THE WAR NOBODY WON*

– And two different attempts to make us want to understand why and how it all happened

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Collage: 30 hours of TV-time on war in Vietnam, a B&O vintage remote, and the postcard version of Catherine Karnow’s stunning Halong Bay photo.


*This blog title “the war nobody won” is stolen from Stanley Karnow’s famous and controversial prologue in “Vietnam – a History.”
The recent launch of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick 18-hour documentary on ‘THE VIETNAM WAR’ has prompted me to hole up quite a few Hanoi nights over the past month.
Subsequently, I added a 13 hour re-watch of the original  ‘VIETNAM – A TELEVISION HISTORY’, done almost 35 years ago.  It has been absolutely fascinating. 
Both series are published by PBS, but very different in their approach to the war(s) in Vietnam. Burns/Novick are on a mission to captivate the viewers with a dramatic and well researched narrative, based on wartime footage (some it never seen before, I believe) and retrospective interviews with former combatants, peace activists, victims and relatives in Vietnam and in the US.  
No doubt, it has been an enormous task to put this documentary together.
It is all spiced up with a continuous score of greatest hits from the US pop music charts during the war years. The narrator is intense and (melo)dramatic. The obvious ‘story-telling gimmicks’ seem a bit too much, but if you make it to the end, you will walk away feeling wiser on the war and its far reaching implications 40 years on.
However, one very big issue is strangely missing from the documentary: The legacy of the war, i.e. the long term effects of Agent Orange and the enormous amounts of UXO’s, unexploded mines and bombs, which are still killing people in Vietnam as well as Cambodia and Laos, 40 years after the war.  Apart from a single sentence on Agent Orange, the documentary completely ignores the terrible, lingering consequences for thousands of Vietnamese and US and other allied veterans, who ‘humped the boonies’ in the sprayed areas during the war.
Likewise, the efforts carried out by VN veterans to assist the Vietnamese with UXO clearance are also left out. One should think that initiatives like the Project Renew would deserve attention in a new documentary on the war in Vietnam.
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The story of the Hanoi Spy legend Pham Xuan An would have suited well with the other ‘human interest’ stories in the Burns/Novick documentary.

Considering the Burns/Novick fascination of ‘human interest’ stories, it is also surprising, that the role of the legendary Hanoi spy, Pham Xuan An is not mentioned at all.
Being a trusted advisor of the US Ambassadors and several senior military officers, An supplied the North Vietnamese and the Southern Insurgents with the vital intelligence to prepare for the 1968 Tet  Mau Tan Offensive, the massive attack against more than 100 cities and other targets in the South.  
An even managed to become bureau chief for Time Magazine and cleverly manipulated the foreign press corps in Saigon during daily informal chats at his favorite café. Only several years after the war, it was disclosed that Pham Xuan An was also a colonel in Hanoi’s military intelligence apparatus.
It also surprising that Burns/Novick refrain from bringing post-war revelations into focus. On example: They are spending quite a bit of airtime on the1968 My Lai massacre without bringing this horrendous act into perspective.  Once again, we get the hero-and-villain story about Lieutenant William Calley, who ordered the killings, and the courageous helicopter pilot, who managed to stop the massacre after 504 old men, women and children had been killed.
Why not tell the bigger story about, what really went on in Quan Ngai province, when Tiger Force was let loose in a year-long killing spree in ‘enemy villages’, and how Pentagon bureaucrats, led by Donald Rumsfeld, subsequently sabotaged the Army’s own investigations and covered up the atrocities. The incredibly story is well documented in yet another fine piece of Pulitzer-winning journalism, and subsequently this book:

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‘Biased’
Predictably, Burns/Novick have received quite a bit of flack for being biased, primarily from the ‘we-fought-an-honourable-war’-opinionists in the US. For obvious reasons, the Nixon Foundation is highly critical in published comments to the episodes, dealing with the Nixon/Kissinger years. But by and large, to this blogger the Burns/Novick documentary seems to be a rather fair assessment of the consequences of Nixon’s ‘peace with honour’ strategy, and the enormous loss of lives, which followed.
An obvious weakness of the entire Burns/Novick documentary (as opposed to the PBS-predecessor) is that they are without firsthand knowledge of the war in Vietnam and therefore at complete mercy of their sources.  
The substance of several episodes seem to be largely based on interviews with wartime journalist Neil Sheehan and his Pulitzer-winning book ‘A Bright Shining Lie’.  There a very few retrospective interviews with key decision makers, partly for the simple reason that most of them are dead now.  
These weak points make the original PBS-series appear all the more stronger, even so many years after it was made. The producers of ‘Vietnam – a Television History’ contracted one of the war’s most eminent journalists, Stanley Karnow (Time Magazine) as chief correspondent for the series.
Amazing network
Karnow’s  amazing network of sources on all sides is the backbone of every episode. During the war he had regular access to the highest levels of US political and military decision-making, ranging from ‘kitchen-chats’ with President Kennedy to the inner circles of the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies.
This also made Karnow a target of criticism for being biased in favor the US in his coverage during and after the war. For the very same reason left leaning professor Noam Chomsky and others fired away on the original PBS documentary.
The US-bias attacks on Karnow did not stop the Hanoi leadership from allowing him back in 1981. He became one of the first American journalists to make a first hand report from post-war Vietnam. PBS and the viewers would benefit enormously from the sources, which Karnow had developed among the senior decision makers in Hanoi.
The Vietnamese authorities gave Karnow full access to almost everyone on his bucket list, except the enigmatic wartime chief negotiator Le Duc Tho and Hanoi’s master spy Pham Xuan An.  (Coincidentally, fellow reporter Jørn Ruby and I received the same khong duoc – “no-no” on the same requests,  when walking a few years later in Karnow’s footsteps through the Hanoi maze of government offices).
Nevertheless, virtually all the sources you are missing in the Burns/Novick documentary, you will find in abundance in the original PBS-series.  
Compelling interviews with all sides
The 35 year old documentary is by no means outdated. The analysis stands clear and solid, along with in-depth interviews with some of Hanoi’s famous warlords,  General Vo Nguyen Giap, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach.
Representing the US side, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, General William C. Westmoreland, and CIA chief Willam Colby are among those sharing their reflections on the war that led to so much death and suffering in Vietnam and in the US. 
My recommendation to fellow Vietnam nerds, on which documentary to hole up with: Take both of them with you. If this is not enough, both documentaries come with just as compelling book companions, which are equally different in approach.
The Burns/Novick book is glossy and coffee table-size with lots of dramatic color shots.  The text is a quality compilation of works by real Vietnam expert writers.  
Stanley Karnow’s classic is an eminent brick of a book. 800 pages are waiting for you, and once you are done with it, you will be looking for a volume II. 

VIETNAM LAUNCHES ‘ONLINE TROOPS’ FOR CYBER WAR

Vietnam’s Tuoi Tre newspaper have looked into, how the government is stepping up its measures against the perceived dangers of social media, including a 10.000 strong ‘cyber force’ unit, controlled by the army:

“On top of efforts to regulate content on social media, a Vietnamese general has revealed that the country had employed a cyber task force to fight the dissemination of false and derogatory information on the Internet.

Force 47 consists of more than 10,000 “core fighters” against hostile forces in cyberspace, according to Colonel General Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy chairman of the General Political Department of the People’s Army of Vietnam.

“As forces and countries suggest using cyberspace to fuel real war, [Vietnam] should also stay vigilant against wrongful views in every second, minute, and hour,” the three-star general said at a meeting on December 25.

With hostile forces having employed the Internet as a new medium for their effort to sabotage Vietnam, the country’s army has acknowledged that it should ready its forces for warfare in cyberspace alongside the conventional military, Nghia added.”

Click here to read the full story

HANDING DOWN THE PAIN

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US Poet Laren McClung spent a decade collecting the testimonies of fellow writers, who inherited the sufferings of the war in Vietnam from their parents.  A formidable achievement which deserves global attention

The casualties, the suffering, the misery and the destruction. The story has been told so many times about those who fought in Vietnam and those who got caught up in the war. The voices of the immediate victims, combatants and civilians, are all too familiar. We know their numbers must be counted in millions.

Now, there is more, a lot more to be included in our understanding of war and the trauma that follows.

With the 2018 publication of ”Inheriting the War” a new dimension is added to the human price still being paid in Vietnam, the US and elsewhere by thousands of descendants of veterans, civilian victims and refugees all over the world.

The American poet Laren McClung has spent a decade tracing the descendants through their poetry and prose. Her formidable endeavor is now available in 400 pages of compelling reading. 60 poets and authors from around the world has contributed to the book with their personal stories on the impact that the war in Vietnam still has on their lives – more than 40 years after the last combat casualties occurred.

”Even though I wasn’t alive during the war, I have been living through it since I was born,T.K. Le sums up her perspective in a single sentence. Even though she grew up in California in a Vietnamese refugee family, a caucasian coworker jokingly  labels her “Viet Cong” at a cocktail party.

“I could talk to my coworker about how my parents were both refugees and about the life and death decisions they had to make at ages younger than ours. I could talk about the My Lai massacre, about the systematic rape of entire villages that meant even less than “just making a point.” Agent Orange, burning skin, land mine amputees, and all the dead children. But I won’t satisfy her with the gratuitous imagery of a war I never knew.”

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The acclaimed writer Andrew Lam recounts his conversations with a woman, who spent years in one of Hong Kong’s infamous refugee camps:

I ran out of tears so now I just laugh when I can,” she said. Her sons, who share the same history as their mother,now live in Santa Ana, California. Their mother, on the other hand, has become a living ghost.”

The refugee camps in Hong Kong are long gone, but Andrew Lam’s essay The Stories They Carried contains one haunting testimony after another, like the fate of a former officer in the South Vietnamese army, Diep Tran and his son:

When he and his son finally reached Hong Kong, he lacked the USD 3,000 cash demanded by a screening official. In protest, his son, Anh Huy, committed self-immolation in front of the UNHCR official. Tran showed me his son’s photos. One is a smiling teenager. The other is a picture of a burnt, bloodied corpse flanked by grim looking Vietnamese men.

Hanoi based poet Ngu Tu Lap, was too young to fight in the war, but his childhood memories continue to torture him:

 While I played with a snail

In a bomb shelter filled with rain

The women disappeared without a sound

 Thirty years later I still see them

Millions of breasts cut from sufffering bodies

Fallen to earth like young coconuts

Full with milk even in the grave

 Thirty years later they still come back

To prepare the alluvial fields for corn

Their tears falling like crystals.

A FATHER’S WAR NO MORE

Adam Karlin sets out to find his father’s war in Vietnam. Only to find a country, very different from what his father, author Wayne Karlin experienced during the war and described himself in his instant classic Wandering Souls.

Adam Karlin encounters Nha Trang, a former fishing village which is now full of beach resorts ”with pink-faced Russian tourists who throw endless reserves of money and insults at locals.”

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 At the top of Da Nang’s Marble Mountain, Adam Karlin finds the proper place to pay homage to the man, who inadvertently saved his father during the war:

I said a prayer to Jim Childers, a helicopter gunner who switched missions with my dad and was subsequently killed. My father touches his name every time he visits the black wall in Washington D.C.

 Nguyen Phong, etnic Vietnamese, relates a childhood experience in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. He still carries the memory of an old man in the market, who had asked a band of teenage soldiers to leave him alone.

”These Khmer Rouge kids in their war-customes stung like wasps. They seized him by the arms and dragged him into the market, where among the bitter melon and durian, he was clubbed with riffle butts and kicked by twelwe little feet, shod in sandals cut from old tire…

…I had seen a man beating a child before. But never had I seen af child beating man a man. With every strike, the earth seemed to wobble on its axis.”

Once the Khmer Rouge kids were fed up with the beating, one of them killed the old man with his bayonet.

THE AMERICAN DREAM AND THE NIGHTMARE 

Pulitzer prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Symphatizer) offers this observation, as a response to being labelled an ’immigrant writer’:

”Immigrants are the story of the American dream, of American exceptionalism. Refugees are the reminder of the American nightmare, which is how so many who were caught under American bombardment experience the United States….….I had breakfast with a former Vietnamese ambassador in Hanoi and she said that Vietnamese ”boat people” were economic refugees, not political refugees. Probably every single Vietnamese refugee would disagree with her.”

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Cope – An advocacy center for UXO victims in Vientiane, Laos.

 Deborah Paradez, daughter of a US Vietnam veteran, devotes a poem to the omnipresent dangers of UXO’s – unexploded mines and bombs in the entire region. The UXO’s still find their victims all too often in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

In Laos, a farmer digs

for bamboo shoots

and his spade strikes

a cluster bomb

startled from its mud-cradle

At night the hollow poles rise

And answer to the wind.

Who knows how many more will surface by morning.

 

Bao Phi brings us to a scene, he has been carrying with him for years:

 I am teenager, shopping with my mom for groceries at Cub foods. In the parking lot a Vietnam veteran starts shouting at a Hmong family, two parents and two kids. ”I fought for you people, you owe me!” he screams at them. They don’t look at him, they keep walking, their shoulders turn in towards each other as if they are trying to make themselves as small a target as possible. I see this and I want to say something, but I don’t. I feel like an unlit match.

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Ben Quick, son of US veteran, is a second generation Agent Orange victim.

His father patrolled day in and day out in the areas, defoliated by the dioxin-contaminated chemicals, more than 72 million liters were sprayed over Southern Vietnam in a futile attempt to deny the Viet Cong cover and food. After the war, Ben was born with some of the all too typical disfigurements – in his case a deformed hand, which he has been trying to keep out of sight, ever since he became conscious of his handicap:

Lying in bed at night before sleep takes hold, I’ll notice my left hand resting underneath the ruffles of the blanket while my right hand sits bare and comfortable on top. Or I’ll think about a class I’ve taught on a particular morning, coming to a sudden realization that all gesturing and hand-waiving was done with one arm. I will pause for a moment and make a mental note. Sometimes, I will curse.

Ocean Vuong is trying to come to terms with the sudden suicide of his uncle.

There should be tears. There should be a reason. It’s 7:34 PM on New Year’s Eve. I am lying in my kitchen in Astoria, New York, my cheek pressed to the cold tiles. My mother has just called. My child, she says in Vietnamese, her voice barely a gasp, your uncle has killed himself. It was not until she heard herself say those words did she start wailing into the phone. I open my eyes and see only the blue and yellow tiles on the kitchen floor. Little blue flowers on tiny sun-lit fields. When did I fall? Is that my voice? I did not know I could sound like that: Like an animal that just learned the word for God…..

….When someone dies their silence becomes sort of a held note, a key on the piano pressed down for so long it becomes an ache in the ear, a new sonic register from which we start to measure our new, ruptured lives.

 

Karen Spears Zacharias has the final chapter with her essay The Man In The Jeep – a symbol of the dreaded visitors, who came to more than 58.000 American families during the war: The US Army officers who brought the ultimate grievous news from Vietnam to the relatives at home.

Karen recalls her last conversation with her father before he went to war.

”Why are you crying, honey?

”I am scared,” I answered.

”Scared of what?” Daddy walked over and sat down on the edge of my bed.

”That you won’t come home!” I wailed. Like monsoon rains, powerful tears rushed forth.

”Karen,” Daddy said, smoothing matted hair back from my wet cheeks. ”I’ll come back. I promise.”

 …Daddy kept his promise, in a way. He did come back. Via airmail, in a cargo plane full of caskets.

 I am typing these final words during my descent to Hanoi’s Not Bai Airport 1 January, 2018. These days,  B52 bombers have been replaced by Boeing Dreamliners and the competing A 350’s. The SAM anti aircraft missils on the ground have given way to McDonalds, Starbucks and friendly immigration officers.   Better still, The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the USA both benefit from the immense value of their new strategic partnership.

Yet, there are so many people around us, who continues to inherit the suffering of a war that ended more than four decades ago.

I am thinking that this eminent book  does deserve to come out in Vietnamese – for obvious reasons. And in any other language spoken.

 Laren McClung (ed.): Inheriting the war. 415 pages. WW Norton & Co. 2018.