Ken Burns “Vietnam” Disturbing Lessons for our Time by Rob Ketcham

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I was 17 when I signed up for ROTC as a college freshman in 1955. In my immediate family, no one had served in uniform since the Civil War; they were either too old or too young. I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the US Army in 1959. I was obligated to serve for six months. However, I deferred serving in order to go to law school which got me to 1962, and a tour of duty for three years. I finally got my orders in December, 1962. I was now a First Lieutenant, MP corps, and received my first assignment to serve in Paris, France, assigned to the 175th MP Company.

The Vietnam war was getting underway and new MP officers like myself were just starting to be sent to places where integration required the deployment of federal troops like Oxford, Mississippi (where every single jeep windshield was broken and helmets dented by rock-throwing locals as their columns passed under overpasses coming into town); we went mostly to other places like Germany and Korea; a few to Vietnam.

The recently aired Ken Burns documentary, “Vietnam,” offers a valuable take on how the US got involved in Vietnam. In the series, Burns included never seen footage about the French involvement in Indochina and about their failure to appreciate the kind of war that was being fought. Somehow our leaders were equally blinded by the reality of what the U.S. would be up against. Many readers my age will remember that no movie started in a theatre until after the news clips showing the map of Eastern Europe and the Near and Far East with the ever creeping “spread of communism” depicted as the map became redder and redder. The words “communist” and/or “spread of communism” seemed to cause our leaders to lose any ability to reason and to appreciate that not only were we not refighting World War II, but that we were getting caught up in a civil war where we only saw labels, not reality.

We didn’t appreciate (or perceive) that the South Vietnamese leaders—the ones we were supporting— were corrupt and ineffective, quite a combination. In addition, our military leadership—William S. Westmoreland comes to mind—were like the British generals during the American Revolution, ready and willing to fight to the last man even when they were being shot at by farmers and civilian marksman hidden from view rather than in ranks across the battlefield. Burns repeatedly showed the sad footage of the battles and deaths on both sides for hills named by a number, hills that were won, then abandoned, and were the scene of yet another battle to take the same numbered hill at the loss of even more life.

Ken Burns and his co-producer Lynn Novick, deserve much credit for bringing to the screen a period of our recent history that had such an impact on our nation as it evolved following World War II. The use of narrators from the US, South and North Vietnam traced the steps from “advising”, to engagement, to war, to escalation, to a never-ending conflagration and mindless slaughter, until finally, both sides came to realize somehow it all had to end.

The documentary’s endless firefight footage taken from archives of all sides, starting with the French in the “50’s and then with the growing American presence and the larger and larger numbers of Vietnamese soldiers from the south and from the north was informative at one level, but could have used much more careful editing and still made its point about the slaughter.

As the war continued, both Johnson and Nixon engaged in massive escalation of troop strength and material, ordering more and more bombing, then adding the use of napalm and Agent Orange to what was already the use of more ordinance then for all of WWII. It was Secretary Robert McNamara’s obsession with numbers and measurement, so successful in producing and selling Fords, that led to using body counts as a way of measuring success in battle. This fact was well known in the anti-war movement, and it was indeed used to determine how success was gauged. We learn from the film that those in the field started using any dead person as a criteria for “winning” a battle even if the dead were farmers or women or children. It was reported that towards the end of the war in the Mekong Delta some battalions in the 9th Division were faking the numbers in order to validate their operations—one more step removed from reality.

What is particularly striking to me is the mendacity of those Presidents involved, starting with President Kennedy. Just recalling that he lied to the American people in several instances and squandered opportunities to work with Ho Chi Min (who in the early days was a student of American history and of our own successful war against the British) is another unpleasant memory. Kennedy’s advisors, venerated at the time by many—McNamara, Bundy, Westmoreland, and brother Bobby Kennedy, didn’t help matters.

Presidential integrity, which had been part of the makeup of the Roosevelts, of President Hoover, President Truman, and President Eisenhower began to give way to lies and duplicity. Lyndon Johnson, catapulted to the Presidency in 1963 actually looked good as he was getting started as President, but he too got caught up in lying, the body counts, the inhumane bombings, and the seeming willingness to ignore what was right in front of him—that we were supporting the wrong side, the side that was devious, corrupt, and not even backed by the South Vietnamese people. All of this is carefully documented in “Vietnam.”

As Americans began to understand that our leaders had taken us into a war being waged in a far off place with no clear purpose and where our soldiers were dying, in alarming numbers, they became increasingly aroused to find ways to challenge government policy in order to stop the war. Using the same tactics as those who were fighting for civil rights—marches, and generally peaceful demonstrations to show opposition to the war, their voices became insistent and the country and the Congress began to wake up.

The numbers of people in the streets in 1967 were almost beyond belief. I know, I was there with my wife and two young children. I had helped in the planning of the march on October 21, 1967, that started at the Lincoln Memorial and ended at the Pentagon. One night we lit candles to honor those who had died, and marched with the lit candle and the soldier’s name across Memorial Bridge to Arlington Cemetery, the most meaningful gesture I ever participated in. And ultimately, the Congress was forced to listen. When there are enough people in the streets that the White House is protected by City buses parked bumper to bumper, or garbage trucks parked bumper to bumper you know, you’ve got someone’s attention.

Congress woke up slowly and reluctantly. “Vietnam” really skims over this part of the story with very little mention of any of the goings-on in the Congress and very sketchy footage of the Fulbright hearings. At the outset, and for far too long, the leadership in the House and Senate was almost totally supportive of President Kennedy, President Johnson, President Nixon and President Ford. The establishment was for the war, the American Legion was for the war and both the Republican and Democratic parties were for the war. It took several years for Senators McCarthy and McGovern and Congressman John Anderson to find their voices. There was tacit support for the war as the huge increases in the military budgets were agreed to with little Congressional debate or discussion.
Some Congressional districts located in areas such as those in Rockland and Sullivan County, New York, and Lowell and Lawrence Mass, were anti-war, but very very few congressman took a lead against the war until the protest movement was well underway.
It is depressing to witness on film what happens when the politicians and generals, desperate for a solution to the situation they had created start using napalm, even on populated areas, after already using Agent Orange to defoliate the countryside. It was brutal and senseless. It demonstrates over and over again what happens when diplomacy fails and how war can so easily escalate into an inhuman enterprise of slaughter.

The war gradually staggered toward its end. The bombing didn’t stop. the North Vietnamese continued to send troops south; the South Vietnamese army continued to fight despite the withdrawal of American troops from the war zone. And Henry Kissinger, a holdover from the Johnson years, had successfully jockeyed for a continuing role in the Nixon Administration to determine how to end the war using secret diplomacy with the North Vietnamese leader, Le Duc Tho. The North Vietnamese leader had decided after the spring offensive failed to deliver a decisive blow, coupled with the near-certain re-election of Nixon, that it was time to make a deal. Finally, in 1975 it ended.

Although I did not serve in Vietnam, I came way too close due to the expanding war in Vietnam. When the time came in 1966 for me to get out, after my three years on active duty, my service was extended, and I was reassigned stateside to the 9th Division, a new Division being formed to go to Vietnam. I was assigned as the Company Commander of the 9th MP Company and deployed to Fort Riley KN. It took almost a year to get the division ready, and I learned to speak some Vietnamese.

One evening about three months before deployment I was in the officer’s club with the MP offer who was running the Post Stockade. He informed me how lucky I was to be going to Vietnam. After overcoming my surprise I learned he was serious, and I asked him if he wanted to go in my place if I could get the orders changed since he was regular Army ( I was reserve); he was eager to go. So the next morning I called a couple of my buddies who were in the Office of Personnel Operations at the Pentagon, and I was able to effect the change. The other MP Captain took my company to Vietnam, and I became the Stockade Commander. I was responsible for about 350 prisoners who were in my custody at a stockade built to handle about 150. Many of the young men who ended up in the stockade were just ordinary guys who did not want to go to Vietnam (this was 1967). They came from all over the midwest, and, generally, if they were sent back to their units they would go AWOL again since they figured that life in the stockade was better than going to Vietnam.

The last episode of the Burns documentary brought the reader up to date about how things are in Vietnam since the war ended. My wife Caroline and I spent a couple of weeks biking in Vietnam in 2009 and were there when President Obama was inaugurated. We found the Vietnamese people to be most friendly at all levels, and the children to be very engaging and warm. We were there during Tet (a Vietnamese holiday) and so the kids were out of school. Time after time, when they found out we Americans were coming by on our bikes in our colorful lycra gear and helmets they would line up along the side of the road and hold out their hands: “What’s your name?” “Where’re you from?” They laughed and they smiled when we passed and we exchanged high fives.

The Burns documentary raises serious and current issues that are before the American people today. Should the US be fighting wars that are not authorized by the Congress, such as the sixteen-year war the U.S. is supporting today with men and materials in Afghanistan? Recently, an NYT headline was, “U.S. Military To Conceal Afghan War Statistics.” The article points out that the Afghans know what’s going on, the U.S Military knows what’s going on, “The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people paying for it.” Shades of Vietnam!

And what is our doctrine for dealing with places as diverse as North Korea, the Middle East, and Niger? It would seem, based on reports coming out of Africa, that there many more soldiers stationed abroad than Congress or the American people know about. One lesson that must be learned from the Ken Burns documentary is that small events can escalate and escalate.

I am grateful for the documentary and what it can teach and remind us. I hope it will contribute to a thoughtful review so that its lessons are assimilated as we struggle to find our way into the 21st century.

Rob Ketcham served as the chief of staff of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology and staff director of the Fossil and Nuclear Energy Subcommittee during the 1980s and 1990s. Prior to those positions, he was Special Counsel to the House Select Committee on Committees chaired by Richard Bolling (D-MO).  He holds a BA and JD from Washington and Lee University as well as a SG from Harvard University’s Senior Managers in Government Program. He has lived on the Eastern Shore since 1999 with his wife, Caroline.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Willard T Engelskirchen says:

    I would encourage all to read “The Brothers” by Stephen Kinzer and “The Generals” by Tom Ricks. The Brothers describes the life and work of John Foster and Alan Dulles and provides a lot of information on how we got where we are. It began before Kennedy. The Generals has a section on Viet Nam and one on more recent adventures plus a lot of WWII and Korea stuff on the Generals who did the fighting.
    Today I would also encourage readers to consider “Red Notice” by Bill Browder. And then think about how much benefit our country might get from an agreement between our president and the Russian one. Red Notice is frightening and speaks to some of today’s issues.

  2. Stephen Huntoon says:

    Thank you Rob Ketcham for a thoughtful review of the Ken Burns series. Nothing was more searing for my generation than Vietnam, even though I was a little younger than draft age as draft age turned out to be. The lessons of Vietnam resonate today for anyone willing to listen.
    I am amazed to read how the Vietnamese respond to Americans visiting today. How extraordinary that we are welcome after all that happened.
    Thanks again, Steve

  3. Jo-Ann Saville says:

    Thank you for your insight, questioning and warnings. I saw friends and neighbors drafted and volunteering to go to Vietnam Nam. I wasn’t struck by the true seriousness of the war until they didn’t come home or if they did come home their lives were changed forever. All for what? And whose reporting to believe?

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