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Opinion ‘The American War’: The Vietnamese who fought in the Vietnam War have rarely told their stories — until now

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After each episode of “The Vietnam War” airs, our new podcast — “The American War” — will break down the major themes and questions raised. We’ll talk to Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and others involved with the documentary for a new perspective on how the film was made and what it all means.

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Here’s our conversation about Episode 3, “The River Styx (January 1964-December 1965).” The transcript has been edited for readability.

Americans went into Vietnam with a strong sense of who we were, and why we were fighting.

We were supposed to be the superpower charged with defending the free world from the spread of communism.

We forgot to ask ourselves one thing, though: Whom were we fighting with? Whom were we fighting against? And what was motivating Vietnamese soldiers if it wasn’t the threat of Marxism?

To answer those questions, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick asked veterans who fought for North Vietnam and those who fought with Americans as part of the South Vietnamese army.

They met Le Minh Khue, who was inspired by Ernest Hemingway when she went to work on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

And Tran Ngoc Toan, who warned his American adviser, Philip Brady, not to stand too close to him. Toan worried a sniper might hit him instead of Brady.

And when Novick went to Vietnam with producer Sarah Botstein, she brought back stories Vietnamese veterans have been holding onto for decades.

I talked to Burns about the third episode of their documentary.

Q: So, Ken, there’s a lot going on in this episode. But I was particularly interested to hear the story of two veterans: Philip Brady, who was a Marine lieutenant who served as an adviser to South Vietnamese troops, and Tran Ngoc Toan, the South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel Brady was assigned to work with and who now lives in Texas.

It was fascinating to hear them talk about their shared experiences. The story that Toan tells about the battle of Binh Gia, where the Americans refused to help the Vietnamese recover their dead — you feel retroactively so ashamed. And it made me wonder: Do you think the way that Americans talk about the war and sort of endlessly process our own experience obscures the experiences of the South Vietnamese?

KEN BURNS: You know, I’m so happy you picked up on that. The episode is called “The River Styx,” and it refers to a comment that just dearly departed Sam Wilson had told us about. He felt, as someone in the advisory group that was thumbs-up and thumbs-downing stuff, that he was against this and that by landing troops in Danang in March of ’65, it was the River Styx.

But I think in some ways the sort of crux of Episode Three, besides the introduction of Mogie and maybe the battles at Plei Me and the Ia Drang Valley at the end of it, all comes down to Binh Gia — a battle that I’m sure most Americans have never heard of, which is hugely important and I think begins to show the ability of what widening our coverage can do to a story.

So here we have a Viet Cong guerilla who is involved shooting at an American helicopter and downing it, and shooting at our South Vietnamese Marine guy and our American Marine adviser Philip Brady. And the interaction and playfulness between Toan and Brady is set up and as it’s very much buddy-buddy. But then when it does come down to the nub of things, we are behaving like ugly Americans in that regard. And there, Toan’s comrades are left behind and they’ve all been sacrificed in ways because they had to go and rescue these four downed Americans.

And I think this is going to be a trope that is repeated again and again and again. That Americans, unwilling to blame themselves or not quite completely comfortable with finding American enemies for what went wrong, have made the South Vietnamese a brunt of our derision.

While there was corruption at the top of the regime and that infiltrated the military and we go to great lengths to point that out, these ARVN, as Phil Brady talks about with great admiration, as do others, fought remarkably.

And I am humiliated by the episode of the helicopter coming in and going out with just the American dead. But even more so impressed by the extraordinary heroism of Toan and his three-day survival with ants and maggots all over his body, wounded, as he shows us on camera the actual wound where the AK-47 “put in,” as he put it, and came out. I don’t know of a braver human being that we meet in the film if we’re accounting bravery as a certain distinction in the field of battle.

Q: Watching the film, I just realized I had not accounted for the South Vietnamese in my thinking about the war and I don’t know how that happened to me.

BURNS: I’ll tell you how. I think because we forgot — I mean this is a country that we, in essence, abandoned at the end of it. You can hear a tape later on from Richard Nixon who will explain it really well: We’re playing a bigger game — the Russia game and the China game, and Vietnam is sort of losing its significance. And so the whole reason why we went there, to support this country, when that’s abandoned it doesn’t fit into the convenient American narrative.

And so in this case what you do is you demonize your enemy. You make them just black pajamaed figures coming at you in terrifying fashion. But they don’t have wives, they don’t have mothers that have sent them there. They don’t have dramatic purpose. They don’t have a life. They just fill up the bad guys. The endless hordes of stormtroopers or whatever it is.

And we just sort of felt that we need to go back and find out who the mother was and who the sister was and what the family was like and what they were thinking back home. And I think that gives a dimension to it.

And so Binh Gia becomes almost a fully triangulated battle because you’re not only knowing the two allies but you’re knowing the enemy on the other side as well.

Q: I was wondering if there were things that you were personally curious to learn from the Vietnamese veterans of the war on both the northern and the southern side? It was so interesting to me to hear how the South Vietnamese felt about their allies, because I grew up thinking the war was wrong, so it just never occurred to me that people might be glad that we were there. I mean I think that colonial analysis of America’s behavior in Vietnam is not necessarily wrong, but it’s incomplete in a way that had not occurred to me before this movie.

BURNS: Well this is the great, I hope, glory of shedding some of that preconception about what goes on. I’ve found it in every film and I find it’s what is the engine of my continued interest, not only in the subject of the present film, even if it’s lasting a decade, in the case of this one, but plowing into the other ones is just that frisson you get from that kind of discovery all the time.

We just wanted to say these people have a voice here, and maybe it’s convenient to reduce it to the binary us against the enemy, but isn’t it more interesting and more complicated. And isn’t it more psychologically confusing to have all of these other elements and then to know what they felt?

Q: So I know that Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein made a lot of trips to Vietnam to do these interviews with Vietnamese veterans. So what was that process like of getting them ready to go off to Vietnam, and more broadly what was it like to work with them on this movie?

BURNS: Well, first of all, they’re two of the most extraordinary human beings I’ve ever worked with. I’ve got several different producing groups. They’re all phenomenal people and Lynn and Sarah are among the best. They are super hard-working and I didn’t need to prepare them to go off to Vietnam.

I was just sick because I couldn’t go. I had had, just before the trips were planned in 2011, an operation for kidney stones and I needed to be, as my doctor said, within an hour of a Western hospital, which meant the kind of exploits that they had up and down the full length of Vietnam would have been impossible for me. And so I watched them in 2011 and ’12 go off.

But I also felt confident. I mean, I had a lot of other projects I was working on, so I was not sitting there pouting or crying. But I had supreme confidence in them all. And I think that the really great force in this was Lynn saying, “We need to have these voices” over and over and over again. And then what she and Sarah were able to get, I think, in many ways is just the perfect complement to the American story that is the central narrative of this, and makes, I believe, that American narrative much more clear when you understand things.

I mean, it’s pretty amazing to look at a Viet Cong guy looking through the hedgerows at Americans grieving over their dead and wounded and suddenly dawning on him, the Viet Cong, that we Americans had humanity just like us Vietnamese. It’s really good to have that come from the other side. It’s like giving it — when you extend dimension to your enemy, they become human beings.

Burns’s co-director, Lynn Novick, was the one who actually went to Vietnam to conduct all of these interviews.

How did she figure out what kind of people she wanted to talk to? When she got to Vietnam, how did she find them? Veterans records are much more scattered in Vietnam than in the United States. And when she sat down with their interview subjects, how did she conduct those conversations? Novick doesn’t speak Vietnamese, and many veterans of the war don’t speak English. I talked to her about that experience.

Q: So I know you had a wish list of people you wanted to interview in Vietnam. People who have been at certain battles like Binh Gia or had certain experiences like working on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. How did you develop that list in the first place? And then once you had that list, how did you go looking for the people that you wanted to fill those roles?

LYNN NOVICK: You know, we didn’t start out with the list that we then went to fill in. We sort of started off with a much more general list of, we’d like to find people who were in combat, people who protested the war, people whose families were divided, families who lost somebody in the war. People from different ethnic backgrounds or different parts of the country, people who were involved in covering the war. People who maybe were nurses or doctors who took care of the wounded, people who flew in helicopters.

So we had some categories. But after that it became a very organic process of discovery. So, in fact, one of the things we were doing was looking for people who covered the war, and we got in touch with Joe Galloway. And he had been a reporter, a very young man who went to Vietnam in 1965. And I met with him and he was willing to be involved in the film and then he had some ideas of people we should talk to that he’d already talked to. And he said, “You gotta talk to my friend Phil Brady, he’s got a great story and you just have to contact him.”

So I went to see Phil Brady, who was then working for Senator James Webb. He was a senior aide to Senator Webb. So we met up on Capitol Hill and sat down and talked with him and he said, “Do you know anything about the battle of Binh Gia?” And I said, “Actually no, what was that?” So he had to explain to me what the battle was and that he was there. And then he said, “And I also have a Vietnamese counterpart that you should talk to.”

So one thing actually led to another and we ended up interviewing Phil Brady and his South Vietnamese counterpart. And then we went to Vietnam and tried to find a Viet Cong guerilla who was fighting against them at the same battle.

And if we had said at the beginning of the film, we’re looking for three people who fought in the battle of Binh Gia — I’d never heard of the battle of Binh Gia before we started this film. So each person was kind of a voyage of discovery and we just tried to keep an open mind and see where things led.

Q: So I don’t know as much about Vietnam as I do about the United States, but were there veterans organizations or any sort of networks in Vietnam that were helpful in tracking folks down, or was a lot of what you were doing sort of, this person knows this person and this is how we’re finding this third person?

NOVICK: So, in trying to figure out how to do the kind of work we do in Vietnam, we weren’t really quite sure how things were organized there. There are veterans organizations that are regional and that are local and probably by unit as well. They’re not as well organized perhaps as veterans here. So we needed help with that.

And we were able to get incredible help with a man named Ho Dang Hoa, who became our co-producer in Vietnam. He helped us track down individual veterans — people who were in particular battles, or who lived in a particular area, or who fought in the war at different times.

After a while he kind of got a sense of what we were looking for, and when he suggested someone we knew it was someone we should talk to.

Q: That’s got to be a really interesting process of bringing someone into a fairly established working process and working relationship like that.

NOVICK: Yeah, exactly. It was really challenging and exciting and sometimes difficult, I think for all of us, because we were asking the kinds of questions about the war that are not often asked in Vietnam.

And so to communicate to people that we really wanted to hear their true experiences, their personal stories — we didn’t want to hear the slogans about the war. We understand what you were fighting for in terms of the big picture of what was at stake, but what was it really like for you day to day?

How often did you connect with your family? What did you have to eat? Do you have any friends who were killed? Did you ever see any Americans? What kind of combat memories do you have? What was it like to come home? Did anyone get wounded? You know, the sort of day-to-day details of what life was like is what we wanted to know.

And that’s not the way that they often talk about the war among themselves. If they talk about it at all, which is not that often. I think that was true for most of the people that we spoke with — that they had never been asked. They had never been filmed. They had never certainly spoken to foreigners about the war in the way that we were wanting to. But I think even to their families and friends, I just think they don’t talk about it very much. So we had the sense that we were hearing stories that have never been told, or not been told very often for sure.

Q: It must have taken a lot of work to get people to open up like that. We were talking to Ben Wilkinson, who I know worked with you in Vietnam, and he said that he thought you had a meal with every person you interviewed before you started asking them questions. What were those meetings like?

NOVICK: Well, you know, there’s nothing like sitting down with people and sharing a meal and maybe having a drink and just talking. And not talking about the war per se. We just would talk about whatever. Where do you live? How many children do you have? What do they do? What did you do after the war? Just in a way almost avoid the subject of the war sometimes and save that for when the camera was on, but just get to know each other.

But I vividly remember my first trip to Vietnam, Ben and Hoa and I went down to the Mekong Delta and we met some of the veterans of the battle of Ap Bac, who appear in the film multiple times not just there but throughout the film.

And they had sort of a banquet for us. And many people from the town came, and it was under this pavilion, sort of open-air, and they cooked food for us. And there was a soup, and there was some sort of cooked meat, and there was rice wine. And we did a lot of toasting and a lot of eating food that I don’t know exactly what I ate. And Ben said afterwards that some of the veterans were very touched that an American would come all this way to their village and sit and eat with them — eat their food and drink their wine and, you know, just sort of meet with them on their turf where they live and meet them where they are and just be in their world for a little while. And it doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but I think it doesn’t happen every day. So that was one of my favorite days of working on this entire project. It was really wonderful. After a while we really did feel like we connected.

Q: But the food was amazing, too.

NOVICK: The food was amazing. I remember Hoa was saying to me “don’t eat that.” And I’d already eaten it. I don’t know what it was — it was something with intestines.

So the food was incredible. The food in Vietnam is amazing. I never got tired of it. It’s absolutely delicious and varied and exciting and sometimes rather mysterious.

Q: Were there things that you learned from your Vietnamese sources that particularly upended your sense of the war? I mean, obviously making a movie like this is a reporting process, but I was curious if there was anything in particular that kind of turned the world around for you?

NOVICK: There are many, many things. I did not know much about their experience before going there and speaking to people. I’d done a lot of homework and reading, but I don’t think it really sunk in in some ways how incredibly difficult the war was for ordinary soldiers, and how heavy a price they paid, and how many died, and what that meant if you were a soldier in the war.

There’s a lot of stories that are not in the final film, but one of the veterans told us he went to the south in 1967 and he went home in 1975 when the war was over. And when he got back to the north, his brother was waiting for him at the airport but he didn’t recognize his own brother because he’d been away so long. He didn’t know what his brother looked like. And when he went home to his village his mother couldn’t believe it, because she had basically, after so many years of hearing not one word from him, had essentially decided that he had probably died. And every year on his birthday, which is the day that they honor people who died I think — I hope I have this right — but every year she would have a ceremony on the day she thought he died or on his birthday just remembering him, because she assumed he was dead.

So even just the idea of that — fighting a war for so long. Being gone and having no contact with your family. Not recognizing your own siblings because you haven’t seen them or seen a photograph or been in touch with them at all. Your mother having thought you were dead and then seeing you. I mean, those are just things that are kind of unimaginable for most Americans, and certainly for me.

I had to really digest that to begin to understand what the war demanded of the North Vietnamese soldiers who fought in it, who were going really to a foreign country. I mean, most of them, they were going to a place they’d never been and they didn’t know if they would ever get home again.

My lifelong fascination with the Vietnam War had limits. It turns out, I really only knew about the American side of the story.

I didn’t know about the South Vietnamese soldiers the Americans were supposed to be fighting with, much less the North Vietnamese.

As it turns out, though, you can’t figure out why America lost a war by only looking at what Americans thought and what Americans did.

Learning more about how Vietnamese people experienced the war helped me understand where America went wrong, and how, sometimes, we even hurt the people we claimed to be helping.

For more on “The Vietnam War”: