Can't we get past Vietnam? Can't we stop worrying about a war that ended 30 years ago and focus on what's happening now? That's what political talking heads and columnists have been admonishing for the past month. But Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry makes the case that Vietnam is still very relevant to both our current election and our current war, just not in the way people have tended to talk about it.
The film, directed by George Butler, who is best known for the body-building doc Pumping Iron but who also helmed the excellent historical adventure account The Endurance: Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition, is not so much a biography of candidate Kerry as an investigation of the impact of the Vietnam experience on American life. It simply uses Kerry as case study while frequently branching out to let other veterans well-known figures such as former senators Bob Kerrey and Max Cleland as well as several generally unknown ex-soldiers talk not only about Kerry but about their own experiences in and after the war.
Going Upriver spends some time on Kerry's early life, from childhood in New England through his time at prep schools and at Yale. But in using this material, Butler (an acknowledged lifelong friend of the subject) seems less concerned with Kerry's personal story than with setting up a pre-Vietnam American ideal: a young man of privilege innocently inspired by John F. Kennedy's call to duty. Butler establishes that, in the mid-'60s, when Kerry volunteered to serve in Vietnam, it wasn't an unusual thing to do. "We thought it was the right war, right time, right place," one subject says. An unspoken point is that the urge to service among the country's "best and brightest" was yet another casualty of the war.
Butler mentions neither Kerry's current candidacy nor his Senate career. Instead, the film focuses almost exclusively on the transformation in two portions of Kerry's life: his four-month tour of duty as a swift-boat captain in Vietnam and his high-profile role as part of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) upon his return.
Going Upriver paints Kerry in an extremely positive light, but it doesn't strain too hard to do it. Kerry was simply an impressive figure in those days. And the film does acknowledge that Kerry was not a figure immune to controversy, even on his own side of the ideological divide. As a clean-cut, well-spoken, well-mannered young man doted on by his elders, Kerry was both a natural and effective spokesman for anti-war veterans and a figure of some resentment by more counter-cultural types within the movement. The one, perhaps damning omission in the film is its sidestepping the revelation that Kerry didn't throw his own medals away at a VVAW demonstration. He tossed his own ribbons and another soldier's medals. Given that the film includes several pained interview segments from soldiers about how conflicted they were about rejecting these military honors, not owning up to Kerry's own ambivalence seems misleading.
In its Vietnam section, Going Upriver goes into great detail on the nature of the swift-boat patrols, especially the events that earned Kerry the Silver Star, refuting the ridiculous charges of the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth without mentioning the campaign. And it offers a considerable indictment of a military strategy that instituted free-fire zones (where soldiers were encouraged to attack indiscriminately) and of swift-boat commander Roy Hoffman emphasizing body counts. It points out that this slaughter was very much a two-way street. One swift-boat vet estimates the casualty rate for the missions at over 70 percent.
But the film's real power comes when it moves to the homefront. There is lengthy footage from both the Winter Soldier Investigation in Detroit, which Kerry attended as an observer, and Kerry's own now-famous Senate testimony. Kerry has since gotten into trouble for repeating stories from the Winter Soldier Investigation at his Senate hearing, but here viewers can see the firsthand accounts of returning soldiers, most clearly shaken, testifying to the atrocities they had witnessed or committed. There is a truly riveting eloquence to Kerry's Senate testimony, shown here in longer segments than the news clips seen during the current presidential race.
This testimony doesn't always gibe with the John Kerry of today. Twenty years of Senatespeak and the pressures of a political campaign have dulled the impact and bravery of Kerry as a public speaker. He no longer boasts the unsparing eloquence of a young man who has realized that his comrades are dying for nothing. He won't admit today that our soldiers are dying for a mistake, because it's a truth still too awful for a presidential candidate to voice. But watching Going Upriver, one believes that somewhere inside is a young John Kerry who knows the truth.
The relevance of this experience to America's current foreign misadventures is overwhelming, but, to Butler's credit, it is never explicit. Discussion of self-styled liberation running into nationalistic resistance rhymes painfully with the Iraq quagmire. And footage of a young Kerry arguing with figures from the Nixon administration about the substandard treatment of soldiers and the needless risk of lives in order to back up the bluster of civilian commanders provides an unnerving déjà-vu experience in the context of his current debates with George W. Bush.
Perhaps most awful of all is a moment from the Winter Soldier Investigation, when one young soldier produces a photo of himself with the body of a dead Vietnamese. "That's me holding a dead body smiling," he says shamefully. "Don't ever let your government do this to you." The unspoken connection to Abu Ghraib not only exposes the sham of that disgrace's "few bad apples" defense. It makes you want to weep.
They say Vietnam is over. In Going Upriver, Max Cleland, who left three limbs on the battlefield, says otherwise: "War is not over when the shooting ends. It lives on in the lives of those who fought." But even more horrifically, Going Upriver suggests, the war lives on in the life of the nation scarred by it, in the mistakes repeated by those who never learned its lessons.
So if you want to draw a lesson from this film about the current election, beyond the fundamental decency of John Kerry, then perhaps it is that the relevance of the Vietnam experience doesn't come from what Kerry and Bush did during the war so much as what they learned or didn't learn from it.
It's sad to think that only pro-Kerry partisans are likely to see this film, and not only because soft Bush voters would likely be swayed by the film. No, what makes Going Upriver so compelling is that it isn't a campaign document. It's crucially relevant regardless of what happens in November. Going Upriver is essentially about a struggle to demand honor and accountability from leaders who refuse to give it even in the most serious matters. And the awful truth is that struggle continues still. n