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Local Vietnam Vets Weigh In On Ken Burns’ Vietnam Documentary

When Ken Burns’ latest documentary effort, dealing with the Vietnam War was shown recently on PBS, there was probably no audience with a greater interest in this documentary and how it presented the Vietnam experience than Vietnam veterans. Webb Weekly talked to several local Vietnam veterans to get their take on Burns’ presentation. Mike McMunn

When Ken Burns’ latest documentary effort, dealing with the Vietnam War was shown recently on PBS, there was probably no audience with a greater interest in this documentary and how it presented the Vietnam experience than Vietnam veterans. Webb Weekly talked to several local Vietnam veterans to get their take on Burns’ presentation.

Mike McMunn served in Vietnam as an officer and military advisor to the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) in III Corps in provinces north of Saigon and participated in the Cambodian Incursion in 1970. Here is what McMunn said.

“I finished viewing all 18 hours of the Burns/Novick documentary, and I must say that I was tremendously impressed with the effort made by the producers and PBS to present what I felt was a very balanced presentation.

“I can bring only a narrow perspective of the war. I was there for 12 months, served with the South Vietnamese army, and rarely left the three provinces in our area of operations. My view of the war during my tour was quite myopic. In the years after the war, I first tried to forget my experience but later tried to learn more about what happened in the world to bring us to Vietnam. Prior to watching the documentary, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the history of the war. After watching the film, I learned how little I had known.

“Although I went in the Army in September 1966, I did not get to Vietnam until January 1970 and as an advisor became part of the Vietnamization phase of the war. From September 1967 to August 1969, I was stationed in Germany. I learned most of what was happening in the war and in the U.S. through the filters of the Stars and Stripes newspaper, magazines like Time, Life and Newsweek and from returning Vietnam vets.

“During the film, I tried to keep an open mind and look for biases in the presentation, i.e., would the producers and writers slant coverage in favor of the North Vietnamese or the war protestors, or the allied military. Would the film portray all soldiers and Marines as barbarians and “baby killers?” Would the anti-war protestors be regarded as the true heroes of the war? Would the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong be presented as righteous defenders of their people? Were they Communists or nationalists? In the end, I believe all sides were presented fairly.

“All sides were shown to have made very poor strategic errors in planning and execution of the war. The allied assault at Ap Bac, Hamburger Hill, Con Thien, Dak To, the Tet Offensive, and Operation 719, just to name a few. Taking terrain at great human cost only to give it up the next day made absolutely no sense. On the enemy side, poor planning and execution led to horrendous defeats during Tet and Mini-Tet as well as the Easter Offensive in 1972.

“The Americans were rightfully called-out on their atrocities and the indiscriminate killing of innocent men, women, and children, but so were the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese for their conduct during the capture of Hue during the Tet Offensive. American officials (civilian and military) were rightly criticized for continuing to send men and women into a conflict they had long known was a ‘fool’s errand.” I could barely contain my anger at the duplicity of Lyndon Johnson, Robert MacNamara, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, General William Westmoreland and others, as well as the abhorrent corruption of the government of South Vietnam. The strange behavior of Ambassador Graham Martin, as Saigon was falling, was particularly baffling and appalling.

“I was particularly struck by the choice of speakers and their perspectives. And this is from all sides, the Americans, the North Vietnamese, the South Vietnamese, the Viet Cong and the protestors and war supporters. I saw the anguish of families who lost sons and brothers; I saw the hardship of the POWs; I saw the emotional conflicts of those who protested the war; and I empathized with those like Army veteran Tim O’Brien who is still haunted by his indecision about going to Canada and instead served (O’Brien has written eloquently on the war and those who fought it).

“Somehow, I felt compassion for Marine veteran John Musgrave who was given up for dead after being wounded and later became a leader in the Vietnam veteran anti-war movement after his return. He had come to know the horror of the war first hand, had a strong point of view while in-country (kill all the enemy you can) and came away with an even stronger point of view (the war was wrong). For the most part, I have always had disdain for the draft dodgers and anti-war protesters. The documentary did not change my feelings toward them.

My guilt about how we treated the South Vietnamese from 1973 until the fall of Saigon was triggered in the final episode. I wonder what happened to my counterparts and all the South Vietnamese soldiers I had come to know and work with daily and who trusted us. I wonder what had become of the numerous children who flocked around we Covan My’s (American Advisors) as we shared C-rations and candy and who appears in many of the pictures I took during my tour. I was ashamed at how we abandoned those who put their faith in us.

“The segment on the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and how it has helped to heal the psychic wounds of the war was powerful. I have visited The Wall numerous times over the years and always come away with a profound sense of grief at the lost potential of the men and women whose names are engraved there.

“I am proud of the American men and women who fought, died, were wounded or held prisoner during the Vietnam War. In the end, the one thing the documentary vividly displayed was that men and women from all backgrounds and cultures came together, not so much as to fight against the enemy and for American policy but to fight and die for each other.

“As in any creative endeavor, one can always find nits to pick. In the case of this film I can find some nits but, in my opinion, the documentary can be seen as a success, will stand the test of time, and stand alongside Burns’ previous documentaries, including The Civil War.

“PBS, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are to be congratulated for contributing to our better understanding of this disastrous historical event.”

Al Sever was a crew chief on a helicopter during the years from 1968 to 1972, seeing action in Vietnam. Cambodia and Laos for 31 months during that period.

“I think it was well done and neutral in its tone,” Sever said. “I was glad there was nothing — NOTHING — implying that any Honor or Glory was involved in fighting a war. Some days were so damn brutal. It was a war of BRUTALITY. We never fought for cities, mountains or farms. We fought ONLY to kill each other.”

“The show talks about our POWs …but like every show I ever saw about POWS, It failed to indicate how few US Army enlisted men were taken, prisoner. They were shot — just like, we shot their enlisted men. Millions of men were drafted and served in combat as US Army Enlisted men, but ONLY 77 US Army enlisted men were POWs.”

“Several times the Series talked about medical triages. Some people do not believe the military does triage and that the wounded sometimes were put out in the sun to die. It was hard to walk by those guys lying there, out on your way to fight the same guys who placed them on their death beds. I always wondered if I would soon be lying next to them holding my intestines in my hands while I choked to death on my blood.”

“Having served in country during ‘68, ‘69,’70, ‘71, and ’72, and having been from the Delta to the DMZ, I easily recognized Ken Burns indicating how our Military changed each year. The “Patriots of ‘68” were not the same breed of people as the “Druggies of ‘70”, or the “Race Warriors” of ‘71.”

And what about our return? Despite common myths, I never heard of any soldier being spit on when he returned…My only bad personal experiences were at Penn State University where many professors showed their hatred for the men who fought in Viet Nam.”

“And the end?? It is a prophecy of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — same thing again. No plan; no strategy; just throw money at an enemy who will fight us forever.”

Paul Baclawski is a U.S. Army veteran, who was a foot soldier in Vietnam. Here are his thoughts.

“I had a lot of mixed emotions watching the series. At first, I watched to find out the political agenda of the U.S. As a 20-year old I was unaware of the reasons we were involved and also about the unrest on our major college campuses. You didn’t get to see TV in the Army. As a drafted soldier I was just trying to get home alive.

“All the action, firefight battles were true to life taken from actual footage on both sides. I got a different view of how prepared the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) were. One of the commentators said that the North was committed and the South was riding on the coattails of the U.S., which we learned was true. I thought that the information on the prosecution of Lt. Calley was a real example of how no one wanted to accept responsibility. At the end of that segment, I thought we should have prosecuted Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon for war crimes. I never saw anyone killed, tortured or mistreated by any of the men in our Company, so I did not relate to anything John Kerry talked about.

“I did see young South Vietnamese men in Saigon that appeared to be of military age that were mentioned in the show as ‘Saigon Cowboys.’ I related them to young men in the States that didn’t get drafted because they knew someone politically. I knew some men who were not doing so great in college but didn’t get drafted like me. I ended my time in the military traveling through the Port Authority Terminal in New York City where a young woman around 20 years of age spit on me, because I was wearing a uniform.

“I didn’t watch the entire series. Once I got the political picture of the time I stopped.”

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