September 12, 2004
FRANK RICH

Coming Soon: Kerry's 'Apocalypse Now'

New York Times

LESS than 48 hours after Bill Clinton, speaking from his hospital room, advised the politically ailing John Kerry to start talking less about Vietnam and more about health care, seven American marines were blown up outside Fallujah. So much for the pipedream of changing the subject of this election. Vietnam keeps popping out of America's darkest closet not just because Mr. Kerry conspicuously served there and Mr. Bush conspicuously did not, but because of what's happening half a world away in real time: a televised war in Iraq that resembles its Southeast Asian predecessor in its unpopularity, its fictional provocation and its unknown exit strategy. That war isn't going anywhere by Nov. 2, even as it is sporadically obscured by Florida storm clouds, and its Vietnam undertow isn't going anywhere either. Everyone knows that a Tet offensive, Sunni-style, could yet tilt this election in a direction unknown.

But while Vietnam cannot be escaped, that hasn't stopped both men from working overtime in their fruitless efforts to escape it. Their motives could not be more different: George W. Bush doesn't want quagmire analogies to Iraq, and Mr. Kerry doesn't want a referendum on his own Vietnam history. Yet weirdly enough, their strategies have been identical: they've each tried to deflect Vietnam by turning back the clock to World War II. They hope to bask in the reflected glory of a good war that had been transformed into a nostalgia craze in the "Saving Private Ryan" era of American pop culture just before 9/11.

Thus President Bush's acceptance speech, which included yet another of his Reagan-lite efforts to wrap himself in Normandy, was heralded by invocations of F.D.R. from nearly every speaker: Laura Bush, Tommy Franks, Zell Miller and Dick Cheney, who went so far as to inform us that he and Roosevelt share the same birthday. (Rudy Giuliani one-upped them all by equating Mr. Bush with Churchill.) Of course these World War II flashbacks had to come to a screeching halt before identifying the present Hitler, Osama bin Laden. To take the analogy that far would be to remind the audience that we had diverted troops and money from the essential war against al Qaeda and Islamic fanaticism to open an optional second front against Iraq's secular despot.

For Mr. Kerry, the World War II theatrics were just as tricky. The martial panoply of his convention culminated in his using "band of brothers" and "greatest generation" twice each in his acceptance speech — a patent effort to inoculate service in a controversial war with phrases that, courtesy of HBO and Tom Brokaw, have become our culture's indelible brand for World War II's unambiguous heroism. The Democrats' hope was that no one would think about what happened after the Vietnam band of brothers came home and split apart, at which point Mr. Kerry's antiwar role pushed him into closer proximity to My Lai than Iwo Jima.

The bait-and-switch substitution of World War II for Vietnam quickly proved a bridge too far for both candidates. Just when they thought they had fled Vietnam, it returned, whacking them in the face like a perpetually revolving door. No sooner did Mr. Kerry's convention end than he was impaled by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. No sooner did the Republicans leave New York than word got out that "60 Minutes" was poking anew into the president's National Guard stint, a Pandora's box of unanswered questions first unlocked by The Boston Globe four years ago. Now there's a "Texans for Truth" ad campaign trailing him in mimicry of the Swifties.

The next explosive chapter in the unstoppable Vietnam narrative will be unveiled Tuesday night, when the documentary "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry" has its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, in a country that is itself synonymous with anti-Vietnam protest. This is the movie made by George Butler, a Kerry friend for four decades, and inspired in part by Douglas Brinkley's "Tour of Duty," the adulatory biography that boomeranged by launching a thousand negative media bites on the Kerry war record. Though early reports suggested that Mr. Butler would concentrate on Mr. Kerry's present campaign as well as his past, that's not how the finished film turned out. "Going Upriver," made without Mr. Kerry's involvement, is all Vietnam all the time. It opens on some 200 screens across the United States on Oct. 1 — the morning after the first scheduled presidential debate.

Mr. Butler reveres John Kerry. His film contains not a negative word about him. But that doesn't mean that the Kerry forces, so busily trying to "change the subject" of the campaign from Vietnam, are going to cheer "Going Upriver." To Democratic pols hoping that the election will now be about job creation, this friendly movie may be akin to friendly fire.

Only the first third of "Going Upriver" is consistent with the "band of brothers," Vietnam-era Kerry they do want us to see: it makes palpable just how brave it was for their man to venture into a 2,600-mile river surrounded by dense foliage where assailants hid, ready to strike at any time. You can appreciate why Swift boats in Mr. Kerry's division had casualty rates as high as 90 percent and how grotesque it is that Mr. Kerry's foes savage him now for having served "only" four months. (Would they say the same of those who have been wounded or killed in other wars, including Iraq, within four months of deployment?)

But then Mr. Kerry returns home. Mr. Butler has gathered seemingly every frame of archival film extant on the red-letter events of the Vietnam veterans' antiwar movement of 1971: the "Winter Soldier" investigations about American war crimes, the veterans' march on Washington, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that turned Mr. Kerry into a political star. The young vet's charisma so upset Richard Nixon that he schemed with Charles Colson and Bob Haldeman to counter Mr. Kerry with a pro-Vietnam attack dog: John O'Neill, today the leader of the Swifties and the co-author of their best-selling bible, "Unfit for Command." In "Going Upriver," the whole plot is crystal-clear on a contemporaneous White House tape.

Mr. Butler, best known for "Pumping Iron," the 1977 documentary that first turned Arnold Schwarzenegger into a national commodity, can be a powerful storyteller. And nowhere more so than when he gets to the scene where Mr. Kerry and his buddies protest the war by throwing medals and ribbons over a fence onto the Capitol steps. This incident has been stigmatized as an ugly un-American activity by the Kerry detractors. But the scene plays quite differently when you see it here, not as a grainy snapshot but as an extended cinematic drama, pieced together by Mr. Butler from his own photos and the large and heretofore scattered film record made by the many news organizations present that day.

What stares you in the face is the anguish and grief of men who put their lives in the line of fire for a government that undertook a pointless war, mismanaged it, kept it going out of hubris and then abandoned it. These veterans do not lightheartedly toss away the symbols of their sacrifice in Vietnam; they struggle with tears and violently conflicted emotions as they do so. They are battered men often wearing the ragtag remnants of their uniforms. Their eyes are haunted. They are willing to engage in self-annihilation, eradicating the record of their own heroism in battle, if that's what it takes to prevent their brothers from continuing to die in a doomed mission. Watch this and try not to weep.

Set against this real-life backdrop of the time, Mr. Kerry's famous line before J. W. Fulbright, Jacob Javits and the rest of that Senate committee regains its patriotic force: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" And as Todd Gitlin documents in his history, "The Sixties," the young Kerry's antiwar stance was hardly anomalous among his fellow Vietnam warriors by then, those still serving included. By that late point in the war — three years after Tet, L.B.J.'s abdication and Walter Cronkite's public declaration that we were "mired in stalemate" — there were seven desertions and 17 AWOL incidents for every 100 American soldiers. There were more than 250 antiwar newspapers within the armed forces alone. And still another 13,000 Americans were yet to die for the mistake.

It's hard to imagine paying crowds turning out for "Going Upriver" or any hagiographic feature film about any presidential candidate, no matter what its quality or political orientation. If anything, we're reaching the saturation point where we want to run away from both of these guys. But some of the crucial scenes in Mr. Butler's movie will inevitably filter into the 24/7 media ethosphere, much as the "My Pet Goat" sequence of "Fahrenheit 9/11" reached millions who never saw Michael Moore's film. There, out of context, those vignettes will be battered by the Swifties on Fox News and minimized by the Kerry operatives who want to talk about anything except Vietnam.

The person who might most benefit from seeing "Going Upriver" is Mr. Kerry himself. "It takes a special courage to speak out against a cause for which you were once prepared to die," Jeffrey Smith, a West Point-trained C.I.A. man of the Kerry-Bush generation, wrote in The Washington Post last weekend. That's the courageous hero of George Butler's film, all but invisible in the cautious candidate running for president with a position on Iraq so full of codicils that one of his top foreign-policy aides, Jamie Rubin, recently misstated it. Even Pat Buchanan articulates the ill effects of the Iraq war on the war on terror more precisely than Mr. Kerry. The Democrat's latest salvo on Iraq — "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" — no more undoes his past self-contradictory remarks on the subject than alliterative Bush slogans like "reformer with results" and "compassionate conservatism" give the president a coherent domestic policy.

Then again, if Mr. Clinton and the other new Kerry advisers are right and health care really turns out to be the most important issue in the election, it may not matter what their man says about Iraq. And if Mr. Bush can really persuade voters that the war in Iraq is World War II redux, he is no more likely to lose reelection in 2004 than F.D.R. was in 1944. But the same Newsweek poll that gave Mr. Bush an 11-point lead last weekend also found that most of these same Americans do not believe that the war in Iraq has made us safer. That's a Vietnam election-year dynamic, no matter how much the president or Mr. Kerry wants to run away from it. It's why the thousandth American casualty in Iraq may weigh more than the fractional fluctuations of the unemployment rate. It's why Fallujah, not Ohio, may prove the swing state to watch.