Burns and Novick’s ‘Vietnam’ 6: Macabre, mostly
The sixth episode of the series shows us where the war's bloody unwinding began.
By Charles A. Krohn
Best Defense war TV critic
When I was serving in Vietnam on my second tour in 1970 and 1971, the Army advisory team I headed borrowed porn films nightly from a Navy patrol base on the river near our compound in Tay Ninh Province on the Cambodian border. After a couple of weeks, no one seemed interested in watching them anymore, gazing mindlessly at endless variations of humorless sex.
Endless images of dead wounded about to die shown in this episode remind me watching porn. There’s only so much one can tolerate after the early moments of excitement fade.
Maybe my indifference to this episode is the result of seeing many bodies myself during the Tet ’68 Offensive. I dutifully helped recover a few ripe corpses of comrades who had been hastily buried in a rice paddy near Que Son for nearly a week. Please believe I’ve seen enough death in my lifetime to last a lifetime.
This isn’t to suggest the episode isn’t engaging. The narrator makes one believe we’re watching the action live.
There is one unsettling commentator, a former Marine, who confesses that during the Hue battle he and others had sex with a young Vietnamese woman. He says it was consensual, a dubious claim considering the circumstances. It isn’t hearing about this that bothers me, it’s the fact it happened.
As the Tet Offensive unwinds, it’s easy to feel compassion, even pity, for LBJ. He obviously is following news from the front closely, even having a scale model of the Khe Shan outpost installed in the White House, fearing it might become another Dien Bien Phu. One can hardly blame him. We know now that the NVA intended to feed American decision-makers information that would lead them to reposition troops to the borders from cities they intended to attack. Regardless, they attacked everywhere and anywhere, unsuccessfully in the long run. Their casualties were widely disproportionate, considering the failed and costly results — except for American public opinion, where image counts as much or more than facts.
As news from Vietnam shatters confidence at home, riots and demonstrations rock America. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King are killed, sending many into a deep funk along both racial and political divides. None of the assurances from LBJ’s key subordinates that victory is around the corner have a long shelf-life; the NVA never seem to weaken, much less give up their struggle. The narrator observes, “the world seems to be falling apart.”
(The actually battle in Hue is reported in Mark Bowden’s book, Hue ’68: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. Details of Army involvement absent in the Vietnam series thus far are covered in some detail, partially drawing from my first-hand account, The Lost Battalion of Tet.)
After Tet, LBJ agreed to ship Westmoreland only 13,500 more troops, against the 206,000 he requested to bolster his force — and replace heavy casualties. In May 1968 2,400 Americans are killed in action, many more wounded.
At the end of his tether, LBJ also ceases bombing most of North Vietnam and pleads for negotiations, later declaring he won’t seek reelection. Walter Cronkite, the nation’s most trusted uncle, announces to the world on CBS that Americans have lost the war and should seek honorable negotiations. Few noted we don’t do well negotiating under duress. From a military perspective, however, not winning is losing. Politicians getting themselves off the hook may disagree.
I applaud Burns and Novick’s candor in this episode. They note that while we seem to be losing on every front in Vietnam, the war goes on for another seven years. They also include a speaker sympathetic to the NVA who confesses that there was indeed a blood bath in Hue orchestrated by Hanoi to kill all real and potential political opponents after the city was first occupied. We know now that the graves of some 2,800 were uncovered after the NVA departed Hue at the end of February. All were executed, most shot but some buried alive, and not just in Hue. Without this confession, the Vietnam series would be incomplete and badly distorted.
An essential part of Hanoi’s strategy was to kill by any means possible government officials, indeed anyone loyal to the Saigon government. Those who celebrate Hanoi’s final victory in 1975 would do well to remember this. It is a lamentable legacy, by any standard.
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. He makes his home in Panama City Beach, Florida.
Photo credit: NATIONAL ARCHIVES/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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