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Another point of view…..
Be skeptical of Ken Burns’ documentary: The Vietnam War
by Terry Garlock
Some months ago I and a dozen other local veterans attended a
screening at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta – preview of a new
documentary on The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The
screening was a one hour summation of this 10-part documentary, 18
The series began showing on PBS Sunday Sep 17, and with Burns’
renowned talent mixing photos, video clips and compelling mood music
in documentary form, the series promises to be compelling to watch.
That doesn’t mean it tells the truth.
For many years I have been presenting to high school classes a 90
minute session titled The Myths and Truths of the Vietnam War. One of
my opening comments is, “The truth about Vietnam is bad enough without
twisting it all out of shape with myths, half-truths and outright lies
from the anti-war left.” The overall message to students is advising
them to learn to think for themselves, be informed by reading one
newspaper that leans left, one that leans right, and be skeptical of
Part of my presentation is showing them four iconic photos from
Vietnam, aired publicly around the world countless times to portray
America’s evil involvement in Vietnam. I tell the students “the rest
of the story” excluded by the news media about each photo, then ask,
“Wouldn’t you want the whole story before you decide for yourself what
One of those photos is the summary execution of a Viet Cong soldier in
Saigon, capital city of South Vietnam, during the battles of the Tet
Offensive in 1968. Our dishonorable enemy negotiated a cease-fire for
that holiday then on that holiday attacked in about 100 places all
over the country. Here’s what I tell students about the execution in
Enemy execution by South Vietnam’s Chief of National Police, 1968
“Before you decide what to think, here’s what the news media never
told us. This enemy soldier had just been caught after he murdered a
Saigon police officer, the officer’s wife, and the officer’s six
children. The man pulling the trigger was Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South
Vietnam’s Chief of National Police. His actions were supported by
South Vietnamese law, and by the Geneva Convention since he was an
un-uniformed illegal combatant. Now, you might still be disgusted by
the summary execution, but wouldn’t you want all the facts before you
decide what to think?”
The other one-sided stories about iconic photos I use are a nine year
old girl named Kim Phuc, running down a road after her clothes were
burned off by a napalm bomb, a lady kneeling by the body of a student
at Kent State University, and a helicopter on top of a building with
too many evacuees trying to climb aboard. Each one had only the half
of the story told by news media during the war, the half that
supported the anti-war narrative.
Our group of vets left the Ken Burns documentary screening . . .
disappointed. As one example, all four of the photos I use were shown,
with only the anti-war narrative. Will the whole truth be told in the
full 18 hours? I have my doubts but we’ll see.
On the drive home with Mike King, Bob Grove and Terry Ernst, Ernst
asked the other three of us who had been in Vietnam, “How does it make
you feel seeing those photos and videos?” I answered, “I just wish for
once they would get it right.”
Will the full documentary show John Kerry’s covert meeting in Paris
with the leadership of the Viet Cong while he was still an officer in
the US Naval Reserve and a leader in the anti-war movement? Will it
show how Watergate crippled the Republicans and swept Democrats into
Congress in 1974, and their rapid defunding of South Vietnamese
promised support after Americans had been gone from Vietnam two years?
Will it show Congress violating America’s pledge to defend South
Vietnam if the North Vietnamese ever broke their pledge to never
attack the south? Will it portray America’s shame in letting our ally
fall, the tens of thousands executed for working with Americans, the
hundreds of thousands who perished fleeing in overpacked, rickety
boats, the million or so sent to brutal re-education camps? Will it
show the North Vietnamese victors bringing an influx from the north to
take over South Vietnam’s businesses, the best jobs, farms, all the
good housing, or committing the culturally ruthless sin of bulldozing
grave monuments of the South Vietnamese?
Will Burns show how the North Vietnamese took the city of Hue during
the 1968 Tet Offensive, bringing lists of names of political leaders,
business owners, doctors, nurses, teachers and other “enemies of the
people,” and how they went from street to street, dragging people out
of their homes, and that in the aftermath of the Battle of Hue, only
when thousands of people were missing and the search began did they
find the mass graves where they had been tied together and buried
Will Burns show how America, after finally withdrawing from Vietnam
and shamefully standing by while our ally was brutalized, did nothing
while next door in Cambodia the Communists murdered two million of
their own people as they tried to mimic Mao’s “worker paradise” in
Will Burns show how American troops conducted themselves with honor,
skill and courage, never lost a major battle, and helped the South
Vietnamese people in many ways like building roads and schools,
digging wells, teaching improved farming methods and bringing medical
care where it had never been seen before? Will he show that American
war crimes, exaggerated by the left, were even more rare in Vietnam
than in WWII? Will he show how a naïve young Jane Fonda betrayed her
country with multiple radio broadcasts from North Vietnam, pleading
with American troops to refuse their orders to fight, and calling
American pilots and our President war criminals?
Color me doubtful about these and many other questions.
Being in a war doesn’t make anyone an expert on the geopolitical
issues, it’s a bit like seeing history through a straw with your
limited view. But my perspective has come from many years of
reflection and absorbing a multitude of facts and opinions, because I
was interested. My belief is that America’s involvement in Vietnam was
a noble cause trying to stop the spread of Communism in Southeast
Asia, while it had spread its miserable oppression in Eastern Europe
and was gaining traction in Central America, Africa and other places
around the world. This noble cause was, indeed, screwed up to a
fare-thee-well by the Pentagon and White House, which multiplied
The tone of the screening was altogether different, that our part in
the war was a sad mistake. It seemed like Burns and Novick took
photos, video clips, artifacts and interviews from involved Americans,
South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, civilians from south
and north, reporters and others, threw it all in a blender to puree
into a new form of moral equivalence. Good for spreading a thin layer
of blame and innocence, not so good for finding the truth.
John M. Del Vecchio, author of The 13th Valley, a book considered by
many Vietnam vets to be the literary touchstone of how they served and
suffered in the jungles of Vietnam, has this to say about Burns’
documentary. “Pretending to honor those who served while subtly and
falsely subverting the reasons and justifications for that service is
a con man’s game . . . From a cinematic perspective it will be
exceptional. Burns knows how to make great scenes. But through the
lens of history it appears to reinforce a highly skewed narrative and
to be an attempt to ossify false cultural memory. The lies and
fallacies will be by omission, not by overt falsehoods..”
I expect to see American virtue minimized, American missteps
emphasized, to fit the left-leaning narrative about the Vietnam War
that, to this day, prevents our country from learning the real lessons
from that war.
When we came home from Vietnam, we thought the country had lost its
mind. Wearing the uniform was for fools too dimwitted to escape
service. Burning draft cards, protesting the war in ways that insulted
our own troops was cool, as was fleeing to Canada.
America’s current turmoil reminds me of those days, since so many of
American traditional values are being turned upside down. Even saying
words defending free speech on a university campus feels completely
absurd, but here we are.
So Ken Burns’ new documentary on the Vietnam War promises to solidify
him as the documentary king, breathes new life into the anti-war
message, and fits perfectly into the current practice of revising
history to make us feel good.
Perhaps you will prove me wrong. Watch carefully, but I would advise a
heavy dose of skepticism.
Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City, GA. He was a Cobra helicopter
gunship pilot in the Vietnam War.