Stolen Honor

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    EYE ON POLITICS: Vietnam veterans in 'Stolen Honor' deserve to be heard
    October 25, 2004

    BY DAWSON BELL
    FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

    In the long run, it probably won't make much difference that the Sinclair Broadcast Group didn't show the documentary film about John Kerry's anti-Vietnam War activism as a primetime news show.

    "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal" is not first-rate television drama, just a series of interviews with middle-age men who were decorated soldiers and prisoners of war before their hair turned white. Mixed in are not-very-revelatory archival footage of the war, war protestors, the Hanoi Hilton and a young Lt. Kerry in Vietnam Veterans Against the War pose.

    Still, it's too bad it didn't air. These guys deserve to be heard.

    Although dismissed by their critics on the left as a handful of bitter old men trying to settle a misguided grudge, the stars of "Stolen Honor" don't look like fringe characters. They look pretty ordinary. A little beefy and bifocaled, not quite comfortable on camera. Like most Americans, they aren't particularly articulate.

    But what they're trying to say is pretty clear. They think John Kerry and his antiwar allies got it badly wrong on Vietnam. They say they suffered in enemy prison because of it. And -- worst of all -- that America has wound up with the wrong narrative on a war that defined their young lives.

    They are dismayed that no one has ever been held accountable for what they consider to be the slander of a generation of soldiers.

    In the campaign to keep it off the air, "Stolen Honor" was assailed as agitprop, compared to Nazi propaganda and criticized for its lack of balance. Unquestionably, it is one-sided. But the film techniques in "Stolen Honor" don't come close to the sophistication, bias or deceit of "Fahrenheit 9/11."

    Unless the men depicted don't exist or their backgrounds are fabricated, "Stolen Honor" is what the men in the film believe is the truth about what happened to them and their country.

    At times, theirs is almost a quaint form of outrage. Robinson Risner, who spent more than seven years in captivity, has a note of incredulity in his voice (he sounds a bit like a character from "The Andy Griffith Show") as he describes a session with his North Vietnamese tormenter/interrogator.

    The interrogator told him the antiwar crowd, some of whom were visiting Hanoi, "said they were winning the war in the streets of America.

    "I certainly did not approve of that. I didn't think it was right for an American to come over and bolster the Vietnamese morale."

    To the extent they address Risner and his colleagues at all -- which is not much -- Kerry's defenders and the critics of "Stolen Honor" scoff at the idea that his post-war activities had adverse consequences. They talk about America's venerable tradition of freedom to dissent. They insist Kerry's was a voice of moderation in a chorus of radical antiwar anger. Besides, they say, young Lt. Kerry really wasn't all that important a figure in the antiwar movement.

    Leo Thorsness, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner who spent five years in prison during Vietnam, disagrees.

    After Kerry, as spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testified before the U.S. Senate in 1971 about alleged atrocities by U.S. troops, "We were being told we were war criminals, and we will be tried for war crimes.

    "Unless we confess and ask for forgiveness and bad-mouth the war... we'll never go home. Here's a guy at home. He's been in Vietnam, so you have some respect for a person that went over there. And now, he swaps to the other side, and he's saying the same things we're being tortured to say."

    For producer Carlton Sherwood and the ex-POWs in "Stolen Honor," it is dumbfounding that the story about the war they fought in, watched friends die for, and in which they endured years of torture and captivity, has been told by people like Francis Ford Coppola, Tim O'Brien and John Prine.

    To them, Vietnam may have been bungled, even misguided. But they are proud of their service. They think their country, even when it screws up, has good intentions. They remember the hardship and sacrifice and loneliness. And they think it is incomprehensible the nation has somehow come to believe that they were, in Kerry's words, men "given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history."

    The Kerry campaign responded to "Stolen Honor" by again insisting that Kerry wasn't offering personal witness when he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the actions of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam had been pervasively barbaric ("They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads...razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan" etc. etc.).

    He was merely summarizing testimony he'd collected from other vets. The implication, of course, is that Kerry wasn't attesting to the veracity of those tales, just passing them along. That's a joke. To judge for yourself whether Kerry believed the things he told the committee had actually happened read or listen to his testimony. It is widely available on the Internet (Do a Google search for "Kerry's senate testimony").

    The other defense is based, somewhat confusingly, on the notion that there really were widespread atrocities in Vietnam. Kerry won't swear to them anymore, but lots of other people will.

    Jim Warner spent five years and five months in enemy custody during Vietnam, according to "Stolen Honor." He obviously doesn't think of himself as a rapist and murderer. He obviously does think of Kerry as an opportunist, who used his antiwar activity to launch a political career.

    Warner says his interrogators showed him passages of an antiwar book Kerry helped edit in which Warner's mother criticized the war while he was still in captivity.

    Bristling with anger, he says: "It is really...it is really a contemptible act to take a grieving old lady and...prey upon her grief and manipulate her grief purely for the promotion of your political agenda."

    Another ex-POW, Ron Webb, was held by the North Vietnamese for five years and eight months. It is perhaps understandable that he is not much interested in the nuanced view of Kerry's antiwar activities. He has his own context.

    "They drew a circle on the floor, the stone floor, with a piece of chalk. And I was to stand in that circle. And I lasted 97 hours in that circle. But when I finally gave it up I... got into it with a guard and got beaten up pretty bad...and broke some teeth."

    While he was confined to the circle, Webb says, his abusers arranged for him to see visiting Americans passing by, antiwar activist Tom Hayden among them, "I guess to influence me that Americans were obviously opposed to the war and that I ought to be also."

    It may be unfair to hold Kerry accountable for what happened to these men. It certainly is arguable he had little influence on the course of the war and the formation of public opinion about it, and less on how the North Vietnamese treated prisoners. The view of the POWs in "Stolen Honor" may be far from a consensus. Many veterans -- certainly those who support Kerry's candidacy -- seem untroubled by the prospect of electing him commander -in chief. And many Americans are simply tired of reliving Vietnam.

    For that reason and others, "Stolen Honor" was not likely to attract a very large audience in the first place, even if it had been broadcast uncut. Neither was it likely to change the perception about Kerry or the Vietnam War. But it's pretty clear that the veterans in it are not lying about what they believe. They think the dominant cultural image of Vietnam as a war of imperialistic greed fought by drug-crazed baby killers is an evil slander.

    And they think it's time someone listened.

    As Bob Dole reportedly said about an intemperate outburst from Vietnam vet John McCain, also a long-term guest at the Hanoi Hilton: "You spend five years in a box, and you're entitled to speak your mind."


    Contact DAWSON BELL at 313-222-6604 or dbell@freepress.com.
     
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