Friday, October 15, 2004

Going Upriver

I'm sick today, so I'm home watching TV and movies and reading.

Going Upriver is available online. It's a beautiful movie about the Vietnam era and John Kerry's role in it. It's directed by George Butler, the man who made Arnold Schwarzenegger famous. It blends current interviews with home video, archival television footage and the usual assortment of still photos.

Others have reviewed it in detail, but my perspective is different because I didn't live through Vietnam. The details of the movie were almost entirely news to me, while if I were 15 years older, I would remember it.

Obviously, I knew atrocities occurred in 'Nam. What struck me was a soldier testifying at the Winter Soldier hearings about a photograph. He was smiling and pointing at the dead body of a Vietnamese man. It's scarily similar to the picture from Abu Ghraib, and the man said,

I'm showing this in hopes that none of you people that have never been involved ever let this happen to you. Don't let your government do this to you. That's a picture of me, holding a dead body, smiling.

There were stories of translators torturing prisoners, stories of prisoners disappearing from planes. That was the ?never again? moment for that generation, like the discovery of Auschwitz. According to Tom Oliphant, Kerry wanted to de-emphasize the atrocities, which he feared would turn people off, in favor of introducing these veterans to America again.

The bravery of the veterans' march on Washington, the difficulties they encountered weren't surprising, since the anti-war movement was a major target of internal surveillance, and the veterans would be just as likely to be seen as enemies as longhairs like my parents.

The argument of the movie is said to have shifted some in it's production. Butler re-edited after the Swift Boat liars started their attacks. This is an extended rebuttal to the attacks on his war record. It is now an unceasing promotion of Kerry as brave and determined and strong. He choses his paths on the basis of what's right and moral and good. Bob Kerrey says that if someone told him he wanted to both oppose the war and have a career in public service, he would say ?choose one.? Kerry had to know the risks, but he did what he knew to be right and necessary.

What happened to the John Kerry who said this:

Where are the leaders of our country? Where are the leaders? ... These are leaders who have deserted their troops. ... These men have left all the casualties and retreated behind the pious shield of public rectitude. They've left the real stuff of their reputations bleaching behind them in this country.

Is the situation any less serious in Iraq? How can we ask another American soldier to die for our mistakes in Iraq. These are questions that have been asked before, and will be asked again.

After the Senate testimony comes the throwing of the ribbons and medals. It's clear that it was incredibly hard at the time, for the soldiers to give up the medals, but it seems like many of the men are still a bit sorry, still conflicted over the medals. They all feel, on an intellectual level, that the medals were worthless, and the symbolism of casting away those medals was important. But it also made them feel like they were giving up things that did matter. They knew that the war was worthless, and the medals were given to console them for participating in that fraud, but still, they had stood bravely, in front of enemy fire, and they were casting away the official recognition of that. Each modern interview is conflicted, but each contemporary statement is full of passion, excitement, and catharsis. What happened in between? Did they win the fight, and now want some recognition of the battles they fought once they came home and really accomplished something?

As a response to the Swift Boat liars, it's very effective, but the questions above are all about what happened between then and now. I've been watching bits and pieces of the WB's ?Jack and Bobbie.? It's a conventional family drama - a single mother raising a senior in high school and his younger brother, just coming into 9th grade. The twist is that one brother will become president in 40 years. Going Upriver is much like that. It provides an intimate portrait of the emergence of John Kerry as a public figure, without ever telling you what that leads to. A martian could watch it and be utterly surprised that he's still in public life, let alone about to become the president.

Update: Via BoingBoing, an NBC correspondent shows soldiers in Iraq Going Upriver.