A gripping documentary on the Vietnam War -- described by many viewers as a masterful depiction of a prolonged conflict that divided the nation -- has left many American and Vietnamese veterans feeling deeply disappointed, even betrayed.
"The Vietnam War" -- a 10-part, 18-hour PBS documentary by American filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that concluded Thursday night -- depicts the history of the war through photographs, archival footage and interviews with more than 80 veterans and witnesses from all sides. The film has been hailed as a hard-hitting, raw account of the war and the players involved.
But veterans of the South Vietnamese military say they were largely left out of the narrative, their voices drowned out by the film's focus on North Vietnam and its communist leader, Ho Chi Minh. And many American veterans say that the series had several glaring omissions and focused too much on leftist anti-war protesters and soldiers who came to oppose the war.
On Thursday evening, hours before the film's final installment aired, a group of American and South Vietnamese veterans came together at a San Jose home to share memories of the war and talk about the documentary.
Sutton Vo, a former major in South Vietnam's army engineering corps, watched the series but has told friends and family not to do so. The film is "pure propaganda," he said.
"The Vietnam War included the Americans, South Vietnam and North Vietnam. But in the 18 hours, the role of South Vietnam was very small," said Vo, 80. "Any documentary should be fair and should tell the truth to the people."
After the war, Vo was sent to a communist "re-education" camp, where he was imprisoned for 13 years. At one point, he said, he was confined for three months to a pitch-black cell virtually 24 hours a day -- his feet shackled and his hands bound with rubber string -- after an escape attempt.
Despite South Vietnam's fall to the communists in 1975, he said, South Vietnamese soldiers did what they could with what little they had.
"We fought for our country with our best," Vo said. "We didn't need the Americans to do our job for us. We didn't need the American GIs to come and fight for us. We needed money, supplies and international support."
Like Vo, Cang Dong spent time in a re-education camp; he was freed in 1987. Dong, 70, president of the local chapter of Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America, has just started watching the series, but said he's unhappy with what he sees as the filmmakers' glorification of Ho.
"Everything is a big lie," he said. "To our people, Ho Chi Minh was a big liar and immoral."
Veteran Jim Barker, 70, of San Jose, also said he was surprised by the extent of coverage given to North Vietnamese soldiers in the film.
"What bothered me is the element of arrogance that seemed to come out in seeing themselves so superior. I had trouble with that," said Barker, who was an adviser with a South Vietnamese intelligence unit in the Central Highlands and survived the siege of Kontum in 1972. "That focus detracted attention from the people of South Vietnam and the idealism that was there."
In a recent interview with New America Media, Novick acknowledged that historically the stories of South Vietnamese were simplified in the U.S. news media, which she said portrayed the South as "inept and corrupt."
"But the film has gone a long way to tell their stories, the heroism and the stories of personal sacrifice made by those on the losing side," she said.
Asked about criticism that stories were missing from the narrative, Burns in the same interview said he and Novick had to make "huge, painful decisions."
"We cannot tell every story," Burns said. "Even if it were 180 hours, people would say, 'You left this out.' What you want to do is tell a story in which this Gold Star mother had to stand in for lots of Gold Star mothers, and this Saigon civilian has to stand in for many Saigon civilians, and this ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) marine has to stand in for many, many ARVN marines. But we feel that we put our arms around everything."
PBS did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.
Jack Wells, a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Marine Corps who served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, called the documentary "a masterpiece of video and footage" in which he learned a number of things, but said he identified several omissions that bothered him.
He pointed to the film's depiction of Kim Phuc, "the Napalm girl" who became a famous symbol of the war after a 1972 photograph showed her running naked on a road with other children, her back severely burned by a South Vietnamese napalm attack. The film said Phuc left Vietnam and eventually moved to Canada but didn't mention that she had requested political asylum from the Vietnamese communists, who had used her as a propaganda symbol, Wells said.
The documentary had serious biases, the 73-year-old Cupertino resident said.
"If they had an anti-war protester, they didn't seem to give the same amount of time to someone who wasn't a protester or someone who saw humanitarian treatment of the enemy," Wells said.
Barker agreed. "A lot of us have a tremendous sense of pride for what we attempted to do and defend," he said.
Beth Nguyen, an author and a graduate professor at the University of San Francisco, arrived as a baby in the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975 after her family escaped by boat. The family settled in Michigan.
"I grew up knowing about the war in the same way that most Americans grew up learning about the war, which was through movies or books," said Nguyen, 43. "Mostly every movie is done by a white man. And this documentary is sort of the same perspective."
Nguyen said she also felt the film diminished the voices of South Vietnam, which she said was "expected and disappointing."
"America was divided by the war," she said. "American pain and suffering is something I feel is important to discuss and think about, but it should not come at the expense of Vietnamese pain and suffering, which is what usually happens."
The documentary took on a different meaning for 54-year-old Andrew Lam, whose father, a former lieutenant general for the South Vietnamese army, was featured throughout the documentary.
Lam, a Fremont resident who grew up in Milpitas, was the journalist who interviewed Novick as well as Burns earlier this month for New America Media, a multimedia ethnic news agency based in San Francisco.
The film brought out emotions in his father, 86-year-old Thi Quang Lam, that he had never seen growing up, he said.
"It was very emotional, because I knew the events, but I never knew how he felt," Lam said.
A pivotal moment in the film came when his father was asked to describe how he felt when the ship he was traveling on toward the Philippines -- where he would ask for political asylum -- asked Lam and fellow vets to take down the South Vietnamese flag that had been hanging from the ship.
"I could hear the cry in his voice, which to me was a shock because my father was a general," Lam said. "We didn't talk about how we felt." ___
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