Show Us the Truth about Vietnam (was Re: Ideology and "Psychology"...)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Tue May 22 11:39:02 PDT 2001

>From: Michael Pugliese (debsian at
>Date: Mon May 21 2001 - 20:20:56 EDT
>Carrol>(Some big shot in Washington claimed that we
>had to remember that death simply wasn't the same to "asians-in-general"
>as it was to "us."
>In "Heart and Minds," the documentary film that got the Oscar for Best
>Documentary in '75 or '76. In an interview with General Westmoreland (Waste
>More Land) he remarks that, "Asians don't feel death and pain like we do."
>Cut-away to a Vietnamese mother crying in grief and attempting to climb into
>the coffin of her dead son.

Speaking of documentary films on the Vietnam War:

***** Show us the truth about Vietnam



The Vietnam war lasted for 14 years from 1961 to 1975. December 1960 saw the birth of the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam six weeks after the election of John F. Kennedy as United States president. By early 1961 Kennedy was committing US special forces to the war in violation of the 1954 Geneva Accords. With Lyndon B. Johnson in office, followed by Richard Nixon, the war escalated until on 30 April 1975 the South Vietnamese government and army collapsed.

This war was covered more exhaustively on television in the US than any other topic in the history of current affairs. In a detailed study of the way the three major US TV networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) covered the war from 1965 to 1970 (1), sociologist George Bayley found that almost half the coverage dealt with action by US ground troops or the US air force; about 12% consisted of direct quotes from government sources (Washington and Saigon). Only 3% recorded the "enemy" viewpoint - a graphic illustration of American television's one-sided stance.

The coverage also minimised the impact of the war in the US and the opposition it aroused among young people - anti-war demonstrations, peace marches, university protests etc. Bayley notes that virtually all the daily combat reports were sourced from the army's public relations department, which in 1971 alone spent more than $200m trying to improve the army's image.

In Peter Davis' documentary The Selling of the Pentagon, a former army press officer tells how he supplying "disinformation" to journalists arriving to report from the front line. For instance, a CBS team was fed manipulated information when it came to do a report on US bombing in North Vietnam and wanted to interview American pilots. He provided the pilots, but first briefed the journalists very thoroughly on what they were and were not allowed to say.

Another observer says that "the information services set up fake operations by South Vietnamese government troops. These were then filmed by the official press services, and the footage was distributed to small US TV stations that could not afford to send their own crews to Vietnam" (2).

It was to counter this one-sided presentation of America's "dirty war" in Vietnam that independent American film-makers decided in the late 1960s to make political documentaries to draw public attention to the horrors of the US intervention.

With In The Year of the Pig (1969), Emile de Antonio was the first to attempt an explanation of the underlying motives of the war. De Antonio studied huge amounts of archive material, dating back to the early days of French colonisation. He demonstrated the premeditated nature of the US intervention and the certainty of US military defeat.

In Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1970), a brilliant film-maker by name of Joseph Strick had already identified early warnings of this defeat in the swaggering self-confidence of Lieutenant Calley and his cronies, men transformed into "killing machines" by means of the kind of dehumanising army training routines documented by Fred Wiseman in his Basic Training (1971).

'Winter Soldier'

Disaffection provided the key theme of the poignant Winter Soldier, a collective documentary in which Vietnam veterans spoke about the atrocities that they themselves had committed in Vietnam "in the name of Western civilisation". Of all the anti-war documentaries, this one had the most impact on public opinion.

The films shows young "veterans" (20-27) returning from the war. They realise they have been taking part in an act of butchery, and that they have been conditioned, dehumanised and turned into criminal "Terminators". They also realise that there will never be an international criminal tribunal to look into the Vietnam war: the politicians and generals responsible for the massacres, the use of napalm, the bombing of civilians, the mass executions in prisons and the ecological disasters resulting from the use of chemical defoliants will never be tried for their crimes against humanity.

They find this unacceptable. As a way of bearing witness to the lies being spread by the media, 125 of them - who are not trouble-makers or deserters, and who have a fair spread of medals between them - meet in Detroit in February 1971. A group of New York film-makers decides to film the event, which was boycotted by the mainstream media. They shot 36 hours of film, which were then edited down to produce Winter Soldier.

What you see is these former soldiers, men who had once been proud to fight for their country, explaining the brainwashing to which they had been subjected in training camps, where they were taught to stifle their moral consciences and release their instincts of aggression. They recount the horrors that they committed once they had been turned into robots: rape, torture, villages burned, summary executions, shooting of children, prisoners thrown out of helicopters, cutting off ears (of people both alive and dead) and trading them for cans of beer

They also talk about the ground-rules by which the war was conducted: "A live Vietnamese is a suspected Vietcong; a dead Vietnamese is an actual Vietcong." "If a peasant runs away as you approach, he's a Vietcong; if he doesn't run away he's an intelligent Vietcong; in both cases he should be shot." "Only count your prisoners when your helicopter arrives, not when it leaves; that way you won't have to account for any that fell out en route", and so on.

Winter Soldier highlights the trauma generated by the Vietnam war in the US and illustrates the moral confusion among the young soldiers who fought it. Later, in Hearts and Minds (1973), Peter Davis goes beyond the political issues to examine the cultural characteristics of American society. He asks what made possible the irrational prolongation of the conflict to the point where the volume and gravity of the atrocities took it into the realm of a crime against humanity.

He starts by disentangling the web of untruths, allegations and phobias that gradually locked the US into the logic of intervention. When asked straight out, some politicians offered strategic justifications that verged on the ludicrous: "If we lose Indochina, we'll also lose the Pacific, and we'll end up as an island in a sea of communism." Others saw intervention as a way of guaranteeing access to vital raw materials: "If Indochina falls, there'll be no more tin and tungsten from the Malacca peninsula." Others, more ideological, believed the Americans were intervening "to help a country that has been a victim of foreign aggression."

Davis knew that in order to get to the roots of the brutality displayed by US soldiers, he would have to look at rituals characteristic of American society. Hearts and Minds examines three of these rituals, which function as a means of burying the deeper meaning of a given act.

For instance, he shows how the army used technology interposed between soldier and victim as a way of distancing the criminal dimension of its acts of war. And he shows a bomber pilot nonchalantly explaining: "When you're flying at 500 mph you don't have time to think about anything else. You never saw people. You didn't even hear the explosions. No blood, no screams. It was clean. I was a technician." The pilot is so caught up with technological performance that he is incapable of thinking through the consequences of his actions or taking responsibility for them.

A second structure comes into play, which in a sense complements the first. All involvement, in whatever field, becomes a competition in which the means are justified by the end. The main thing is to drive yourself to the limit, and the only thing that matters is winning. Davis compares the attitude of American soldiers in Vietnam with that of American footballers. In both cases, anything goes and victory is the only thing that counts.

A group of soldiers interviewed in the thick of battle in the Vietnamese jungle admit that they don't know what they're fighting for. One of them even thinks that it is to help the North Vietnamese. An officer sums it all up: "A long war, hard to understand. But we're here to win it."

The third element in blame-dodging by the military is basically racism. A US officer gives a group of schoolchildren his impressions of Indochina: "The Vietnamese," he says, "are very backward, very primitive. They make a mess of everything. Without them, Vietnam would be a fine country."

There is a clear sense of regret that the radical solution ("no people, no problem") is not possible - the kind of solution that must have been tempting to General Westmoreland, head of the US forces in Vietnam, who once observed, with no apparent sense of remorse, that "Orientals attach less value to life than Westerners".

Peter Davis sees the Vietnam war as symptomatic of a deeper sickness: the phenomenon of American violence. He studies it in relation to the military in the way Cinda Firestone's Attica did in relation to police repression. As a result Hollywood, which had not supported the war, gave Hearts and Minds an Oscar for best documentary in 1974.

However, the defining film on the consequences of the war on the American psyche was Milestones (John Douglas and Robert Kramer, 1975). A profound summing-up of the wealth of ideas inspiring the generation that opposed the war, Milestones is a journey (historic, geographic and human) across America. It is an encounter with US citizens who know that the power of the US was built on the massacre of Indians and the enslavement of black people, and who oppose the destruction of the Vietnamese people. As a work of re-birth, Milestones marks a fairly radical dividing line in political discourse. With the war now over, the film stresses the need to maintain the investment of militant energy and redirect it into everyday life, as a way of transforming the nature of couple relations, family life and friendships. It expresses a hope for a less violent model of American society - more benevolent, more tolerant, and more willing to make room for sensitivity and emotion.

Finally in October 1983, while the American public was still trying to forget the war, a documentary series called Vietnam: a Televised History reopened the whole issue of US war crimes in Vietnam.

The producers found the survivors of a forgotten massacre that had taken place in the village of Thuy Bo in January 1967. Nguyen Bai, then a schoolboy, tells "how the 'marines' destroyed everything, killed the cattle, shot wounded people, broke people's heads with clubs and fired at anything that moved." Le Thi Ton, a little girl at the time, adds: "There were ten of us in a straw hut when the American soldiers arrived. I waved to them. They laughed and threw a grenade inside. I was the only survivor".

After all this time are the US authorities ready to express regret for the crimes committed in Vietnam? On 11 March, on the eve of his historic visit to Hanoi, US Defence Secretary William Cohen said that he did not intend to apologise for the attitude of the US forces during the Vietnam war.

(1) George Bailey, "Television War: Trends in Network Coverage of Vietnam 1965-1970", Journal of Broadcasting, Spring 1976, Washington, D.C.

(2) Le Monde, 3 March 1971. *****


More information about the lbo-talk mailing list