Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War wants to be the Vietnam War’s version of The World at War, that comprehensive account (from the Allied point of view, anyway) of World War II. Vietnam‘s 26 episodes offer a pretty thorough accounting of the war, from the French involvement in 1945 right through the fall of Saigon 30 years later. But the series is hampered by its relentlessly US-centric worldview, which offers a dozen or more American talking heads for every Vietnamese who is allowed to speak (and who more often than not, with the exception of Ha Van Lau, speak the US party line anyway).
While The World at War remains for many the definitive account of the Second World War, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War will likely be something of a stopgap until a more thorough accounting can be compiled. This isn’t to say that the series is without value. As someone born in 1963, I grew up when the war was escalating—500,000 American troops were in the country by 1966—and I remember watching the scenes from Saigon as US helicopters lifted off the roof of the embassy, signalling the final American defeat. But the motivations and logistics of the war have always eluded me, and I had hoped that watching this series would remedy that.
To some degree it has. I didn’t know, for example, that Communist leader Ho Chi Minh was a veteran of the long struggle to free the country from French colonial rule, or that after comprehensively defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu, the country’s partition was intended to last only two years. Following this, there was to be a nationwide election to decide whether the nationalist/Communist leadership in the north would take power, or the westernized leadership based in the southern city of Saigon. Needless to say, this referendum never took place; the South appealed to the US for assistance and advisors, and the US responded. The North, seeing this response as an act of aggression and interference, began a program of infiltration across the border. These infiltratons escalated as did American assistance, and the whole slippery-slope contours of the war began to take shape.
The documentary is breathtakingly blasé about the legitimate grievances that the Vietnamese had. There is no mention whatever of the eye-watering irony that France, a nation that had just been occupied by the Nazis for five years until liberated by the Allies, immediately set about in turn occupying a far distant country for no reason other than nationalistic pride and economic exploitation. Ho Chi Minh is presented as a radical, albeit a popular one, but his legitimate arguments in favor of freedom are absent. He is simply a Communist, and as such a person to be resisted and never trusted.
Political developments are filtered through the American lens, as well. There is much time devoted to Presidents Johnson and Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissenger and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; General William Westmoreland gets several chances to explain his futile strategic moves. But their counterparts on the other side are never heard from. Even if they were unwilling to appear in the documentary (as seems likely), surely there are TV broadcasts and press conferences, official speeches and so forth that could provide their point of view?
Such silence is not accidental. This series would have been better entitled America’s Vietnam, as it is less concerned with the the war over there than with how the war over there affected us over here. This is a legitimate area of concern, but it’s not the whole story. It is, however, most of what the filmmakers (and perhaps a large part of their audience) care about.
Even episodes that ostensibly focus on the Vietnamese experience, such as “The Trail”, tend to emphasize how events made things more or less difficult for the Americans. How else to explain Westmoreland’s being asked to sketch the psychology of the NVA soldier, rather than members of the NVA themselves? (For that matter, it would be enlightening indeed to hear NVA fighters commenting upon the psychology of the “typical” American GI.) The bias is reflected in the narration as well. A typical statement: “Cutting the Ho Chi Minh trail is seen as the key to ending the war”. Well, that was how the Americans saw it. For the North Vietnamese, as well as their legions of South Vietnamese sympathizers, the key to ending the war was to keep killing Americans until they finally went away.
There are some things the series does well. The broad outlines of the conflict are presented clearly—Dien Bien Phu, the American escalation, the Tet Offensive, Nixon’s expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos. It’s invaluable to hear people talking who were active at the time, such as Arthur Schlesinger and his critique of Westmoreland. The series was originally made in the 1980s, just a few years after the fall of Saigon, when many of the key (American) players were still alive and ready to talk. Add to this the comments from US veterans of the conflict, including Tim O’Brien (who would later write The Things They Carried), and a collage of experiences begins to grow into a large, amorphous but compelling picture.
Despite this, the relative dearth of Vietnamese voices cannot be overlooked. This was, after all, that nation’s War of Independence. They won, we lost. Surely that fact alone is enough to warrant the inclusion of more than just one or two voices from the “other” side. Will those voices ever be heard over here? We can hope. Just as we can hope that, when the next documentary is made about American’s latest futile, endless war, the filmmakers will take the trouble to listen to a few more voices—from Afghanistan, that time.