As part of that continuing struggle, a husband and wife filmmaking team has made a documentary about the war that disputes the conventional wisdom on whether it was winnable, the men who fought it, and the Vietnamese allies America betrayed.
"We didn't know where the research would lead us," said Calvin Crane, director of the four-hour series. "But the working hypothesis was that the history of the Vietnam era was different from what has been presented."
"We just let the story tell itself," said Christel Crane, producer of "The Long Way Home Project." She said the series raises questions that historians should pursue. "This is just the beginning. I think other films should be done."
Part One, "Men vs. Myth," supports the fact that, overall, the Vietnam military was the best-educated force American has ever sent into combat. "One-third of those who died in Vietnam came from the top 10 percent income bracket," Christel Crane said in a Washington interview.
It's true that a large proportion of upper-middle class males, especially in the northeastern states, ducked Vietnam. But the United States had a huge population, even then. Hundreds of thousands of men from comfortable backgrounds were willing to serve.
Part Two, "How We Won the War," relies on the research of historians Lewis Sorley and Mark Moyar to show that by the summer of 1970 the Communist forces in South Vietnam were decimated and most of the countryside was in friendly hands. I left Vietnam in January of 1969 but was unaware of this success until decades later.
Part Three, "How We Lost the War," shows how we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and betrayed an ally.
Part Four, "The New Diaspora," tells the story of the preternaturally resilient Vietnamese refugees from communism, their suffering and successes.
Is the documentary "balanced"? Not if balance means interviews with North Vietnamese Communist leaders or antiwar activists. But as Christel Crane points out, an endless series of films has taken that approach. Balance is contextual. Still, I think "The Long Way Home Project" would have been stronger if counterarguments had been addressed.
Calvin Crane was an Army photographer in Vietnam. When Christel Crane was born, her father was a sergeant in the First Marine Air Wing near Danang. Both chaffed at the continuing misconceptions about Vietnam veterans. In 1999 they decided it was time to do something about it and began research for "Men vs. Myth."
"We rented a motor home, got all our equipment together, and drove out across America," Calvin said. The family (three kids and a dog) started out from Jacksonville, Fla., on a nine-week, 13,000-mile journey in search of the real Vietnam veteran. "We did not know where we were going to go or who we were going to find," Calvin said.
At media events, one can observe camera crews ignoring Vietnam veterans in suits only to flock to ponytailed slobs in new jungle fatigues and red berets. As B.G. Burkett showed in his 1998 book "Stolen Valor," many of these guys are not Vietnam vets, or have misrepresented their service, or were not in the military at all.
Christel insisted that veterans produce their DD-214 -- the document issued at separation from active duty that lists unit assignments, training and awards -- and she authenticated them with Freedom of Information checks. "That cut out a fair number of interviews," Calvin said, and the interviews of two men whose records did not check out were eliminated.
"Men vs. Myth" portrays Vietnam veterans as solid citizens who by any standard compare favorably with their non-veteran peers.
More controversial is part two, "How We Won the War." A big chunk of the U.S. elite is personally invested in having the war remembered as both unnecessary and unwinnable. As Lewis Sorley says, no amount of evidence will alter their thinking. Sorley, a career Army officer, spent a combat tour in Vietnam and seven years with the CIA after retirement.
Sorley is author of "A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedies of America's Last Years in Vietnam" (1999) and biographies of Gens. Creighton Abrams and Harold K. Johnson. In 1968 Abrams succeeded Gen. William C. Westmoreland as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Johnson, Army chief of staff from 1964 to 1968, was haunted until his death in 1983 by his decision not to resign in protest of the mismanagement of the war.
As Sorley puts it, Johnson fundamentally disagreed with the three men who set policy: President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and Westmoreland. Gen. Johnson was sharply critical of LBJ's policy of gradual escalation and failure to mobilize the national will or call up the reserves. He disapproved of Westmoreland's large-unit, search-and-destroy tactics and reliance on body counts to measure success in Vietnam. Rather, he advocated greater emphasis on cutting the North Vietnam's supply lines, helping the South Vietnamese provide for their own internal defense, and sustaining a legitimate government in South Vietnam.
The series, following Sorley, is hard on Westmoreland, who is not above criticism but perhaps should have been allowed to present his point of view.
Whether Vietnam was a conventional war with jungles or a guerrilla war is a false dichotomy. Of course, it was both. Westmoreland was right that North Vietnamese divisions could not be allowed to camp with impunity in the highlands, leaving them free to attack South Vietnam's populous coastal plain at will. They had to be smashed up and kept on the run. And, to minimize civilian casualties, Westmoreland wanted to keep the heaviest fighting away from the most densely inhabited regions.
But it's also true that Westmoreland's strategy of attrition was flawed. Among other defects, it did not provide security for people living in the hamlets and villages of South Vietnam, and it did not deprive the Viet Cong of such vital resources as rice and fish.
In the documentary, historian Mark Moyar -- author of the 1997 book "Phoenix and the Birds of Prey" -- said the CIA's much-maligned Phoenix Program did not result in the indiscriminate killing of Vietnamese civilians, but rather targeted the Viet Cong political cadre.
The series benefits greatly from interviews with Merle Pribbenow, who served for five years as Vietnamese language translator in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Pribbenow continues to translate books and documents coming out of Hanoi, gaining critical insights uncontaminated by American factionalism.
The documentary demonstrates that the 1968 Tet Offensive was a military disaster for the Communists. It describes the local Viet Cong commander's incredulity when ordered to make a suicidal attack on Saigon. Yet one of his suicide squads briefly penetrated the U.S. Embassy compound, unnerving the media and strengthening the antiwar movement in the United States.
"The Long Way Home Project" is fair to the underrated South Vietnamese Army, ARVN, which fought harder and suffered greater casualties than it is given credit for.
Sorley notes that no U.S. administration ever tried to sell the war to American people, who nevertheless supported it for longer than could have been expected under such poor leadership.
He said that by a certain period, the object had been achieved of a free and independent South Vietnam capable of maintaining itself so long as the United States kept its obligations -- a crucial variable.
But the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973 left the North Vietnamese Army controlling large parts of South Vietnam. Sorley said the United States defaulted on all three promises made to our ally:
(1) If North Vietnam attacked, we would give air and naval support, as we did during the 1972 Easter Offensive;
(2) We would replace South Vietnam's armor and artillery 1-for-1, as allowed by the Paris accords;
(3) We would provide indefinite economic assistance.
In April 1975, two years after the last American combat formations left Vietnam, 18 North Vietnamese divisions finally crushed South Vietnam -- in conventional warfare.
Not surprisingly, the Cranes are encountering resistance from the media establishment. Even though the series won the highest award for television documentary at the 2002 Houston International Film Festival, it has not yet been aired. Broadcasters grow nervous when the Cranes use such words as "fact based" or "new research."
"We knew it was not going to be a quick turnaround," said Christel Crane. The couple financed the project with their own money -- the 401(K), the house -- "we literally cashed out of everything that we have."
Calvin Crane said a cadre people in broadcast television either have a vested interest in presenting a certain story about Vietnam, or the younger people perceive that their superiors have that bias.
He said high schools in 14 states are using the series in history or social science classes. Teachers receive the series, an educator guide, and a CD with relevant documents in American history at no charge.
The "Long Way Home Project" is effectively introduced by retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. It sells for $69 on tape and $79 on compact disc. The series is a must for any open-minded person with an interest in America's longest and least-understood war.