Regret to Inform
directed by Barbara Sonneborn
Return with Honor
directed by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders
The Vietnam War, as one of two new documentaries about that subject reminds us, was America’s longest war. 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 down to the present moment, where it continues to inflict casualties both human and notional. More than any other conflict, its endurance bears out the remark in Godard’s Germany Year 90 Nine Zero that when America goes to war, no matter who the nominal enemy is, it only fights itself.
These two films are an unbeatable joint emblem of that. Aside from titles that are regrettably similar (seeing the films immediately erases any confusion), they are at odds in almost every conceivable way. Barbara Sonneborn’s Regret to Inform, one woman’s attempt to come to terms with the war that claimed her young husband many years before, is small, personal, shoestring- and grant-funded, humanitarian and focused on both Vietnamese and American women. Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders’ Return with Honor, a chronicle of the captured American pilots held prisoner in North Vietnam during the war, is large, institutional, funded by war and banking interests, patriotic and focused not just on the experiences of American males but on a small, elite portion of the U.S. military personnel in Vietnam.
Saying that I found the first of these films extraordinarily clarifying and profound, and the second offensively propagandistic and obfuscatory, lets you know where I stand right off the bat. But it’s not to imply that one film is worth seeing and the other not. On the contrary, we’re lucky that they have appeared at virtually the same moment, because they’re immeasurably more valuable together than either could be 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 enough to owe their mental images of war mainly to Saving Private Ryan.
For simplicity’s sake Regret to 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 larger sense, though, they evoke the weaknesses and dangers associated with both poles of thought. Both too often sacrifice simple humanity to sheer abstraction, and bury reason in sentimentality.
Arguably, the left has ended up the weaker pole because it has been the more delusional, i.e., more abstracted from hard-tack reality. Where the right idealizes self-interest, and extends its chain of value outward to embrace family, locality and various extended communities leading up to (and beyond) the nation-state, the left has appealed to class interest, a quirky 19th-century formulation that, being essentially Romantic and pseudo-scientific, rendered its defenders ever more dependent on authoritarian means of asserting its legitimacy. Thus, as the left tied its wagon 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 successfully claimed the middle (liberal-democratic, commonsensical, techno-progressive) ground, and with it, the epoch.
Yet there have been two major issues in this fast vanishing American Century where the left was conspicuously right: civil rights and Vietnam. In both cases, being right—the play on words isn’t insignificant—means being more in touch with ineradicable human and economic realities, which (ironically) combine to favor the spread of American-style capitalism. Yes, justice and freedom were the root issues, but it was hardly coincidental that the legal structures of Jim Crowism were swept away when they became 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 capitalist imperative at work there, to be sure, but it was short-term and shortsighted and therefore, quite literally, self-defeating. What galls rightists most, no doubt, isn’t that a scrawny Third World country whipped our mighty asses, but that we could have simply sat back and waited for the inevitable triumph of Madonna, Microsoft and Mickey D’s.
During the long course of the Vietnam War, the American public went from regarding it as necessary and good to seeing it as unnecessary and wrong. Was that historic change of mind the result of Communistic propaganda somehow applied via the porous American media and dupes in various sectors of the culture, or was it the product of an overly comfortable, distracted public that couldn’t muster the will to fight a messy but justifiable war? Neither, of course. Vietnam was a tragedy—not merely a disaster—because America’s reasons for going in were well-meaning and apparently very sound; in fact, they were thoroughly consistent with what has been the century’s most crucial struggle, the battle against totalitarianism. The war ended in defeat, though, because Americans gradually woke up to the truth about Vietnam: that it was not, as had been advertised, a situation requiring a NATO-like action to prevent Moscow-based Communism from gobbling up an entire continent; rather, it was an Asian postcolonial civil war in which the nationalists were red.
It was therefore, in every practicable sense, eminently unwinnable. The will that was lacking was not in Washington or the American heartland, it was in Vietnam. And in trying to impose our wills on an essentially unwilling populace, using bombs where ideas and analysis failed, we created a bloody hell on Earth whose damage to the American psyche was arguably more insidious and lasting than the horrid but more obvious suffering wreaked on the Vietnamese.
The central difference between these 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—and then expands upon it valuably, deepening its hard moral lessons, while the deliberately myopic Return with Honor combines old hawkish canards about the war with current retro-patriotism and historic forgetfulness for a sum that effectively rebuffs moral understanding. Iconically, the latter film, which is about bomber pilots, begins by imagining its subjects swirling above cottony, snow-white clouds; the former shows the bombs hitting underneath those clouds and ponders the terrible costs to the people on the ground, American and Vietnamese alike.
Barbara Sonneborn is an artist whose first husband, Jeff Gurvitz, was killed in Vietnam; she received the news on her 24th birthday. In the first few minutes of her film, as she recounts this background and then shows herself on a train in Vietnam in the early stages of her journey to find the place where Jeff died, I feared Regret to Inform might be one of those touchy-feely, me-centric first-person docs: film as therapy and career boost simultaneously. But that impression quickly vanished. Sonneborn’s film is wholly devastating largely because, in so many senses, it is other-directed.
Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, that most brilliant and moving of war monuments, gains its power by particularizing tragedy. In its acreage of irrefutable black text, Vietnam is not “America’s sacrifice” but the loss of each one of those lives. Such specificity isn’t incidental to the larger meaning of the war, the memorial insists; it is that meaning. Regret to Inform has a similarly passionate, incisive commitment to the value of individual lives and significant details.
Sonneborn’s friend and translator Xuan Ngoc Evans recalls that they came and destroyed her village when she was 14. She was hiding with her family in their basement when her five-year-old cousin said he’d die of thirst if he didn’t get some water. She followed him as he crept up to the ground floor, and was directly behind him when an American’s gun literally blew him to pieces. In a mere second, the child was reduced to a cloud of blood, flesh and smoke. Her eyes wide with horror even now, Xuan Ngoc says that if you haven’t experienced such a thing, you cannot imagine the sight, the smell, the feeling of it. She turned and saw the eyes of the American shooter, and now, so many years later, she still looks for those eyes in the street. She says the American looked as horrified as she was.
The linkage, that terrible equivalence and bond, cuts to the heart of Regret to Inform. Sonneborn does something immensely valuable in recording the experiences of women on both sides of the war, including those Vietnamese, so often in the midst of the carnage through no choice of their own, who watched their families, animals, homes and dreams disappear in smears of blood and smoke. One woman recalls that nine of her relatives were dragged from their hut and executed “without even having the chance to eat breakfast.” Another recounts being captured by the Americans and turned over to the South Vietnamese: “They hung me upside down by my ankles [and] passed electrodes through the tips of each of my fingers and both my nipples. The cruelty that we experienced was longer than a river, higher than a mountain and deeper than an ocean.”
Yet the film is even more penetrating in suggesting the moral impact on American lives. Sonneborn says she and Jeff grasped that he might die, but not what it meant that he might kill. This seems to be a common experience among the widows left behind, and it’s something I’ve never seen explored in a film. One wife puts it best: “Is your 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, they were not. I don’t see my husband as a murderer but at the same time we have to look at it for what it is, and it is murder.” In print, that may sound hard and accusatory, but in this woman’s soft, considered voice, it’s almost unbearably poignant.
Another widow recalls that the war didn’t conclude for her husband till seven years after his return, when he went into his garage and killed himself “because he couldn’t take the flashbacks anymore.” In giving us a sense of what such flashbacks contained, Regret to Inform contributes enormously to our understanding of what American soldiers suffered in their long voyage home.
While the details in Sonneborn’s film ripple outward in significance, describing larger patterns of experience and 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 seized on to represent their ultimate goal and to bolster their morale. In that circumscribed sense, it was certainly touchingly valuable, even noble. What the film intends,
though, is that we allow it no other reverberations. We certainly are not invited to recall Nixon/Kissinger’s “peace with honor” and what a bitter joke that became (even to the point of inspiring the devastating title of Robert Altman’s Nixon screed, Secret Honor).
The film effectively resembles a 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 and imprisoned, often tortured, and for up to eight and a half` years, in North Vietnam, most famously in the prison known as the Hanoi Hilton. The recollections of the former POWs interviewed here, including Sen. John McCain, are riveting and inspire constant admiration and pity. They recall the terrors of capture, the pain of the torture machines, the impossibility of escape, the comforts of prayer and patriotism and camaraderie, and such intriguing sidelights as the elaborate means devised to communicate secretly between prisoners and in public settings.
But as much as it shows and tells, the film glaringly refuses to examine or ask 10 times as much. It is, in essence, a monument of falsification by decontextualization. We’re given virtually no explanation of the war, nor any questions about its worth or strategies from the pilots. What were the goals and impact of their bombing? Not a single bomb 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? Did they, and do they, consider the innocent civilians, especially, that they might have killed? Do they ever reflect on the meaning of sacrificing so much of their own lives to a doomed war that the world regards as criminal?
We get none of this, or of many other important questions. A number of captives who took early release in 1968 are (with one exception) implicitly tarred as unpatriotic and not allowed to speak for themselves. Likewise, the filmmakers got extensive cooperation and aid from the Vietnamese but don’t deign to interview a single Vietnamese—although one long-ago interrogator is quoted in a way that paints U.S. antiwar demonstrators and even legislators like Teddy Kennedy as unwitting agents of North Vietnam. And so on.
It would all be purely risible and contemptible if the film, “presented by” Tom Hanks, did not fit so disturbingly into the current context of smart bombs and multiplex patriotism. Return with Honor‘s Mock and Sanders (ironically) won an Oscar for their feature about Maya Lin; they are the kind of anonymous Hollywood-establishment documentarians who mysteriously win prizes from the Academy while masterpieces like Hoop Dreams go begging. Proving that not just people but films can be 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) and MBNA Bank. Readers too young to know the term “military-industrial complex” are advised to familiarize themselves forthwith: It’s how we got into Vietnam in the first place, and its poisonous web is easily as sticky now as it was then.