Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 13, 2015

Two Documentaries on Vietnam

Filed under: Film,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 3:03 pm

Screen shot 2015-02-13 at 10.02.00 AM

Two Documentaries: One Great, the Other Abysmal

The Mirror of Vietnam


On the Kickstarter page for the remarkable documentary “Same Same but Different”, the film takes note of the ignominious end of the war in Vietnam—at least if you view that ending from the point of view of the White House and the Pentagon: “Long after that last helicopter lifted off from the American Embassy in Saigon, Veterans of that War have quietly returned to their former battlegrounds to clear unexploded ordnance, work with victims of Agent Orange, and build schools and orphanages. Same Same But Different is their story.”

Ignominious is certainly the word that comes to mind when you watch Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam” that has been nominated for best documentary for the upcoming Academy Awards. Like “American Sniper”, this is a film that turns history on its head. By portraying the liberation of Vietnam that was captured in memorable photos of the last helicopters lifting off from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon as a disaster for the Vietnamese people, Ms. Kennedy keeps alive the myth of the American military as a force for good. By contrast and in Walt Kelly’s memorable way of putting it, “Same Same but Different” tells the truth, namely that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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  1. Great insights, thank you for the post Louis. I spent a year living in Vietnam, traveling from north to south. The gist of the experience I had was how nobody in Vietnam was overly keen to remember or talk that much about the war. For them, the war was a done deal: they had fought hard, sacrificed unheard-of amounts of blood, sweat and tears, a lot more than most others had had to pay, and had decidedly defeated the enemy. No need to dwell on it anymore. The overall tone of the attitude I got from the people was one of healthy pride and getting down to hard work.

    Here is a nation that had always been a shining star of standing up to the imperialists’ military machinery with ingenuity, extreme discipline and resourcefulness. And for that, they had always been a beacon of hope for the Iranian socialists and communists as I was growing up back home, and now I was able to see why: They had decidedly defeated imperialist powers one after another (the Chinese in the olden days, then the French colonialists and finally the Americans), and had proven that even *the strongest link* in the chain of imperialism can be defeated.

    By contrast, the Americans, always the self-referential, could only see the war and its effects in relation to themselves. There’s a whole body of literature and movies about what that war did to the Americans. Since the American persona was defeated soundly in the one area where the American feels he is invincible, the self-reflection (through literature and movies) has mostly not been one of looking for truths but one of seeking and presenting justifications. For example, from the right wing, it is the story of how, say, a branch of government obstructed the military effort. Another story line has been what that war did to the individual American soldiers; and here we can have a left-right split, as well. But in most these efforts, I feel the artwork is presenting a tortured self-pity and no lessons learned. Not sure if I’m expressing things clearly; hope I did.

    Thanks again for the post.

    Comment by Reza F. — February 14, 2015 @ 6:28 pm

  2. Louis

    That this shouldn’t have been a documentary about the US extraction from Saigon, narrated largely by Americans, and told from the perspective of US military forces, is not by itself a valid criticism. I was there myself, and unless you have personally witnessed the momentum and pandemonium of a crowd in absolute desperation, you cannot properly appreciate the situational difficulty that the remaining US forces, including the interviewees of the film, faced in the last moments of withdrawal. So the doc did a fine job of telling individual stories of heroism, if nothing else. And that, my friend, is worth absorbing.
    We made a dreadful mistake engaging in that war, and now of course we have repeated the same mistake all over again in the middle east. When I was there, the infantry was just beginning to realize how pointless the whole thing was. They fought to save each other, in a situation where the American public was divided, congress was fed up, and yet each presidential administration continued to draft us, train us, and send us there anyway. So we did the best we could. And, as the film displayed, our best was pretty good.
    You may be unable to see the forest for the trees of your own political ideology, but there are many stories about this war, and assuming they are honest, they are all worth telling, and all worth listening to. I have read the stories on both sides – very different, and always interesting. You should have given Rory Kennedy credit where credit was due. She did a masterful job of telling this particular story. It just didn’t happen to be the story that you were interested in hearing. Until someone else, including a North Vietnamese participant, does an equally well assembled story of his own, she has the floor.

    Comment by Fred Gevalt — February 20, 2015 @ 5:03 am

  3. Thanks for bringing these films to my attention. I am interested to give them a view. But something really sticks out to me.

    “Senator Kennedy could never have conceived of the Vietnamese as having the right to determine their own destiny and to create an economy serving their own needs rather than that of multinational corporations.”

    And yet “with the right to determine their own destiny” a sweatshop-based economy serving multinational corporations is exactly what Vietnam has become today, with workers making 50 or 60 dollars a month when they can find jobs at all. This without any counterrevolution or any major break happening. The country is ruled by the party directly tied to and inherited from the people who led North Vietnam, including Ho Chi Minh and his second-in-command Le Duan who ran Vietnam from the 60’s until his death in 86. Current leader Nguyen Phu Trong was a major theoretician of the party from 1967 until 2006 when he was recruited into formal party leadership. It’s one unbroken thread and it makes me wonder how in retrospect activists can continue to claim that the NLF was fighting for “the right to create an economy serving” the needs of the Vietnamese workers and peasants when it is so obvious that their project was to create a modern bourgeois nation state.

    Comment by jomacoy — February 20, 2015 @ 9:22 am

  4. Reza, I must object to your reading of history.

    I realize you’re using the modern Leninist meaning of “imperialism” but you seem to suffer from the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” idea taken to the extreme, eg. because the NLF engaged in war with the US, France and China that means “the Vietnamese” have been “anti-imperialist fighters” throughout history. This is not a materialist view and it’s not correct either. Remember that the Vietnamese dynasties actually seized what in the 1960’s we called “South Vietnam” from the Cham people and the Khmer people with a combination of war and genocidal policies that involved things like killing all the native men and encouraging breeding with all the women, eliminating use of the Khmer and Cham languages and scripts and tearing down Khmer and Cham temples.

    The NLF renamed Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City in the 1970’s. But centuries before it was Saigon it was called Prey Nokor which means forest city in Khmer. It wasn’t really a Vietnamese city until about 1700.

    Assuming we are Marxists, we don’t chose “good nations” over “bad nations.” We see the nation state as what it is, a bourgeois mechanism, and seek to join the international proletariat to supersede it and build a human community without national borders.

    Thank you

    Comment by jomacoy — February 20, 2015 @ 9:29 am

  5. What an odd comment from Jomacoy. It reminds me a bit of what I have heard about the Russian mistreatment of Crimean Tatars, that it is okay because the Tatars were colonizers themselves 400 years ago. Even worse, it is a relativizing justification I have heard for the wars against the American Indians in the 1800s on the basis that the Lakota or the Comanche were aggressive to other tribes.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 20, 2015 @ 9:35 am

  6. […] Two Documentaries on Vietnam https://louisproyect.org/2015/02/13/two-documentaries-on-vietnam/ […]

    Pingback by Haunted by the Vietnam War | manuelgarciajr — February 22, 2015 @ 8:48 am

  7. Well, at least we don’t have to worry about you making broad generalized statements about a large group of people like the US Military and those that serve in it. The irony of this is laughable. I won’t engage in an argument with you because you’re probably too closed minded to even be told that the sky is blue. But I will settle for a sophomoric thumbing my nose, at least in prose, at you and this “ignominious” corner of the internet. You are as much a force for evil as those you claim to fight against.When you take up an extreme and become close minded you become the very evil you wish to fight. Another way of saying it is there are two sides to every story. You’ve clearly picked one and dismissed the other. Shameful.

    Comment by James — March 27, 2015 @ 1:12 pm

  8. Comment No. 7. What he said…

    Comment by Morgan — April 30, 2015 @ 1:12 am

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