Regret to Inform, Return with Honor
Regret to Inform directed by Barbara Sonneborn Return with Honor directed by Freida Lee Mockand Terry Sanders [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="240" caption="(photo courtesy of Wiki)"][/caption] Hell No The Vietnam War, as oneof two new documentaries about that subject reminds us, was America's longestwar. How long? Well, just as it was never declared, it evidently has no end.From some murky, undefinable point in the early 60s, it stretches right downto the present moment, where it continues to inflict casualties both human andnotional. More than any other conflict, its endurance bears out the remark inGodard's Germany Year 90 Nine Zero that when America goes to war, nomatter who the nominal enemy is, it only fights itself. These two films are an unbeatablejoint emblem of that. Aside from titles that are regrettably similar (seeing the films immediately erases any confusion), they are at odds in almost everyconceivable way. Barbara Sonneborn's Regret to Inform, one woman's attemptto come to terms with the war that claimed her young husband many years before,is small, personal, shoestring- and grant-funded, humanitarian and focused onboth Vietnamese and American women. Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders' Returnwith Honor, a chronicle of the captured American pilots held prisoner inNorth Vietnam during the war, is large, institutional, funded by war and bankinginterests, patriotic and focused not just on the experiences of American malesbut on a small, elite portion of the U.S. military personnel in Vietnam. Saying that I found thefirst of these films extraordinarily clarifying and profound, and the secondoffensively propagandistic and obfuscatory, lets you know where I stand rightoff the bat. But it's not to imply that one film is worth seeing and the othernot. On the contrary, we're lucky that they have appeared at virtually the samemoment, because they're immeasurably more valuable together than either couldbe alone (the suffering that Regret to Inform documents was made possible,after all, by the willful ignorance that Return with Honor exemplifies).I therefore recommend both films unreservedly, especially to those young enoughto owe their mental images of war mainly to Saving Private Ryan. For simplicity's sake Regretto Inform can be identified as leftist and Return with Honor as rightist;certainly they invite those labels insofar as they are associated with U.S.political positions, then and now, regarding the Vietnam conflict. In a largersense, though, they evoke the weaknesses and dangers associated with both polesof thought. Both too often sacrifice simple humanity to sheer abstraction, andbury reason in sentimentality. Arguably, the left has endedup the weaker pole because it has been the more delusional, i.e., more abstractedfrom hard-tack reality. Where the right idealizes self-interest, and extendsits chain of value outward to embrace family, locality and various extendedcommunities leading up to (and beyond) the nation-state, the left has appealedto class interest, a quirky 19th-century formulation that, being essentiallyRomantic and pseudo-scientific, rendered its defenders ever more dependent onauthoritarian means of asserting its legitimacy. Thus, as the left tied itswagon more often to totalitarianism and atrocity (it's true: next to Stalin,Mao and Pol Pot, Hitler's body count looks paltry), the right has successfullyclaimed the middle (liberal-democratic, commonsensical, techno-progressive)ground, and with it, the epoch. Yet there have been twomajor issues in this fast vanishing American Century where the left was conspicuouslyright: civil rights and Vietnam. In both cases, being right-the play on wordsisn't insignificant-means being more in touch with ineradicable human and economicrealities, which (ironically) combine to favor the spread of American-stylecapitalism. Yes, justice and freedom were the root issues, but it was hardlycoincidental that the legal structures of Jim Crowism were swept away when theybecame glaring impediments to the interests of color-blind labor pools and consumerism.(MLK went to the mountaintop so that Bill Cosby could sell Jell-O? Well, yeah:anything wrong with that?) As for invading Vietnam, there was a fierce capitalistimperative at work there, to be sure, but it was short-term and shortsightedand therefore, quite literally, self-defeating. What galls rightists most, nodoubt, isn't that a scrawny Third World country whipped our mighty asses, butthat we could have simply sat back and waited for the inevitable triumph ofMadonna, Microsoft and Mickey D's. During the long course ofthe Vietnam War, the American public went from regarding it as necessary andgood to seeing it as unnecessary and wrong. Was that historic change of mindthe result of Communistic propaganda somehow applied via the porous Americanmedia and dupes in various sectors of the culture, or was it the product ofan overly comfortable, distracted public that couldn't muster the will to fighta messy but justifiable war? Neither, of course. Vietnam was a tragedy-not merelya disaster-because America's reasons for going in were well-meaning and apparentlyvery sound; in fact, they were thoroughly consistent with what has been thecentury's most crucial struggle, the battle against totalitarianism. The warended in defeat, though, because Americans gradually woke up to the truth aboutVietnam: that it was not, as had been advertised, a situation requiring a NATO-likeaction to prevent Moscow-based Communism from gobbling up an entire continent;rather, it was an Asian postcolonial civil war in which the nationalists werered. It was therefore, in everypracticable sense, eminently unwinnable. The will that was lacking was not inWashington or the American heartland, it was in Vietnam. And in trying to imposeour wills on an essentially unwilling populace, using bombs where ideas andanalysis failed, we created a bloody hell on Earth whose damage to the Americanpsyche was arguably more insidious and lasting than the horrid but more obvioussuffering wreaked on the Vietnamese. The central difference betweenthese two films is that Regret to Inform comprehends all of the above-i.e.,it starts from the understanding that most Americans had of the war at its end-andthen expands upon it valuably, deepening its hard moral lessons, while the deliberatelymyopic Return with Honor combines old hawkish canards about the war withcurrent retro-patriotism and historic forgetfulness for a sum that effectivelyrebuffs moral understanding. Iconically, the latter film, which is about bomberpilots, begins by imagining its subjects swirling above cottony, snow-whiteclouds; the former shows the bombs hitting underneath those clouds and pondersthe terrible costs to the people on the ground, American and Vietnamese alike. Barbara Sonneborn is anartist whose first husband, Jeff Gurvitz, was killed in Vietnam; she receivedthe news on her 24th birthday. In the first few minutes of her film, as sherecounts this background and then shows herself on a train in Vietnam in theearly stages of her journey to find the place where Jeff died, I feared Regretto Inform might be one of those touchy-feely, me-centric first-person docs:film as therapy and career boost simultaneously. But that impression quicklyvanished. Sonneborn's film is wholly devastating largely because, in so manysenses, it is other-directed. Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorialin Washington, that most brilliant and moving of war monuments, gains its powerby particularizing tragedy. In its acreage of irrefutable black text, Vietnamis not "America's sacrifice" but the loss of each one of thoselives. Such specificity isn't incidental to the larger meaning of the war, thememorial insists; it is that meaning. Regret to Inform has a similarlypassionate, incisive commitment to the value of individual lives and significantdetails. Sonneborn's friend and translatorXuan Ngoc Evans recalls that they came and destroyed her village when she was14. She was hiding with her family in their basement when her five-year-oldcousin said he'd die of thirst if he didn't get some water. She followed himas he crept up to the ground floor, and was directly behind him when an American'sgun literally blew him to pieces. In a mere second, the child was reduced toa cloud of blood, flesh and smoke. Her eyes wide with horror even now, XuanNgoc says that if you haven't experienced such a thing, you cannot imagine thesight, the smell, the feeling of it. She turned and saw the eyes of theAmerican shooter, and now, so many years later, she still looks for those eyesin the street. She says the American looked as horrified as she was. The linkage, that terribleequivalence and bond, cuts to the heart of Regret to Inform. Sonneborndoes something immensely valuable in recording the experiences of women on bothsides of the war, including those Vietnamese, so often in the midst of the carnagethrough no choice of their own, who watched their families, animals, homes anddreams disappear in smears of blood and smoke. One woman recalls that nine ofher relatives were dragged from their hut and executed "without even havingthe chance to eat breakfast." Another recounts being captured by the Americansand turned over to the South Vietnamese: "They hung me upside down by myankles [and] passed electrodes through the tips of each of my fingers and bothmy nipples. The cruelty that we experienced was longer than a river, higherthan a mountain and deeper than an ocean." Yet the film is even morepenetrating in suggesting the moral impact on American lives. Sonneborn saysshe and Jeff grasped that he might die, but not what it meant that he mightkill. This seems to be a common experience among the widows left behind, andit's something I've never seen explored in a film. One wife puts it best: "Isyour husband a hero or a murderer? What is he? Did he kill people over there?Yes, he probably did. And were these people a threat to his country? No, theywere not. I don't see my husband as a murderer but at the same time we haveto look at it for what it is, and it is murder." In print, that may soundhard and accusatory, but in this woman's soft, considered voice, it's almostunbearably poignant. Another widow recalls thatthe war didn't conclude for her husband till seven years after his return, whenhe went into his garage and killed himself "because he couldn't take theflashbacks anymore." In giving us a sense of what such flashbacks contained,Regret to Inform contributes enormously to our understanding of whatAmerican soldiers suffered in their long voyage home. While the details in Sonneborn'sfilm ripple outward in significance, describing larger patterns of experienceand meaning, those in Return with Honor are narrowly, purposely foreclosed.The film's title is a perfect example of and metaphor for that. We learn that"return with honor" was the phrase that captured U.S. airmen seizedon to represent their ultimate goal and to bolster their morale. In that circumscribedsense, it was certainly touchingly valuable, even noble. What the film intends, though, is that we allow it no other reverberations. We certainly arenot invited to recall Nixon/Kissinger's "peace with honor" and whata bitter joke that became (even to the point of inspiring the devastating titleof Robert Altman's Nixon screed, Secret Honor). The film effectively resemblesa quilt with one square that's true and valuable and moving, but that's surrounded(and drastically qualified) by squares that are flagrant distortions and evasions.The worthy square concerns the experiences of pilots who were shot down andimprisoned, often tortured, and for up to eight and a half` years, in NorthVietnam, most famously in the prison known as the Hanoi Hilton. The recollectionsof the former POWs interviewed here, including Sen. John McCain, are rivetingand inspire constant admiration and pity. They recall the terrors of capture,the pain of the torture machines, the impossibility of escape, the comfortsof prayer and patriotism and camaraderie, and such intriguing sidelights asthe elaborate means devised to communicate secretly between prisoners and inpublic settings. But as much as it showsand tells, the film glaringly refuses to examine or ask 10 times as much. Itis, in essence, a monument of falsification by decontextualization. We're givenvirtually no explanation of the war, nor any questions about its worth or strategiesfrom the pilots. What were the goals and impact of their bombing? Not a singlebomb falling is shown. Did the flyers feel guilty or superior regarding U.S.ground soldiers, who had to kill up close and live in the blood and dirt? Didthey, and do they, consider the innocent civilians, especially, that they mighthave killed? Do they ever reflect on the meaning of sacrificing so much of theirown lives to a doomed war that the world regards as criminal? We get none of this, orof many other important questions. A number of captives who took early releasein 1968 are (with one exception) implicitly tarred as unpatriotic and not allowedto speak for themselves. Likewise, the filmmakers got extensive cooperationand aid from the Vietnamese but don't deign to interview a single Vietnamese-althoughone long-ago interrogator is quoted in a way that paints U.S. antiwar demonstratorsand even legislators like Teddy Kennedy as unwitting agents of North Vietnam.And so on. It would all be purely risibleand contemptible if the film, "presented by" Tom Hanks, did not fitso disturbingly into the current context of smart bombs and multiplex patriotism.Return with Honor's Mock and Sanders (ironically) won an Oscar for theirfeature about Maya Lin; they are the kind of anonymous Hollywood-establishmentdocumentarians who mysteriously win prizes from the Academy while masterpieceslike Hoop Dreams go begging. Proving that not just people but films canbe without honor, their movie's funding came from the Boeing-McDonnell Foundation(through a grant to the Association of Graduates, U.S. Air Force Academy) andMBNA Bank. Readers too young to know the term "military-industrial complex"are advised to familiarize themselves forthwith: It's how we got into Vietnamin the first place, and its poisonous web is easily as sticky now as it wasthen.
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