Viet­nam re­vis­ited

Doc­u­men­tary on Viet­nam War ex­plores re­al­i­ties of bat­tle on ev­ery side

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Nott

PBS doc­u­men­tary ex­plores the con­flict from all sides.

When the U.S. Se­lec­tive Ser­vice Sys­tem ini­ti­ated the first of two draft lot­ter­ies in 1970 to send men to the war in Viet­nam, 19-year-old Paul Barnes felt a sense of dread. “I was ter­ri­fied about the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing drafted,” Barnes, 66, said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “I had friends who went over, and they came back like the walk­ing wounded.”

Barnes got lucky. His lot­tery num­ber was so low he wasn’t called. Ab­solved from wartime ser­vice, he at­tended the New York Univer­sity In­sti­tute of Film and Tele­vi­sion. By the end of the 1970s, he was work­ing as a film ed­i­tor, and in the early 1980s he col­lab­o­rated with renowned doc­u­men­tary film­maker Ken Burns for the first time on The Statue of Lib­erty.

Barnes, who lives in Santa Fe, also worked as an ed­i­tor on Burns’ new project, the 10-part PBS se­ries The Viet­nam War, which de­buts Sun­day on most PBS af­fil­i­ates. Work­ing on the doc­u­men­tary re­vived mem­o­ries of his teen years, an era of peace marches, protests and civil-rights move­ments, promis­cu­ity, psy­che­delic drugs and mu­sic to match.

For Viet­nam veter­ans, the se­ries has evoked rec­ol­lec­tions of com­bat and death.

“Ev­ery­thing [in the film] is re­al­is­tic in terms of what was shown,” said Jerry Martinez of Santa Fe, who was serv­ing as a Marine in 1974 and was de­ployed to Viet­nam to help with the U.S. with­drawal. Martinez, one of more than 50,000 Viet­nam veter­ans liv­ing in New Mex­ico, watched clips from the se­ries dur­ing a spe­cial pre­view screen­ing last month at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter. The event in­cluded a talk by Barnes.

“There was a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing,” Martinez said, “the po­lit­i­cal side, the in­di­vid­ual side, what it was like be­ing in­volved in com­bat. I could re­late to all of that. It brought back some mem­o­ries.”

He ap­plauded the film­mak­ers for pre­sent­ing the re­al­i­ties of the war.

Chuck Zobac, an Army vet­eran who served in Viet­nam from 1967-68, also at­tended the Len­sic event. Burns and his ensem­ble have cre­ated “an ac­cu­rate de­pic­tion of the events and the people in­volved,” he said.

Zobac, in his late 70s, suf­fered from post-trau­matic

stress dis­or­der after the war. Now the Santa Fe man helps other veter­ans with his weekly ra­dio show, Call­ing All Veter­ans, which airs at noon ev­ery Tues­day on KVSF, 101.5 FM.

“I felt it was prob­a­bly the best anti-war movie I have ever seen, in its de­pic­tion of the people con­duct­ing it at an ex­tremely high level,” Zobac said of Burns’ doc­u­men­tary. He named Sec­re­tary of De­fense Robert McNa­mara, Pres­i­dents Richard Nixon and Lyn­don B. John­son, “who re­ally didn’t have a strat­egy or an end goal in mind.”

The hu­man price tag of the war was high. The two-decade con­flict be­gan in 1954, and the U.S. be­came heav­ily in­volved 10 years later. By the time the war ended in the mid-1970s, some 58,000 Amer­i­cans had died in com­bat, in­clud­ing more than 400 New Mex­i­cans. Also killed were at least 250,000 South Viet­namese com­bat­ants and more than 1 mil­lion sol­diers from North Viet­nam. At least 2 mil­lion civil­ians died as well.

The 18-hour Viet­nam War se­ries cap­tures the losses — of life, of land and of honor. All of this oc­curred against the po­lit­i­cal, mil­i­tary and cul­tural strug­gles that dom­i­nated the war.

“Who won or who lost is not the ques­tion,” one North Viet­namese com­bat vet­eran says in the doc­u­men­tary. “In war, no one wins or loses.”

The se­ries starts in the 1850s, when French colo­nial­ists took over the re­gion known as Viet­nam. The Viet­namese learned how to rebel quickly, and main­tained that com­bat­ive ap­proach later with Ja­panese in­vaders dur­ing World War II. The Viet­nam War makes it clear that the Viet­namese, as a people, were ca­pa­ble of dy­ing for free­dom in large num­bers — year after year, no mat­ter who the en­emy was.

The doc­u­men­tary in­cludes in­ter­views with veter­ans from all sides of the con­flict, whose rec­ol­lec­tions open up sharp wounds and flash­backs to the days when they com­mit­ted atroc­i­ties they do not want their moth­ers to know about, and when fear and hate in­ter­twined once the shoot­ing and bomb­ing be­gan.

In an age when gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials seem­ingly work over­time to deny the media ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion, The Viet­nam War ben­e­fits from film footage shot mostly by tele­vi­sion cam­era op­er­a­tors. Jour­nal­ists who cov­ered the war had un­lim­ited en­try into the war zone, fol­low­ing the anx­ious troops as they made their way through un­fa­mil­iar jun­gles and rice pad­dies looking for an en­emy they of­ten couldn’t find.

Burns, Barnes and the other ed­i­tors who worked on the show were de­lighted to find this footage, Barnes said, and were pleased they were able to lo­cate Viet­namese schol­ars, his­to­ri­ans, mil­i­tary veter­ans and civil­ians who also suf­fered through the war.

“We combed through ev­ery­thing, not just in the states, but in Viet­nam, France, Bri­tain and Ja­pan,” Barnes said. As a re­sult, they came across “won­der­ful dis­cov­er­ies — not just with film footage but with his­to­ri­ans who made the film far richer.”

Re­view­ing that footage for use in the doc­u­men­tary was tough, Barnes, said. “The bru­tal­ity of the war is hor­ri­fy­ing to watch day after day after day. It took an emo­tional and some­times phys­i­cal toll on me. Some­times I just had to get up and walk away from it for a while.”

Burns, who ini­tially set out to present the con­flict just from the Amer­i­can side, even­tu­ally cre­ated a “tri­an­gu­lat­ing view of what the three sides went through,” Barnes said, speak­ing of the U.S. mil­i­tary and the armies of North and South Viet­nam.

“We present the facts of what hap­pened from all sides,” he added, “And leave it up to the in­tel­li­gence of the au­di­ence watch­ing to come to its own con­clu­sion about the war.”

Barnes cred­its the doc­u­men­tary with hu­man­iz­ing the North Viet­namese com­bat­ants and show­ing the per­sonal losses they ex­pe­ri­enced.

“It doesn’t make them seem like mon­sters in any way,” he said.

In de­pict­ing Pres­i­dent John­son as a leader who ac­cused the press of ly­ing in its cov­er­age of the con­tro­ver­sial war, the se­ries re­flects cur­rent ten­sions be­tween Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and the media.

The se­ries por­trays Pres­i­dents John F. Kennedy, Nixon and John­son as men who fa­vored get­ting elected over do­ing the right thing and end­ing the war.

Barnes said his most im­me­di­ate mem­ory of that era was watch­ing tele­vi­sion with his fa­ther in the early 1960s, a broad­cast about how Kennedy, in­tent on avoid­ing a “domino the­ory” of Asian coun­tries fall­ing un­der com­mu­nist con­trol, es­ca­lated the war by send­ing more sol­diers to Viet­nam. Kennedy’s de­ci­sion ini­tially fell un­der the radar, with­out the pub­lic know­ing.

Barnes’ fa­ther, who worked as a foreman in a Gen­eral Elec­tric plant, kept looking at his son as he watched the be­lated news and say­ing, “We shouldn’t be do­ing this.”

Barnes’ sec­ond im­me­di­ate mem­ory was of the man­ner in which many Amer­i­cans greeted the men who fought an in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar war when they re­turned to Amer­ica.

“I was ap­palled at the treat­ment,” he said. “Whether you thought the war was right or wrong, you shouldn’t look at them side­ways as if they were war crim­i­nals. That wasn’t right.”

In an in­ter­view last year, Zobac spoke to The New Mex­i­can about re­turn­ing to the U.S. fol­low­ing his tour of duty. He re­ceived a non-hero’s wel­come, he said. Some called him a baby killer, which hurt, he said, be­cause he had once helped a medic de­liver a baby for a young Viet­namese woman.

When the Amer­i­can in­volve­ment in the war ended in 1973, Barnes said, he felt re­lieved: “So glad that the end­less un­nec­es­sary deaths would fi­nally end, but dis­gusted that even the fi­nal days of the U.S. with­drawal were so botched and mis­man­aged.

“We did noth­ing right in that war from the very be­gin­ning,” he said. “It ended as it be­gan — as a fi­asco of epic pro­por­tions.”


Civil­ians hud­dle to­gether in June 1965 after an at­tack by South Viet­namese forces in Dong Xoai.


Film ed­i­tor Paul Barnes view­ing Viet­nam War photos taken by Herb Lotz on dis­play at the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum. Barnes worked on Ken Burns’ new doc­u­men­tary se­ries, The Viet­nam War, which airs on most PBS af­fil­i­ates on Sun­day, Sept. 17.


Young North Viet­namese join the Youth Shock Bri­gades Against the Amer­i­cans for Na­tional Sal­va­tion.

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