Strong Reader Response to BC Critique of Ken Burns’ Vietnam Series

by on October 12, 2017

(Ed Note: We got so many thoughtful responses to Anh Lê’s October 10 article, “Ken Burns’ Vietnam Documentary Misses Mark” that we include some below rather than in our letters section)

Thank you, thank you, thank you….this is the analysis so needed for those still clinging to our ‘exceptional’ nation of war mongering.

Jack Gilroy, President, Veterans for Peace, Broome County, NY

Ahn Le, thank you so much for your powerfully moving and soul-felt essay.  I find nothing you’ve said that I can disagree with.  I intend to share this with other veterans, Americans, Vietnamese friends, and foreigners who also love and respect, and sometimes grieve for, Viet Nam and the good people of this country.

Chuck Searcy, Vice President, VFP Chapter 160, Co-Chair, Agent Orange Working Group 

I have a far more positive view than Anh Le of Ken Burn’s and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War.  This compelling documentary put in context for me my small part in the Vietnam War.  Of course, I came to the documentary with a different perspective than Mr. Le.

I was a U.S. Army Transportation officer stationed in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, from 1967-68, during the Tet Offensive.  War is a spectacular show when watched from afar, but as the documentary shows, not so much up close.  During the Tet Offensive, I remember the B-52 carpet bombing that shook the earth and I watched from a rooftop as our helicopter gunships strafed the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops.  I could hear explosions throughout Saigon as the Viet Cong attacked police stations and other government buildings.  The U.S. military used Korean and Australian civilian workers who were housed in unprotected housing throughout Saigon.  Many were killed by the Viet Cong.

I attended law school in Boston after the war at a time when the Boston/Cambridge area was a hotbed of anti-Vietnam activity.  The Kent State shooting happened then.  Many of my fellow classmates were attending law school to avoid the draft and often not so kiddingly called me Captain America whenever the New York Times reported on the war.

In 2006, I visited Vietnam with my wife.  Our itinerary took us to Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho, Tay Ninh, Vinh Trang, Minh City, Hue, Hoi An, Halong Bay, and Hanoi.  During the war, I did not appreciate what a beautiful country Vietnam is with its 2,000 mile coastline, jungles, beaches, and mountains and hills.

While we were in Vietnam, an Agent Orange Conference was taking place.  The U.S. military dumped 80 million liters of agent orange/dioxins in Vietnam.  At least 2.1 million were victims of the toxins while another 4.8 million were indirectly affected.  We saw photos of some of the victims in the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.  The dioxins effect that sprayed, and has caused birth defects in their children.

Each of our three guides asked if this was our first trip to Vietnam.  I told him that I was a Vietnam veteran, stationed in Saigon in 1967-68.  Our Saigon guide told us that he was in the South Vietnamese army and was stationed with the U.S. Marines in Danang.  After the U.S. defeat, he tried twice to escape, but was caught both times.  He spent 2-1/2 years in prison.  He is now an independent tour guide.  He then proceeded to point out some of the U.S. occupation sites, most of which have since been torn down to build office buildings and housing.  Our Hue/Hoi An guide asked me if I had left any children behind, a bit of an indelicate question in front of my wife.  I said no.  Later we learned that he would have offered to assist me in finding these children if I had said yes.  Our Hanoi/Halong Bay guide told us her father was in the North Vietnamese army and lost his leg in a land mine explosion.  He still suffers pain.

Our visit to Saigon’s War Remnants Museum was a sobering highlight of our trip.  As stated in the Museum’s brochure:  “The role of the unique museum . . . is to preserve and display exhibits on war crimes and aftermaths [of] foreign aggressive forces caused [to] Vietnamese people.”  The photos are both gruesome and compelling.  One section called “Requiem,” contains a collection of photos taken by 134 war reporters — from 11 different countries — killed during the Vietnam War.  The Epilogue to this section states in part:  “[A] war in which so many died for illusions, and foolish causes, and mad dreams.”   Thirty years later, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in his book In Retrospect:  The Tragedies and Lessons of Vietnam admitted we were wrong about Vietnam.  Will we ever get a similar admission or apology about the Iraq,  Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria wars?

While in Vietnam, we picked up an English translation of a book called The Sorrows of War by Bao Ninh, a veteran of North Vietnam’s Youth Brigade.  Of the five hundred who went to war with the brigade in 1969, he is one of ten who survived.  His book has been compared to Erich Remarque’s All Quiet On the Western Front.  A compelling read.  Bao Ninh is featured in The Vietnam War.

True the documentary is from an American point of view.  The  documentary holds out hope to a new generation of Americans that we might learn from history, given 18 hours of evidence to the contrary.

In the end “The Vietnam War” is a lament for those Americans, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians, who died needlessly in this unnecessary war.

To me, Burns and Novick hit a bullseye on The Vietnam War.

Ralph Stone

I have been reluctant until now to jump into the numerous discussions about the  Burns-Novick Vietnam series on PBS.  I have read dozens, maybe even hundreds, of reviews and articles about the series.  Most of these were written by Vietnam Veterans, antiwar advocates, scholars, and Vietnam experts.  The vast majority of them critical and most because of something that was either omitted or misrepresented.  This ranges from the Gulf of Tonkin incident to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. But now I believe there is one topic which needed to be covered in this epic series, that of Agent Orange and it’s effects on Veterans and civilians on every side of that war.

It is a great mystery to me too why Burns and Novick made the clear and conscious decision not to include any of the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people and American and other allies veterans in their ten-part and 18-hour, thirty million dollar series on Vietnam. Because of his role as “senior advisor”, I think that we should add Tommy Vallely to this list of decision makers.  In fact, their coverage was limited to two or three lines (a few seconds) about the spraying of defoliants, one of which was Agent Orange.

If only the effects could have been so limited as well.  I can only assume that their decision was influenced in part by the fact that the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam is still very controversial and Burns and Novick generally try to avoid any and all controversy, something that is impossible when discussing anything about the U.S. war in Vietnam. It seems to me that this may also be the reason that the tragic impact of unexploded ordinance on the innocent population of Vietnam is omitted from their series.

Nearly as many Vietnamese have died from the explosion of unexploded ordinance dropped during the war as Americans who died during the war. Both of these legacies will continue for many decades to come.
Burns, Novick and Vallely simply can’t hide behind the false statement that there isn’t enough proof that the deadly cancers and horrible birth that many US veterans and Vietnamese men, women and children suffer from were defects caused by Agent Orange.  Scientists know what dioxins do to living animals and Dow Chemical, Monsanto and who made Agent Orange and the U.S. Defense Department all knew that Agent Orange contained a deadly dioxin.

If you are interested, you can go to the VA web site and see for yourself the list of cancers and other diseases that the VA recognizes were caused by the Vietnam Veterans exposure to Agent Orange, the vast majority of us were exposed for one year while the Vietnamese population has been continuously exposed for decades since the spraying began in 1961.  And they will continue to be exposed for many decades to come.

Until a year ago, I thought that I had escaped the legacy of the Agent Orange that my engineer unit sprayed in the Pleiku-Kontum area in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.  Then I was diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s Disease, one of the diseases known to be caused by exposure to the dioxin contained in Agent Orange and recognized by the VA.

Since then I have received a 100% disability pension (tax-free) of over $3,000 per month and full medical treatment including all medications, physical therapy, and acupuncture.  At the same time, my friends living in Vietnam, who have been exposed for more than half a century, have been denied any treatment or compensation for their very same diseases that tens of thousands of American veterans receive extensive benefits.

Several years ago I sent Ken Burns a complimentary copy of my artist’s book “An Artist’s Portrait of Ho Chi Minh”.  The next day he called to thank me and to tell me how beautiful he thought it was.  After our conversation, I sent him a list of people working in Vietnam for possible interviews for his series including, John McAuliff, Chuck Searcy and Mark Rapoport and others who have spent many years healing the old wounds of the war.  To the best of my knowledge the Burns team chose not to contact anyone on my list. Many of them, like Chuck and Mark, have worked extensively on UXO and Agent Orange issues.

Last year I sent him a complimentary copy of my artists book “Agent Orange: An American Legacy in Vietnam” hoping he would include Agent Orange and its effects on all who suffer from its use in his series.

In spite of the fact that he did extensive cover age of the Vietnam Memorial in Vietnam and other post war issues he again chose not to include many of the organizations that worked tirelessly to bring our two countries closer together after 1975 including the U.S. Indochina Reconciliation Project, the Southeast Asia Ozark Project, the William Joiner Center, the Quakers, and dozens of artists, writers and intellectuals among many others.  Of course they all can’t be represented but Vallely, McCain, Kerry and other politicians were featured as the healers.

Shame on the Burns team for not facing the reality of Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance in their eighteen hours.  They can choose to hide behind empty statements and cleaver lawyers but can never win the moral war. Or they could admit their mistake and produce episode 11 to tell the rest of the story.

David Thomas, D.F.A. Founder, Indochina Arts Partnership

In reference to Anh Lee’s article about the Burns/Novick Documentary,

I was an Army medic in Vietnam in 1970-71. I was in the Central Highlands. When I came back from Vietnam, I realized the most evil piece of real estate the world has ever seen is the Pentagon. The entire American War in Vietnam was a gas chamber. I was born in America, but my heart is Vietnamese.

Mike Hastie

I read this article with great admiration for its author, Anh Le though I have not seen Ken Burn’s and Lynn Novick’ documentary “The Vietnam War”. Perhaps, to me, it is not worth seeing any more.

Nguyen Bieu

Filed under: National Politics

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