The Absence of South Vietnam in “The Vietnam War” and in the American Consciousness

I just finished watching “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. While I really disliked the first episode (as it was extremely reductionist and simplistic), I found the rest of the documentary to be of much higher quality.

Ultimately, this is a movie about “America” rather than “Vietnam.” What Burns and Novick try to demonstrate is that the deep divides in American society today can be traced back to the time of the Vietnam War.

In exploring how America became divided at that time, Burns and Novick try not to privilege any single person or group in/from America by showing the complexity of each person or group, and by doing so they change how these years are often presented. For instance, almost every time that Burns and Novick discuss a famous event in the history of the anti-war movement, they follow that by noting that polls at that time showed that Americans favored the actions of the police/the establishment rather than the anti-war protestors.

There are some who will see this as a conservative distortion of “the facts,” but if the goal of this documentary is to explain why America is so divided, then contextualizing the anti-war movement in this way is helpful.

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South Vietnamese Soldiers, American Bodies and Racism

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.

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The First Vietnamese Killed by Americans in Vietnam

I just tried to watch the first episode of The Vietnam War, a new multi-episode documentary by American filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novik. I didn’t expect this documentary be good, but I am actually surprised now at how bad it really is.

The core of the problem of (at least the first episode of) this documentary is that it is entirely America-centric. It is based on a fantasy that the American government can determine the fate of world affairs, and that individual Americans can influence US government policy.

The “lesson” that the documentary seeks to teach is then that there are times when world affairs do not follow the standards of American ideals, and that this is because the US government does not listen to the good ideas of individual Americans.

Let’s call this the “Americans are so stupid” self-loathing narrative.

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The Vietnam War Through Thai Eyes

I just came across a recent video by the Thai band Cocktail called “You” (เธอ). It is about a Thai soldier who fell in love with a Vietnamese girl while fighting in the Vietnam War in 1965. In 2014 he then goes back to find her.

Thai Vietnam War music video.

Some of the scenes of the ex-soldier hanging around his hotel room in Vietnam reminded me of the opening part of Apocalypse Now, which made me wonder to what extent American stereotypes about the war have been internalized by people in Thailand.

Thai Vietnam War music video.

I was then intrigued to see that on the guy’s hotel bed he had a copy of Vietnam War: A Report Through Asian Eyes, a 1972 book written by Japanese journalist Katsuichi Honda. I have never read this book, so I’m not sure to what extent Honda was able to show a different perspective on that war, however as I continued to watch the video for “You,” it became clear that this video does have a definite Thai perspective to it.

Thai Vietnam War music video.

There is a monologue in the beginning in which the ex-soldier explains that he is looking for the girl, and he says that he is tormented by the fact that he doesn’t know who she is. He then asks, “Have you been reborn? Or did you die?”

Thai Vietnam War music video.

As the song plays we come to learn that the girl he fell in love with died in 1965, however, she was reborn and he finds her in 2014. However, she doesn’t recognize him, until he dies, and then she comes to realize that she was in love with him in her past life.

We also learn that he actually died in 1965 too, so the “ex-soldier” who went to Vietnam in 2014 was actually the reincarnation of the soldier who died in 1965.

Thai Vietnam War music video.

Are you confused?

Yes, it is kind of confusing, but it is this way because this story (like countless other stories and movies in Thiland) employs the concepts of karma and rebirth. So this video does definitely have a Thai perspective to it.

At the same time, the influence of Hollywood characterizations is also apparent in this video. It’s therefore an interesting combination of images and ideas.

In any case, here is the video, and I’ve made a rough translation of the lyrics below (different parts get repeated at different times in the song), while the Thai-language lyrics can be found here.

We’re so far apart, it shouldn’t seem like we’re close,

And my mind is still always agitated by memories.

I think of the time when we first met,

You and I never wanted to be apart,

And now I have to face the trembling in my heart,

Worried about our being apart,

Worried that your heart has changed.

It’s raining lightly like the time I met you,

Your eyes are still stuck in my heart, unforgettable,

Our love has not gotten old, right?

Or time has not changed the shape of your heart.

You, do you still miss me when the two of us are still far apart,

And when time keeps us distant?

Do you know that the person far away still feels anxious,

Whenever he looks at a picture of you,

And that his tears still fall?

The morning dew and the cold wind seize my heart,

The wind blows softly, carrying my love away,

And taking it to where your heart is.

Time should make our hearts change while we are far apart,

But I always only have you in my heart.

August 1966

I was looking at an August 1966 issue of the magazine China Reconstructs. The first two articles in that issue dealt with Vietnam, and were entitled as follows:

“China’s aid to Vietnam in Fighting U.S. Aggression Further Ceases to be Subject to Any Bounds or Restrictions” and “China’s 700 Million Pledge Powerful Backing to the Vietnamese People.”

The first article is a government statement it begins as follows:

“Beginning from June 29, 1966, U.S. imperialism has brazenly and repeatedly bombed the city of Hanoi, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and the city of Haiphong, its second largest city. The Chinese government and people express their boundless indignation at and their strongest condemnation of this barbarous, wanton and criminal act of aggression and war by U.S. imperialism.”

The second article, “China’s 700 Million Pledge Powerful Backing to the Vietnamese People,” contains pictures of various demonstrations across the country in support of the Vietnamese people’s struggle against American imperialism.

200,000 in Kunming.

In Chengdu, 500,000.

In Urumqi another 200,000.

300,000 more in Tianjin.

And finally, 800,000 in Shanghai.

My oh my how times have changed. We live in a crazy world.

Vietnam War Fashion in 1960s Thailand

Richard A. Ruth’s In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War is a fascinating study of Thailand’s involvement in Second Indochina War.

There is a good review of the book by Craig Reynolds here with a nice discussion following the book review.

One of Ruth’s arguments in the book is that the Thai monarchy willingly got Thailand involved in the war as it was in their interest to fight, and to be seen fighting, the perceived threat of communist aggression.

I was looking at Thailand Illustrated, a glossy magazine that the Thais produced to represent their nation to the world. And on the cover of an issue from 1966 I found this image.

This is the king dressed in military attire and the queen wearing a Vietnamese conical hat (nón lá). Ruth mentions in his book that the queen appeared on the cover of another magazine, Asia Magazine, the following year wearing a nón lá as well.

While the two are in full “Vietnam War mode” in this picture, it was apparently taken while they were visiting a village in Hua Hin Province while the king was enjoying his summer vacation.

I can see that they were seriously attempting to project an image, but I wonder what the villagers thought when their king and queen showed up dressed like this? I guess it was just a sign of the times. But what interesting times those were.