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Kerry On

'Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry' concerns the Vietnam Veterans Against the War as much as it does the candidate

By Richard von Busack

AT A MEETING ROOM inside a Howard Johnson Hotel on the edge of the rougher part of downtown Detroit, sometime between Jan. 31 and Feb 2, 1971. "The next slide is a slide of myself. I'm, uh, extremely shameful of it. I'm showing it in hopes that none of you people who have never been involved. ... don't let this happen to you, don't ever let the government do this to you. It's me, holding a dead body, smiling." The speaker is an unidentified Vietnam vet, one of 109 who came to testify at the Winter Soldier Investigation. This was an opening event in the formation of the antiwar group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The Winter Soldier interviews in Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry are in grainy black-and-white. The inset photo, of a young soldier grinning at the camera, propping up a corpse, is in the Kodachrome of the late-'60s. But the shit-eating, half-psycho smile is all too contemporary; it's familiar from the latest digital snapshots from Abu Ghraib. It is inexpressibly embittering that the photo, the soldier, even the Winter Soldiers gathering, went straight into the American memory hole. Going Upriver, a documentary based on the book Tour of Duty, by Douglas Brinkley, retrieves it. The election gives the movie a hook, but it would have been worthwhile any time.

There are no recent Kerry interviews in this documentary by producer/director George Butler (he who discovered Arnold Schwarzenegger during the course of his 1977 film Pumping Iron). The sequence on Kerry's actual war experience makes up only half the film. Still, it gives an excellent overview of what a swift boat was and what it did. Twin-screwed diesel boats patrolled the backwaters of the Mekong Delta as part of Adm. Zumwalt's strategy to engage the guerrillas hiding on the riverbanks. The boats were noisy and easy to spot and were sitting ducks for ambushes from riverbank foliage. It was a highly risky assignment. Whatever the details of his service record, Kerry was a brave man for climbing aboard one of these craft.

The second half concerns Kerry's appearance on April 22, 1971, before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. This footage loses its impact when quoted in excerpt. Hard to believe that Kerry was such a compelling speaker once. Going Upriver argues that during the VVAW demonstration and encampment in Washington, Kerry was always a force of moderation, a man who believed in trying to communicate with war hawk opponents rather than screaming at them, which was the irresistible impulse of the time.

Particularly novel here are details about FBI stalking of the VVAW. The Nixon White House (a bottomless cornucopia of ruses!) set up a rival group called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace, led by a Boy Scoutish vet named John O'Neill. The kid was personally coached by would-be grand-matricide Chuck Colson. Also included here are the best interviews I've seen all summer with the Rove-struck ex-Sen. Max Cleland. Something I've never seen addressed is the question of how Kerry's fellow sailors felt about having a green college-boy junior lieutenant aboard. Vietnam lore suggests Kerry's status as such an officer might explain the wrath—not to say the mendacity—of the so-called swift-boat vets.

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (Unrated; 92 min.), a documentary by George Butler, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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