01/27/23 / Gary Ghirardi / NNOMY -Today, January 27th, 2023, marks the fiftieth year of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords that ostensibly ended the hostilities to end the Vietnam War between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam); the United States; and the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG), which represented South Vietnamese communists. The accords would have established a clear separation of a non-communist south and a communist north but the “peace treaty” did not hold with neither side recognizing the legitimacy of the other. The war culminated with a disillusioned American public pressuring the U.S. Government for a withdrawal of U.S.Troops. The South Vietnamese Government fell under North Vietnamese opposition in 1975.
Fifty years later the U.S. finds itself in a protracted proxy war supporting Ukraine seeking separation and autonomy from Russia with no end in sight and likely in a similar stalemate like the Vietnam War.
What has changed for the U.S. military is it draws its troops from a diminishing pool of qualified applicants as a “volunteer” military and must struggle to fill the ranks of its armies or must seek out private paramilitary fighting forces without a draft to conjure its soldiers. This “New Vietnam War” for the U.S. relies on the coalition of surrounding NATO countries to pressure an ongoing proxy war that in recent weeks looks much more like a direct confrontation with Russia as it trains Ukrainian forces on U.S. bases and increasingly ups the ante by supplying more advanced weapons through U.S. arms manufacturers and coalition partners to Ukraine.
Like the reality of who served during the Vietnam war, many of the soldiers in combat come from our most marginalized communities economically and now with recruitment quotas falling below targeted levels the military recruiters are having to implement popular cultural tactics to sell the idea of military service rather than depend on the forced conscription of a draft. What is largely missing in all their appeals to now Alpha Generation youth at recruitment age in American high schools is the true picture of what war on the ground is, in all its violent contradictions, that have little resemblance to the recruitment propaganda that they are subject to by military recruiters in their schools.
For this fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Peace accords, NNOMY shares the video and the review by Bill Nichols of the documentary of New York film filmmaker Jill Godmilow; For High School Students–Notes and Images from the Viet Nam War as a warning to our children, and the rest of us as well, of the brutality of war that we seemed to have either forgotten or normalized in our national memory. Powerful resources that demonstrate the realities of wars are more important than ever to attempt to impact the next generation of youth that are saturated with the virtual violence of first person shooter video games, some organized by the military with private software companies, and a plethora of violent entertainments that both indoctrinate and desensitize them to real war and what it actually looks like outside the virtual world of video game team play.
The Film critic Bill Nichols, in the review presented below, presents an accurate assessment of the import of Jill Godmilow’s documentary. For high school youth witnessing what was the reality of the Vietnam War from the distance of fifty years and depicted as a graphic pictorial “scrap book” of the horror of what war is may seem incongruous. The overall affect is powerfully assembled however with the combining of still photography on the ground with the war for our contemplation contextualized with the authors own poignant narration.
WARNING: This work depicts graphic violence closeup and raw in black and white of the killing of civilians and the destruction of their lives, a war that has faded into a revisionist narrative of U.S. good but failed intentions. Even though this learning resource is intended for high school students, it will encounter great resistance or total opposition to letting the high school audience it was intended for to ever be allowed to view it in their social studies history classroom. If you are a teacher that wishes to present this to your students as part of their study of U.S. history you will find a lesson plan to accompany it linked below the Vimeo video documentary on this page.
For High School Students–Notes and Images from the Viet Nam War
By Jill Godmilow, 45’, 2022
Review by Bill Nichols - The United States has triumphed in war against industrial powers like Germany, Italy and Japan, but against less developed countries—not so much. Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq alone can fill record books for duration, cost and folly. Histories are written, reckonings made, and it seemed for a while that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had gained the final word on Vietnam with their 18-hour PBS epic, The Vietnam War (2017). What more could be said?
Turns out, quite a lot. The Burns/Novick film’s chronology of who did what when, the sound bites of major players, pundits, and representative participants, the all-knowing but unimpassioned narrator’s guiding hand—these staples of the expository documentary bent on conveying factual truth and historical judgement announce themselves as The Final Word. That’s part of what makes Burns such a star at PBS. He does it all with a visually engaging style and a verbally neutral tone. It’s the way it was as we can all see and hear. We should agree with Ken. He’s reasonable and thoughtful. The war was fought with valor, mistakes were made, things went wrong, we didn’t win, but that’s the way it was.
Or was it? Burns wants to appear as the one who has found safe middle ground, the one who can sum things up in a way we can all agree to. No ax to grind, to ideology to defend, just an honest appraisal of what happened.
Jill Godmilow has a different idea.
In her sharp, unforgiving view, the war was an utter disaster from day one, born of ignorance and arrogance, and it terminated only when total defeat was inevitable. This stemmed less from mistakes than from faulty logic and a black and white ideology of Us vs. Them, stalwart democracy vs contagious Communism. Godmilow refuses to pawn off this reductive, binary view of things as simply how it happened but insists that it was grotesquely distorted view of the world that cost countless lives and has done nothing to make the world a safer place.
Godmilow aims her film at high school students. It is her personal message to them. She wants the students of today to think long and hard about this or any other war and the logic that justifies it. In her voice-over, Godmilow names three aspects of American history that high school teachers cannot reconcile with the self-serving myths of American exceptionalism: the abject failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War, the ghastly cost of western expansion, and the folly of the Vietnam War.
The film begins with a two-minute collage of photos from the war before her voice-over comes in. Some are beautiful, some horrifying, none self-explanatory. Photographs never are. They invite a story. We strive to supply one. A context and a narrative must come into play. It is Godmilow’s own voice that provides one. She abstains from any live action clips. There is no archival footage that would reanimate the war, that would share narrative control and offer, as they do with Burns, conflicting points of view for us to assess. This is purely Godmilow’s honest, unsparing assessment and she invites us to take it very seriously.
Godmilow’s focus is not on political pronouncements or military strategy but on the human cost of the war to both sides. Everyone had a plan, everyone had a goal, everyone rationalized their actions, but in the thick of all this the horrendous cost of a pointless war relentlessly accumulated. Godmilow makes this painfully obvious with her superbly orchestrated montage of visual evidence and verbal judgment.
The cost begins with the high price of ignorance. Vietnam was never anybody’s domino, but a fiercely proud nation that struggled to fend off the Chinese, Japanese, French and Americans over the course of several centuries. A Civil War between North and South became a Cold War between democracy and Communism when American leaders could not take off their anti-Communist blinders and recognize classic nationalism when they saw it. Arrogance followed. The U.S. backed corrupt puppet leaders and ignored the lessons the seemingly less savvy French had learned and tried to pass on. We see the cost in the archival images Godmilow provides of devastation, sometimes vast (entire forests), sometimes small (a score of dead bodies strewn across a road) but always searing.
Godmilow wants us—the high school student in all us, as we try to make sense of what came before and what we can learn from it now—to focus on the cost in land, community, and human lives, let alone in honesty, integrity and basic human decency. Part 2 of the film reminds us how ruthlessly the war was fought: Agent Orange to poison the very earth and inflict grievous harm on anyone, from any country, exposed to it, even in the womb; napalm to tenaciously adhere to whatever it came in contact with as it burned inextinguishably; torture and assassination of suspected enemies with utter disregard for due process of any kind; free fire zones where anyone present was assumed to be an enemy; “zippo raids” where entire villages were burned to the ground, and rape as a demonic weapon of terror. President Putin’s tactics in the Ukraine are clearly war crimes but he is not the first to commit them (Godmilow does not make this point but the parallels are hard to ignore.)
Godmilow’s voice-over reflects her own personal distress at both the war and how it can become sanitized as a “lesson,” or a “misguided effort,” that pulls the sting from the massive, murderous impact it had on people both here and in Vietnam. Ignorance and arrogance are not easily unlearned. Photographic evidence and Godmilow’s commentary make this clear. Godmilow’s exclusive use of still images made me wonder about Susan Sontag’s pronouncement that increased exposure to images of atrocity has a dulling effect; tolerance rises and impact diminishes. This effect may depend heavily on the context in which such images are received, but for me these images, when used as Godmilow uses them and as others have used images drawn from the Holocaust, continue to have a profound emotional impact. They remain images of real people damaged or destroyed by heinous policies and hideous acts. I can see no way to become immune to their impact—unless they are contextualized as part of a rationalization for the atrocities to which they attest or reduced to sensationalist ends. Godmilow does no such thing.
For High School Students summons up the resistance mounted by civil rights leaders, black militants, students, workers, and active military service people as well as veterans and deserters. It urges us not to recoil from an ugly chapter in American history, but to gain awareness that what led to Vietnam can lead us into other countries where a distinct history, complex social relations, and unique structures and institutions, often functional, but with rigid hierarchies almost impossible to dislodge, make military victory and the birth of democracy near impossible, at least within a single election cycle.
Jill Godmilow has explored the underbelly of social history and cultural traditions through most of her work. Films like Far from Poland, Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, and What Farocki Taught, among others, are formally inventive and politically incisive. For High School Students: Notes and Images from the Viet Nam War, possesses less a reflective or formal documentary approach in favor of more emotionally direct engagement. It is as if Godmilow is telling us, “This is what an unjust war is really like at a visceral level, not as little kernels of personal anecdote or ex post facto wisdom, but as a massive wave of horror that sweeps all men and women of conscience before it.” Jill Godmilow has shared her notes and images, drawn on her wisdom, offered her judgments, and now it is up to us to find a way forward that builds on the lessons from a tragic past.
Judge for yourself: Watch For High School Students–Notes and Images from the Viet Nam War
For Teachers: Lesson Plan
- Lesson Plan: For High School Students–Notes and Images from the Viet Nam War / 2022 / Robby Cohen (history professor at NYU)
Additional Resource for Teachers:
- Teaching Guide to “The Most Dangerous Man in America” / January 10, 2023 / Educational Resources, Featured, Film