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A Tale of Two Critics

Previewing the Burns/Novick PBS Vietnam documentary

Born in Hanoi, where her father was “a former high government official in the French colonial administration,” the Catholic family ‘followed the Virgin Mary south” after the French defeat in the First Indochina War. Her sister, however, remained in the north and joined the Viet Minh. “This has allowed Elliott,” writes Bass, “to insist – as she does repeatedly in her public appearances – that Vietnam was ‘a civil war.’ The war divided families like her, but anti-colonialist fighters against colonialist sympathizers do not constitute a civil war,” any more than in the American Revolution where Tories supported the British against the patriots.
The photo below was lifted from my 1963 Georgetown University year book, the year Mai graduated from the Foreign Service School, two years my senior.

 Interrogater for US forces in Vietnam and 'objective' source in Ken Burns' epic PBS Vietnam documentaryDuong Van Mai: Interrogater for US forces in Vietnam and 'objective' source in Ken Burns' epic PBS Vietnam documentary

“Once Lansdale is erased from the history of the Vietnam War,” observes Bass with some disgust, “we settle into watching eighteen hours of carnage, interspersed with talking-head testimonials… More than eighty people were interviewed over the ten years they gathered material… Funded by Bank of America and David Koch and other corporate sponsors… the film relies heavily on former generals, CIA agents and government officials, who are not identified by rank or title, but merely by their names…” As the credits roll, we will learn that here we find that the war’s architects have had their say in the film, even if they are not likely to get much attention after the series is shown. As I said above, we all know that no one today supports the Vietnam War. It is only in exploring whether the war was a mistake or a crime that the debate will revolve.

My summary of Bass’s essay is only inadequately presented here. The true value in “America’s Amnesia” will be gained by those who give it a careful reading, and pass it along as widely as possible in their own networks. I should not overlook, however, the positive note that Bass found “in the film’s best narrative gambit… its reliance on writers and poets, the two key figures being Bao Ninh and Tim O’Brien. But what if,” muses Bass, the two storied writers “had been allowed to meet each other [in the film]? Their reminiscing would have brought the meaningless mayhem of the war into the present. And instead of its search for closure, and healing reconciliation, what if the film had reminded us that US special forces are currently operating in 194 countries representing 70% of the world?”

Michael Uhl is the author of 'The War I Survived Was Vietnam: Collected Writings of a Veteran and Antiwar Activist'. He contributed this article to ThisCantBeHappening!

story | by Dr. Radut