Monday, February 18, 2008

National Geographic Vietnam Special; Not Nearly As Good as It Could Have Been

National Geographic's just released special on Vietnam nearly had me convinced for the first two segments that someone finally was going to get it right on that war and do justice to those of us who served there.

The key word is "nearly." And upon reflection, I'm not sure they got it right in the first two segments either, after hearing differing viewpoints from vets who served during the early part of the war in 1965 and 1966. We'll save that part for a later column.

However, in its segment on the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, the period in which I served as a Marine helicopter gunner, the series went off on a historically inaccurate tangent and once again, a crucial factor in that war, the massive losses sustained by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in 1968 and 1969, that pushed them to the brink of surrender, went unreported.

I don't understand the media's reluctance to accurately cover that time period from an objective viewpoint, showing that the years of escalating US troop strength and battlefield victories finally came to fruition. In that year, the US and allied forces broke the back of the communist military, yet it was completely ignored by National Geographic as other documentaries have done in the past.

Only through understanding our successes from Post-Tet 1968 through mid-1969, can students of the Vietnam War come to grips with the enormity of the betrayal by the US government - of those who fought there, and those who lived there.

How do you just jump over a year in that war, as if it was insignificant, when that was the year that drove the communist military to seek a surrender? How do you do that and call your product accurate?

National Geographic reported that troop withdrawals from Vietnam were started by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, after the overwhelming US victory in the communists' Tet Offensive of February and March that year.

That simply is wrong. Johnson did not initiate troop withdrawals. That error was compounded by the completely indefensible statement that after Tet there were "fewer troops and a less aggressive strategy" in Vietnam throughout 1968. That isn't just wrong, it is false.

In fact, US troop levels increased dramatically after Tet '68, reaching the highest point in the war a year later in April 1969, when nearly 540,000 American military personnel were in Vietnam, giving us numerical parity with the communists for the first time in the war. In addition, a more mobile strategy was employed by the US all across Vietnam. Operation after operation from the Delta to the DMZ resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of communist troops, and the annihilation of entire communist divisions.

But those overwhelming successes were barely mentioned in the special, and unfortunately, that lapse drew down its better parts.

National Geographic even contradicted itself in this segment, later reporting that troop withdrawals began after the battle of Hamburger Hill in mid-1969, which is accurate. Some judicious editing would have been helpful here.

There were some very good points in the special, including veterans' reaction to Walter Cronkite sabotaging American public opinion by broadcasting that the Tet Offensive - rather than being an overwhelming victory - proved the war couldn't be won, but would result in a stalemate. It also noted that nearly 50,000 enemy troops were killed in Tet, a rate that was in the vicinity of 50 to one compared to US losses.

To someone who was directly involved in the vicious battles of Tet or Hue City, the war certainly could be viewed negatively, especially if they left without seeing the end result of their efforts. But there is a basic flaw in interviewing people who served in only one segment of that long war and using their limited vision of what was happening to them as a measure of what was going on in the overall picture.

Former Marine and author Phil Caputo was a central figure in the report and his displeasure with his service there, as well as with the outcome of the war, are undisguised. Caputo's Rumor of War was one of the early books on Vietnam, and it quickly led me to read other books by Vietnam vets, including Fields of Fire by James Webb, who was not interviewed in the special.

But Caputo was in Vietnam in the early stages of 1965 and 1966. He was long gone by the Tet Offensive that kicked off in February 1968. By the time Tet was over, the Viet Cong guerillas that Caputo had fought no longer existed as a viable military unit.

I am not bashing Caputo here, but I am critical of how his viewpoint was displayed and woven into the rest of the report.

Virtually all of the fighting from Tet '68 onward was against main force North Vietnamese communist forces because the Viet Cong had been rendered ineffective as a fighting force. Although the North Vietnamese Army had been fighting in the south for at least three years before Tet '68, Caputo likely would not have recognized the war as it was fought two years after he left that country.

Among the highlights that National Geographic did not report on was the "mini-Tet" fighting in May 1968, when the communists tried unsuccessfully to regroup and strike back after their drubbing in February and March. There was no mention of the second Tet Offensive in 1969 in which the communists foolishly tried to fix what they hadn't gotten right the previous year, and again failed, nor of any of the myriad battles between the two Tets in which US forces were totally dominant.

There also was a notable lack of perspective in the coverage. Telling of the horrors of war from the standpoint of the lower ranking enlisted men and officers who do the fighting is certainly an effective way of seeing the unvarnished truth - from one vantage point.

But sooner or later there has to be some perspective. If a private attached to one squad is caught in an ambush, and sees his fellow soldiers killed or wounded it is certainly tragic to all involved.

But if that squad is one of 200 operating under control of a regimental commander, usually a Colonel, and the other 199 are successful in achieving the mission objective, then the view on that battle changes drastically when seen from the Colonel's perspective.

There also needs to be a far better understanding of military tactics and the reasons behind them. The battle of the Ia Drang Valley in which about 400 members of the US 7th Cavalry were locked in a vicious struggle with an NVA division of more than two thousand troops was a prime example. It was not our strategy in Vietnam to take and hold empty country. We were there to kill communists. In that battle the US lost 79 troops killed compared to 1,800 communist troops killed.

National Geographic claimed the US Army "declared victory" and left the battlefield, leaving the impression that it wasn't really a victory. The US Army left the battlefield because most of the communists were dead, and those who weren't retreated to sanctuaries in Cambodia!

More important, no one examined why the North Vietnamese had huge numbers of troops hiding in the mountainous jungles of that Central Highlands region. Military units don't just wander around aimlessly looking for something to attack. They were there for a purpose.

In Vietnam, the Central Highlands are a classic invasion route, and the east-west Highway 19 is used to split the south in two pieces, separating government and military commands. Military scholars say the NVA were in the Ia Drang to do just that, split the south in two, and the 7th Cavalry prohibited the NVA from achieving their objective, proving that they did more than just kill communists.

While the Ia Drang got a lot of attention, other, longer and even more successful battles were not mentioned at all.

National Geographic covered the events from 1965 to Tet 1968, but then jumped to the battle for Hamburger Hill in 1969, as if the year in between had never happened. If you are going to report on the difficult battle at Hamburger Hill, then you should report on the equally difficult but overwhelmingly successful Operation Dewey Canyon which the 9th Marine Regiment conducted nearby.

Dewey Canyon was a classic operation against the NVA and the communists were crushed. But that was only one of dozens of such operations carried out in the previous nine months that destroyed the main force North Vietnamese Army. The communist military commanders later revealed that during this period they were trying to convince the political leaders in Hanoi to surrender before they were eliminated, or the US invaded the north.

But this is also when President Nixon publicly announced that he would begin withdrawing troops, just as victory was finally at hand. It was Nixon's untimely and ultimately fatal blunder - declaring tactical and strategic objectives in the media - that convinced the communists to hang on.

The special did do a good job covering Nixon giving away operational secrets when our troops invaded sanctuaries in Cambodia, by telling the world that they would go no further than 19 miles nor stay longer than two months. That was a classic case of political expediency driving military operations and it was another abominable lapse on Nixon's part.

I found it interesting that the special did report the overwhelming disparity in communist dead versus American dead in the operations it covered. It is interesting because we constantly heard from the media during the war that the number of communists killed in battle was nowhere near what the military claimed - actually it was far higher. It would have helped in our comprehension of the Vietnam War if the media's duplicity in undermining the military's credibility during the war had been noted.

Overall, I got the sense that National Geographic pushed the "inevitability" of South Vietnam falling to the communists, when a review of its report shows that exactly the opposite was true.

US, South Vietnamese and allied troops, put a horrendous beating on the communists as the final figures show. America lost 58,000 troops there in 15 years, 48,000 of them to combat, the others to sicknesses and accidents. The communists lost 1.5 million; more than twice the number they started with in 1965 when their standing army was about 600,000 troops.

The communists never won a major battle, never took and held any South Vietnamese territory, were no different than terrorist thugs in their treatment of the South Vietnamese, and were completely out thought and out fought on the military front.

South Vietnam's armed forces stood their ground and defeated the communists decisively in 1972 when the communists mounted a major armored offensive along three fronts, including the Central Highlands, dubbed the "Easter Offensive." Here too, the special seems to have mixed signals. It said 120,000 communist troops invaded the south - most other sources put that number at 250,000 - and 100,000 communists were killed.

The number of communist deaths is at least in the ballpark, but National Geographic claims that the south was incensed when the Paris Peace Accords were signed without insisting that 140,000 communist troops still on southern soil be required to withdraw. If 120,000 invaded, and 100,000 were killed, then it would seem that some 20,000 still remained.

Other sources, that use the higher number of invading communists as a base point, say there were about 60,000 communist troops scattered about the south in jungle and mountainous retreats after their defeat in the Easter Offensive.

Although the Southern troops proved in 1972 that they were capable of holding their own against the communists, their reward was to be sold out in Paris by Henry Kissinger, and sold out again in the US Congress by the Case-Church Amendment that ended all aid to our ally.

The enormity of the betrayal of the democratic south, and the betrayal of the nearly 3 million Americans who had fought in Vietnam was lost in the translation. National Geographic noted that President Nixon had promised the south that he would bring back US air power if the north attacked again after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973.

But President Gerald Ford took office after Nixon resigned in disgrace, and, operating under the restraints of the Case-Church Amendment, reneged on that promise. Ford even gave speeches in 1974 telling the world that the US would not intervene if South Vietnam was attacked again. Meanwhile the South Vietnamese armed forces were left without spare parts to keep aircraft and armor operating, and few bullets or shells for their rifles and artillery.

When the communists invaded again in 1975, using limitless supplies of the latest in armor and technology gleefully supplied by the Soviet Union, fighting back was not an option for many South Vietnamese units because they had nothing left with which to fight.

Especially noteworthy for its absence was any reporting on the holocaust that the communists unleashed on all of Southeast Asia after South Vietnam fell. There was no mention of the one million "Boat People" who fled the communists on the South China Sea, the hundreds of thousands who were thrown into concentration camps where they were used as slave laborers at best, or tortured and murdered at worst.

There was no mention of the fall of Laos or Cambodia where communists slaughtered some 3 million people for "crimes" such as working in government offices, teaching, wearing western clothes, or wearing glasses.

It seems terribly incomplete to produce a special on Vietnam without a single mention of the atrocities that were inflicted by the communists after the US government abandoned its allies. It also is disingenuous at best not to mention the betrayal of US troops who fought there, and the willingness of our government and media to blame the fall of Southeast Asia on us.

National Geographic took a step in the right direction, but once again, showed that there is a long way to go before a truly comprehensive account of that war is aired.


Fred said...

I received an email, forwarded to me by my cousin informing me about the Nat. Geographic special. The email is making the rounds. I am doing a reply to all with the link to this artical to make them aware of the omissions in the report.

You did not leave the reader with any doubt that you are an advanced student of the history of this war. Well written!! You might consider a second book, this one dedicated to the history of the war. You certainly demonstrate that you have the knowledge and the advanced writing skill to do it.

Thanks for a great article.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 02/20/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

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