Saturday, November 12, 2011

Watching the Vietnam War in HD: General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Vietnamese Officer was "Right"--He was Also "Wrong"

If you are not watching the History Channel's miniseries event "Vietnam in HD," you are truly missing out. The World War Two HD series was unsettling because the original black and white footage was "colorized." This made the events seem more real. The Vietnam War is closer to the present in terms of decades. Ironically, the high definition enhancement makes the events seem surreal.

The hyper-realism of Vietnam in HD is also a rebuttal to how the spin doctors and propagandists sanitize war in order to sell it to the public.

The mass media frames conflict. For example, the Tet Offensive was a tactical victory for the United States. The Vietcong were destroyed as a fighting force. But, the narrative in the mass media was that the United States "lost" the battle.

The North Vietnamese "won" the Tet Offensive because they demonstrated that this would be a long war without an immediate end; they also won because it was now clear that the American government was blatantly lying to the public about the prospect of victory in the near term.

The Pentagon learned a lesson too: contain war coverage through "media pools" where only "approved images" would be sent back home to the American public. If you wondered why we do not see the bodies of American soldiers coming home during the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, look no farther than 'Nam.

For example, the execution of a Vietcong sapper by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan is an iconic photo, and an object lesson in the power of images and media spin doctoring. It is also a much misunderstood moment. General Loan did the "right" thing legally under the Geneva Convention (he shot a combatant who was out of uniform, engaged in sabotage, and thus not protected by the rules of war). However, General Loan's deeds were "wrong" in the court of public opinion, and they became symbolic of the grotesqueness of America's misadventure in Southeast Asia.

I became interested in military affairs in middle school. Then, I was quite fascinated by the dichotomy between military law and the public's perception of events. At the time, what I saw as a misrepresentation of the "truth" by a "traitorous" news media, evolved into realizing that public perception is not "natural" or "organic." Rather, it is something to be "managed."

Moreover, public perception is its own independent reality. Those beliefs further evolved into an understanding that the "legally" defensible thing may not in fact be the ethically or morally correct position to pursue or defend.

In total, war is hell. It is also a state of semi-organized confusion.

Are any of you watching the Vietnam in HD series? What do you think of it so far? For those of a certain age, how did you respond at the time to General Loan shooting his prisoner? Decades from now, will Iraq and Afghanistan be remembered for a similar moment?

Is Abu Ghraib it?

A bonus: I remember recording the following installment of Ethics in America on VHS and watching it repeatedly. What follows is a classic and provocative dilemma: what are the obligations of American journalists in a war zone? If embedded with the "enemy," are you obligated to warn "your own" about an imminent attack?


Shady_Grady said...

I am watching it. I feel sorry for the poor saps caught up in that foolishness and I have more respect for the people who fought against it and refused to go.

It really doesn't make a lot of sense morally for the government to say "killing is wrong" if I decide to take someone out but then say "killing is just fine" when they want to ship me halfway across the world to kill people I don't even know.

War is evil. It is so evil that it must be the LAST RESORT. Unfortunately because the US has such a massive war machine war is often the first resort.

ish said...

I haven't watched this series yet. I'll take your recommendation.

But I'd like to suggest a little altered perception on your part. Some left-wing group used to use this slogan, and I find it admirable in the way it turns around who "we" are supposed to be identifying with when we discuss the Vietnam War: "Vietnam was a victory." Which is to say, the "right" side in that conflict was the North Vietnamese and NLF, and people who love justice and righteousness should celebrate the outcome of the conflict for that reason. That's not to celebrate the deaths of American soldiers sacrificed as cannon fodder nor excuse repression by post-war Vietnam, but to suggest that as observers the "we" who might be Americans who were opposed to the war or otherwise engaged in struggle in this country would do better to think of our friends as the ones fighting for their liberation in Vietnam rather than our own government. When I look at the horrible scene of this man being murdered, it is the man being killed I identify as a lost ally, a stolen life, a cry for the same way, say, that the name of Ahmadou Diallo ought to be remembered and venerated instead of the cops who murdered him whose names are rightfully forgotten.

chaunceydevega said...

@Shady. Did you see the footage of the battles in Tet? Unbelievable stuff. I wonder how the war in Iraq would have changed if reporters were allowed to wander freely? If they could have covered the battles in Fallujah for example or Sadhr City where white phosphorous and "shake and bake" operations were the norm.

We are so numb to war now, and our culture so militarized, I wonder if anyone would be moved.

@Ish. I get the appeal to a shared humanity. If we could do that unnecessary conflict would be greatly abated. But, we can't forget that the man being shot is not Diallo. General Loan was killing a sapper who just hours before killed the innocent families of soldiers and gov't officials while they slept and hid in their houses (if I recall). I also remember that the sapper being executed actually killed General Loan's defenseless family.

You sign up and you take your chances that sapper got his comeuppance in my eyes. Now, Diallo was "guilty" of reaching for his wallet. Be difference. No?

ish said...

Well, CDV, I'm not actually a fan of killing people, even bad guys. And I can't argue that what the NLF guy may or may not have done out of frame was something I would do (and a little bit of google research doesn't convince me that it is clearly established); but the story didn't begin with his actions either... What caused the guy getting shot to do what he's accused of doing? What caused the Tet offensive to happen? Maybe a better analogy than Diallo is Nat Turner.

CNu said...

isht is on to something deep CDV, don't let your overwhelming allegiance to barbarian culture get the better of your discriminatory sensibilities....,

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