Opinion

'The Vietnam War' Carries a Lesson for Israelis

It’s hard to imagine a series like 'The Vietnam War' being made about Israel, where war is seen as our inescapable destiny

From Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's ' 'The Vietnam War.'
Yes Docu

During the final episode of “The Vietnam War,” the documentary series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I started weeping uncontrollably. Over 10 episodes and 17 hours of intensive viewing, I’d shed some tears and furtively wiped them away. I’d stifled some sobs. It had been a long and difficult binge watch, and at this point all the emotion came bursting out. I wailed aloud. All the sadness that had been building up overflowed like an oil spill that floods and chokes the ground.

The viewing experience really puts you through the emotional wringer. This was the first show I ever watched where I really felt the artillery fire, the missiles falling and the bullets whistling by, as if I were being thrown right into the midst of the bloody battles. I died with the dead, I survived with the survivors. How much can one take?

I cried not only for the Vietnamese and the Americans, but also for us, the Israelis, for how we’ve come to think of war as our inescapable destiny, as something that no one dares challenge anymore. Not just fail to challenge, but practically take pleasure in. Wars of choice satisfy a blood lust. They exist as a reason unto themselves. A spectacle of impotent, aimless violence. Israel’s wars have turned into operations that turn into celebrations of the losses inflicted on the other side. Pilots in the skies above press their joysticks and drop bombs, as if playing video games, while down below soldiers leave but fail to return. For what? For whom? To defend “the state”? Who is this “state”? A bunch of cynical politicians who puff out their chests like plucked turkeys. I would love to see this show screened on Avigdor Lieberman’s forehead.

“The Vietnam War” is one of the greatest anti-war works of our time, thanks in large part to its meticulous historical research and documentary-style realism. The stupidity and futility of human violence have never been more starkly illustrated. The pure idiocy of it is impossible to deny. In one interview, a Marines officer says straightforwardly: “You’re killing people in order to protect your male ego.” In one stunning bit of archival footage, the American undersecretary of defense admits that the real reason for the U.S. ground invasion of Vietnam in March 1965 was “70 percent to avoid humiliation.” Two million Vietnamese and more than 50,000 American troops were killed due to infantile, trigger-happy cowboys whose inferiority complexes drove them to jockey for popularity and prestige.

In this series you won’t find any of the usual nonsense told to us by security “experts” of the kind we’ve grown accustomed to in the Israeli media, as they try to convince us of the logic of unnecessary wars. Here it is absolutely clear: What happened was pointless from the outset, a nightmarish whim that came true, brutal historical randomness that had nothing to do with survival or moral values. You watch this series and you just can’t comprehend how this all could have happened. The situation was so clear, so obvious. How could it have been ignored at the time? What did they hope to achieve with war? What do we hope to achieve?

As usual, there were those who saw what was coming and tried to warn about it, and others who insisted on pressing ahead regardless. There were macho thugs who sent others to their deaths and those who refused to toe the line with the terrible lie that became an ideology.

Raging inferno, hidden pleasure

There’s a lesson here for us, too. At a time when Breaking the Silence and human rights organizations are commonly denounced, it’s important to remember who is really serving the national interest and who is only purporting to do so. The one who puts you into the big quagmire is no great patriot. And he’s not the one who will get you out of that quagmire either.

It’s hard for me to imagine a series like “The Vietnam War” being produced in Israel. Here we can’t disconnect ourselves that way from the army, even when ostensibly seeking to criticize it. Americans already have enough perspective. They’ve learned the lesson, even when their leaders insist on repeating the same mistakes. Israelis shoot and cry and then send their children to combat units. The raging inferno provides hidden pleasure. Suffering is a worthwhile cost of admission to the hegemony. War films, features and documentaries, are an inseparable part of the Israeli identity. They’re suffused with a certain kind of sentimentality that ultimately leaves a good feeling. How we love to bemoan our sins and emerge from it unscathed. In these films, it sometimes seems that the remorseful Israeli soldier is suffering more than the shattered body at his feet.

The soldiers in “The Vietnam War” talk about the loss of humanity, about the appalling racism toward Vietnamese civilians, about methodical killings of officers by their subordinates, about massacres and mass rapes. You hear it and realize that the worst may be yet to come. They aren’t talking in order to salve their conscience. As soon as they got out of the army they became the biggest opponents of the Vietnam War. They went from being soldiers clutching a commando knife in their bare teeth to growing long hair, charging the barricades, getting beaten up by police and risking their standing to try to use their influence on the public. Theirs is not the pacifism of the spoiled. They were 20-year-old kids whose eyes were opened by the horrors of war. They are consumed with shame. In these parts, even 60-year-old card-carrying leftists maintain the enthusiasm of new conscripts. “It bothers me to realize that I was at my peak when I did something as terrible as war,” says one of the interviewees in the series, staring at the floor.

From Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's ' 'The Vietnam War.'
Yes Docu

Another thing you say to yourself as you watch the show: Wow, how lucky we are to have the Palestinians as our adversary. The Vietnamese fought the Americans with unbelievable ferocity. They sacrificed millions, they fought with blind zeal. Their guerrilla fighters were absolutely determined to expel the foreign invader. They charged out of forests and swamps, they mobilized women and children. Entire towns were razed and they wouldn’t give an inch. And we complain about Hamas and Abu Mazen? If Vietnam and the United States could sign a reconciliation agreement after such a bloody battle, what reason is there to continue the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Because of a lack of mutual sympathy? Games of honor? What’s the point of all this?

“Why can’t we just get along?” Rodney King asked plaintively after he was pummeled by police officers who arrested him in his cab in Los Angeles in 1991. Why indeed? This is the only question that is left unanswered.

In the final episode of “The Vietnam War” the camera lingers on a American vet warmly embracing his old enemy, a former Vietcong fighter. They are scarred and wrinkled old men, their comrades long dead. Their embrace expresses what should be so obvious – They are no different from one another. They are people who were thrown into the inferno and emerged alive. They were lucky. Others were not as lucky. And all that’s left now is to cry over the terrible waste.

From Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's ' 'The Vietnam War.'
Felix Greene / Yes Docu