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What Ken Burns' Vietnam War docu-series on PBS gets wrong

111917 Del Vecchio Beltway Oped pic
The terrorism practiced by the VC was constant and widespread. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Various veterans and historians have provided critical reviews of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick series "The Vietnam War," and there is a score of points they take issue with, but I will address perhaps the simplest one: Glossing over the conscious and rigorously practiced policy of atrocities by the communist forces, while spotlighting those few committed by United States forces.

The terrorism practiced by the VC was constant and widespread; by the end of 1968, nearly 42,000 citizens of the south had been assassinated or kidnapped, never to be seen again. Teachers, policemen, village chiefs, monks, soldiers, and others were killed – sometimes whole families, sometimes in deeply gruesome ways.

The organized massacres in Hue during Tet are now known to add up to more than 5,000 people, including German doctors, French priests, and others – some shot, others clubbed, and many buried alive.

In the village of Dak Son in December 1967, more than 250 unarmed villagers were burned to death by NVA flamethrowers. We saw pictures of those murdered in My Lai, but none were shown of the burned bodies from Dak Son, or the remains dug up in Hue — wrists wired together, or gags stuffed down their throats.

What kind of “balance” is there when the tragic and shameful actions of a few units and individuals, against U.S. policies, as aberrations, not standard practice, are hammered on in agonizing detail, when the enormously greater deliberate policy of the opposing side is mentioned briefly and the huge multiple of deaths resulting from it is not explored?

One way to judge the morality of a war is what transpires when it ends.

In Europe, after World War II, death camps were closed, freedoms were restored, healing started. In Vietnam after April 1975, tens of thousands were executed, and well more than a million went into concentration camps for as long as 18 years, with a high death rate from starvation, overwork, and brutality.

All newspapers were closed, properties were seized, and conditions became such that nearly 2 million people were uprooted from the land of their ancestors and fled. More than 250,000 fled the north to become refugees in China, while those who took boats or attempted to walk to Thailand across the killing fields of Cambodia took a 25 percent chance of dying by doing so.

The imposition of Marxist economics led to near-starvation and the highest natal death rate in all of Asia. Religious groups were persecuted and came under various levels of state control "for their own good."

All those who had worked for the Saigon government in even the least ways became subject to official discrimination about jobs, where they could live, and education; the discrimination follows from the fathers to their children and grandchildren.

The wonderful promises of the National Liberation Front, which was sold to the world as a purely local Southern entity, never came up again, and the communists treated them as figureheads -- in the end, they voluntarily disbanded in frustration and disgust.

Some of them ended up as refugees from the country they had suffered for over many years of hard struggle. Thus the “liberation and justice” that were supposed to come with the eradication of the Republic of Vietnam by Hanoi turned out to be something very different from what the sincere antiwar supporters had thought they were marching for.

All of this tells us what the truth of the war was.

Not a war of nationalism to “free” the South, but a war of communist conquest to impose that system on a people who, after Tet 1968, absolutely did not want to live under it.

Today, Vietnam is still infamous for its human rights violations, rampant corruption, and a privileged and super-wealthy upper class that sends their children to American universities.

These are the truths that Americans should understand – not the inaccuracies, omissions, and slant of the TV series. Many veterans are waiting to see Ken Burns respond to our calls for an open and public discussion about the content of the series.

R. J. Del Vecchio is the executive secretary of Vietnam Veterans for Factual History.

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