Perspectives on the Burns/Novick Vietnam series by a member of the MN 8 draft resisters

The following correspondence was sent to Jim Pagliarini, the president and CEO of  Twin Cities Public Television (TPT/PBS—the Minneapolis/St. Paul TV station that showed the Burns/Novick series on Vietnam—by Chuck Turchick, a member of the Minnesota 8 group who destroyed draft files and spent time in jail for their actions.

Dear Mr. Pagliarini,

I attended the program on The Telling Project last night and heard your comments about how wonderful the Burns/Novick documentary was. Maybe you were saying that in your capacity as president of TPT, so you had to say it, but I am writing this on the assumption that you wouldn’t have said it unless you meant it.

I believe that both the documentary and TPT’s project have the same major flaw: they ignore context. Right now, the Pentagon is in the middle of a 13-year-long commemoration of the Vietnam War, and their main focus is that we have to “honor our veterans.” When questioned about what he saw as the lesson to be learned from the war, Burns said something about not treating our veterans in the future the way we treated our Vietnam vets. And the Pentagon’s clear and fully conscious purpose in their pushing the “honor the vets” mantra is to make future wars more acceptable to the American public.
After last night’s event, I spoke with Max Rayneard, the writer of the Telling Project performance featured in the video we saw, and I asked him if he had heard of the book The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam. He had heard of Halberstam but not the book. (That might indicate something too.) So I told him it was about some very intelligent, highly educated people brought into the Kennedy administration, liberals all, who led us into the Vietnam War. I told Mr. Rayneard, that he—along with Burns and Novick and TPT— was part of this generation’s “Best and Brightest,” and that his and TPT’s project will be making future wars more acceptable and therefore more likely. I told him it wasn’t intentional on his part, but it nevertheless would be the effect. I think you might be in that present-day “Best and Brightest” group as well.
Here are a couple problems I had with the Burns/Novick documentary other than calling it “a war entered in good faith” and seeing it as a “civil war,” which many others have commented on.
1. It was incredibly weak in its portrayal of resistance by Americans. While there was a bit about Muhammad Ali, Burns and Novick didn’t talk to a single person who refused induction and went to prison. Although they did talk to a deserter who went to Canada, Jack Todd, they didn’t talk to a single person who went to Canada as a refugee to escape the draft and the war. No mention that millions of Americans resisted the war by refusing to pay their phone tax. It would have been like covering the Mexican-American War and not mentioning Thoreau.
No mention of Catholic radicals, including priests, who openly destroyed draft files, and others who did it in secret, hoping not only to make a symbolic statement but to throw a wrench into the war-making machinery as well. No talk of  anti-war coffeehouses at every military base, staffed by active G.I.s. While the film did mention fraggings, it didn’t mention soldiers who refused orders and were court-martialed—the Ft. Hood 43, for example, who refused orders to go to Chicago and put down the protests during the 1968 Democratic Convention.
It did mention that Dr. Benjamin Spock was against the war and showed him speaking on screen, but it totally left out that the U.S. government prosecuted and convicted him for conspiracy to aid and abet young men in evading the draft. All of these omissions have one thing in common: resistance. And that’s a crucial lesson to learn, because our government is going to lie us in more illegal and immoral wars, and the people should know that you can resist, even be imprisoned, and survive. Much has been written about moving “from protest to resistance,” but this film, though documenting protest, was blind to resistance to that war by the American people, both civilians and military people.
2. I have compared the series to one made by German film-makers about the German veterans of World War II. We would rightfully cringe at such a series, because it would miss the point. Yes, Burns and Novick included much material that was critical of American politicians and policy makers, but this “many perspectives” and “no single truth” nonsense is laughable—and only laughable to keep from crying. Making a documentary like that in Germany might even have landed the film-makers in prison.
The first step in healing is not to acknowledge the courage and sacrifice and heroism of our soldiers—soldiers on all sides in all wars sometimes exhibit those qualities—but to acknowledge the truth about the war. And a “many perspectives” attitude, just like President Trump’s violence on “both sides” statement, totally misses the point. I have no idea how independent TPT is from PBS, but someone at TPT needs to say that—and say it publicly and strongly through its programming. Otherwise, you are enablers of those who would deny history, just like the German film-makers would be enablers of Holocaust deniers.
A  comment about last night’s program: Of the three men who were in the military—as you recall, one participant was a nurse and one was the son of a Hmong participant—no one mentioned killing anyone! It’s amazing the Vietnamese didn’t win the war in a few months if none of our veterans killed anyone. (Mr. Rayneard did tell me that previous Telling Project performances have had vets who actually did kill people.) But last night’s program was all about how our veterans suffered, what “they went through.” It was as if we were the victims, not the perpetrators, of this war. Other Americans suffered too. Those who were imprisoned may have had lasting life-long consequences too, just like those veterans on the stage. But it’s not about us and how we suffered. If we’re going to prevent future wars, it cannot be about us the victims; it has to be about us and our government as perpetrators.
And finally, neither the documentary nor the Telling Project seems to have been aware of the many, many antiwar demonstrations that were led by military veterans. Those veterans weren’t shunned by the antiwar movement; people didn’t avert their eyes when seeing them. All this stuff about the antiwar movement being anti-veterans was way overblown. It was the government that was anti-veteran—making vets fight in the courts for decades to get help for the life-long effects of of Agent Orange.
You really ought to include Vietnam veterans who are involved in Veterans for Peace in your Telling Project programs. TPT really ought to have a show where you interview draft resisters who refused induction and were prosecuted and imprisoned for being right about the war long before the veterans who became its opponents. TPT ought to have a program about what those of us who were antiwar could and should have done to have ended that war much sooner. Where did our tactics fail us? What can be learned for future movements to stop criminal actions by our government?
Regrettably, I fear that won’t happen. There simply is too much self-congratulation going on at PBS and TPT right now.
Regretfully yours,
Chuck Turchick
Published with permission of the author.

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One comment

  1. jimtjepkema · · Reply

    I skipped watching that film because I was fairly sure that it is the sort of film that you say it is, Jim. I was a protestor of the war and failed to completely understand how it was far from being a mistake and is part of a bad aspect of our history that hasn’t been addressed and needs to be addressed. I guess I knew that we do have a bad history, but I failed to understand how deep seated it is and how terribly badly we need it needs to be changed.

    Like

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