No, really, this election is about Vietnam.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Sept. 15 2004 8:08 PM

No, Really, It's About Vietnam

Going Upriver supports the idea that this election is about the past.

TORONTO—At its simplest, George Butler's pro-Kerry documentary Going Upriver is a powerful rebuttal of the errors—factual and moral—made by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. But the movie also tries, with limited success, to do something more ambitious: to argue implicitly that the current war in Iraq is directly analogous to the war in Vietnam, and that John Kerry's actions of 30-odd years ago really are the most important issue facing Americans in this election. Kerry was right then, the movie implies, which makes him right now.

"You can't understand John unless you understand what Vietnam is to him," a voice—I think it's Max Cleland—declares during Going Upriver's opening moments. The answer to that mystery isn't entirely clear by the end of the film, but it's obvious what Vietnam symbolizes to George Butler: Iraq. Neil Sheehan, an author and historian (and former Vietnam correspondent) who gets a lot of screen time in the movie, is one of the first to make the implicit comparison between the mistakes of Vietnam and the mistakes in Iraq. "Everyone believed in the war at first," he says. Next, we see LBJ making the moral and humanitarian case for war, to "help the little nations" against the tyranny of larger aggressors. Butler doesn't connect the dots for the audience, but it's impossible to miss his drift.

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In another scene, we see video of a dead Vietnamese man while listening to Kerry's words about how the orders he is following are supposedly for the benefit of dead men like this one. Sheehan, the historian, makes the obvious parallel: "They were coming as liberators," but the Vietnamese resisted, no matter the cost, no matter how long it took. A veteran debating John O'Neill on the Dick Cavett Show says that opposing your government isn't the same as opposing your country, and that the war in Vietnam has nothing to do with democracy or freedom. "We're destroying ourselves as a nation," he says, instead of being the country that others want to emulate. Sound familiar?

After Sheehan's "liberators" comment, the moment in the film with the most contemporary resonance is at the Winter Soldier hearings, when a soldier displays a photo of himself, grinning ear to ear, over a dead body. Other soldiers tell how they weren't given instructions in the Geneva Conventions or taught how to treat prisoners of war. One soldier says he was told to count POWs only after unloading them from a boat, never when boarding them, in case one or two didn't make it.

There are reminders, at times, of how different the two wars are: The casualties in Vietnam were much higher, 1,500 dead and 8,000 wounded in the Tet Offensive alone. And Max Cleland says he felt betrayed by the occupant in the Oval Office, something I doubt many troops feel today (though active-duty military support for Bush isn't as high as it has been in recent years for Republicans). "Here we are, mid-assault, and the commander-in-chief turns his back on us," Cleland says of LBJ's decision not to run for re-election.

But the film repeatedly emphasizes the youthful Kerry's statements about his lifetime opposition to war. We hear his letter to Julia Thorne after the death of his friend Dick Pershing, in which Kerry writes that if "I do nothing else in life," he will work to convince people that war (this war, or all war?) is a "wasteful expenditure." During the Vietnam Veterans Against the War march on Washington, Kerry declares that his protest is "not the struggle of one day" but of a lifetime, and that admitting a mistaken policy doesn't mean that America is a "craven, hollow place."

What lessons has Kerry learned, though? When will he explain them to us? It's become a cliché to wonder what happened to the youthful Kerry, to the eloquent young man who risked his political viability to oppose a war out of principle. Just because Kerry opposed Vietnam doesn't mean he has to oppose the war in Iraq, of course, but the largely antiwar crowd at the premiere was stoked by Going Upriver into believing that. During the Q&A after the movie, one man stood and asked, if Kerry he opposed the war in Vietnam out of patriotism and love of country, why doesn't he do the same today? Chris Gregory, a former Army medic and VVAW member who appears in the movie and attended the premiere, objected and said, "It's a little too broad a brush" to say that Vietnam and Iraq are one and the same. "John is very focused on winning this job," Gregory said. "He wants to be right. But he wants to win more than he wants to be right."

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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