In the Year of the Pig
“In the Year of the Pig” is a documentary on the clusterfuck that was the Vietnam War. Made in 1968-1969 it came out while the war has in high gear and amidst widespread protests against the US engagement in the war. It is not difficult to imagine that this movie would get a lot of attention and be both embraced and controversial at the same time, depending on your political standpoint.
The documentary is made up of archival footage and interviews with a wide range of experts, politicians and generals. We get a brief, but thorough background of the conflict with the Japanese occupation, the French attempt to hang on to Vietnam, the communist victory at Dien Bien Phu and the cease fire that temporarily separated the country. From then on, the various events that led to a deeper and deeper US involvement is discussed with cross clips between those arguing for more involvement and experts painting a rather different picture.
Obviously, the narrative is political, it could never be anything else, and the story unfolding is that of an elephant in a glass shop. In this narrative the hawks look aggressive and foolish, disconnected from reality on the ground and self-serving. The analysis of the experts on the other hand seems more well considered and in touch with reality, but also benefit from hindsight. Still, given that this is taking place while the war is at its highest it is remarkable how far these experts are in line with the much later analysis of the war.
It is an infuriating story and a very tragic one. Human suffering is everywhere and much of it seems utterly unnecessary. The picture of the burning monk is particularly shocking, but so are pictures of refugee children and dead soldiers too. War is an ugly business and when you then learn that much of this was done because a corrupt government had to be propped up to prevent the communists from taking over the country, it is also infuriating.
Yet, it is also clear from the documentary that it was not one single decision, but a succession of choices where one led to the next until the situation became intolerable but also very difficult to back down from. At least not without invalidating all the previous decisions.
It is a clever documentary and a lot more sober than I had expected. It is cool and detached rather than shrill in the analysis, and let the pictures tell the dramatic story. There is no mockumentary here and I think that is why it works so will. I feel I get smarter from watching it. I remember learning about the Vietnam War in high school and that was much the same picture, yet there is some much more detail here and background information. Certainly enough to understand that the best course of action would be get out of there as soon as possible and let the Vietnamese work it out themselves. Later, after this documentary was released, it was leaked that Pentagon had long known this was a lost battle but was simply afraid of admitting it publicly.
There are countless Vietnam War movies out there and many of them are excellent. I think “In the Year of the Pig” is an excellent introduction to the topic and it provides context to all these movies, whether it is Platoon, Apocalypse Now or The Post.
The relevance for a modern viewer is of course to keep it in mind when considering an activistic foreign policy today. How much do you really want to involve yourself in another country and are you certain you understand what is going on there?