The Vietnam Documentary And Military Lessons

Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, INT 499, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, INT 499, Hoover Institution Archives.

The Military History Working Group at Hoover concentrates upon logic, facts, and trends communicated via the written word. At the same time, more people in all strata of society are basing their judgments upon social media and digital images. Consider: almost 60 million people watched Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank’s Band of Brothers miniseries. Video attracts audiences one thousand times larger than bestselling books.

Movies aim at shaping a visceral emotion, not rational thinking. Directors speak of movie moments, when an actor utters a line that we all remember, such as Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Thus we come to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War, about which the Washington Post trumpeted, “astounding…required viewing.

As catharsis, the documentary is balm for those who opposed the war. War, in this telling, results in nothing. John Kerry and Henry Kissinger emerge as quasi-heroes, alongside an agonized Johnson, an idiotic Westmoreland, and a duplicitous Nixon. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are non-entities, the South Vietnamese feckless, the North Vietnamese stalwart, and American soldiers bewildered. The musical score is haunting, ironic, and doleful, while the American veterans on camera are sad, disillusioned, and rueful.

The emotional effect of the film persuades the viewer that America was predestined to defeat because we had replaced France as a colonial power. The North Vietnamese juggernaut could not be denied by force because they were fighting for independence, while the South Vietnamese leaders were corrupt and the Americans were inferior fighters callous toward the rural southern villagers who aligned with the North. Inevitably, the tide of history doomed America.

Not so fast; an alternative case can be made that our military and political leaders doomed their own mission by strategic confusion and entropy of will. Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford is quoted as telling President Johnson, “We’re not out to win the war. We’re out to win the peace.”1 Such psycho-babble led to baffling negotiations, with war-fighting without a clear objective. We pursued a half-hearted strategy of attrition, which is the lack of strategy. We granted the enemy ground sanctuaries in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. After we withdrew in 1972, Congress forbade all future bombing and slashed aid to the South Vietnamese, while the Soviet Union and China provided heavy weapons to the North. Those actions certainly contributed to the collapse in 1975.

At the conclusion of the 18-hour series, a veteran who fought there in 1965 delivers this peroration, “We have learned a lesson… that we just can’t impose our will on others.”2 What does it portend when that is the enduring message from a documentary lavishly praised and viewed by tens of millions?

The true lesson is that wars should be fought to impose your will upon the enemy. If you don’t intend to accomplish that or if the costs, however enumerated, exceed the gains from the war, don’t fight. But given how we have over 16 years driven backwards into a tribal cul-de-sac in Afghanistan, while Pakistan provides sanctuary for the Taliban’s Islamist extremists, we haven’t learned that lesson.


 Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Vietnam War: An Intimate History (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), p. 298. 

  Ibid., p 565.