What really happened in Vietnam? Was John Kerry a hero who saved his “Swift” boat crew from a rocket attack or a prevaricating coward who shot an unarmed man in the back? Was he wounded by enemy fire or injured by his own incompetence? Official history tells us that the Democratic presidential candidate deserves the Bronze Star, Silver Star, and three Purple Hearts he earned in a four-month tour in Vietnam; the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT), meanwhile, have set about trying to dismantle that 30-year-old record.
This summer's squall is a familiar scenario: With its splintering perspectives, unreliable narrators, and the redrafting of a receding past, it plays like a modern-day Rashomon, remade by Karl Rove, the senior adviser supposedly behind similar “go-after-their-strengths” takedowns of two other Vietnam vets, former Georgia Senator Max Cleland and former Republican presidential hopeful John McCain.
Amid the escalating verbal fire in the Swift-boat debate, the vicious ads and counter-ads, a quieter but no less partisan player has entered the fray. Brothers in Arms, a documentary about Kerry's last Swift-boat crew, was filmed before the SBVT launched its attacks on the senator's Vietnam record. On its face, Brothers in Arms seems like a tightly focused narrative centered on six men transformed by war, battleground brotherhood, and a tortured peace. But first-time director Paul Alexander has also provided a cinematic rebuttal to Kerry's attackers -- the stories of Kerry's last crew are too consistent to be written off as loyal lies. The crewmembers' devoted camaraderie also provides its own rebuke to the increasingly divisive tactics used to target Kerry's record. Although Kerry's narrative is carefully blended into his crewmates' stories, Brothers in Arms gradually foregrounds the senator in its later half, revealing the pull of current electoral politics on what at first seems to be a clear-cut narrative of wartime friendship.
Unlike most of the documentaries this fraught electoral season, Brothers in Armsis blessedly a story rather than a polemical harangue -- it has swing, a narrative arc, unforgettable characters. The director opens his film with an elegant sort of overture, weaving together stock footage of Vietnam battles with the unseen crewmens' voices, edited together in a seamless story line: their lives before Vietnam, the terror of war, the alienating aftermath, the bond forged between men who fought side by side. The very texture of their voices serve as both soundtrack and character development -- gritty, gravelly, one with a nicotine-tinged laugh, another with a nasal twang, all with an inner cadence that reveals vital information about each man. “Crick,” says Del Sandusky, giving away his rural origins as he reminisces about the local creek.
Gene Thorson, David Alston, Tommy Belodeau (who passed away last year), Michael Medeiros, Sandusky, and Kerry represented a broad swath of America, hailing from the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast and from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. The soldiers joined the Navy for a similarly varied set of reasons: to seek opportunities for higher education, to see the world, to fulfill a sense of patriotic duty, to shoulder responsibility. Their experiences in Vietnam, however, welded the men together irrevocably. As one of the crewmembers says in voice-over, “We went through this together … that guy covered my back, and I love him for that.”
The film captures the whiplash arrhythmia of war, moments of calm and exuberance followed by plunges into terror, as when Lieutenant Kerry, accompanied by Medeiros, pursued a Viet Cong intent on firing a rocket at the boat and killed him. Kerry's actions that day later earned him a Silver Star. Alston depicts a savage firefight in his unmistakable South Carolina drawl, laughing a bit as he recounts asking a fellow crewmember, “Is my eye there? Is it there?” Sandusky is haunted by a simple decision that saved his life and took a comrade's. “That's called survivor's guilt,” he says. The crewmates' tortured faces remind us that they aren't just recounting past memories; the telling of the past is also forcing them to relive the anguish of wartime and a difficult homecoming.
Less than half the movie is devoted to the crewmen's battlefield experiences. Using the song “Amazing Grace” as a lyrical bridge, Alexander lays out his subjects' exit from Vietnam as gracefully as he depicts their arrival: their nightmarish return to a country that called them “baby killers,” their attendant struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, and growing doubts -- particularly for Kerry, who became an outspoken anti-war activist -- over whether the war they had been sent to fight was indeed a just one.
Although they didn't see one another for years after their return, the crewmates rekindled their bond when they reunited to defend Kerry from attacks on his Vietnam record during his 1996 senatorial re-election campaign. As for this year, recent SBVT charges will almost certainly mean a busy fall for the men. Brothers in Arms doesn't include the testimony of Kerry's detractors; its pre-SBVT-mandated story is at once a deceptively straightforward tale of wartime horrors and friendships and an endorsement of Kerry as a hero, on and off the battlefield. It doesn't attempt to get at the whole truth of Kerry's Vietnam experiences, but adds its own subtle brand of fire to the fight over Kerry's record. The timing of the film's release is at once opportune and ironic: In the midst of war in Iraq and on the election front, this film about brotherhood shows us just how far we are from that ideal.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.