There are four movements in this post. The first is prompted by a comment in Ken Burns's vastly overrated and utterly shallow documentary (and it obscures this shallowness with its length—18 hours), The Vietnam War. The second is prompted by a comment made in the seventh lecture, "The Loss of the American Colonies," of Patrick N. Allitt's Teaching Company course The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. (To make more sense of this comment and its place in this post, please read this and this.) The third is in a documentary, No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger, that's a part of Northwest Film Forum's retrospective film series 1968: Expressions of a Flame. The fourth brings these comments from three different works connected only by themes together. Let us begin.
The first comment is made by a white US soldier in Burn's mostly empty, and therefore unnecessarily long, documentary. The soldier believes that he has a clear understanding of the situation on the other side, the Việt Cộng side. He, in a moment of illumination, sees himself as the British soldiers in the American War of Independence, and Hồ Chí Minh as the Việt Cộng's George Washington. The second comment dims this insight (Vietnam war was the same as the American war) a bit by situating it in a twilight of uncertainty.
Though Allitt teaches in the US, he is deeply British, and so has some distance from all the myths of American Empire and its foundations (but he is pretty much in the thick of the myths of the Empire his own father fought for in the Second World War—more about that in the 36th lecture). What Allitt points out is that the war of American independence was really started by prosperous white Americans and not working-class ones of any color. The American elite wanted the war because they, more than any other member of their society, wanted political power to match their growing economic power. So, it was not so much about human rights and liberty and all of that claptrap. It was in essence about the right to govern market conditions directly.
And here we come to the third comment, which is in a documentary, No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger, that's only 68 minutes long but has far more depth than Burns' 18-hour TV series. A black man who runs the employment office in Harlem explains that the brightest and often most educated black men in the community were the ones fighting and dying in Vietnam with the poorest and most uneducated whites. And the poorest and least educated whites tended to be the most rawly racist Americans. The rich and educated white kids could afford to avoid the war. The Vietnamese and black soldiers (such as the ones interviewed in the documentary—all of them are bright) were exposed to white men who had nothing but their skin. That's all their society would give them. No real money, no real education, not much of a future—but you got all the white skin you could ever want. Weirdly enough, back then, as today, many white men had it in their heads that they could live just on their color. It had for them a special something that was certainly not there for many of the British Empire's home working-classes. Empire also seemed to not notice anything special about Irish white skin as well.
No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger, which screens tomorrow (and I will be there to introduce and discuss the important work), was shot in 1967, almost 200 years after the War of Independence, and just under 50 years from when many of the whites who fought in and supported that war (now called Boomers) voted for an openly racist president.
And now, let's bring the three comments together for a closing movement that's prompted by a revealing image. It appeared on December 16, 1773, during what's known as the Boston Tea Party. As Professor Allitt points out, the event was about the British reducing taxes on the transportation of a product with little nutritional value (a stimulant, like tobacco and coffee) and sold to the colonies by the British East India company. This reduction in cost upset a bunch of American merchants. They grumbled, they held secret meetings, they boarded the British East India ship on December 16 and dumped and destroyed its cargo of tea. The white revolutionaries were dressed as Native American warriors.
Let's think about this: An act of revolt was committed by white men dressed as those who, in reality, should have revolted against European colonialism and Empire. Here, we have a deeper idea than the one expressed in Ken Burns's superficial documentary (the American soldier in Vietnam is like the British soldier in the War of Independence). The Native American warrior is actually much closer to the Việt Cộng soldier, whose country first faced Empire in its French form and then in its American one. But the men of the American revolutionary event (the Boston Tea Party) were dressed not as themselves (as white men), but as warriors who should be fighting them (the occupiers) and Empire.
And here we see the Buffalo soldier in the strangest of twilights. If he turns in time and flies to the ship in the Boston Harbor and sees the white men dressed as Native American warriors committing an act of war (revolt), he sees himself more in who they are not, Mohawks. But he himself, the soldier in an American uniform, is also not who he is. The white men on the ship are more really him, more fitting for his uniform. If a Mohawk on the tea ship were shot and killed by a British soldier, the defender of Empire would find, once rolling the lifeless body over, a man like himself, a white man. An Illusion. What did white Americans see when a black man was killed in Vietnam? A rude illusion? From this strange twilight emerges the three bright Buffalo soldiers in No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger. They are angry. They fought a war not as who they are. They almost died for nothing.