Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

MACLEAR’S VIETNAM (continued)

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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