'Going Upriver' tells us as much about ourselves as it does about John Kerry
The Vietnam War has haunted the current presidential campaign since John Kerry became the undisputed Democratic frontrunner early last spring. Debate over his service, his medals, and his subsequent anti-war activism only intensified once his war record became the centerpiece of a campaign about character. Complementing the furor caused by the anti-Kerry propaganda machine Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, has been the ongoing search for documents that verify George W. Bush's Vietnam War inactivism. (Empirically it's generally more difficult to prove something's nonexistence.)
But it may have been inevitable that the ghosts of the MeKong Delta would pierce the veil in 2004. Well before the presidential race was underway, critics of the current administration warned that Iraq was another Viet Nam in the making: Entrenched insurgents seem to have the aid and abetment of a measurable portion of the population, and the increasingly brutal tactics required to pacify them alienate potential allies. The U.S. body count has surpassed 1,000, numbers that are nowhere near Viet Nam's final total of 58,169, but the point made by the new documentary film Going Upriver: the Long War of John Kerry - a graceful, measured 90 minutes that trace Kerry's evolution from idealistic young soldier to idealistic young protester - is that Iraq doesn't resemble Viet Nam so much in form as it does in essence. "America's greatest strength is the will of its people," a member of Veterans Against the Vietnam War says during a televised debate; he adds, we must continue to be a country that the rest of the world strives to emulate. These are the same arguments made by critics of the current war as we debate the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the administration's request to move war funds from the reconstruction column to the "security" column.
If the Vietnam War represents our ongoing inability to reconcile two forms of patriotism - duty and dissent - Bush and Kerry also symbolize our difficulty in reconciling two styles of leadership: high plains drifter and head of state. In difficult times we seem to be drawn to men who, like John Wayne's characters, shoot first and ask questions later. Maybe this film will convince some viewers that cowboys and generals are not the same thing.
Near the end of the film, Kerry and fellow veterans talk about the great emotion and anguish that accompanied their decision to publicly refute their medals. A former Marine corporal recalls that he felt that his Silver Star was the only worthwhile thing he had accomplished in his life. Another vet, his voice constricted with emotion, says it would have been great to come home a hero but, "when you have to say these sacrifices were for nothing, that's the bitter pill."
Footage from the 1969 Winter Soldier Investigation hearings, an open mic session at which vets testified to their brutal experiences in-country, convey how cathartic the anti-war movement was for soldiers who felt that "our national values were not being furthered in this particular war at this particular time." It's a pertinent reminder that Kerry, unlike Bush, has participated in civil disobedience; he has experienced what it is like to be on the opposite side of overwhelming force and political opinion.
The Vietnam War has largely been excluded from the public arena since its humiliating end, and as a country we have not embraced its veterans. Even as the last of our World War II vets commemorate V-Day in a golden aura, service in Vietnam confers a slight stigma, a permanent question mark. The possibility that a majority of voters might embrace an admitted (if legal) draft dodger over someone who volountarily served emphasizes our deep ambivalence toward this chapter of our common history. This is part of the battle that Kerry is now fighting. Going Upriver, which like the '60s and '70s is gloss-free, may not win the presidency for Kerry but it may at last earn Vietnam vets their deserved role as the next Great Generation. •
By Elaine Wolff