Who are they, the Vietnam War veterans who have become such powerful, contested symbols on this election's battlefield? Perhaps they are the vets in the documentary Stolen Honor -- aging former POWs in medal-bedecked suits, the unbowed and angry men who say that John Kerry's anti-war activism lengthened their time in torture cells in Vietnam and tarnished their honor as American soldiers at home. Or maybe the ones in George Butler's Going Upriver, the latest Vietnam documentary qua Kerry campaign biography -- young men in crumpled fatigues, screaming, weeping, and crumpling to the ground after they hurl their medals in protest over a war they believed was, as Kerry testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, “the biggest nothing in history.”
“War is not over when the shooting stops,” says former Senator and Vietnam vet Max Cleland, in Going Upriver. “They live on in the people who fight them.” As do the stories of that war, the interpretations and narratives built to give meaning to such suffering. What happens, then, when those narratives clash with such annihilating force? Was it a worthy war or a dirty one? Is true patriotism fighting in a war or fighting against it? Are our depictions and understandings of war -- that fundamentally oppositional horror -- doomed to the same sense of irreconcilability?
In an election year, yes, as the Bush administration has made clear in its attacks on Kerry's war record and his anti-war activism. A sophisticated rebuttal allegations put up by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Going Upriver is a taut documentary that depicts what Cleland calls the “beauty and terror” of Vietnam and its galvanizing effect on Kerry, both in country and at home.
Going Upriver doesn't sway from this year's mandate of single-sided reporting; we don't hear much from advocates for the war. Nor does it present Kerry with anything less than a saintly glow around him. But for the well-made bit of hagiography that it is, the film does a devastating job of capturing the extent to which many of the veterans were ill-equipped to cope with the horrors around them, and the ways in which they struggled to make sense of their experiences afterward. In the present-day interviews in the film, the vets speak haltingly of the agony they went through in deciding to toss their medals and ribbons in protest; it's wrenching to hear them say, “We were saying these sacrifices were for nothing … wouldn't it be great to say we were heroes?” More than anything else, Going Upriver is the story of transformation, a road map to the way some men sought to create meaning by resisting that which destroys it: war.
The film reanimates familiar territory through archival footage and interviews with former Kerry crewmates and activists in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War movement, journalists, and politicians. In Vietnam, it sketches out some of Kerry's heroism -- his rescue of a comrade who fell into the river during a firefight, how he shot a Viet Cong intent on blasting Kerry's boat with a rocket launcher. But the film also devotes a good deal of time to less celebrated moments. Veterans recount the deadpan declarations used to justify their actions, like, “If Vietnamese are running, they're VC. If they're standing, they're well-disciplined VC. If they're dead in a free-fire zone, they're VC.” One soldier holds up a picture of himself, grinning and posing by a dead body, that may remind viewers of one taken at Abu Ghraib.
As others will no doubt suggest, Kerry himself would be this film's ideal viewer; perhaps he would remember just how he spoke out against the Vietnam War with such a harsh, clear poetry. His team is evidently moving to attack George W. Bush's policies on Iraq, a tactic that will surely earn him the ire of people like the veterans of Stolen Honor, for whom criticism of government policies in wartime, or of the criminal behaviors of some soldiers, are interpreted as a “treasonous” attack on all. But even as Kerry criticizes Bush's actions in Iraq, hopefully he'll be able to imbue his words with some of the moral, nonpartisan ring of the statement he made as he cast away his ribbons. “I'm not doing this to oppose anyone,” he said then, as recounted in Going Upriver: “I'm doing this to try and wake my country up.”
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.