On Tuesday September 19, 2017, The New York Post ran an article written by a former Assistant Secretary of Defense, Bing West, titled Missing from Ken Burns’ ‘Vietnam’: The Patriotism and Pride of those who Fought.
Mr West asked a mutual friend to pass on the article to me.
I, in turn, recommend it to you and to others you know who might have an objective interest in our war. It is a benchmark piece.
"To understand Ken Burns’ 18-hour Vietnam documentary, listen to the music. The haunting score tells you: This will be a tale of misery. And indeed, Burns and his co-author Geoffrey C. Ward conclude their script by writing, “The Vietnam War was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable. But meaning can be found in the individual stories . . .”
The film is meticulous in the veracity of the hundreds of factoids that were selected. Everything depicted on the American side actually happened. But that the chosen facts are accurate doesn’t mean the film gets everything right. Indeed, the brave American veterans are portrayed with a keen sense of regret and embarrassment about the war, a distortion that must not go unanswered. And the film implies an unearned moral equivalence between antiwar protesters and those who fought.
Burns’ theme is clear: A resolute North Vietnam was predestined to defeat a delusional America that heedlessly sacrificed its soldiers. The film follows a chronological progression, beginning in the ’40s. Right from the start, harrowing combat footage from the ’60s is inserted to remind the audience that a blinkered America is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the French colonialists. The main focus of the documentary is the period of fierce fighting from late 1965 to 1972.
Against a gripping assortment of close-up photos and combat video, dozens of American and Vietnamese voices offer snippets of personal insights about history, geopolitics, families, ideologies, politics, battles, casualties and, above all, frustrations.
Most of the interviewees talk in the lugubrious tones of the defeated. We all know the story ends badly. But when it’s over, we aren’t told why we lost. The music is more memorable than the pictures, and the pictures are more compelling than the narration. We are deluged by sights and sounds but not enlightened as to cause and effect.
An American lieutenant who fought there in 1965 is quoted at the end of the film saying, “We have learned a lesson . . . that we just can’t impose our will on others.” While that summarizes the documentary, the opposite is true. Wars are fought to impose your will upon the enemy. If you don’t intend to win, don’t fight.
Our civilian and military leaders were grossly irresponsible. At the height of the war in 1968, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford is quoted as telling President Lyndon Johnson, “We’re not out to win the war. We’re out to win the peace.” That is giving up. Our senior leadership granted the enemy ground sanctuaries in Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam and bombing was severely restricted.
The North Vietnamese were superb light infantry. The film points out that we grunts called the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) the ‘Dead Marine Zone’ because we were pounded from North Vietnam and forbidden to attack. The real lesson: Never fight on the enemy’s terms.
The documentary includes a modicum of footage about the South Vietnamese military. The South Vietnamese soldiers I fought alongside were brave and determined. Yet in 1973, sick of the war, Congress forbade any further bombing in Southeast Asia. Military aid to South Vietnam was slashed, while Soviet-built tanks and Chinese-made artillery poured into North Vietnam. It is moot whether South Vietnam could have survived had our aid continued. But the video of our panicked final pull-out in 1975 is flat-out depressing.
The film casts the antiwar movement in a moderately favorable light. Air Force pilot Merrill McPeak (who retired as a four-star general) is quoted as saying, “the antiwar movement itself, the whole movement towards racial equality, the environment, the role of women . . . produced the America we have today, and we are better for it.” Why are the protesters the real heroes here? What about the valiant US soldiers, 75 percent of whom were volunteers?
This documentary succeeds in vividly evoking sadness and frustration. But that is not all there was to the story. “The Vietnam War” strives for a moral equivalence where there is none. The veterans selected to speak are sad and detached for their experience, yet 90 percent of Vietnam War veterans are proud to have served. So there’s a large gap between what we see and the attitude of the vast majority of veterans.
Their sense of pride — so vital for national unity — is absent from the documentary. And that’s a glaring omission."
Bing West is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA) and Princeton University (MA), where he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow.[
West was an infantry officer in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. He led the mortar platoon of 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines. Later, he served with a Combined Action Platoon that fought for 485 days in a remote village. He was also a member of the Marine Force Reconnaissance team that initiated "Operation Stingray": small unit attacks behind enemy lines.
He authored a study at the RAND Corporation entitled "The Strike Teams: Tactical Performance and Strategic Potential". This paper was the featured event at the 1970 Department of Defense Counterinsurgency Research and Development Symposium. The RAND Military Systems Simulations Group implemented a classified model of West's concept. This doctrinal innovation was directly opposed by Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), which favored the Army's concept of Air-Mobility "Fire and Thunder Operations".
By way of rebuttal, West wrote The Village, chronicling the daily lives of 15 Marines who protected Vietnamese villagers by living among them in their hamlets. The book became a classic of practical counterinsurgency and has been on the Marine Corps Commandant’s Required Reading List for five decades.
West served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Ronald Reagan administration, and chaired the United States Security Commissions with El Salvador, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, South Korea, and Japan.
Among other awards, West is the recipient of the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Medal, the Department of the Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, and Tunisia's Medaille de Liberté. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Infantry Order of St. Crispin, he appears frequently on C-SPAN and The News Hour on PBS.
West is the author of ten books. His collaboration with retired Marine Major General Ray "E-Tool" Smith, The March Up, was awarded the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation's General Wallace M. Greene, Jr. Award for non-fiction, as well as the William E. Colby Award for military history. West also authored a foreword for Boredom by Day, Death by Night: An Iraq War Journal by Marine Sergeant Seth Conner. The Veterans of Foreign Wars presented West with its National Media Award in 2005, after he wrote the book No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah. His book The Strongest Tribe, is a history of the Iraq War that was a New York Times Best Seller and was ranked by Foreign Affairs magazine as #7 among the top foreign policy books of 2009. Into the Fire ranked #8 on the New York Times Best Seller List.