Steve Banko reviews the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War

Highly decorated Vietnam War veteran Steve Banko provides this commentary

Many years ago, I took it on myself to read On War, the seminal work on military strategy and philosophy written by Carl von Clausewitz. Something he wrote stayed with me, tucked away in one of those dusty recesses of my mind. Clausewitz posited that the objective of a war determines its value and it is that value that determines sacrifices to be made for it in both magnitude and duration. I thought of that while watching the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick series on the Vietnam War.

I can’t say I thought about the objectives of the war very much during my 16 months in combat. I can’t say I thought about much beyond survival. Now, in the 20/20 vision of hindsight though, I think about it a lot. I wonder what the objective of the Vietnam War was and can’t imagine any value to it that was worth the enormous sacrifices we made. I’d long ago abandoned the notion that what I did and endured in the war could be justified by any discernible value of the nation’s adventure in Southeast Asia.

That belief was fortified by what Burns and Novick included in their series on the war. From the very first installment when a CIA operative told Washington to stay out of Vietnam to the treasonous duplicity of Nixon and Kissinger near the end of the fighting, I felt my anger rising that a nation as strong and powerful and beneficent as ours could have blundered so badly and so often. I had to restrain myself from throwing something through the TV when I heard the 1965 telephone conversation of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara telling President Johnson he could see no way of winning the war without hundreds of thousands more troops and Johnson telling him that wasn’t an option. You see, I was shot three times in 1968, fully three years after the American brain trust was talking about no way to win.

I wondered how such supposedly brilliant and patriotic people could make such bad decisions. My experience has taught me there are three kinds of intelligence: human, animal, and military. The third has little to do with the other two. Our generals can be loyal and brave but hardly intelligent in the civilian sense of the word. That’s how our civilian and military leadership could fail to understand that it isn’t just strength that wins. Resolve counts and so do tactics.

I was on a speaking tour through northern Mississippi, talking to students about drugs and alcohol. At each school, I would spend time with the faculties of the various schools and invariably, the teachers would ask about Vietnam. “We could have won that war, right?” was the most common question. I responded with my own question. “How long and hard do you think you would fight here in Mississippi if, say, Mexicans invaded and occupied your state?”

Burns and Novick interspersed the film with comments from our adversary; comments that uniformly insisted that the Vietnamese were willing to fight, and die, for as long as it took to win their independence. That alone would have made the war unwinnable but combine it with questionable American tactics and strategy and the final chapter in the saga should have been predictable.

Faced with an unconventional war where conventional tactics don’t work, the military struggled with finding metrics to measure our success. Gen. Westmoreland came up with the body count strategy, insisting that there will be a “tipping point” where we are killing more of the enemy than they can replace. To achieve this end, American troops had to wander through unfamiliar and hostile territory where the small unit tactics of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese extracted a bloody toll. As an enemy commander once said, they were forcing the Americans to eat their rice with chopsticks. In the body count strategy, little difference was noted between enemy and civilian deaths and so the countryside we hoped to save saw us as just another threat to their survival.

But even through the litany of mistakes and misjudgments and mismanagement, Burns and Novick shine a brilliant light on the bravery and the dedication of the American soldiers and Marines. We deserved much better from our leadership in the field but we could not have provided more faithful or valiant service. In episode after episode, in the face of blunder after blunder, the courage of the Americans shone through. As the war dragged on and the predictions of early victory were shattered, the soldiers surrendered to their personal weaknesses yet sustained others by their courage, collapsing internally but shoring up others externally. When we were running out of thing to fight for, we fought on for each other.

It’s obvious in the documentary that our guys were wound up so tight they could have exploded simply by exhaling. The challenge was to preserve one pure place in yourself but that was harder than it sounded. In Episode Six the battle for Hue is put under scrutiny and a Marine at the battle relates the tale of a fellow Marine having found a Vietnamese teenager willing to put out for c-rations. We are witness to his confession that he indulged in this atrocity, too afraid to be seen a coward. Aristotle said it best when he said it was the mark of an educated intellect to be able to entertain a thought without embracing it.

When the film switched to the turmoil at home, I wondered why I would have ever done what I did “for my country.” At best, most of us were uncertain of exactly who, if anyone, constituted “my country.” So the soldier just whittled his attention down to the pure, undecorated fact of staying alive.

I can’t say that I liked the Burns and Novick effort as much as I appreciated it. I’ve heard commentary from the left and right taking issue with the portrayals, which for me is an indication of the film’s balance. For the most part, I watched in anger and often through tears marveling at the extraordinary courage of my brothers in arms and seething at the idiots to whom we entrusted our lives. The documentary should be mandatory viewing for anyone contemplating military service. I say that not necessarily to discourage anyone from such service but rather that they make such decisions with their eyes wide open.

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