the United States and other international partners prevaricated over the elections, leading to furious dissidents in the south, united as the Viet Cong, to launch an armed rebellion, supported by the North. Much to its own discontent, the United States found itself being gradually drawn into the conflict, finally deploying armed combat forces in large numbers in 1965.

Once it had entered the war, however, the United States seemed completely powerless to win it. The strategic conclusion in Washington, D.C. was that any American invasion of North Vietnam and attack on the capital, Hanoi, would have triggered a military response by China and perhaps Russia, paralleling what had happened in Korea. However, the two Communist superpowers had secretly written off North Vietnam and told the government they were on their own, bar only supplies of weapons and material. This misanalysis led the United States into fighting a defensive war, trying to exhaust the will of the North Vietnamese to fight the conflict through a war of attrition, whilst using air power to inflict devastating damage on the North Vietnamese economy. The problem was that the North, with a larger population and widespread support in the South, simply had far more troops to lose in a war of attrition. The terrain also favoured a low-tech guerrilla war of hidden movement and surprise attacks, which did not favour the combined-arms, war of movement typically favoured by American forces. Whenever such setpiece battles were fought, the United States usually won with overwhelming force, but such battles became increasingly rare as the conflict raged on. The air campaign was also largely ineffective, the bombing being too imprecise on the low-tech North's economy to cause much damage, only widespread civilian casualties which galvanised opposition to the conflict. Political pressure and controversy at home and abroad eventually became so overwhelming that President Nixon was forced to wind the conflict down and withdraw American forces.

Ken Burns' documentary series explores the war from numerous angles, including, for the first time, interviewing large numbers of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong veterans of the conflict. There's also a huge number of interviews with American and South Vietnamese veterans and international observers of the conflict. It's this focus on still-living witnesses that differentiates the project from Burns' preceding projects, most notably The Civil War and The War (about WWII), which relied primarily on written accounts and the perspective of modern historians. There's less - perhaps far too far less - of a wider historical perspective. There's also the curious and much-criticised decision to not interview leading figures in the conflict. Burns declined to interview Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State during the latter part of the war, and also then-current political figures such as John Kerry and John McCain, who were notable participants in the conflict (Kerry for his anti-war rhetoric upon his return from the conflict and McCain for spending five and a half years as a POW).

Instead, the focus of The Vietnam War is on vignettes, from which it attempts to weave together a tapestry showing the larger scale of the conflict. Much of this material is extremely powerful, with soldiers on both sides recalling their comrades who perished in a brutal and dehumanising conflict which at times seemed to be going on forever to no point. The dividing nature of the war in the United States, which saw societal upheaval, riots and deaths resulting from police responses that caused major damage to the fabric of society far removed from the front lines, is also vividly recounted, accompanied by contemporary news footage. Other issues, such as civil rights, are also brought into play.

However, this bottom-up approach, whilst devastatingly effective at depicting the day-to-day course of the conflict, is less useful in assessing the war as a whole. We're told early on that the USA rejected plans for an invasion of North Vietnam based on the assessment that China and Russia would intervene on the North's side, but the idea is never revisited. With China and Russia falling out with one another in the same time period and North Vietnam having its own issues with China (as they had their own border dispute going on, and Hanoi was resisting having its revolution being influenced by Beijing), it would appear that there were windows where a US attack on the North might have been successful, but the discussion never comes up. More eyebrow-raising is the decision to completely ignore the contributions of America's allies: New Zealand, Thailand, Australia and South Korea collectively sent hundreds of thousands of troops to the war and these rate barely a mention in the documentary.

The Vietnam War (***½), over seventeen hours of documentary material airing in ten parts, is a curiously lopsided beast. For its recounting of the war in the day-to-day moments as experience by the people on the ground, it is powerful, emotional and moving. But for a greater strategic overview of the conflict and the wider politics and economies involved, the documentary has very little to say. The result is a documentary that is extremely watchable (if often tragic) but doesn't seem to make more of a point other than "war is hell." It is, and it's important to watch series like these to see how a whole series of at-the-time reasonable decisions can result in unreasonable, horrendous outcomes which kill millions, but it does feel like only part of the story has been told here. The documentary is available to watch on Netflix.

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