Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected


American mass culture tends to be about the world as we’d like it to be, one in which goodness and reason prevail, where things almost always work out for the best. Canadian mass culture, on the other hand, is much more about the real world, one that’s frequently hard and unfair, the world of Goin’ Down the Road, say. No wonder Canadians prefer American mass culture. As T.S. Eliot said, “human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.”

There’s no doubt that American culture is more exciting. The Americans put men on the moon and send hundreds of thousands to fight for ‘freedom’ in South Vietnam. Canadians, on the other hand, do the odd bit of peacekeeping in Cyprus, or wherever. And we’re pretty good at sitting back and observing, notebooks and cameras always ready to record what’s going on. It’s appropriate, therefore, that it was a Canadian-born journalist, Morley Safer of CBS News, who in August, 1965, first alerted American television viewers to the horror of what was happening in Vietnam. Safer showed U.S. marines trying to set fire to a peasant village using cigarette lighters, and in the process successfully capturing four bewildered old men. (One outraged viewer was Lyndon Johnson. He was certain Safer must be a Communist and ordered a security check. Informed that Safer wasn’t a Communist, just a Canadian, he commented, “Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.”)

It was another Canadian journalist, Michael Maclear, then of the CBC, who in 1969 became the only Western correspondent to attend the funeral of Ho Chi Minh. A year later Maclear was the first reporter to interview American prisoners of war. His interviews caused a sensation in the U.S. Now Maclear and an independent Canadian production team headed by Ian McLeod have pulled off an even more remarkable journalistic coup. They obtained exclusive access to film from Hanoi’s military archives and succeeded in interviewing many of the major political and military participants on all sides of the conflict; using footage from a number of other archives, and a script by the fine New Zealand journalist, Peter Arnett, they have put together as fair and comprehensive a TV documentary on the war in Vietnam as we’re likely to get.

The Ten Thousand Day War consists of twenty-six half hour programmes. The series begins in 1945, when Ho Chi Minh’s army, having defeated the Japanese, turns its guns against the returning French colonial forces. The events that follow — Dien Bien Phu, the introduction of American advisors into South Vietnam, the assassination of Diem, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, My Lai, Khe Sanh, the Tet offensive, the bombing of Hanoi — all seem to lead inevitably to the North Vietnamese victory parade in Saigon in 1975.

Unfortunately, English-Canadian viewers, unlike viewers in Québec and elsewhere, weren’t allowed to see the whole series. Claiming a shortage of time slots, the CBC English network scheduled just fifteen episodes. After seeing and/or reading scripts for all twenty-six programmes, I’m convinced the CBC’s decision was a mistake. For one thing, the CBC version begins in 1954 rather than 1945. Not only have 3300 days of war gone by, but an important piece of information is lost to the viewer — the fact that a close military relationship existed at the end of the Second World War between Ho Chi Minh’s forces and the Americans, who were actually helping train the Vietminh. At that point Ho Chi Minh saw the U.S. as a potential ally who might help prevent the French from reclaiming Vietnam as a colonial preserve.

That’s but one of the fascinating bits of information the series offers those of us who have perhaps come to think of the war in more simplistic terms. We learn that North Vietnam’s attempts at land reform were brutal; as many as 50,000 landowners were executed. That South Vietnamese peasants on whose behalf the war was fought were continually being ‘resettled’ and taxed by both sides; by 1967 there were already 1.25 million refugees. That Diem tried to rid South Vietnam of corruption, prostitution and gambling until a gangster organization sent an army against him. That 5,000 American soldiers were wounded in action in 1971, but four times that number were in hospital for drug abuse. That the most deadly North Vietnamese landmine was called the “Bouncing Betty”; it was designed to injure the upper legs and testicles. That in 1969 alone there were 126 ‘fraggings’, murders of unpopular American officers by their own men.

Maclear's Vietnam, continued > 

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