News & Politics

Why Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Are Too Hard on Anti-Vietnam War Protesters

Caricatures of resistance are destructive to our democracy.

Photo Credit: Chueasuwan Phunsawat / Shutterstock

“[Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s documentary] The Vietnam War ... will doubtless shape popular memory of the conflict for years to come,” writes the veteran activist and historian Maurice Isserman in Dissent. Although Isserman praises the television series, now showing nightly on PBS, for exposing the war’s duplicity and brutality, he laments that its depiction of anti-war protesters leaves “the impression that hundreds of thousands of Americans… were indeed swearing allegiance to Chairman Mao... rather than, say, exercising the rights and responsibilities of citizens to challenge a war that they regarded as inconsistent with American interests and values.”

Negative depictions of anti-war protesters in 1969 anticipated denigrations of Iraq war opponents in 2003 and of today’s campus protestors against racism and sexism—and soon, very possibly, another blundering war. While some protesters do act counter-productively and destructively, Isserman is right to warn that caricatures of them are even more destructive to democracy.

I've previously written about my own first encounter with brave, constructive anti-Vietnam war protest one wintry morning in 1968. Since The Vietnam War does emphasize what was wrong in the anti-war movement, let me say something about what was right.

“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” 27-year-old Vietnam veteran John Kerry asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971. But the war wasn’t a “mistake,” it was a systemic and ideologically driven lie, prompted by premises and practices that had been “made in America” and that were metastasizing even within the anti-war movement. Bitterness among those determined not to be Kerry’s “last man” prompted vengeful slogans such as “Bring the war home!” and “Two, three, many Vietnams!”

That did short-circuit the dissent I’d encountered in the early movement, the loose coalition of anti-war, civil rights, countercultural, and other efforts at “social change.” Even as a young radical, I was (and am) a civic-republican patriot of sorts, sharing the hopes and fears that movement leaders such as Carl Oglesby, Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin presented in the Port Huron Statement of 1962, as “bred in at least modest comfort, housed in universities,” but roused by an indigenous American tradition of dissent.

Our patriotism didn’t involve shouting “USA! USA!” at football games and political rallies. But neither did we shout “Up against the wall, motherf**ker!” or call cops “pigs.” We emphasized the civic republican virtues: trustworthy reason-giving in deliberations, mutual respect, and a willingness to temper one’s immediate self-interest to enrich a shared, public interest.

We thought that what we called “the corporate state” was submerging those civic virtues and the public interest in what would later be called “neoliberal” relativism and free-marketeering that reduces candid, open-minded citizens to self-centered consumers.

The Vietnam War does show that whatever had seemed most promising in the civic culture was being ravaged by the savage, delusional, profit-hungry misadventure in Southeast Asia, by racial segregation’s new public brutality, by black urban rioting and crime, and by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Communism wasn’t causing this. Champions of the American way on Wall Street, in Washington, and in the South were.

As enraged protests fed crackdowns, unreality overwhelmed democratic wisdom. Decent people felt pulled into a vortex of charges and counter-charges stirred by clownish “revolutionaries” such as Abbie Hoffman, whose Steal This Book heralded the co-optation of the counterculture by an “over-the-counter culture.” Student-protesters arraigned research universities as accomplices in what an early draft of President Eisenhower’s farewell address had called the “military-industrial-academic complex.”

A college senior summarized the situation well enough for me in a Harvard Crimson commentary written as the 1970-'71 academic year wound down and I prepared for my two-year alternative to military service venture, which I've previously written about:

The student movement discovered last spring [after the Kent State University killings] that no amount of shouting would move the Nixon administration to stop the slaughter, that no amount of shouting would persuade Congress to step in and save America's soul, that neither shouting nor reasoned arguments could persuade even this university of the war's insanity and of the university's deep involvement in it.

The world outside, we had learned, was a cold and ugly place where black people or students or whole populations could be destroyed, and no one could stop it. And the revolution was not coming soon; those who lived for it seemed destined for death or jail or the empty, lonely life of the old leftist, his battles lost and forgotten, his brothers and sisters scattered, filling his days with memories.

The immediate causes of the protests prompted rioting by black and white protesters, and by cops who rioted against them in Chicago that summer as Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey, who’d been silent about the war as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president.

I watched the Chicago riots on TV in a congressional office on Capitol Hill, where I was interning for the summer between my junior and senior years at college, during the last tired months of the Johnson administration. That fall I voted for Humphrey, my first time casting a ballot, at age 21. Many of my peers refused to vote at all, sitting on their hands and perhaps foreshadowing some Bernie Sanders supporters’ refusal to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Some of us still associated American patriotism with Henry David Thoreau and latter-day civic saints such as the assassinated Martin Luthet King Jr. But my first encounter with that ethos, on that wintry morning in 1968, had come just a month after the devastating American response to North Vietnam's Tet offensive.

Many people my age slid away from the war by resorting to bureaucratic expedients, trumping up physical problems; teaching in inner cities just long enough to obtain certification; undertaking religious training without faith; and finding other excuses for deferring military service.

I call these "expedients" because many young men found their way to them not out of conviction but out of fear and narrow self-interest like that of Dick Cheney, who took five deferments because, he said, “I had other priorities in the 1960s.” Donald Trump, 6’2” and in robust health in 1968, just as 300,000 men were being inducted to support new troop deployments in Southeast Asia, sought and received a deferment for “bone spurs.” He later said they “healed up quickly,” after which a high draft lottery number freed him from further worry about being drafted.

There has always been another, older way to avoid acknowledging responsibility for senseless killing: One can try to make a virtue of necessity by telling oneself that when soldiers kill and are killed in a war, no matter how irrational or immoral the war, high merit and noble destiny can be ascribed to their deeds retroactively, because they risked and/or sacrificed their lives. We think so when we refuse to acknowledge that blood has been shed meaninglessly. John Kerry punctured that sort of denial when he asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

But when the death that’s been declared valorous isn’t redeemed by victory for the supposedly noble cause it served, the ascription of high merit is even more threatened. And the less noble the cause, the more desperate the urge to ascribe nobility to its costs.

As Carl Oglesby argued in excoriating the Vietnam War and the policies of the 1950s and ‘60s that led to it, many soldiers had to believe in its validity. Some even took life as if doing so gave ultimate meaning to their compatriots' deaths and the other deaths they’d caused. Oglesby takes that argument to its absurd, morally bankrupt conclusion:

"No one understands bombing better than the bomber, guns than the gunner, death than he who kills. You need not inform this lad that his hands are bloody. He is the expert about that.

"But the blood will wash away, will it not? The dirty, indelible stains will one day be removed? The cleansing water is victory. The sacrifice is redeemed by the rebirth for which it prepares the conquered land. But if the water is not brought, that deferred innocence in whose name the present guilt is borne vanishes from the future. It is fused permanently with the skin of the hands that shed it.

"We ought to be able to understand a very simple thing: From now on in America, it shall be with such hands that children are soothed, office memoranda signed, cocktails stirred, friends greeted, poems written, love made, the Host laid on the tongue and wreaths upon graves, the nose pinched in meditation. In the forthcoming gestures of these hands—this is really very simple—we shall behold an aspect of Vietnam's revenge."

Some of the worst of the anti-war protests may have been carrying "Vietnam's revenge" in the rage and confusion of young Americans crazed by the slaughter and the unresponsiveness of our government. "This war broke my American heart," Oglesby wrote. Mine, too. But there is something to be said for all protest that isn't itself murderous. A republic’s freedoms are endangered most by those who duck their obligation to stand up and be counted, one way or another. Cheney and Trump ducked and, without knowing it, they went on to become part of Vietnam’s revenge, excrescences of that war. I will never fault anyone who served out of duty or conviction or who refused openly to serve for the same reasons. But Vietnam taught me that the blood shed in such war can’t retroactively sanctify it.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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