I watched the ten-part series on “The Vietnam War” (TVW) made available on SBS online. This is a powerful series on this almost grotesque tragedy that influenced my own thinking greatly as a young man. I opposed the American run war and Australia’s participation in it during my final high school years and most of my years of study at university. I was an active participant in the Vietnam Moratorium movement and faced the real prospect of being drafted to fight in Vietnam. The war changed my politics simply by forcing me to question basic tacit assumptions about supposed democratic governments. I came to reject the naive, adolescent notion that citizens can rely on central governments to behave honestly and decently. They cannot. Governments tell lies on important issues of life and death and take monumentally foolish decisions that reflect their own selfish interests.
Generally, my view as a youth was that Australia had no business in fighting in this war and that by doing so we were increasing human suffering not improving things. I don’t seek to revise these views at all but one new aspect of the war does become clear to me from this excellent documentary: A sound and sensible pragmatic reason for opposing participation in this conflict was that there was no possible way the Americans could “win” this non-conventional civil war. Given the anonymity of the respective sides and the negative spillovers from wrongly persecuting the innocent this was a hopeless military task. Indeed, this was understood by all three of the US presidents largely concerned with operating the war – John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. All were repeatedly advised on the low probability of anything approximating a reasonable outcome. Moreover, this advice came from advisors who were, initially at least, hawkish on the war. Robert McNamara for example argued that even with a massive buildup of US forces in Vietnam, the chances of victory were very low. John F. Jennedy had the same understanding – at least as a young politician. The American people were sold lies by their presidents simply because of electoral considerations and the need to avoid being the “first US president to lose a war”. This splendid speech by returned marine, John Kerry, makes it clear that this ethic was in force right up to the final point where Nixon did withdraw US forces. The final rapid withdrawal and the collapse of US military support to the South Vietnamese army did seem cowardly given the past actions of the US but given the sunk costs it probably minimized the consequent very considerable suffering experienced by those who opposed the northern communists.
The TWV documentary certainly makes it clear that this was, on both sides, a savage conflict that was immensely costly in terms of loss of life and human suffering. More generally it is a powerful anti-war film. It also reminded me of the links between this war and the racial divides and of the militarization of security services inside the United States. The killings at Kent State University by US National Guardsmen and the brutality of their attacks on protesters in Chicago’s Democratic Convention in 1968 drove ongoing and, as yet, unresolved social changes that changed America. Cops in the US are still killing innocent black people and patrol US cities like paramilitary forces.
The interviews with Vietnamese war participants and their families were a key part of this documentary. There was both savagery and a great deal of intelligent compassion. Both sides of this conflict incurred huge human costs but, in terms of aggregated loss of life and suffering, most of the pain was experienced by the people of Vietnam. Also valuable was the discussion of the moderating role that Ho Chi Minh played in the northern communist movement and, of course, his early impassioned plea to the Americans to help Vietnam secure its independence from the French after WW2. The beginning of the Cold War thwarted that initiative that could otherwise have saved several million lives.
The series is available on SBS online for the next few weeks. Well worth viewing.