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[whitespace] Lt. Mike McGrath
Homecoming: Lt. Mike McGrath is reunited with family in 1973.

Dogs of War

'Return with Honor' tells harrowing tale of American POWs

By Nicole McEwan

THEY CAME from the cornfields and metropolises of America, nascent Supermen borne on patriotic dreams, their ideals of manhood nurtured by their World War II-hero fathers and uncles and further sanctified by Saturday afternoon matinees with John Wayne, a 30-foot-high celluloid hero who blazed the path to glory.

Some were seduced by the sky itself--its boundless vistas a potent lure to those whose civilian lives were grounded in poverty. Others were driven by logic: if one had to go to war, then why not travel in style, soaring high above the pestilent jungle, encased in a suit of armor with wings?

Young, impossibly innocent, they began their careers as Air Force pilots with strenuous indoctrination and discipline--and ultimately these were the qualities that saved them.

Oscar-winning filmmakers Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) document these heroes in Return with Honor, a gripping profile whose straightforward presentation belies the complex ideas it evokes. Eschewing voice-of-God style narration, the husband-and-wife team uses interviews with almost two dozen former POWs to illustrate an epic of isolation, torture, and hunger.

And when these men's often understated memories fail to bring such hell to life, the directors rely on an arresting array of found footage culled from Vietnam-era TV news--and, more remarkably, agit-prop imagery shot by the North Vietnamese and donated to the production. The result is a film that will have you pondering the acute dichotomy between past and present ideas of patriotism and "manliness."

Witness the segment showing the emaciated airman (including Arizona Sen. John McCain) being marched through Hanoi (which suffered much from American bombers) in their underwear as angry villagers pelt them with rocks and sticks.

The incident supported the canny prediction of the POWs' chief interrogator, who warned the prisoners about their flawed ideology: "You know about the war as a matter of weapons. In reality, it's a matter of national will. We will win the war in the streets of New York." Footage of anti-war protesters provided by their captors drove that point home. Yet the pilots endured, bolstered by a faith and brotherhood that may seem foreign to contemporary eyes.

Though such historical footage is effective, it pales compared to the netherworld brutally depicted in a series of pen-and-ink drawings by Lt. John McGrath, whose salvation came in the form of artistic expression. Covered with boils and open sores, McGrath used his own pus and blood to paint portraits on his cell walls and committed images to memory that would later spill out onto blank pages.

SEVERAL DEPICT the Vietnamese Rope Game, which involved being tied, arms and legs to back, until joints dislocated. The harrowing vision is made complete with cutaways shot in the actual Hanoi Hilton (ironically, a building built by the French to house the Vietnamese), which show the iron manacles and tiny windows that substituted for decor throughout years of imprisonment. The effect is chilling.

Even more affecting, however, is the uncompromising stoicism of men like Cmdr. Jeremiah Denton, who famously outwitted his captors by blinking the word torture in Morse code during a staged TV "confession." Equally inspiring are interviews with the wives who waited at home and fought for the truth even as the U.S. government struggled to cover up the extent of the POWs' suffering.

Ultimately, Return with Honor goes against the ingrained stereotype of the Vietnam vet as a broken man, delivering a portrait that is neither nihilistic nor accusatory. By focusing on the words of the flesh-and-blood men who were there, Sanders and Mock travel beyond rhetoric, successfully crafting an ode to the human spirit that surpasses politics and simply celebrates life. And who is better equipped to guide us on that journey than a group of men who lived so little for so long?


'Return with Honor' screens Thursday, Sept. 23, at 6:40 and 9:25 p.m. at Sebastopol Cinemas, 6868 McKinley St. (829-3456), and Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 29 and 30, at 6:40 and 9:25 p.m. at Washington Square, 219 S. McDowell Blvd., Petaluma (762-0006).

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From the September 23-29, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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