If you go see George Butler's fine new documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (based on the book Tour of Duty) you will understand unequivocally why John Kerry has chosen to run his presidential campaign on his experience and record in the Vietnam War. But it is not for the obvious reasons: While many see him running solely on his in-battle war record, that's only the half of it.
Vietnam was a war that defined a nation and in the process it defined an entire generation of soldiers who fought there. John Kerry came home in the early 1970s and -- like a majority of the soldiers -- felt disillusioned by not only the way the war was going but by the actions and attitudes of the government that sent them there in the first place.
So Kerry did the one thing anyone with a voice and a vision would do: He spoke out. This, of course, was an act that immediately pitched him onto a political side that he would have to defend for years to come.
Going Upriver makes it clear that Kerry did not speak out against the soldiers but in fact stood up for the soldiers by questioning the government and the military establishment which by 1970 seemed perpetually stuck in an indecisive quagmire that had no solution to win the war or win the peace. Kerry and the veterans who formed the Vietnam Veterans Against the War had a simple solution: Bring the soldiers home.
The film includes numerous interviews with Swift Boat veterans (who served with Kerry) such as David Alston, Jim Rassman, and Fred Short as well as scholars who were in Vietnam and at the protests (such as Neil Sheehan and Thomas Oliphant). Put together, the documentary paints the picture of a political time period that - while being a generation ago - helped shape the world we live in today as well as the attitudes that most Americans have about war, patriotism, and the government.
Artfully editing 8mm and 16mm footage of Vietnam and various veteran and anti-war protests, along with TV news clips and interviews the documentary keeps viewers riveted and involved from start to finish. The film also boasts a fine soundtrack by artists such as Bob Dylan, Canned Heat, Jimmy Hendrix, and John Lennon to give it the proper aura of the early 1970s as well as a subtly effective score by Philip Glass.
Kerry fought bravely in Vietnam. That fact should not be questioned. It is what Kerry did after the war that has made him the target of many people. Going Upriver shows us that when Kerry came back in the early 1970s he got together with various veterans to talk about their experiences and ultimately it became the Winter Soldier Investigation (in 1971) in which many, many veterans discussed their pain and the atrocities of the war, which they hoped would end soon.
In time Kerry became one of the spokesmen for these veterans and then in a tense set of days in April of 1971 while Vietnam veterans crowded the Mall for a sleep-in in Washington D.C. Kerry was asked by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to testify about the war. Kerry was eloquent, articulate, and to the point. He also received five minutes on national television. A star was born.
Then came trouble. With his high profile he was an immediate threat to President Nixon - who in one taped section can be heard talking to one of his aides about Kerry's similarity to the Kennedy brothers. Nixon's crew knew he was dangerous to them and they set out to denigrate him. Enter John E. O'Neill (co-author of Unfit for Command) who came along with a group called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace to denounce Kerry for daring to talk about war atrocities and criticize the soldiers and the government in a time of war. They faced off a few times and are still today in different camps over Vietnam.
Going Upriver is, in many ways, about Kerry in a cursory way. He is at the center of all the events, yes, but there is no doubt that this film was made for and is about all the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and (arguably) for all veterans who fought in that controversial battle. It is a film about the dignity of soldiers who put themselves on the line for their country and who learned to deal with the pain of bitterness of an unjust war. This is powerfully shown in a scene toward the end when many veterans in 1971 emotionally threw their medals over a fence onto the Capital lawn.
If you are an undecided voter Going Upriver is worth seeing because it goes beyond the soundbite mentality that we see today from both the Bush and Kerry campaigns. It speaks to large issues and bigger themes that have shaped the America that we lived in then and which we still live in. More importantly, it shows us John Kerry in a much more favorable light than he has been portrayed in the past few months.
If there is one criticism of Going Upriver it is that it feels very much like a testimonial for Kerry and his controversial stand. There are thousands of veterans who supported Kerry but just as surely there are thousands who did not. The voices of those who oppose Kerry are not heard or represented here. It would be interesting to compare and contrast the memories, thoughts, and opinions of both sides of the issue. One day a documentary that outlines all of these positions will be made. Until then George Butler's Going Upriver will have to do, and it is a very good start.