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‘The Vietnam War’: How Vietnamese Women Saw Combat and Got Involved in Other Harrowing War Efforts

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick discuss details of the documentary, which continues to air at nightly on PBS through Thursday.

Armed with U.S. rifles, women paramilitary volunteers salute as they march past Vietnam's first lady Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu during a military school graduation in Saigon, . South Vietnam had about 3,000 trained women at the time, with about 1,000 active in the country's military or social serviceVietnam War South Vietnam Women, Saigon, Vietnam

Women paramilitary volunteers at a military school graduation in Saigon, 1963

Horst Faas/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Women have been involved with war efforts throughout history, but the more accepted duties have mainly been civilian — such as medical, supplies or domestic roles. The amount of combat seen by women depends on the country, and restrictions stemming from physical, social or cultural issues. The latest chapter of PBS’ “The Vietnam War” explored the role of Vietnamese women in that war.

In an interview with IndieWire, Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick elaborated on the story of the women seen in Episode 7, “The Veneer of Civilization,” as they risked their lives driving trucks while American pilots dropped bombs.

“One of the revelations of the project was how much women were on the [North Vietnamese] front lines,” said Novick. “We met a unit of women who drove trucks down the Ho Chi Minh trail. And, that was a combat job just like driving a truck in Iraq is a combat job, because they were under fire.

“The military decided that they would recruit women who had been youth volunteers before to do this work as a way to inspire the men who were losing morale in this extraordinarily difficult combat situation,” she continued. “They put women in the trucks to drive the men up and down the Ho Chi Minh trail, to basically show them that if women can do it, you can stick it out. These women were so proud of their service and so tough.”

Nguyen Nguyet Anh is one woman seen in the documentary who brought arms and supplies south and then shuttled wounded men back up north. The episode details some of the challenges the drivers faced, such as trying to evade enemy bombs from overhead. General Merrill McPeak, a now retired Air Force pilot, was one of the Americans who served a tour in Vietnam and actively dropped bombs on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Burns said, “When [General McPeak] came into our editing room, he had no idea that he had been bombing some of the women that were repairing the trail.”

Read More:‘The Vietnam War’: Ken Burns Reveals Why John McCain Wasn’t Interviewed for the POW Section of the Documentary

And in one of the rare, optimistic moments in the series, Nguyen is also involved with a wartime romance that ends happily.

“There’s an article in the Saigon paper celebrating [the women’s] story, and that’s how we ended up meeting her and the other women in their unit, and their husbands,” said Novick. “So, there were actually a bunch of couples there but they were the one that seemed the most interesting.”

South Vietnamese women gather tin roofing from the ruins of homes in the village of Bui Chi in South Vietnam,, to use again as they begin to reconstruct shelters. The village was almost completely destroyed in heavy fighting on the third day after the cease fire. The village is located 25 miles north of SaigonVietnam War

South Vietnamese women gather tin roofing from the ruins of homes in the village of Bui Chi


Women didn’t need to be part of the army to risk their lives, however. Most women volunteered their services or took on duties in an unofficial capacity. One collection of short stories based on the experiences of a woman working on the Ho Chi Minh Trail give an idea of some of the other ways women contributed.

Read More: ‘The Vietnam War’ Review: Ken Burns’ Exhaustive Conflict Biography Shows How to Learn from History’s Errors

“She describes the situation on young women working on the Ho Chi Minh trail, filling in the bomb craters, and seeing your friends get blown up, seeing soldiers get blown up, and the relentlessness of it day after day,” said Novick. “It’s fiction, but her descriptions of that helped us really understand because the official narratives of the war don’t include the real deprivations or the horrors of that experience. These were young women, 15, 16, 17 [years old]. They were not in the military so they did not wear a uniform, they did not have the benefits of military retirement after the war. This was an extremely difficult and painful part of the women’s experience from the North Vietnamese side.”

Mai Elliott is a civilian seen throughout the series who sided with the South. In Episode 4, she detailed how she worked with Rand for a Rand Report study in which she had to interview a member of the Viet Cong. Her memories of the war are particularly poignant because she a close family member had sided with the North.

Ken Burns, Mai Elliott, General Merrill McPeak and Lynn Novick, TCA panel for "The Vietnam War"

Ken Burns, Mai Elliott, General Merrill McPeak and Lynn Novick, TCA panel for “The Vietnam War”


At the Television Critics Association press tour panel for “The Vietnam War” this past July, Elliott told reporters, “My family’s story is captured in the film. What it captures is the nature of the civil war in Vietnam, because the Vietnam War, of course, was a civil war between two groups of Vietnamese with opposite views of what Vietnam should be as a country.

“And during the war against the French, my parents were reluctantly supporting the French because they were more afraid of the Communists than they disliked the French, “she continued. “But my oldest sister had no such qualms. For her, liberating Vietnam from foreign domination was the right thing to do, so she left a very comfortable life in Hanoi and went into the mountain to join the forces of Ho Chi Minh. So it’s a civil war that divided families like the American Civil War divided American families. And it followed this story until the very end when her side triumphed and our side lost.”

Read More:  ‘The Vietnam War’ Is the Documentary I’ve Been Waiting for as a Vietnamese Refugee and an American Citizen

Although the blood bond never really broke under such divisive sentiments, the war still took a toll on the family. “During all this time, 40-some years of separation with her on the opposite side, my family never held it against her, and she never held it against us that we chose the wrong side, in her view,” she said. “At the end, there was a chance of my parents being reunited with her in 1975 when the Communists won, but the fear of Communism was stronger than the desire to see her again. My mother was persuaded to leave with the rest of the family. They were lifted out of Saigon at the last moment. They never saw her again.”

Elliott added, “I didn’t see her again until 1993 when I went back to do research for my family’s story. That meant that 43 years had passed before I saw her again, but that’s the kind of story that this film captures. It’s more than a war. It’s what war does to families and to people.”

”The Vietnam War” airs nightly at 8 p.m. through Thursday, Sept. 28 on PBS.

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