Ken Burns documentary angers both U.S. and Vietnamese veterans of war

by WorldTribune Staff, October 3, 2017

Both American and South Vietnamese veterans said they found glaring omissions in “The Vietnam War”, the new PBS documentary by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

South Vietnamese vets who spoke with The Mercury News said they were largely left out of the narrative, which they say focused too much on North Vietnam and communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick worked for 10 years on the documentary ‘The Vietnam War’.

A number of American veterans said the documentary gave too much credit to leftist anti-war protesters and soldiers who  opposed the war.

Related: A Vietnamese veteran takes a hard look at Ken Burns’ documentary, Oct. 3, 2017

The 10-part, 18-hour documentary concluded on Sept. 28.

Sutton Vo, a former major in South Vietnam’s army engineering corps, watched the series with several other veterans in San Jose, California, but told friends and family not to do so. The film is “pure propaganda,” he told the Mercury News.

“The Vietnam War included the Americans, South Vietnam and North Vietnam. But in the 18 hours, the role of South Vietnam was very small,” said Vo, 80. “Any documentary should be fair and should tell the truth to the people.”

Cang Dong, who spent time in a re-education camp and was not freed until 1987, objected to what he saw as the filmmakers’ glorification of Ho.

“Everything is a big lie,” he said. “To our people, Ho Chi Minh was a big liar and immoral.”

U.S. vet Jim Barker, 70, of San Jose, also said he was surprised by the extent of coverage given to North Vietnamese soldiers in the film.

“What bothered me is the element of arrogance that seemed to come out in seeing themselves so superior. I had trouble with that,” said Barker, who was an adviser with a South Vietnamese intelligence unit in the Central Highlands and survived the siege of Kontum in 1972. “That focus detracted attention from the people of South Vietnam and the idealism that was there.”

Jack Wells, a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Marine Corps who served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, called the documentary “a masterpiece of video and footage” in which he learned a number of things, but said he identified several omissions that bothered him.

Wells pointed to the film’s depiction of Kim Phuc, “the Napalm girl” who became a famous symbol of the war after a 1972 photograph showed her running naked on a road with other children, her back severely burned by a South Vietnamese napalm attack. The film said Phuc left Vietnam and eventually moved to Canada but didn’t mention that she had requested political asylum from the Vietnamese communists, who had used her as a propaganda symbol, Wells said.

The documentary had serious biases, Wells said. “If they had an anti-war protester, they didn’t seem to give the same amount of time to someone who wasn’t a protester or someone who saw humanitarian treatment of the enemy.”

Barker agreed. “A lot of us have a tremendous sense of pride for what we attempted to do and defend,” he said.

Beth Nguyen, an author and a graduate professor at the University of San Francisco, arrived as a baby in the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975 after her family escaped by boat. Nguyen told the Mercury News she also felt the film diminished the voices of South Vietnam, which she said was “expected and disappointing.”

“America was divided by the war,” she said. “American pain and suffering is something I feel is important to discuss and think about, but it should not come at the expense of Vietnamese pain and suffering, which is what usually happens.”

Filmmaker Burns said that “We cannot tell every story. Even if it were 180 hours, people would say, ‘You left this out.’ What you want to do is tell a story in which this Gold Star mother had to stand in for lots of Gold Star mothers, and this Saigon civilian has to stand in for many Saigon civilians, and this ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) marine has to stand in for many, many ARVN marines. But we feel that we put our arms around everything.”

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