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Vietnam War Truths vs. Iraq War Propaganda

January 9, 2018

A TV Tale of Two American Wars

America is a confusing place to live at the best of times, but in Trump times it gets even more puzzling. Are we really back to Cold War nuclear arms rattling? Are the top generals serious about reviving the notion of a winnable nuclear war? Are we any safer in this Twitter-riddled circus than we were before Trump’s anti-immigrant policies led to bans. Will Americans be happier if Trump’s $18-billion wall is built?

Those were some of the big questions of the moment, when I turned to a new television series called The Long Road Home in late 2017. A new friend had recommended the series after learning that I had just watched The Vietnam War, an 18-hour history of a war that so divided the United States half a century ago. Even today the divisions are evident and the series helped them resurface.

The friend and I agreed that the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary was an exceptional work. Despite some criticisms, it impressed my friend who had served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. The series prompted him to repeat the words of one of a bomber pilot who said, “I was on the wrong side” in describing the ability of the North Vietnamese to withstand the damage he caused with each bombing sortie.

What most impressed me was the filmmakers’ effort to include the enemy’s situation and his struggle to survive. What were the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese going through as the U.S. B-52 bombers dropped more explosives on them than had been dropped in all of the Second World War? I thought of Clint Eastwood’s courageous film Letters from Iwo Jima, where the conservative filmmaker depicts the plight of Japanese soldiers.

Some critics argue that Burns/Novick did not show enough of that side of the war’s history. To them I suggest a viewing of Long Road. Philosophers say that truth is the first casualty of war. Sadly, this National Geographic series proves that point.

Long Road is about American soldiers in Sadr City near Bagdad supposedly on a peacekeeping mission on April 4, 2004. We get flashes of their lives growing up and as married men with young families. We get glimpses of their wives waiting fearfully for news of their mission at Fort Hood, Texas. We get almost no sense of what Iraqi families are thinking or why they are so determined to push the American military out of their country.

Early in the series, there is a scene where a distraught and angry American woman asks the head of command what America is doing in Iraq. She then declares that it is about the oil, that is why her son is going off to war and possibly to be killed. It is one of the few moments where someone attempts to speak truth to power but, as usual, power isn’t listening.

We do learn something about the Iraqi point of view from a family that the American soldiers held captive in their own home while battling insurgents. We learn a bit more from an Iraqi man serving as an interpreter for the U.S. commando leader. But this side of the story is quickly swept aside in favour of a sympathetic portrayal of the invading American soldiers. They are the people the series wants us to see as suffering. As The Hollywood Reporter noted, “the miniseries mostly brushes aside the questions of the American military’s occupation of Iraq to more effectively cast the troops in a heroic and celebratory light.”

In a climactic scene toward the end of the series, we see Iraqi insurgents using children as human shields. Nothing resonates more strongly in the U.S. that this horrifying image. “They don’t care about their children,” I’ve had people tell me. “They use them as cannon fodder.”

Long Road does not attempt to reveal the suffering on both sides as did Burns and Novick. Viewers are given reasons to hate the insurgents rather than “making some attempts at addressing what it might have felt like for Iraqis to live through the invasion and the subsequent waves of bloodshed,” as Variety stated. “The series can never quite escape its larger American-centric point of view,” wrote Todd VanDerWerff of Vox.com, noting that it “often reduces the Iraqi insurgents to faceless enemies.”

Admittedly, these series are set in very different circumstances and different times. We also see sharply different approaches to history. The Vietnam War is a well researched documentary 10 years in the making. Long Road is “based on a true story,” but it is a fictionalized account. Actors, not soldiers are used.

Critics slapped Burns and Novick for not pointing the finger of blame squarely at all of America for the deaths of 58,000 U.S. soldiers. The series also notes the millions of Vietnamese who died, but frankly the critics rightly argue that these victims of war got short shrift. In Long Road, no attempt is made to address non-combat victims. The series lays no blame for the destruction of Iraqi lives.

Another key difference is the way the two wars were covered by the media. Perhaps that is partly the fault of embedded ABC News journalist Martha Raddatz on whose book the series is based. This doesn’t impugn Raddatz as a war correspondent; she was doing her job as best she could under the circumstances. What it does call into question is the credibility of “embedded” journalists who are fed information from the military. Unlike many Vietnam War reporters, they are conduits for military “fake news,” to use the current vernacular. They have no choice if they want to deliver for their editors.

The fault also lies with filmmakers like the Long Road producers who suffer from Hollywood disease. That is, they want to makes movies, especially war movies, with lots of wrecked equipment, explosions, and dead bodies. They also want to make lots of money and one way to do it is to pander to American paranoia. Long Road does this well.

But there is another place deserving of blame. When right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch purchased National Geographic a few years ago, we started to see a credible magazine of long standing turn against climate change and other issues that the right dismisses. With Long Road, presumably approved for airing by Murdoch, we see his politics entering the realm of ‘America the Great’ propaganda.

As critics have noted, the Burns/Novick production fell short of rubbing America’s nose in the horror that was Vietnam. Few filmmakers today would have what it takes to lay bare the raw wounds that are still easily opened about that war. With Long Road, however, we give Murdoch and others in what Bernie Sanders calls the Billionaire Class another weapon with which to pursue their military-industrial goals.

By praising the American war machine for its invasion of Iraq, they can further justify the bloody quest for oil at all costs. An article in the Eugene Register Guard recently recalled the words General Wesley Clark warning that people who “fight wars about…oil” lead to things like al-Qaeda, 9/11, and Afghanistan, at a cost of at least $2 trillion. Clark also includes the Iraq war. But apparently, the truth, even when it comes from the warriors themselves, is not to be heard or heeded.

Long Road has been praised as good filmmaking. “The series will thrill you, move you and, so often, reduce you to tears,” wrote David Wiegand in The San Francisco Chronicle. Other commentators are less sanguine. “I was not uplifted by the series,” writes Sister Rose Pacatte in The Catholic Reporter. “It made me grieve the loss of so many thousands of U.S. military members and tens of thousands of local Iraqi people through ‘collateral damage’.”

While some critics pan the Burns/Novick series, they would do well to compare it to Long Road. The Vietnam War tries to explain and to apologize for the devastation in several U.S. governments have caused in Southeast Asia, whereas Long Road mindlessly praises the glorious US military by tapping into the same tearful sentiments we experience at football games. One series seeks truth, the other skirts it in favor of propaganda.

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