Best Defense

‘Vietnam’ 7: Demonstrators to the front

While unfit to comment on the wild student riots that dominate much of Episode 7, I think their importance is overplayed — hugely visual, of course, but overplayed.

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By Charles A. Krohn
Best Defense war TV critic

While unfit to comment on the wild student riots that dominate much of episode 7, I think their importance is overplayed — hugely visual, of course, but overplayed. Maybe they inspired recent campus and city uprisings, but I’m not even sure of that.

The episode starts with Senator Max Cleland’s recollection that President Johnson warned his staff that, “I don’t want no more damn Dien Bien Phus.” The earlier Tet episodes suggest what he got was worse. I later worked for Cleland when he was the chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission, a position later held by retired General Merrill McPeak, appointed by President Barack Obama.

I gather from watching this episode that LBJ worried excessively that any surprises from Vietnam might upset his political agenda, especially since candidate Nixon was charging the administration with strategic incompetence. Indeed, there were wide-spread domestic upheavals manifest in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention. There were also confrontations in Congress and on the campuses, but they were not universal nor long-lived.

Demonstrators demanded that the war stop. What most desired, in my opinion, was not to be drafted and deployed. Frankly, how many students gave a rat’s tail what happened to the Vietnamese people? Are many Americans moved today with the future of the masses in Afghanistan or other countries in the region? Not strangely, once the draft ended so did most of the demonstrations. The Vietnamese dilemma quickly forgotten, suggesting cause-and-effect relationship. Practical, I suppose, but not terribly high minded.

I think the military stuff is more even-handed, although biased toward the Hanoi perspective. When retired Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak says of Vietnam “we were fighting on the wrong side,” I thought he was close to crossing the line, perhaps even the equivalent of soiling himself.  Still, his credentials for making this claim are thin and certainly not evenhanded.  He is aptly described as an able fighter pilot, although then a major and somewhat low on the totem pole. He did fly multiple missions as part of Team Misty attacking targets on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. And I endorse his praise of the brave truck drivers he punished and attacked.

“I had an enormous respect for those truck drivers.” But his claim that we were fighting on the wrong side is only supported by his belief that South Vietnam was too corrupt at all levels to merit our respect. While allegations of corruption are a sub-theme of the series, compared to the relatively purity of those from the North, I believe the treatment of corruption is flawed if not twisted.

I’m also puzzled by his praise of anti-war demonstrations, so many years after the fact. In Episode 8 he asserts that “with all its warts and ups and downs, [demonstrations] produced the America we have today and we’re better for it.… That represented what I was trying to defend.” Really?

ISIS fighters today often seem more inspired than their regional opponents. Yet, it would be unwise to say we’re supporting the wrong side on that account. Further, I think it’s a mistake to constantly harp on corruption as Saigon’s fatal flaw. When South Vietnam fell, it didn’t collapse from the inside because the population was disillusioned with a rotten government. It fell because it was invaded by an overwhelming force, and after we took the war out of their hands.

I also take issue portraying mostly the downsides of the Phoenix Program. The PRUs (Provincial Reconnaissance Units) operated in Go Da Hau District when I was serving as the senior military advisor in 1970-71. When the North tried to overrun the district in 1975, they met fierce resistance in part because the VC (Viet Cong) infrastructure had been weakened earlier. The district commander lived without apparent fear in the city with his wife behind a simple, unguarded bamboo fence. I would walk through the town unarmed and napped on a bridge when the mood struck me. After the North occupied Saigon, 30,000 members of Phoenix disappeared, along with the South Vietnamese Rangers who so stoutly resisted conquest from Hanoi.

LTC Charles A. Krohn, U.S. Army (ret.), is the author of The Lost Battalion of Tet, and a former deputy chief of public affairs both of the Army and the American Battle Monuments Commission. Verily, he abides in Panama City Beach, Florida.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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