Thom Stoddert 

Agent Orange Clearing the Confusion
A US "tunnel rat" soldier prepares to enter a Viet Cong tunnel.

By Thom Stoddert

  The following notes on the recent PBS documentary by Ken Burns were written by a Marine Corp combat photographer who served in Vietnam. His notes came to me via another Marine whom I greatly respect, having written several successful books about Vietnam, as well as being a former recon medic. I edited in italics to make things clearer to non-Vietnam vet readers and for publishing brevity. Having never met the author, I wish I could.

 “Now that it's finished, let's talk about the "balance" that Burns promised. Of  20 or so US vets, four of them were VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against War a left wing political group, not a veteran’s organization) members, and six of the others had very negative views of the war.   

  Those critical of the war got by far the most talking time. Some of the others got very short cameos or only spoke of their personal experiences and no comments about what they thought about the war.   

  Only a couple of comments by Willbanks, the CIA guy, and Herrington were at all positive about our involvement. This is a balanced view of what vets say, feel, remember? 

  Of the Vietnamese quoted at length, we have the woman who left the North as a young girl, then left in '75, who had essentially nothing good to say about RVN (Republic of Vietnam -  democratic) or the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) or any part of the history. And the guy who was a protester in Saigon, who fled to the USA and is a judge here,  also had nothing positive to say about anything; he only saw his brother's death as something stupid.  

  Of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who came here they could not find any with positive views of RVN and the rightness of their cause of resisting the takeover by the North? They interviewed 5 or 6 VC (Viet Cong, communist) or NVA (North Vietnamese Army, communist) vets, and gave them a lot of time. They talked to 3 ARVN, none of them got much time at all, even though two of them spent lots of years in "re-education".

  That great Paris (peace negotiations that lasted for years while thousands died on all sides) agreement that we forced RVN to sign left 145,000 NVA in the South, and that was OK? I know the pilot who flew Nguyen Cao Ky (former president of RVN) to Paris for the signing (of the peace treaty to end the war), and he was weeping in the plane because he knew the agreement was really a death knell for RVN. But hey, part of the agreement was the promise of Hanoi to never invade the South again, as they had in '72. That should have made things safe, right?

  The buildup for the final invasion started planning before the ink was dry, they built paved highways into the South with convoys of 200 trucks at a time bringing down huge masses of materiel for the giant bases being built in Laos and Cambodia to stage the invasion.

  Then there's the claim that the great majority of Americans were no longer supporting the war at all. Certainly, support was down, but there were still many who understood we had pledged to support the South, that the North was a client of Russia and China, and communism was a bad thing. But with Nixon gone and much of Congress responding to the media and the antiwar movement's pressures, plus the fact that an awful lot of people had just burned out on the whole thing and wanted to move on to other things in the news, the commitment faded away. The flow of supplies was narrowed way down, and the real killer was the prohibition by Congress of any air power use by the USA in Viet Nam. That was the final nail in the coffin of RVN.

  So the trial attack started, no reaction from us, the second attack, no reaction, and then it was “Katie-bar-the-door.” The huge columns of tanks started smashing their way in a very well planned and executed three pronged attack of 18 divisions. And now is when there are a few appearances of ARVN about how bad things were. And Burns even mentions the Convoy of Tears, but doesn't quite cover the fact that it was the massed NVA artillery that slaughtered tens of thousands there.

  They show the interview with the general at Xuan Loc (RVN), but don't do the courtesy of identifying him, he was Le Minh Dao, a great general whose 18th Division held off three NVA divisions for 12 days of super intense fighting, until there were only a fraction of them remaining and ammo was about gone. Then the general surrendered to them to save lives, and refused evacuation to the USA. His devotion to honor got him 18 years in re-education, the longest of any. (He lives now in Connecticut.)

  “No bloodbath,” Burns says. Really? Somewhere between 50-70,000+ executed as "criminals" and "blood debt", 1.3 million or more in "re-education" for years of starvation, overwork, and brutality that brought on a substantial death rate, and that doesn't count? There was the seizure of most property of anyone involved with the government at all, and from religious bodies as well, like the Catholics, Cao Dai, and others. And the cancellation of all pensions, including the population of badly crippled ARVN vets, plus the bulldozing of ARVN cemeteries in a culture where the graves of your family are really sacred…

  Lastly, it's nice that the antiwar woman now regrets the vicious nastiness of the antiwar people towards us coming home. But it's a bit late...

  Overall, this is a terribly frustrating series for me and many others. It has some really good history in it, but the false parts, the omissions, the partial information, and above all, the slant on who spoke about what, make it so flawed that it hurts to know that for many it will be hailed as a great piece of work that really tells everyone what they need to know about those events. A whole lot of us know better, but trying to fight the combined media and academia and leftist establishment is like shoveling crap against the tide. Still, we all need to remain as witnesses to the truth.
  As was said by the CIA guy, sometimes the good guys don't win, but that doesn't mean they weren't fighting for the right cause.”

  What do the Vietnamese living here think about the PBS documentary? – “I just watched some of the film, but I’m really upset because the film is not fair for Vietnamese People living in the South Vietnam (VN), they have been suffering since the time of the fall of Saigon on April 30-1975, especially the film hurts the former soldiers of the Republic of VN and Vietnam Veterans. We sacrificed to fight against the invasion of the communists, we fought to protect our properties, our home and fought for our freedom as well, but the film director did not mention anything relating to our righteousness. In my point of view, in the past, we lost the VN War because of media and anti-war people. Today, we’re going to lose our righteousness because of Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary film. Definitely, the film really hurts us - I do not want to watch it, neither be interviewed by anyone.” Tony Ton, 15 years in a re-education camp.

  The above notes that are so well articulated are an example of how Congress can act so cowardly, the lack of reliability of a major media outlet, and how the mythology of that war continues today. I fear it may also be a warning to younger vets from more recent conflicts. From personal experiences in the past, I don’t believe PBS gives a rat’s ass – they have their own agenda.

The Ken Burns PBS “Documentary” of the Vietnam War

Thom Stoddert
Thom Stoddert
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