“What is a war story, and what makes a good one?”1 These questions, articulated by Viet Thanh Nguyen in his masterful treatise on war and memory, Nothing Ever Dies, reverberated in my mind as I watched the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick ten-part series, The Vietnam War.2 Over the course of eighteen plus hours, Burns and Novick tell a complex story of the war through historic footage as well as intimate interviews. They introduce viewers to a diverse range of people: men and women, whites and people of color, grunts and those in leadership, those in the midst of battle and those further removed, soldiers and civilians, those who fought in the war and those who refused service, those who supported the war and those in the antiwar movement. As the series unfolds, Burns and Novick reveal how some of these dichotomies break down; people with doubts about the war nevertheless chose to fight, and those who fought also protested the war. Notably, Burns and Novick seek to tell not just a U.S. story, but also one that features the memories and perspectives of Vietnamese allies and enemies. As the tagline for the series emphasizes, “There is no single truth in war.” Instead, the series reveals and juxtaposes a range of conflicting emotions, memories, interpretations, and political beliefs. The episodes follow key individuals as they entered and exited a war that continues to haunt and shape their lives. As Nguyen reminds us, “all wars are fought [at least] twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”3 In its commitment to tell diverse individual stories, the powerful and poetic series nevertheless leaves unchallenged troubling interpretations of the causes, conduct, and meaning of the Viet Nam War. I explore three topics, namely the U.S. Empire in the Pacific, the racialization of war, and the military-sexual complex, that are omitted or lightly and incompletely treated in the documentary series. These interpretive frameworks, collective contributions by scholars of American Studies, Asian American Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, reveal the limitations of a kaleidoscopic interview-based approach to telling war stories. The first episode of The Vietnam War series, entitled “Déjà Vu,” offers the interpretation that the war was “begun in good faith by good people.”4 The remainder of the series reinforces this sense of innocence through interviews with U.S. soldiers and politicians who articulated a true commitment to democracy and a sincere hatred of totalitarian communism, even as they faced difficult choices that compromised their nobility of purpose. The filmmaker’s selection of quotes by Ho Chi Minh also reinforces this narrative of U.S. exceptionalism. In an appeal to obtain U.S. support for Vietnamese independence against the French, Ho wrote that the United States “never had an empire … never exploited Asian peoples.” This belief in Western innocence, as Mary Louise Pratt argues, characterizes an imperialist gaze.5 The United States, normatively understood as a revolutionary society founded on democracy, in fact constitutes an imperial project, established through the dispossession of Indigenous and Mexican peoples and lands, enslaved labor from Africa, as well as the exploitation, marginalization, and exclusion of immigrant labor. In fact, the joining of immigration exclusion and citizenship restriction emerged first in relation to Asian migrants, who were desired for their “cheap labor,” despised for presumably stealing jobs, and classified as “aliens ineligible for citizenship.”6 In other words, Asian American history teaches us that the United States exploited Asian peoples, both at home and abroad. The U.S. Empire in the Asia-Pacific, formed through the claiming and militarization of Pacific Islands, fundamentally shaped U.S. intervention in Viet Nam. The dehumanization of the enemy through “gookism”; the U.S. engagement against counterinsurgency, guerilla-style warfare; the targeting of civilians as potential enemy combatants; and the disregard of “native” demands for anti-colonial independence replayed political, military, cultural, and social practices of the United States in the Philippines, the Pacific War during World War II, and the Korean War. During and after the Viet Nam War, the militarized Pacific served multiple functions: as sites of training and base operations, rest and recreation areas, as well as staging sites for refugee flight.7 The U.S. decision to intervene in Viet Nam and conduct war throughout Southeast Asia occurred in the midst of the Cold War, but the patterns of interaction were established well before the Viet Nam War and extended beyond the Southeast Asian peninsula as well. The amnesia regarding U.S. Empire leads to the impression that the Viet Nam War was an exception. By retelling personal stories of innocence, the documentary series represents the war as a betrayal of U.S. values by “misguided” and “misinformed” individuals, caught in difficult situations, rather than a recurring set of interactions and a broader geo-political set of imperial strategies. The will to ignore empire colors the ability of The Vietnam War series to fully explore the dynamics of race and war. Burns and Novick feature narrators of diverse racial backgrounds, although the numbers of people of color (and female) interviewees and the time devoted to their stories never quite match the attention devoted to the white male protagonists. The episodes do explore the disproportionate representation of people of color and the working-class in the U.S. military, who also suffer higher percentages of the fatalities and casualties of war. The powerful stories also expose the racism within the U.S. military and the broader home front society, especially in relation to African Americans. In addition, the series addresses the dehumanization of both enemy and allied Vietnamese. The episodes illuminate how U.S. military culture normalized the use of racialized epithets, focused on high body counts to measure the progress of war, served as a “finishing school” for teaching that survival rested on savagery, and integrated sexual violence and coercion as integral experiences of war. However, Burns and Novick also missed opportunities to delve into race more fully. Three moments in the series resonated most strongly for me, as a professor of Asian American Studies teaching in Orange County, home to the largest Vietnamese community outside of Viet Nam and the third largest Asian American and Pacific Islander population in the United States. First, Judge Vincent Okamoto’s personal history and conduct during the war raised intriguing questions regarding racialization and war. During World War II, the U.S. military, government, and broader society labeled the Okamoto family guilty of potential disloyalty and forcibly interned them in concentration camps, along with 120,000 other people of Japanese ancestry. Military service allowed members of the Okamoto family to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States, even though they were presumed to be guilty en masse, not due to any individual acts of disloyalty. In recounting his military service during the Viet Nam War, however, Okamoto uses the racial epithet “gook,” revealing how much he was/is steeped in U.S. military culture. Neither he nor the filmmakers explore how this racialized dehumanization of the enemy resembled the racialized assumptions of guilt projected onto Japanese Americans or the “race war” in the Pacific during World War II. Burns and Novick also neglected to include Asian American veterans, who testified that the racialization of Asians as “gooks” shaped their status in the U.S. military. They reported that commanding officers used Asian American soldiers to visually demonstrate what the enemy looked like. While an African American officer in the film series recounts how a racist white soldier challenged his authority, how did Asian American soldiers feel about fighting in a military that considered anyone who looked like them as “gooks”?8 In some instances, the filmmakers overtly offer commentary through narration and the juxtaposition of stories. In this instance, the series leaves the viewers, who are unlikely to have a fuller understanding of Asian American racialization, with few interpretive tools. While Okamoto’s story offers rich materials to more fully unpack the dynamics of racialization and war, the perfunctory representation of Vietnamese refugees repeats model minority depictions of Asian immigrants. Burns and Novick describe Vietnamese Americans, especially the second generation, as model minorities: entrepreneurial, successful, ready and eager to adapt to American society. The documentary acknowledges the pain of refugee dislocation through interviews of the first generation, particularly adults forced to flee Viet Nam and their longing for their lost country. However, the documentary declines to explore how refugee relocation, like the war itself, transcended national and generational boundaries. The war in Southeast Asia dislocated millions of Laotians, Cambodians, Hmong, and Vietnamese. These communities possess higher indices of socio-economic poverty; face racial, cultural, and economic resentment due to the Viet Nam War; and suffer from violence related trauma that extends beyond the generation that experienced the war directly.9 The second and third generations of Southeast Asian Americans continue to live in the shadow and memories of war, but their stories receive scant attention in the documentary. The final example of missed opportunity for racial exploration centers on how much The Vietnam War series still focuses on white male perspectives of the war. Certainly, Burns and Novick masterfully incorporated and juxtaposed powerful interviews featuring Vietnamese and U.S. perspectives. But again, the amount of time spent in developing particular stories, fleshing out the backgrounds and personalities of the interview subjects, and the framing of each episode reaffirm that the series is a U.S.-plus project rather than a true and equal conversation. This first episode, which recounts over a hundred years of Vietnam’s history in contrast to other episodes that cover much shorter durations during the Vietnam War, illustrates how the series is fundamentally U.S.-centered. Burns and Novick intercut the U.S. war in Viet Nam and U.S. voices in the first episode that narrates French colonization of Viet Nam, Vietnamese demands for national independence, and the First Indochina War (1945–1954) between the Vietnamese and the French. The name of the episode, “Déjà Vu,” reminds viewers that what Americans experienced during the Second Indochina War, more commonly called the Viet Nam War in the United States, replicated what previously occurred in Viet Nam against the French. The episode also sets up the audience to experience déjà vu over the course of the series as some of the same interviews are repeated with fuller contexts and in greater detail. However, the repeated cuts also imply that U.S. audiences might not be able to maintain attention, if the episode only focused on Vietnam’s history without reference to the United States. Also, the decision to compare/contrast particular stories offers false equivalences. The expression of hatred by a U.S. soldier for the Vietnamese follows the recounting of Vietnamese hatred for the occupying French. Placing these expressions of national hatred side by side implies a fundamental similarity of experience and emotion. However, the Vietnamese directed their hatred towards an occupying power, while the U.S. narrator directed his hatred towards people resisting his occupation. Viet Nguyen argues that the American industry of memory tends to re/tell war stories that privilege U.S. soldiers as protagonists and their narratives of lost innocence. Burns and Novick, despite their best intentions and efforts to offer a multi-racial and multi-national history of the Viet Nam War, tend to replay this same narration. Just as The Vietnam War centers on white American protagonists, male voices also take center stage. Burns and Novick incorporate women’s perspectives, but they tend to be supporting cast members not the central protagonists. The female voices in the series do illuminate the different roles that U.S. versus Vietnamese women played during the war. American women suffered and participated in the war as mothers, sisters, nurses, and antiwar protestors. In contrast, Vietnamese women endured as refugees and victims of rape as well as served as translators, military analysts, and sex workers. Very importantly, they contributed more directly to the war effort. They transported military supplies, built and maintained the Ho Chi Min Trail, and served as soldiers as well as generals. The documentary missed some important aspects of both U.S. and Vietnamese women’s involvement with the war, though. Jane Fonda received attention, as did the family members of U.S. soldiers, but the filmmakers declined to feature key organizations and individuals, such as the organization Women Strike for Peace (which sent the first Americans to visit Hanoi after Johnson authorized bombing of the North and continued their efforts to promote peace through women’s diplomacy), Cora Weiss (who organized to send antiwar activists to visit North Viet Nam and who negotiated the release of U.S. POWs), and feminist antiwar activists (who articulated critiques of the war in terms of militarized patriarchy and who drew inspiration from Vietnamese female revolutionaries). Burns and Novick also neglected to feature Nguyen Thi Binh, the foreign minister of the National Liberation Front, a negotiator at the Paris Peace Talks, and one of the most internationally recognized Vietnamese female political leaders among the global antiwar movement.10 Even an eighteen-hour series cannot cover all aspects of the war, but the bonus DVD materials also reinforce the centrality of male experiences of war. The tendency to personalize the political by centering white male U.S. soldier narratives resulted in two striking moments that illuminate the limited gender analysis of the series. Both the omniscient narrator and the individual accounts offered by U.S. military personnel discuss rape as part and parcel of war. Inspired by Eisenhower’s warning against the “military-industrial complex,” Joane Nagel identified the intertwining of sexuality with militarism as a sexual-military complex.11 The accounts in The Vietnam War provide evidence of how the presence of the U.S. military fostered prostitution, contributed to the use of rape as a weapon or at least collateral damage of war, as well as the sexualized peer culture within the military. Bill Ehrhart, an American soldier, provides one of the most moving stories of the sexualized military culture. In the midst of the fighting against the Tet Offensive, he and his band of military brothers all had sex with one Vietnamese woman. Ehrhart recounts his reluctance, his compliance to peer pressure, and his sense of guilt over their collective act. He shared that some Vietnamese women in fact supported the National Liberation Front. In this instance, he clearly thought that was not the case. Ehrhart’s sense of guilt over this encounter implies that the sexual acts were not consensual. At the minimum, he appeared to recognize the power inequalities in the interactions between a group of armed U.S. soldiers and one local woman. In addition, Ehrhart’s comment about this woman’s status as an allied civilian suggests that if she had been an enemy, then sexual violence might be justifiable. No Vietnamese woman spoke of sexual violence in the series, a difficult topic to discuss in any context and certainly to U.S. filmmakers making a documentary predominantly for a U.S. audience. However, Earhart’s confession centers the tragedy and recrimination on him and his soldier buddies. They still represent the center of the story, the ones who lose their innocence. The voices and experiences of the women they rape and coerce remain absent. A second powerful moment in the series that dismisses female political agency occurs in the last episode as various speakers reflect on the meaning of the war. One female antiwar movement activist, who appears only briefly throughout the rest of the episodes, apologizes for calling returning soldiers “baby killers.” She seems to recant her political critique as an act of hubris and youth. Her apology helps to address the trauma suffered by U.S. veterans who did not receive a hero’s welcome. While various American soldiers denied committing atrocities, many witnessed these actions and some acknowledged their own guilt. Over the course of the long decades of war in Southeast Asia, babies were killed and maimed, certainly not only as a result of U.S. violence. Nevertheless, Asian, not U.S., babies died due to direct violence, collateral damage, the death of family members, as well as starvation and disease in the context of war and refugee dislocation. These atrocities of war need to be accounted for, either by the people pulling the triggers and/or the people who ordered the killings. If we reduce the Viet Nam War only to individual stories of guilt or reconciliation, then how might we account for differences of power and responsibility due to gender, race, class, and national identity? Burns and Novick have created a powerful documentary on the experience and meaning of war. They brought attention to and generated discussion on a period of history that many sought to forget. Their epic series tells profound and moving stories, but The Viet Nam War also retells similar war stories that the U.S. public has tended to tell: stories of innocence lost by well-meaning but misguided people. We need more honest stories that reveal the workings of U.S. empire, the racialization of war, and the full impact of the military-sexual complex. Footnotes 1 Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Cambridge, MA, 2016), 223. 2 The Vietnam War, DVD, Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (New York, 2017). 3 Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies, 4. 4 “Déjà Vu,” The Vietnam War, Episode 1. 5 Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd ed. (New York, 2007). 6 Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (New York, 2016). 7 Yen Le Espiritu, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees (Oakland, CA, 2014). 8 Okamoto hints at this through a story of how his longing for rice and the negotiated hospitality of Vietnamese elderly women led to the capture of enemy guerillas. His cultural/racial affinity with the villagers led to the betrayal of his Vietnamese hosts. 9 Espiritu, Body Counts; Eric Tang, Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York Hyperghetto (Philadelphia, PA, 2015); Khatharya Um, From the Land of Shadows: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Cambodian Diaspora (New York, 2015). 10 Jessica M. Frazier, Women’s Antiwar Diplomacy during the Vietnam War Era (Chapel Hill, NC, 2017); Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism during the Vietnam Era (Ithaca, NY, 2013). 11 Joane Nagel, Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers (New York, 2003). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Diplomatic History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 2, 2018
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