We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
—John Kerry, Statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (22 April 1971)
I think this whole question of, “Is the world better off with Saddam?” is a fallacious question that Bush keeps trying to frame the debate on. The debate, as far as Kerry is concerned, should be, “Can an American president take a country to war on trumped up evidence with the wrong enemy?”
—Maureen Dowd, Real Time with Bill Maher (24 September 2004)
A friend of mine, a young reservist recently returned from Baghdad, wants to do the right thing. Since coming home, he’s been treated for depression and related physical ailments and endeavored to get back into the rhythms of his previous life. He has also run into resistance as he’s tried to report abuses he witnessed in country, both from the notorious military bureaucracy and predictable opposition to such disclosure, from officers and peers. As my friend and I have been talking over the past months, I’m repeatedly reminded of similar stories that came up during the Vietnam war. Among these stories are those inspired and embodied by VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War), whose Detroit Winter Soldier Investigation and subsequent march on Washington in 1971 (a protest dubbed “Dewey Canyon III,” after the codename for two secret missions into Cambodia) made unavoidably public a range of previously “private” traumas and “unofficial,” too often tragic U.S. tactics.
Much of this history is recounted in Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. Based on Douglas Brinkley’s book, Tour of Duty, George Butler’s documentary includes footage and photos that the filmmaker—a longtime friend of and former publicist for Kerry—has shot and culled over the years, as well as present day interviews with Vietnam war veterans (Bobby Muller, Max Cleland, Bob Kerrey), as well as journalists and historians (Joe Klein, Tom Oliphant, Neil Sheehan). Each recalls different aspects of this history, still contested and still vital.
“You can’t understand John unless you understand what Vietnam is to him and to his life,” notes one observer. “It is absolutely essential to understanding him.” Given recent U.S. media and campaign attention to Kerry’s and George Bush’s Vietnam era experiences, it appears that “Vietnam” lingers in much of the nation’s collective memory, unresolved and still upsetting. Indeed, the specter of “Vietnam”—as it represents a war and failed “mission,” a population and place, a legacy of deceit and devastating loss—remains, arguably, “essential to an understanding” of subsequent U.S. policies, aspirations, and expectations.
While Going Upriver is yet another pro-Kerry documentary (as these continue to come to theaters and DVD, self-proclaimed efforts to counter other media’s ball-dropping), it is also, more importantly, a record of the VVAW’s arduous, impassioned work during that difficult time. True, Kerry gets top billing, and the film tracks his personal career, from eager Yale student to earnest enlistee to anti-war activist. And yes, the film plainly seeks to clarify not only his military service (and accounts of the Silver Star and Purple Hearts), but also the moral and emotional struggles that accompanied joining with VVAW and becoming the group’s spokesperson before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He also took part in a national media campaign to end the war, for which he appeared several times on The Dick Cavett Show, testifying and debating with John O’Neill, representative for Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace (the Nixon administration’s answer to VVAW). (These clips remind you that once, at least one tv “talk show” was once about something other than a star’s next movie or “cross-fire” shouting matches.)
The film also proposes that Kerry, like many other veterans, was surprised by the turn of history, the recognition that his government was cruel and untrustworthy, determined to cover up its tragic miscalculations with still more errors of judgment, some criminal, some desperate. And so the media, military, and administration alike reported “attrition” as if it was a measure of success, kept secret illegal bombings, and repressed atrocities committed by and against soldiers and civilians on all sides of the conflict, shame and responsibility borne by young people ill equipped to handle it. As Cleland describes it in the film, “You get committed to missions that look increasingly insane.”
Going Upriver‘s most effective and disturbing images then, are not its representations of John Kerry or others in country, on his swift boat, or even helping to organize that April weekend’s demonstrations in DC. They are, most often, footage from the Winter Soldier testimonies, where he was an observer first, and then reporter to the Senate Committee. In Detroit, young men gathered for panels to describe, haltingly, quietly, and distressingly, the acts of racism, rape, aggression, and destruction they had seen or committed. One young veteran relates his own “extreme” shame at posing for a photo with a dead Vietnamese: “This is me holding a dead body, smiling.”
It’s a terrible moment. And yet it is also hopeful: the vets wanted to end the war. As Marine Captain Rusty Sachs observes, in a 2003 interview, “The real motivation at the core was to end the war, to bring national opinion to a point where people would realize that national values are not being furthered by continuing this particular war at this particular time.” Tom Oliphant recalls that the hearing, while harrowing, was also galvanizing. The veterans, he says, “began to realize the power of the stories.” Kerry’s subsequent testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee—the very testimony deployed in a recent anti-Kerry “Swift Boat” ad (to suggest he was giving “comfort” to the enemy), was similarly powerful and heartbreaking. Invited to speak by was invited by Senator William Fulbright, Kerry told a story of realization as much as condemnation, a call to action and accountability a challenge to those who would suppress information and allow appalling actions to continue. The clip in Going Upriver displays the haunting simplicity and profound effect of his speech: “We are also here to ask, and we are here to ask vehemently, where are the leaders of our country? Where is the leadership? ...Where are they now that we, the men whom they sent off to war, have returned? These are commanders who have deserted their troops, and there is no more serious crime in the law of war.”
The whereabouts of today’s leaders in the war against Iraq is also in question, recalling Kerry’s query some 33 years ago. As Bill Maher has said more than once, if today’s Democratic candidate for President seeks a way to show himself as a leader, he need only look back to his past self to see a courageous, outspoken, and yes, plainspoken opponent to political injustice and military outrages. Speaking truth to power so long ago, Kerry and others challenged established orders out of a sense of patriotism as well as pain. And as they might encourage others, like my friend, to do the same, the responsibility does not belong only to those troops on the ground or those guards in the prisons.
If nothing else, Going Upriver reminds us that speaking out is essential. As Daniel Ellsberg writes in the New York Times, “Surely there are officials in the present administration who recognize that the United States has been misled into a war in Iraq, but who have so far kept their silence—as I long did about the war in Vietnam.” Surely, lessons have been learned from the past. And surely, U.S. mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere need not dictate the future.