Definitive For Americans: A Refugee's Review of 'The Vietnam War'
I am a Vietnamese American, a refugee, and I grew up learning about the Vietnam War the same way most people do here: through movies like Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July and Forrest Gump, and during the brief amount of time spent on the war in history classes. Everything I learned focused on American lives lost and on how the war divided America. No one dwelled on Vietnamese lives lost. People talked about Vietnam as an object, a strategy, a source of tragic upheaval. There was no idea of it without war.
My family had been refugees twice. The first time was in 1954, when they left Hanoi for Saigon. Then my father and his three brothers became soldiers in the South Vietnamese Army. They weren’t high-ranking officials who might have been promised evacuation (promises, we now know, that would have been hollow). Yet on April 29, 1975, the night before the end of Saigon, they found a way out — a boat on the river that would take them to a naval ship in the South China Seas.
We became refugees. I was 8 months old; my sister was 2 years old. We would grow up in the American Midwest, with another language and culture.
Imagine realizing you have to leave your country. Not just your house and home but your entire country. Imagine leaving in the night, in a city gripped with panic and chaos. You don’t know where you will go or if you will even survive. But you know that it is safer to try than it is to stay. So you leave everything you’ve known. You take what you can and you go.
I told myself I had to watch The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick because it would surely be hailed as “definitive” (which it has been by several reviewers) and because I needed to understand what much of America would think and see as “definitive.” I didn’t want to watch. I didn’t want to face what I knew would come: 18 hours that focused mainly on (white) American pain and relegated Vietnamese people, as ever, to being secondary in their own story.
Most people in the United States who, like me, have ideas of Vietnam informed by Hollywood, are used to seeing Vietnamese people depicted and referred to as gooks, violent guerillas, and whores. This is so expected that I fear it’s what people actually believe.
The Vietnam War doesn’t quite dispel this notion, but Burns and Novick do bring in commentary from both North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese people. This inclusion of Vietnamese voices has been lauded, but maybe that’s because prior texts on the war are so lacking in Vietnamese voices that any inclusion is seen as a profound advancement. Still, the film heavily favors white American voices. And while it doesn’t avoid violence, it does try to avoid discussing inherent racism on the part of the Americans and, except for a section on My Lai, issues of sexual assault, rape, and the treatment of women. It mentions, in one sentence, the thousands of half-American children who were left in Vietnam after U.S. troops left.
I keep saying to people that the documentary should be subtitled “The American Experience” (or more accurately, “The Mostly White American Experience”). But perhaps that would be redundant. I do not think that the filmmakers intended offense, in the way that most good liberals never intend offense. It’s more that their perspective is so trenchant, so supported, that they seem to have had no need to reconsider it.
So I watched the first episode as it premiered. Within the first ten minutes, the filmmakers opt for a strange reverse-sequence of events. We see the famous image of the naked, napalmed Vietnamese girl, running backward instead of forward. We see helicopters coming up from the water instead of being pushed into it. I suppose these reversed moments could be seen as a literal notion of rewind, a way to start at the beginning. But the visual result is awkward and even accidentally mocking. The rest of the episode is worse. At first, it seems that the filmmakers will provide a history of Vietnam, possibly covering the complicated history of colonization. Yet the filmmakers interject this history with flash-forwards to images of combat in 1960s, when the U.S. is very much involved in Vietnam. The message is clear: the Americans think of the war as their experience; the history of Vietnam on its own doesn’t matter. To me, it feels like the same erasure or diminishment of the Vietnamese experience that we have always seen.
Still, I had resolved to watch this entire series. I tried to focus on the footage and photos, which are extraordinary and prove once again how heroic and necessary journalists are. I tried to focus, too, on what I could learn. I found myself wanting to hear so much more from Bao Ninh, author of The Sorrow of War, who provides beautiful and moving commentary throughout the series. I wanted to hear more from African American soldiers and non-white soldiers, who had to endure racism no matter their rank and no matter where they went. I wished for a more explicit discussion of how much U.S. involvement hinged on the fear of Communism spreading and its toxic masculinity, and how the Americans could not bear the thought of losing or surrendering, so they kept going even when they knew they shouldn’t. I tried to focus on all the now-iconic music that emerged from the Vietnam war era. (Much of it now seems cliché but that’s not the music’s fault.) I was glad to take a break from the violent images to consider presidential power, protest power, and Nixon’s idea of the “silent majority.”
Though no Vietnamese person in this 18-hour documentary gets a profile on a scale equal to any white American who is profiled, I tried to get as much as I could from their limited time on screen. What it was like to be North Vietnamese during the war? What it was like to be South Vietnamese during the war? I kept hoping to see more commentary from those who fought, especially on the South Vietnamese side, but that hope was not fulfilled.
It is painful to hear Lyndon Johnson saying, “There ain’t no daylight in Vietnam.” To hear Kissinger say to Nixon that soon Vietnam will be a backwater. To hear Maj. Charles Beckwith quoted as saying, “You can shoot the little brown men outside the wire. You may not shoot the little brown men inside the wire. They are mine.” It is difficult to hear a U.S. veteran say about those left dead after a battle: “I wouldn’t let the Vietnamese touch the Americans.”
This is not painful because it is new information but because the words, spoken out loud, confirm what I’ve always known -- what I’ve always read in the faces of so many white Americans. As a Vietnamese refugee says in the documentary about the humiliation of loss: “I carry that humiliation with me to the United States, when I get in line to sign up for jobs. I remind them of the war in Vietnam, which the Americans hate.”
The Americans were not in Vietnam, fighting a war, for the love of Vietnamese people -- the American soldiers were fighting because they’d been told to. In episode three, a screen image of a once-top secret plan of action document shows that 70 percent of U.S. aims were “to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation).” To the Americans, the South Vietnamese will always be seen as incompetent and corrupt, while the Americans were supposed to be the providers and the saviors. And when that failed, they didn’t know what to do. Failure and retreat go against all the exceptionalism we are taught in American schools.
The last episode of the series spends fewer than 15 minutes on the refugee crisis and what life was in like in Vietnam after 1975. Any sense of reconciliation or “healing” — that old phrase “healing wounds” is invoked more than once — is for the Americans. You can do aerial shots of a country that is green again, the scorch of napalm replaced by new growth. You can do pans of a city in the midst of bustle. It can look like the present, the future — it can look like reconciliation. Plenty of time is given to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and the experience of U.S. soldiers who visit it. More time is given to the stories of soldiers who returned to Vietnam, twenty years after the end of the war, to see former battlegrounds and to shake hands and smile with former enemies. It is beyond jarring, beyond disconcerting, to see this after so many hours of violence.
And so the Americans can get a little more healing. As for the Vietnamese... Well, it’s unclear. Their lives and experiences aren’t given as much space for viewers to find out. Vietnam may exist on its own now but the Americans still view it through their own lens: as a place for closure or tourism or commerce. The country, as ever, matters only in terms of what it can do for the Americans.
In The Vietnam War, white American men get the first and last words in the film, and most of the profiles and words in between. In the United States, I grew up understanding that no Vietnamese life is worth the same as an American life; that over two million Vietnamese dead is always overshadowed by 58,000 U.S. soldiers dead. I grew up respecting U.S. veterans but seeing no respect given to Vietnamese veterans.
For years, even still, people have asked me what “side” my family was on. The question always baffles me. Isn’t it obvious that if we're in the United States as refugees, having lost a war and a country — isn’t it obvious what “side” we were on? Somehow, many Americans still don’t know the history of what in Vietnam is called The American War. Burns and Novick had a chance to change that in a more substantial, equitable way, one that did not fall back on the same old assumption that the American perspective must be dominant.
My father, a veteran -- a South Vietnamese who found a way for his family to leave Saigon, who has been here for decades now and has grown his family and his community, does not want to watch this documentary. I can’t blame him. The film tells us to feel sorry for the Vietnamese, but it demands that we feel for the Americans.
My father and my uncles and every Vietnamese refugee in America live with the shame that Americans feel about the war in Vietnam. We are seen as reminders of that shame, and we are asked to bear it with no word in return except gratitude. I remind them of the war in Vietnam, which the Americans hate. I have felt this my whole life.
Beth Nguyen is the author of three books, including 'Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.' She teaches in and directs the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco.
To see more stories and photographs from KQED’s series about the impact of the Vietnam War on the Bay Area and other communities in California, visit kqed.org/vietnamwar.