On the Kickstarter page for the remarkable documentary “Same Same but Different”, the film takes note of the ignominious end of the war in Vietnam—at least if you view that ending from the point of view of the White House and the Pentagon: “Long after that last helicopter lifted off from the American Embassy in Saigon, Veterans of that War have quietly returned to their former battlegrounds to clear unexploded ordnance, work with victims of Agent Orange, and build schools and orphanages. Same Same But Different is their story.”
Ignominious is certainly the word that comes to mind when you watch Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam” that has been nominated for best documentary for the upcoming Academy Awards. Like “American Sniper”, this is a film that turns history on its head. By portraying the liberation of Vietnam that was captured in memorable photos of the last helicopters lifting off from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon as a disaster for the Vietnamese people, Ms. Kennedy keeps alive the myth of the American military as a force for good. By contrast and in Walt Kelly’s memorable way of putting it, “Same Same but Different” tells the truth, namely that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
“Same Same but Different” was co-directed by Deryle Perryman and Moisés González and can be seen now on Vimeo for free . For those who want to get an idea of what a real American hero is about, this 54-minute documentary is the best place to start. It allows Vietnam War veterans to describe their experiences as foreign invaders committed to Cold War verities and then being transformed into opponents of the war. What gives the film added poignancy are the Deep South origins of most of the subjects who unlike the Texas sniper Chris Kyle were able to break with a racist and militarist culture and become true American heroes.
Co-Director Deryle Perryman fits that description to a tee. As he put it to a fellow antiwar Vietnam veteran on his “Ranger Against War” blog, he went to Vietnam just as gung-ho as Kyle went to Iraq, except with “commies” rather than “jihadis” in his gun sight:
I was born in Alabama. Southerners like to fight. Since everybody’s Daddy was in the Big War, I grew up in a culture that didn’t leave many options when the bugle sounded. So when the time came–just after HS graduation, along with three of my best childhood buddies — I signed up to fight to keep the Commie hoards from taking San Francisco.
It was on a simple tourist visit to Vietnam where Perryman ran into veterans who had started various projects like clearing landmines to heal the scars of the war that the idea for the film began to germinate. With experienced documentary filmmaker Moises A. Gonzalez, who was four years old when Perryman was dodging bullets in Vietnam and I was passing out leaflets to bring him home in one piece, the two toured the country tracking down veterans in 2008 and 2010 to get their stories. Considering the modest budget for the film of $25,000, they succeeded all out of proportion to the money spent.
I found Chuck Searcy’s story particularly emblematic. From Athens, Georgia and with a gentle drawl, he joined the army in 1966 as a Goldwater conservative and the son of a man who—like mine—served in the Battle of the Bulge. Assigned to military intelligence—an oxymoron if there ever was one—he was so jarred by the discrepancy between the war propaganda and the reality on the ground that he began to read up on the origins of the war, including my friend Marvin Gettleman’s “Vietnam: History, Documents and Opinions on a Major World Conflict”, a virtual bible for the antiwar movement. Searcy returned to the USA as a critic of the war, something that practically led to being disowned by his parents. Happily, his father and mother soon found out for themselves that the war was wrong and reconciled with their son, who does them proud as director of PROJECT RENEW, an ordnance-clearing project that has literally saved thousands of lives and limbs.
Another really good old boy is Suel Jones from East Texas who served with the Marines in the DMZ, an area drenched with Agent Orange and that left American GI’s, their Vietnamese “enemies”, and noncombatants exposed to the dioxin that often destroyed their health and that of the children they brought into the world. Jones went back to Vietnam and worked with the Friendship Village that serves the needs of its victims. Jones is the author of “Meeting the Enemy: A Marine Returns Home”, a memoir that deserves to be read more than ever in a time when Chris Kyle’s “American Sniper” prepares the groundwork for the next generation of young Americans fighting to make the world safe for American corporations and unsafe for those who get in their way.
Turning from the sublime to the ridiculous, the men interviewed in Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days of Vietnam” are practically in and of themselves sufficient to indict this film that cost seven times as much as the Perryman/González film to make, not that this would be any great burden on Ms. Kennedy who is the youngest daughter of the late Bobby Kennedy.
The film is structured as a kind of moral drama between Stuart Herrington, like Chuck Searcy assigned to military intelligence, on one side and Graham Martin, the US Ambassador to Vietnam on the other. Martin is depicted as someone in complete denial about the advance of the North Vietnamese army into the south and Searcy as a realist who cared about saving the lives of the men and their families from the advancing hordes whom Ms. Kennedy has scant interest in. For her, they loom pretty much after the fashion of ISIL on the march toward Baghdad, practically creatures from outer space.
Herrington, to his credit, has been a relatively enlightened military figure over the years who took a stand against waterboarding in Vietnam—yes, it happened there as well. But it is really hard to abide with the presence of Richard Armitage throughout the film who was a naval officer at the time and, like Herrington, committed to saving the Vietnamese officer corps. Herrington and Armitage are proud of cutting corners to get them all safe and sound on board American vessels off the coast of Vietnam and spirited off to America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The name Richard Armitage might ring a bell. He is the man who revealed that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent, an act that was consistent with his role as a top adviser to George W. Bush in his 2000 election campaign and deputy to Colin Powell during the war on Iraq. In other words, he was one of the men who made it possible for Chris Kyle to make life a living hell for Iraqis.
Many of these rescued Vietnamese officers are interviewed throughout the film but Ms. Kennedy saw no point in interviewing the men on the other side. In fact, I doubt if she would have shown much interest in that given her take in the closing credits that the fall of Saigon led to a great human disaster of boat people, reeducation camps and the like. Somehow the fact that the USA dropped the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima A-bombs on Vietnam escaped her attention.
On the face of it, there is little in Rory Kennedy’s background that would lead you to believe that she would make such a rancid documentary. She has made films about the dangers of the nuclear reactor at Indian Point, the Homestead Strike, and even one decrying the torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a site upon which Richard Armitage’s fingerprints can be found in abundance.
Maybe the key to understanding her motivation is to be found in the thinking of her father, the renowned “peace candidate” of 1968. Like all other such politicians, they viewed the war as a tragic blunder that we had to extricate ourselves from, as if it were a newly purchased house that had termites unbeknownst at the time of closing. Senator Kennedy could never have conceived of the Vietnamese as having the right to determine their own destiny and to create an economy serving their own needs rather than that of multinational corporations.
Just four months before his assassination and immediately after the Tet offensive, when many on the left saw him as a potential savior of everything that was decent and humane, he made a speech that revealed his true colors:
Our enemy, savagely striking at will across all of South Vietnam, has finally shattered the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves. But a short time ago we were serene in our reports and predictions of progress.
The Vietcong will probably withdraw from the cities, as they were forced to withdraw from the American Embassy. Thousands of them will be dead.
In fact the NLF was not “savagely” attacking anything, least of all the American Embassy that was the coordinating center on a war that would eventually cost as much as two million lives. The Vietnamese were patriots defending themselves against an invading army that treated both combatants and noncombatants as subhuman.
It is the need to understand those who become our “enemies” that is paramount today just as it was in 1968 or when Chris Kyle was on the rampage in Iraq. Ultimately we have more in common with them than we do with a White House and Pentagon that is never at a loss for those to make war against, all the while escalating a war on our health, economic security and freedom at home.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.