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Ronald L. Haeberle/Library of Congress
media criticism / memory

The Ken Burns Vietnam War Documentary Glosses Over Devastating Civilian Toll

The PBS series by Burns focuses on soldiers' stories, with scant attention to the immense number of Vietnamese civilians who suffered and died.
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Like Burns and Novick, I also spent a decade working on a Vietnam War epic, though carried out on a far more modest budget, a book titled “Kill Anything That Moves.” Like Burns and Novick, I spoke with military men and women, Americans and Vietnamese. Like Burns and Novick, I thought I could learn “what happened” from them. It took me years to realize that I was dead wrong. That might be why I find “The Vietnam War” and its seemingly endless parade of soldier and guerrilla talking heads so painful to watch.

War is not combat, though combat is a part of war. Combatants are not the main participants in modern war. Modern war affects civilians far more and far longer than combatants. Most American soldiers and Marines spent 12 or 13 months, respectively, serving in Vietnam. Vietnamese from what was once South Vietnam, in provinces like Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh, as well as those of the Mekong Delta – rural population centers that were also hotbeds of the revolution — lived the war week after week, month after month, year after year, from one decade into the next. Burns and Novick seem to have mostly missed these people, missed their stories, and, consequently, missed the dark heart of the conflict.

To deprive their Vietnamese enemies of food, recruits, intelligence, and other support, American command policy turned large swathes of those provinces into “free fire zones,” subject to intense bombing and artillery shelling, that was expressly designed to “generate” refugees, driving people from their homes in the name of “pacification.” Houses were set ablaze, whole villages were bulldozed, and people were forced into squalid refugee camps and filthy urban slums short of water, food, and shelter.
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