Maclear’s Vietnam

AMERICAN MASS CULTURE tends to be about the world as we’d like it to be, one in which goodness and reason prevail, where things almost always work out for the best. Canadian mass culture, on the other hand, is much more about the real world, one that’s frequently hard and unfair, the world of Goin’ Down the Road, say. No wonder Canadians prefer American mass culture. As T.S. Eliot said, “human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.”

There’s no doubt that American culture is more exciting. The Americans put men on the moon and send hundreds of thousands to fight for ‘freedom’ in South Vietnam. Canadians, on the other hand, do the odd bit of peacekeeping in Cyprus, or wherever. And we’re pretty good at sitting back and observing, notebooks and cameras always ready to record what’s going on. It’s appropriate, therefore, that it was a Canadian-born journalist, Morley Safer of CBS News, who in August, 1965, first alerted American television viewers to the horror of what was happening in Vietnam. Safer showed U.S. marines trying to set fire to a peasant village using cigarette lighters, and in the process successfully capturing four bewildered old men. (One outraged viewer was Lyndon Johnson. He was certain Safer must be a Communist and ordered a security check. Informed that Safer wasn’t a Communist, just a Canadian, he commented, “Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.”)

It was another Canadian journalist, Michael Maclear, then of the CBC, who in 1969 became the only Western correspondent to attend the funeral of Ho Chi Minh. A year later Maclear was the first reporter to interview American prisoners of war. His interviews caused a sensation in the U.S. Now Maclear and an independent Canadian production team headed by Ian McLeod have pulled off an even more remarkable journalistic coup. They obtained exclusive access to film from Hanoi’s military archives and succeeded in interviewing many of the major political and military participants on all sides of the conflict; using footage from a number of other archives, and a script by the fine New Zealand journalist, Peter Arnett, they have put together as fair and comprehensive a TV documentary on the war in Vietnam as we’re likely to get.

The Ten Thousand Day War consists of twenty-six half hour programmes. The series begins in 1945, when Ho Chi Minh’s army, having defeated the Japanese, turns its guns against the returning French colonial forces. The events that follow — Dien Bien Phu, the introduction of American advisors into South Vietnam, the assassination of Diem, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, My Lai, Khe Sanh, the Tet offensive, the bombing of Hanoi — all seem to lead inevitably to the North Vietnamese victory parade in Saigon in 1975.

Unfortunately, English-Canadian viewers, unlike viewers in Québec and elsewhere, weren’t allowed to see the whole series. Claiming a shortage of time slots, the CBC English network scheduled just fifteen episodes. After seeing and/or reading scripts for all twenty-six programmes, I’m convinced the CBC’s decision was a mistake. For one thing, the CBC version begins in 1954 rather than 1945. Not only have 3300 days of war gone by, but an important piece of information is lost to the viewer — the fact that a close military relationship existed at the end of the Second World War between Ho Chi Minh’s forces and the Americans, who were actually helping train the Vietminh. At that point Ho Chi Minh saw the U.S. as a potential ally who might help prevent the French from reclaiming Vietnam as a colonial preserve.

That’s but one of the fascinating bits of information the series offers those of us who have perhaps come to think of the war in more simplistic terms. We learn that North Vietnam’s attempts at land reform were brutal; as many as 50,000 landowners were executed. That South Vietnamese peasants on whose behalf the war was fought were continually being ‘resettled’ and taxed by both sides; by 1967 there were already 1.25 million refugees. That Diem tried to rid South Vietnam of corruption, prostitution and gambling until a gangster organization sent an army against him. That 5,000 American soldiers were wounded in action in 1971, but four times that number were in hospital for drug abuse. That the most deadly North Vietnamese landmine was called the “Bouncing Betty”; it was designed to injure the upper legs and testicles. That in 1969 alone there were 126 ‘fraggings’, murders of unpopular American officers by their own men.

The conspiracy view of history remains popular these days — largely as a result of Vietnam. I myself subscribe to the stupidity view of history; stupidity, I think, is a much underrated commodity in human affairs. Far more is wrought by bumbling than by all the planners and conspirators; Maclear’s series bears this out. It was widely assumed, for example, that Diem was a puppet of the U.S. The trouble is that (like Thieu later) Diem didn’t see himself as a puppet. A devout Catholic, he thought it reasonable to persecute Buddhists. The Buddhists revolted and some of their priests publicly burned themselves to death in protest. Members of Diem’s family made fun of the ‘barbecue’. The Americans were shocked and tried to smooth the situation over. But in the end, things were so badly botched that Diem and his brother were assassinated (with help from the CIA), much to horror of the American army and a naive JFK, who was himself assassinated three weeks later.

Each of the American poltical and military figures interviewed rationalizes his own conduct and places responsibility for what went wrong on others. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. again plays the part of Kennedy apologist. He blames the military for America’s failure in Vietnam. “General Westmoreland,” he says, “was the most disastrous American general since Custer.” Westmoreland says he could have won the war if it hadn’t been for dumb political decisions — and the media. Dean Rusk blames the media too. “What would have happened in World War II,” he asks, if Guadalcanal and the Anzio Beachhead and the Battle of the Bulge or the Dieppe raid were on TV?”

Apocalypse Now describes the war in vietnam from the point of view of American GIs. Its primary source was Michael Herr’s Dispatches. The Ten Thousand Day War tells the story using official sources such as The Pentagon Papers and the Hanoi military archives. Nonetheless, some of the most interesting and moving interviews are with ordinary soldiers. “I was a medic,” says one. “I had an unlimited supply of morphine. Morphine’s a pain killer. I was in pain. Emotional pain.”

The film footage, as one might expect, varies a great deal in quality, but then it wasn’t shot by the cinematographer of Apocalypse Now. The North Vietnamese film is all in black nd white, much of it on poor stock, some of it scratched. But the content is what matters. We see Ho Chi Minh delivering a victory statement after the defeat of the Japanese. Vietnamese soldiers prepare for Dien Bien Phu by drgging 200 heavy guns an inch at a time, half a mile a day, through fifty miles of mountain road. After the battle 10,000 French prisoners begin a forced march into captivity that only one in two will survive. The whole of North Vietnamese society remains geared for war through all these years: the pictures schoolchildren draw are of guns and parachutes; hundreds of thousands of civilians — mostly women — are mobilized into work gangs. The Ho Chi Minh Trail uses every conceivable kind of transportation — elephants and people, bicycles and sampans — to funnel war material south; but despite ceaseless bombing, the trail continues to be as busy as “the Long Island expressway during rush hour”, as one commentator puts it.

Because it’s hard to know what’s going on amid all the smoke and shooting, actual war footage is almost always less interesting than footage of all the other things that make up a war. Happily, Michael Maclear and Ian McLeod seem to agree. So we get to see some soldiers toking through a rifle barrel and others calmly placing an ace of spades in a corpse’s mouth. We see Bobbie the “Bubbling Bundle of Barometric Brilliance” doing the U.S. weather on Vietnam’s Armed Forces’ television station. “Have a pleasant evening weather-wise and… of course, otherwise,” she says, wiggling her ass at us. When Saigon finally falls in 1975, we see South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians looting while others welcome the North Vietnamese troops.

Appropriately, the closing shots in the final programme in the series are scenes of boat people — a reminder that although the war of independence is over, for many Vietnamese the horror continues.

— Saturday Night, November 1980

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