I watched the ten-part series, “The Vietnam War” (TVW), now made available at SBS online. This is a powerful analysis of this almost grotesque tragedy that influenced my own thinking greatly as a young man. It changed me into a person who thought politically. 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 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 because they do stupid things. 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 did become clear to me as a consequence of viewing 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, the difficulties were understood by all three of the US presidents who were concerned with operating most of the war – John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. All were repeatedly advised on the low probability of anything approximating a reasonable outcome from US military efforts. 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. Kennedy had the same understanding – at least as a young politician. The American people and the unfortunate troops sent to fight in Vietnam 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 selfish ethic was in force right up to the final point where Nixon did withdraw US forces. Nixon’s dishonest role in extending this conflict is well-documented in this series. The final rapid US withdrawal and the subsequent collapse of US military equipment 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. Given past US mistakes there was no simple way to extract itself from this quagmire without imposing huge costs on the South.
The TWV documentary certainly makes it clear that this war 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 cops still 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 on the part of the Vietnamese. Both sides of the 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 tragedy of the Vietnam war obviously devastated Vietnam but also changed the west. It changed me.
The series is available on SBS online for the next few weeks. Well worth viewing.