SocraticGadfly: If you've been watching Ken Burns on Vietnam

September 22, 2017

If you've been watching Ken Burns on Vietnam

Ken Burns/Wikipedia photo
First, the amount he gets wrong seems fairly big, and I'll detail that in a moment.

But, really, you shouldn't be surprised.

As I've noted, his bland pro-Americanism is like eating Chinese food. (And, as that link shows, his Vietnam series isn't the first time he's gotten Koch Bros money, either.)

As for what he misses or gets flat wrong?

He gets Tonkin Gulf, the non-event that LBJ used to get a blank check for war, totally wrong.

He doesn't even interview Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, brought to the eye of some younger Americans by the Edward Snowdon issues.

He acts determined to present the war as nothing but a simple mistake, rather than willful stupidity mixed with imperialism that could have been avoided. (More on this lower in the piece.)

Bruce Dixon, managing editor of Black Agenda Report, notes that the death of 3 million Asians is a "crime" not a "mistake." (Not sure if Burns provides totals on non-US dead.) Anyway, per the reference he and others make about Noam Chomsky, the war was indeed ultimately deliberate and ultimately in the service of American imperialism.

Related to that, History News Network says Burns and co-producer Lynn Novick are patronizing to the Vietnamese. This one deserves a pull quote.
Did the Vietnamese really need two Americans, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, to finally teach them about the bloodshed and devastation their own land suffered because of the Americans? 
And therein lies the core flaw of the entire project—it’s a series of stories, but not really a history of the war. That’s the Burns-Novick trademark and it’s worked for a long time, making them famous and I suspect wealthy. But it substitutes vignettes for ideas, personal anecdotes for larger structural factors, bathos for analysis.
THIS! Yes, Burns is an “auteur.” I’ve never denied it. But, per my top link, that’s why watching him is like eating stereotypical Chinese food.
And it ends up providing a misguided view of the war, one that has politically conservative consequences (ironic because Burns himself is openly liberal) by shifting attention away from the historical, material reasons for American intervention and focusing on 79 people interviewed who were directly involved in Vietnam. Instead of an exposé of aggressive militarism, they give us sentimental stories of survival and perseverance. 
Burns and Novick, despite their claims of originality, provide a pretty boilerplate liberal examination of the war.
And, even though Counterpunch went overboard in one piece in calling Dems the war party of the 20th century, nonetheless, the Wilsonian angle was partially there in WWII, and elsewhere in the 20th century. It was LBJ's meat and potatoes in foreign policy, arguably.

(Sidebar: The Eastern Establishment wing of the GOP,  including returning Bull Mooser TR, were just as pro-intervention as Wilson in 1916; they just tried to get TR to not be vocal about it. There was more geographical division within both parties than a split between the two. In 1940, GOP presidential candidate Wendell Willkie was just as pro-intervention as FDR. In Korea, don't forget that MacArthur had already toyed with trying to get the GOP presidential nomination in 1948. In Nam? Yes, LBJ was president, but look at the vote for Tonkin Gulf; totally bipartisan.

I earlier said on Twitter than Counterpunch sounded like Bob Dole, 1976, in talking about "Democrat wars." I stand behind that, redoubled.

And, for any leftists who think that Democrats are somehow especially warmongering? I guess this might make for a separate blog post.)

OK, we've not kicked the dynamic duo enough. More from the same piece:
Burns and Novick talk a lot about reconciliation and healing, sort of a Vietnam War version of Dr. Phil and Oprah. ... 
Is America really still divided over Vietnam the way it was in, say, 1968, when Walter Cronkite stunned the White House and Main Street by essentially declaring that the war was unwinnable? ... 
Reconciliation and healing are always worthwhile and necessary goals, but that process has been well in place long before Burns and Novick arrived. The promotional material for the series boasts that they “unbury the secrets of the Vietnam War.” They also stress they want to let Americans know about Vietnam. But don’t we know a lot already?

They're really that way, in the smarmy-preachy liberalism way, that ALSO is a hallmark of 20th-century Democrats.

Finally, the "necessary" claim gets its own butt-kicking:
The war was necessary because the U.S. made it necessary—the politburo in Hanoi and the NLF in the south would gladly have taken control of Vietnam without getting blown up and killed in apocalyptic numbers by American weapons. Equivalency and objectivity are the tools of liberal apologetics, and Burns and Novick have always used them well to make Americans (and Americans below the Mason-Dixon Line) feel good about themselves. Instead of examining American aggression, they ruminate on Vietnamese irredentism. Love them, they’re liberals.
Indeed. This is what tempts me to drop the "left-liberal" phrase for myself and just call myself a leftist, or per the blog header, a "skeptical leftist."

Here's a politer version of some of the same criticism — claims of "false balance," an old bugaboo of centrist "the media."

It too gets a pullout, because it too expresses issues emblematic of Burns' whole corpus:
Burns and Novick are the masters of false balancing, the technique of countering one story line with another to create the impression of objective evenhandedness. The same good-guy, bad-guy lens through which the war was viewed also filtered perceptions of the antiwar movement at home. Jack Todd is one of 30,000 Americans who deserted to Canada but, we are reassured, 30,000 Canadians volunteered to go to Vietnam. Never mind that, by other estimates, over 100,000 Americans are estimated to have gone to Canada during the war. The first figure apparently called for such dubious balancing because, as we later learn, Todd regrets having renounced his US citizenship.
Indeed. The "false balance" of including Shelby Foote as one of the top talking heads on his Civil War series made it bad enough at the time, and much worse in hindsight. The "false balance" of not having more Eric Foner, or any significant black historians, made the Reconstruction series, with my having gotten wiser, suck at the time. More here, thanks to S-USIH, on the outright racism of Foote and Burns, when later corned on how much he used Foote, doing a tap dance around it. The general appeal to violence by Foote underscores that the South is one of those "honor cultures" similar to much of the Middle East that Southern white wingnuts foam at the mouth about.

And, if all that isn't enough, there's a full website devoted to nothing but what Burns, and his ilk, got and get wrong by either omission or commission. (It was started five years ago, but for obvious reasons, is getting new circulation now.)

Bottom line is that, contra Burns, the Vietnam War was more than a mistake, it was imperial hubris, and also, that to the degree it was a mistake, it was easily avoidable.

"Old China hands" who had not yet been chased out of the State Department by McCarthyism knew the millennia, literally, of Vietnam-China animosity. So, that part of the domino theory was out the door. Chinese-USSR animosity meant that, while the Russkies had Cam Ranh Bay, the Chinese wouldn't help them there. Old State hands in general knew the history behind the Geneva accords and knew that, if we had tried, we probably could have cut a deal to make a unified Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh the Yugoslavia of Southeast Asia.

But, that's not in Burns' narrative either.

Why is all of this important?

Tonkin Gulf was similar to Shrub Bush's request for Congress to let him use military force in Iraq. And thus, to pass one off as a "mistake" invites people to do the same with the other. You know, like Obama's "look forward, not backward."

Snowden, and Chelsea Manning, had leaks similar to Ellsburg, vis a vis Afghanistan. We didn't learn from them, either.

Today, many Democrats have joined Republicans in calling Afghanistan, now a longer war than Vietnam, a simple mistake, which it may or may not be, and many have done the same with Iraq, which definitely is not true.

And, President Obama, as the likes of Andrew Bacevich have noted, simply became a hypocrite on Afghanistan. Not only did he continue the war, he did a "surge" similar to what he opposed in Iraq. And politicized it further by splitting the difference.

My overall opinion on Afghanistan is not as harsh as Ted Rall's. In hindsight, I'm still OK with the original action — well, I'm OK with what SHOULD have been done, i.e., putting real amounts of US boots on the ground at the start of the war, rather than depending on Afghan tribespeople to hold the line at Tora Bora, which they deliberately chose not to do. Per Bacevich, Obama should have had some cojones and gotten us out of there rather than doing ANY version of a "surge." (I did not support any version of a "surge.")

But, he didn't want to. Per Consortium News:
Barack Obama provided the apotheosis, with seven simultaneous wars, a presidential record, including the destruction of Libya as a modern state. Obama’s overthrow of Ukraine’s elected government has had the desired effect: the massing of American-led NATO forces on Russia’s western borderland through which the Nazis invaded in 1941.
That's pretty much right.

(Noting Bacevich, above, I think a number of non-imperialists of the right and left alike reject the idea that the Afghanistan war as originally presented to the American public was a war of imperialism. And, while Counterpunch has opened my eyes on some things, like Bosnia, on others, it and other leftist opinion magazines remain wrong, IMO. For all I know, somebody could call the American Civil War imperialist; certainly, Southerners did, in essence.)

On the link from my previous blogging? Besides this not being his first use of Koch money, Burns overhyped the National Park Service into "America's greatest idea," got a number of things about both TR and FDR wrong, turned dealing with cancer into an American-style war to win (at that top link), pulled punches on the history of baseball in his iconic early series and more in his folo, commits American exceptionalism and ignores the Russkies in WWII and more.

His American exceptionalism fellatio goes back to his original Civil War series, bad enough that a Smithsonian Magazine contributor now harshly scores him.

That WWII series also failed to include anything about Hispanic or Native American contributions. And, even though it was before good DNA testing, Burns got all the white historians in his Thomas Jefferson miniseries to pooh-pooh over the idea that he had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. Now, it's true, that was before the 1998 DNA Y-chromosome testing, but still.

If it harshes some people's mellow too much, sorry. But, many you're viewing Vietnam through rose-colored glasses yourself.

(Update, April 23, 2019: This is all also bad enough to make me wonder if Burns is, if not necessarily consciously racist, at least carrying a big bag of implicit bias.)

And, I understand that for many from vague moderate conservatives to vague left-neoliberals, PBS = Polite Broadcasting System just like NPR = Nice Polite Republicans. I understand that a centrist version of Merika is engrained into its cultural DNA just as much as, by 1888, the fact that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was actually about emancipation was whitewashed into the pretense it was about post-Civil War healing and unity.

The idea that the NPS might NOT be "America's greatest idea" shocked a lot of environmentalists when the National Parks Conservation Association's Congressional liaison did a long blog post on its website, noting the Emancipation Proclamation + 13th Amendment would probably qualify instead. [I suggested the First Amendment myself. In any case, I agreed with the NPCA person that America's national parks not only aren't America's greatest idea, they're not even in the top three.] Seriously, a bunch of nice, polite, white environmentalists suddenly, for them at least, got strident. I suspect a fair chunk of them don't like to see that Ken's getting called out for whitewashing Nam, either.

And, for that matter, not only were national parks, and the Service, NOT America's greatest idea, Ken didn't tell you that, even as he was producing the episodes, the NPS continued to fall apart even as Dear Leader planned a thorough neoliberal centennial celebration. (And, per the likes of High Country News, Ken told you bupkis about the history of sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the Park Service.)

For you, whether or not this is particularly about being a Ken Burns fan or not, I understand the shock. But, if you're a left-liberal or beyond, this shouldn't be anything new. Sorry, but that includes my blogging cousin by a different aunt. (And, given that Ken didn't talk about petrochemicals — you know, in places like Houston's Petrochemical Alley — being carcinogens in his cancer series, again, left-liberals and beyond in places like that ... I don't get the love for Burns.)

Is this particular piece all bad? I'm sure it's not and even Consortium News mentioned good things in another link. But, for people under 40, and especially under 30, for whom Burns is quasi-godlike, there's a lot of problems.

Theoretically, the cuts to federal funding for PBS and NPR should make it more willing, not less, to take risk. In reality, the likes of George Soros aren't much more likely to fund anything that counteracts belief in American exceptionionalism much more than Charles Koch and David H. Koch.

Per that, Consortium News has a new piece up about Ken's funders in general, among other things, over whom he gushes.
Burns says he is grateful to “the entire Bank of America family” which “has long supported our country’s veterans.” Bank of America was a corporate prop to an invasion that killed perhaps as many as four million Vietnamese and ravaged and poisoned a once bountiful land. 
Thanks, BofA. Maybe Ken can do a series about subprime loans and CDOs in a few years.

Real American exceptionalism, if it actually existed, would be a fairly widespread acceptance that America's shit does stink, stinks a fair amount of the time, and stinks in ways that should upset notional liberals as much as conservatives, if they're honest.

As for the "have you watched it?" rhetorical question? No. I'm in a place where, since my most recent forced job change, I'm pretty sure I can't get TV without cable and I'm pretty sure that PBS won't let me watch it online. Even if these weren't all problems, per Wiki, I don't think I need to waste 18 hours, longer than anything else he's done since his original Baseball series.

That said, I didn't say it was all wrong. And I've never claimed that in stylistic, framing and narrative skills, that Ken Burns is anything but a master of the TV documentary craft.

But, per my link at top, and chunk of links at bottom, I don't need to watch. I have no real surprise about what Burns does get wrong. And I have no need or desire to have American exceptionalism and mythmaking about the Vietnam War served up on a plate, even if it's by a French chef.

And, longtime Burns narrator sidekick Peter Coyote may be a nice and decent guy, and at one time more lefty than he is now, but he's not a national treasure, and if he really believes that Vietnam was "started in good faith by decent men," then he's whored himself out for Koch Bros money and contra a comment of his on his Wiki page, he's "capitalist first, activist second, actor third."

Hey, sh-it happens. John Kerry might have been a national treasure 40-something years before his presidential run, talking some truth as part of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, but he's not today.

And, at times, I'm also a deliberate contrarian, part of becoming a neo-Cynic. Brains, at least, knows this. And, this is one of those times.

Burns also, while covering Speedy Express, pretty shortchanged it — and it was worse than MyLai and more emblematic of how America fought in Vietnam. See Nick Turse, then a decade ago, and Nick Turse now, directly on the series.


Sadly, Philip Weiss, editor of Mondoweiss, says he likes the series even though he admits he knows a fair amount of what I said above about Burns' modus operandi.

Wonder if he would say the same if Burns next makes a series about the creation of the nation of Israel that turd-polishes Zionism?

That said, Donald Johnson has a follow-up piece there, which more politely raises similar criticism.


Updates: First additional note? Burns (h/t Consortium News), if his series was trying to imply Merika is a specially peace-loving nation, sadly forced into Nam, is totally wrong on that.

Next: Per a comment back to me from S-USIH, I didn't need to watch this. Others' critiques confirmed my observations of Burns from having seen most of his previous documentary series. Seriously, when Doris Kearns Goodwin gets Taft v. TR more correct than you do?

1 comment:

gltirebiter said...

saw it firsthand from cu chi 1967-1968.
don't need to have it explained to me by someone who wasn't there.