I found the first episode of The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick to be so simplistic that I wanted to stop watching, but in the end I did keep watching, and I’m glad that I did, as the second episode gets better, and I’m now watching the third.
The most valuable part of this documentary are the interviews, as the people interviewed say things that are more complex and revealing than the narrative in the documentary.
For instance, through some of the interviews we can learn about the presence of racism in the interactions between Americans and South Vietnamese soldiers, a topic that the narrative of the documentary does not directly address.
Let’s look at two examples, one from Episode Two and one from Episode Three.
The second episode covers the Battle of Ấp Bắc. This battle was fought in early 1963 and it was the first time that the Viet Cong “stood and fought,” that is, that they stayed in one place and continued to fight rather than launching a guerrilla attack and then disappearing.
The South Vietnamese forces suffered a serious defeat in this battle.
In The Vietnam War, this loss is presented as evidence of the supposed incompetence of the South Vietnamese army. While the narrator does mention that “communist spies” had obtained information beforehand, the narrator does not explain that this battle marked a major intelligence failure on the part of the US because the Americans had passed on a great deal of information to a spy, Phạm Xuân An, who they unknowingly continued to provide information to throughout the war (see Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent).
In any case, in The Vietnam War a participant in this battle, American army advisor James Scanlon, talks about the aftermath of this battle. The narrator notes that “At least 80 South Vietnamese soldiers had been killed. So had three American advisors, including Captain Ken Good, a friend of Scanlon’s.”
And then Scanlon states about first the South Vietnamese dead that “We stacked the armored personnel carriers with bodies, stacked them up on top until we couldn’t stack them anymore, and um. . .” And then he says about the American dead that, “I wouldn’t let the Vietnamese touch the Americans. So I carried the Americans out. . .”
[Ít nhất 80 lính Nam Việt Nam thiệt mạng, cùng 3 cố vấn Mỹ, có cả Đại úy Ken Good, bạn của Scanlon.
“Chúng tôi chất xác lên xe thiết giáp, chồng xác lên nhau đến khi. . . không còn chất thêm được nữa. Tôi không để phía Việt Nam động vào thi thể lính Mỹ. Tôi tự tay khiêng xác họ về.”]
The third episode then talks about a similar situation at the battle of Bình Giã, a battle that took place at the end of 1964. In this battle an American helicopter was shot down, killing four Americans.
In The Vietnam War we learn that a battalion of Vietnamese marines was sent in the next day to retrieve the American bodies. Here we see one of those marines, Tran Ngoc Toan, recall what happened.
Tran Ngoc Toan states that “The commanding officer from Saigon told the battalion you have to come and get all four American serviceman body.” [Sĩ quan chỉ huy ở Sài Gòn lệnh cho tiểu tôi vào để lấy xác 4 quân nhân Mỹ.]
12 South Vietnamese marines from Toan’s unit were killed just trying to get to the helicopter. The narrator then says that “Their comrades wrapped them in ponchos and laid them out next to the dead Americans. An American chopper dropped into the clearing. The American crew jumped out under fire, picked up the four Americans, climbed back into their chopper and took off again.” [12 Thủy quân lục chiến Việt Nam trong đơ vị của Toàn thiệt mạng khi cố tiếp cận chiếc trực thăng rơi. Đồng đọc cuộn xác họ vào tấm tang và đặc họ cạnh xác lính Mỹ. Một trực thăng Mỹ hạ xuống trảng trống. Phi hành đoàn Mỹ nhảy ra giữa hỏa lực dịch, nhặt 4 xác người Mỹ, mang lên trực thăng, rồi bay đi.]
Tran Ngoc Toan then says, “And we told them, ‘Hey, try to get all my body out of here too.’ But they refuse to pick up our body.” [Này, chở xác lính tôi đi nữa chứ. Nhưng họ không chịu nhặt xác lính chúng tôi.]
Tran Ngoc Toan and his men waited by their dead for three hours. An American tried to get them to leave, but they wouldn’t, and then the Viet Cong attacked.
The narrator then says that “When it was all over, 5 Americans had died at Bình Giã. 32 Viet Cong bodies had been left on the battlefield. 200 South Vietnamese were killed. 200 more were wounded.” [Khi trận đánh kết thúc, 5 lính Mỹ thiệt mạng tại Bình Giã. Việt Cộng bỏ lại 32 xác. 200 lính Nam Việt Nam bị giết, và 200 lính khác bị thương.]
So let’s think about this. We learn that American military advisors at that time thought that the South Vietnamese soldiers were incompetent, and then we also learn that Americans did not treat dead South Vietnamese soldiers the same way that they treated their own dead.
Why was that? Aren’t soldiers supposed to be equal “brothers in arms”?
These two stories reveal something that I suspect is extremely important for understanding the Vietnam War. Why did the Americans in these two instances not treat the South Vietnamese dead equally? Although the term “racism” is overused these days, the fact that Vietnamese were physically different from the Americans probably did combine with other ideas that Americans in Vietnam had at that time (like a sense of frustration that they were going there to help and yet were getting killed) to create beliefs/views about Vietnamese that we can call “racist.”
How widespread were those beliefs/views? What effect did they have on the war? If these two examples are part of a larger trend, then racism must have had an enormous impact on the war.
Could it be that the “incompetence” of South Vietnamese soldiers and their refusal at times to follow American orders had something to do with their dislike of the racist beliefs/views of the Americans who were giving them orders?
This is a topic that definitely deserves to be researched.