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Vietnam: The Last Battle

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Copyright 1995. 52 Minutes
VHS Format. Color. Black and White

Vietnam: The Last Battle is journalist John Pilger’s coming-to-terms essay on the meaning of the Vietnam conflict. Pilger takes a perspective that is rare in Western-language films on Vietnam: he places the Vietnamese people in the center of the discussion, and emphasizes that the great tragedy of the war was not the anguish of American veterans but rather the devastation of the Vietnamese land and people. He makes this point early and forcefully by interviewing MOE-Lai survivors at the site of the massacre; showing archival footage of bomb damage to hospitals and churches in the North; and visiting doctors who treat deformed babies in the South.

He proceeds to raise troubling questions about the way that the war was covered by Western journalists at the time, most of whom, he notes, remained in the southern cities rather than venturing out into the countryside; and few of whom ever traveled to the D.R.V. to view the impact of the bombing for themselves. Nor, in his view, have the mass media done better for the post-war period: Western films have generally seen Vietnam and the Vietnamese as props in the midst of which the crucial issues were played out by Westerners, and mainly Americans at that.

Pilger, for his part, is little interested in helping Americans come to terms with the implications of their defeat in Vietnam; he rather seeks to assess the meaning of the Vietnamese victory for the Vietnamese. Indeed, the latter half of the film is devoted to demonstrating that Vietnam’s present modernizing reforms are creating a profound gulf between newly rich and newly poor Vietnamese, and are bringing international capitalism and its abuses back with a vengeance.

These themes are explored in interviews with Western “capitalists,” who, failing to detect the irony in Pilger’s questions, proudly expound on the “exclusive” nature of the country clubs and luxury residences they are constructing—in which few Vietnamese could ever afford to live. Pilger gently reminds them; with rare footage from inside Sàigòn’s new “sweatshops,” textile mills owned by foreigners in which young Vietnamese women work twelve hours a day for about a dollar a day. Does not this stranglehold of Western and Asian capital, Pilger asks, allow its representatives to dictate policy to the Vietnamese state? What are the implications of these economic and social developments for the political independence that the Vietnamese fought so heroically at such cost to win?

While the questions Pilger poses are important, the answers he suggests are not without problems of their own. In particular, his cursory—even simplistic—treatment of the nature of Vietnam’s economy under the Neo-Stalinist model (i.e., before c. 1987) is seriously flawed. Few scholars would now be willing to blame the American-led embargo for all of Vietnam’s economic problems, as Pilger seems to do here, or to give such glowing praise to the former health care system. An assertion that the embargo, multinational corporations, and the World Bank are responsible for the Communist Party’s shift to Doi M◊i or “Renovation” is a refusal to acknowledge the command Doi M◊i economy’s fundamental inability to provide a decent standard of living for the majority of Vietnamese without massive infusions of Soviet bloc aid.1

Despite its shortcomings, Vietnam: The Last Battle remains a fascinating and challenging vision of Vietnam’s modern history and current transformations. As such, it takes its place among the very few films in any language that have attempted to deal seriously with the issues that Pilger raises: e.g., Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds, 1975, for the American war; and Tran Van Thuy’s Chuy∂n t∏-t∑ (A Story about Kindness), 1987, for the post war era.

Vietnam: The Last Battle can be a valuable asset to professors and high school teachers dealing with modern Vietnamese history in a wide range of contexts: Vietnamese history courses per se, the Asian survey, the “Vietnam War” course, and American history. Properly introduced and moderated, it can focus students’ attention on the Vietnamese people and the place of the conflict with America in their national history, and lead students to challenge the hegemonic “Hollywood” versions of the war while raising questions about the nature of history and memory.

1. Pilger incorrectly translates Dol M◊i as “Our Way.”