I recently read an article on Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam, the subject of a documentary on ESPN.
Rocky Bleier played on the Pittsburgh Steelers football team in the 1970s, when the Steelers were at their finest. Before that, he was drafted into the Army and was wounded in combat in Vietnam. Doctors thought he’d never play football again, but Bleier proved them wrong, helping the Steelers to win four Super Bowls.
Bleier’s return to Vietnam was emotional and revealing, but in a way that is one-sided, privileging the American experience of that war. Franco Harris, another famous football player, puts it succinctly: “It’s a tragedy, I wish the war [Vietnam] had never happened.” But was America’s war in Vietnam simply a tragedy? Or was it more of a crime? What was America after in Vietnam? And at what cost to the peoples of Southeast Asia?
As Bleier puts it, “All of a sudden I had an overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness. Why did we fight this war? Why did we lose 58,000 soldiers and in all honesty for what? Maybe for first time I can understand on a slight basis the impact that our soldiers go through and maybe just a little what post-traumatic stress might be and how the body reacts to all the emotions.”
Those are important words. But what about the millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians killed in that war? What about their war burdens? What about the suffering that is still ongoing in Southeast Asia today due to chemical defoliants, unexploded ordnance, land mines, and the like?
In this article on Rocky Bleier, the Vietnamese people make an appearance, but nothing is said of their suffering. Instead, they are presented as entirely pro-American:
“Everyone we met [in Vietnam] was pro American. There is a whole generation that the war is for the history books and not an experience they were a part of. The viewpoint has changed,” Bleier said.
The “viewpoint” that’s changed isn’t specified, but I assume Bleier is saying the Vietnamese used to be anti-American (I wonder why?), but are now pro-American in spite of the enormous devastation America inflicted on Vietnam.
Again, it’s good to see a prominent American sports figure talk about the tragedy of Vietnam and the pointlessness of that war. But, as with many other documentaries about Vietnam, including the Ken Burns series in 2017, it’s always all about us, and the tragedy is almost exclusively presented as an American one.
That bias may be predictable, but it’s no less pernicious for being so.
Update: Here’s the short version of the ESPN documentary. It features one Vietnamese soldier who fought for the Americans; he is allowed a statement about the general waste and horror of war. No other Vietnamese are shown, and no other opinions are solicited.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.