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The Uncivil Servant: Our Criminal War in Vietnam

Mitchell Abidor
September 2, 2013
by Mitchell Abidor LOIN DU VIETNAMIn 1967, both the war in Vietnam and the world-wide movement against it were heating up. It was in that year that Chris Marker, the great French filmmaker, decided to produce Far From Vietnam, an anti-war film made collectively under the aegis of his Société pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles (SLON – Society for the Launching of New Works). This would not be an omnibus film, in which a group of filmmakers are given a theme and individually make short films on the subject. Rather, the filmmakers involved - and they were some of the most important working in France at the time, including Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy (whose contribution wasn’t used), Claude Lelouch and the veteran Dutch-born communist documentarist Joris Ivens - would work separately, and their footage would be edited together by Marker into one film. The result is a mix of the straightforwardly documentary and the (mildly) avant-garde with a bit of fiction film and French navel-gazing thrown in. Far From Vietnam has long been unavailable in the U.S., and was pretty roughly handled when it was initially released, but has now been restored and is making the rounds of art houses. As both a demonstration of the capabilities of political cinema and as a document of the spirit of its time, it is a film that must be seen. vietnam-war-medic-1966-grangerThe-Vietnam-War-2 Far from Vietnam provides some familiar images of the era, of bombs being loaded, pilots chatting as they head to their planes and their bombing runs, American troops slogging through the marshes of Vietnam, Vietnamese freedom fighters being roughed up. And there is also extensive footage of the war at home — the faces of the hecklers at anti-war demonstrations twisted in hatred — reminding us of just how torn the country was and just how ugly the atmosphere was. The film also provides the mildly comical, as New York Mayor John Lindsay, who opposed the war, explains his presence on the reviewing stand of a pro-war rally by saying “a parade is a parade.” Less familiar is footage, largely filmed by Joris Ivens (who had also filmed the Spanish Civil War) of life in North Vietnam: the “calmness,” as it is described, of the people; their quiet heroism as they disassemble cluster bombs, construct shelters, attend propaganda theater performances, work in the fields (their rifles on stands at the ready), and, dressed in grass camouflage, head off to fight the enemy — who, as Ho Chi Minh explains in his perfect French, will be beaten if it takes five years or ten or twenty. There is nothing glibly anti-American about the film. A key scene in the film is the fictional section directed by Alain Resnais and written by Jacques Sternberg (who would write the screenplay for Resnais’ under-rated Je t’aime, Je t’aime) questioning the sincerity of those who proclaim their opposition to the war, particularly in France, which suddenly became a country of “40 million anti-colonialists” who had not made themselves known as such when France was killing and torturing Algerians. Bernard Fresson makes clear in his soliloquy his love for America and Americans, who saved his life when he was a Resistance fighter, yet sees that they are the Germans of today. And he wonders if Vietnam isn’t just the flavor of the month, an easy way to show one’s decency, support for them standing in the way of support for other oppressed peoples. The bit of seemingly facile America-bashing is at least done honestly: in a segment edited by Chris Marker we hear U.S. commanding general Westmoreland talk about how successful the war is and how everything possible is done to avoid civilian casualties (this after we’ve seen the rubble of Hanoi). Westmoreland and those who support him are simply hoisted by their own petard. Perhaps the most moving section of the film is that dedicated to the now forgotten suicide of Norman Morrison, who set himself aflame outside the Pentagon to protest the war. We visit his widow and children, and his wife’s support for her husband’s act, her stoicism, are both astounding and understandable. Inspired by the Buddhist monks of Saigon who had committed suicide in the same way, Morrison felt he had to show that it was impossible to live normally when his country was guilty of such heinous crimes. In Far From Vietnam the portrait of the American government is a justly harsh one; that of the American people is eminently fair. The navel-gazing is the work of Jean-Luc Godard who, in his segment, questions the role of cinema and himself as a cineaste and intellectual in the struggle, a questioning he would continue over the following years, indeed, decades. He questions the nature of being a revolutionary in a country like France, one not in a revolutionary situation, saying: “We who cannot be [revolutionaries], or not yet, we have to listen and retransmit these shouts [of revolutionaries] as often as possible.” He would continue to do so for many years. The film, like all militant films, intended to move the audience to action, in this case to “creat[e] a Vietnam within ourselves,” and dedicate ourselves to supporting them in their struggle. More than thirty-five years later, those immediate aims are of no importance, yet the film serves as a reminder of something important. Though we on the left have made many mistakes and supported men, parties, and countries we now regret having supported, the fight against the Vietnam War is not one of them. The footage of demonstrations and the hecklers and worse that had to be faced, not to mention the sacrifice of Norman Morrison, show a noble side of the left that should never be forgotten. We were right to condemn the war, and those who carried the flags of North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front were perhaps politically maladroit, but morally they were right to do so: those were the people who were fighting for justice. Current American sentimentality about the Vietnam War and its veterans, about how they were allegedly mocked and insulted when they returned, has tended to turn those who opposed the war into villains, as we saw in the case of John Kerry — whose true moment of grandeur was not the action that won him his military medal, but the one when he tossed it over the White House fence. There was nothing noble about the war America waged, and no one who fought in that war against the Vietnamese should be considered a hero. The men loading bombs onto planes, the men kicking Vietnamese prisoners, the men flying the planes, the men who dropped the napalm – all of which we see in Far From Vietnam - did nothing worthy of pride. There was more heroism in the women fabricating the two-person underground shelters we see them making in Hanoi than in the entire U.S. Army. Far From Vietnam reminds us that our war was criminal; theirs was just. Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. His books include Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.