Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS documentary on the Vietnam War has much to admire including a brilliant sound track, great vintage footage and a wide array of interviews with Vietnamese and American soldiers.
Certain aspects of the war are well covered, including some of its ugly dimensions on the American side like the My-Lai massacre.
However, the film is misleading in framing of the war as a response to the Cold War when the U.S. had set about establishing an informal empire of military bases in Southeast Asia and invaded Vietnam as part of a historical pattern of intervention dating to the conquest of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century.
The film furthermore, promotes various myths about the Vietnam War that have been used to advance damaging policies, including with regards to drugs.
In Episode #9, a “Disrespectful Loyalty” narrator Peter Coyote cites a Pentagon report alleging that 40,000 U.S. troops were addicted to heroin.
This figure cannot be accurate.
In June 1971, the Pentagon instituted a mandatory urinalysis test for departing soldiers under the direction of Dr. Jerome H. Jaffe, Nixon’s drug czar. 3.6 percent were found to have had heroin in their system and 5.5 percent were thought to have previously used the drug.
In 1971, according to official data, there were 156,800 troops in Vietnam. In doing the math, this leaves only 4,704 soldiers who used heroin, and 7,840 who had heroin in their system, not 40,000.
In May 1972, when the urinalysis test was conducted again, only 1.5 percent tested positive. In that year, there were 24,200 U.S. soldiers left in Vietnam among the demoralized army. That leaves just over 363.
Dr. Jaffe stated that the urinalysis test “was a way for us to determine how extensive the scope of addiction was, which we did not really know going in. [It] proved the rates were lower than reported in the media and that soldiers who used heroin once or twice, contrary to myths about being enslaved, could stop at will [to pass the test when penalty was prolonging their tour of duty].”
The urinalysis tests to be sure did reveal inconsistencies and Michael Cook, a chromatographer responsible for compiling test data, referred to the laboratory at Tan Son Nhut as a “circus.” However, Jaffe believes the number of addicts in Vietnam was actually lower than the number who tested positive on the tests because many casual users were “caught in the net.”
In May 1971, Morgan F. Murphy (D-Ill) and Robert H. Steele (R-CT) released a sensational report to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, “The World Heroin Problem,” which estimated that between 25,000 and 37,000 (or 10-15%) of GIs had become addicted to heroin. Two months later, after meeting with Jaffe, Steele recanted these claims, stating that Jaffe’s figure of 3 to 5 percent were the “best available statistics that we have to date.”
Even though it is possible that Steele was bowing to political pressure, there is no evidence to substantiate his original declaration, which at a minimum conflated drug experimentation with addiction.
Burns and Novick’s film thus presents misleading information. It in turn helps to reinforce the stereotype of Vietnam soldiers during the latter phase of the war as junkies -an image that helped fuel the growth of the War on Drugs in the early 1970s. Some soldiers it should be noted took heroin and other drugs to self-medicate and as a collective form of defiance against their commanders and studies showed that some soldiers actually performed their jobs well under the influence of drugs as they helped to relieve stress.
Another myth the film promotes relates to the alleged mistreatment of U.S. soldiers by peace activists. Many veterans may not have received the heroic homecoming they wanted, however, there is little concrete evidence they were targeted by antiwar protestors.
Jerry L. Lembcke has written an important book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam (NYU Press, 1998) which shows that instances of spitting on soldiers was not reported on at the time of the war and that many veterans joined the antiwar movement which was on the whole sympathetic to them.
Lembcke scrutinizes news reports and writing from the time where evidence of spitting or other maltreatment is lacking. He found flaws in the narratives of soldiers being spat upon by hippie women allegedly at the San Francisco airport since soldiers would have already been in civilian clothing at that time. Most women also do not spit.
In Episode #8, John Musgrave, a Marine Corporal who was badly wounded in Vietnam and later joined Veterans for Peace, claims that the antiwar movement got nasty for a period and called veterans baby killers and protested them and that he had trouble getting dates at Baker University in Kansas.
The film then presents footage from a protest on a college campus that appears to be Dartmouth targeting the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), not returning veterans.
The signs read: “ROTC Does not Belong on a Liberal Arts Campus,” “Stop Vietnam Deaths, ROTC off Campus;” “ROTC- Better Living Through Murder” and another “Obey, Obey, Obey, Don’t Think.”
A previous montage had an antiwar sign that read: “Burn Draft Cards, Not Children.” The sign intended young men to resist the draft so they would not have to kill innocents in Vietnam, as soldiers like John F. Kerry admitted they had done, and condemned those who ordered napalm attacks. It was not disparaging of veterans but rather the war.
I found Musgrave to be one of the most likeable people interviewed in the film. I am sure he felt alienated when he returned from Vietnam and may have had some bad experiences at his college. However, the segment featuring him does not provide strong evidence the antiwar movement in any systematic way targeted veterans in their protests particularly since the video footage showed protestors targeting ROTC.
In Episode #9, Karl Marlantes, a Marine veteran and author of two books about the Vietnam War, claims he too was heckled by antiwar protestors when he returned from Vietnam at Travis Air Force base. Marlantes moralizes and says they were simply wrong. However, the footage from the scene shows a protest signs that read: “Active Duty GIs Against the War” and a vest worn by a veteran with the same slogan.
If many of the people protesting were veterans, perhaps they were shouting at Marlantes to join them. It is unlikely that active duty soldiers would berate one of their own or tolerate others doing so.
The Burns-Novick film generally does not convince me that antiwar protestors in any systematic way targeted or were against Vietnam veterans. The film rather presents considerable evidence that the antiwar movement was aghast by the terrible human costs of the Vietnam War and some of the things U.S. soldiers had been ordered to do and by the system that molded them. They also wanted the removal of ROTC from university campuses and encouraged young people to burn their draft cards.
I can see how some veterans would have reacted adversely given all they had sacrificed, but these are not anti-veteran positions. Rather they are ones designed to protect young men from experiencing the hell of Vietnam and that criticize a misguided foreign policy and societal institutions.
Overall the depiction of the anti-war movement is somewhat mixed in the film, with its violent aspects over-emphasized perhaps just a little bit and some of its major luminaries and contributions left out. By leaving the impression antiwar activists mistreated veterans, the film sadly contributes to a negative impression of it when it was among the only positive things to come out of the Vietnam War.
By exaggerating the levels of heroin addiction in Vietnam, the film also ever so subtly reinforces a narrative that has been used to promote the War on Drugs.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Massachusetts, 2009) among other works.