Return With Honor

Prisoner of War: Six Years in Hanoi

(1975), John M. McGrath

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam

(1999), Lewis Sorley

Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History (1998), B. G. Burkett

After the Storm: A Vietnam Veteran’s Reflections (1999), Paul Drew

During the Vietnam war, some of us marched down the avenues of America protesting what we viewed as a futile, inhumane, and purposeless act of aggression created by unprincipled politicians. Others of us believed in our hearts that we were saving America from the threatening and encroaching forces of world communism. None of us doubted that some people were suffering deeply and paying a disproportionate share of the human costs of an ugly war.

The heroes of Return With Honor, a fine documentary by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, are officers of the United States air force, fliers who were shot down over North Vietnam and were prisoners of war for as long as eight years. Even those in the anti-war camp cannot find fault with professional soldiers who fulfill their mission under the most adverse circumstances, displaying extraordinary courage and fortitude that is exemplary to all, regardless of politics.

Using archival footage and talking-head interviews with surviving P.O.W.s and their wives, Mock and Sanders have skillfully crafted a film that grows in intensity as the story unfolds. There is no voice-over narration. The fliers talk about their interest in flying and their pre-war training and service in the Air Force. More than one makes the point that fliers are control freaks – sitting in their cockpits, totally in charge of those huge and powerful machines of war. And the film sequences of those sleek planes flying through the skies like so many ballerinas en pointe, choreographed in their turns and twirls, make the allure easy to understand. One pilot says, too, that he chose the Air Force so he could fight the war from that height – no ordinary foot-soldier slogging through the tropical muck below.

But when they flew out on their missions – bombing to cut supply lines and destroy missile sites and radar stations – they found themselves to be sitting ducks in the crosshairs of the antiaircraft guns, they were engulfed in a sea of flak, and their sleek machines corkscrewed to earth in flames. Once taken prisoner, their experience was a descent from the glories of the heavens to a hell on earth below, from the "peacocks of the services" to being marched down the streets of Hanoi in their underwear, assaulted by the angry jeers of the local populace.

The officers catalogue the detail of their mistreatment by an enemy that denied the Geneva convention: since, they said, no war was declared, these prisoners were merely criminals. Living in filth, often in solitary confinement, with inadequate food and medical treatment, the prisoners were tortured by an enemy seeking to break them down and utilize them as tools in an escalating propaganda war.

The crux of the tale is how they survived – those that did. They describe their mind set, their activities, their remarkable ability to sustain their organization and communication, their peer values. Yes, they were trained for this, trained to maintain control under pressure. But being tied up with hands behind their backs, having their arms then pulled over the head until rotated completely in their sockets, even as the rope is tightened and twisted – what training could prepare a man for such pain? "The most fearsome sound," says one, "was the sound of keys." That sound meant the guards were coming to get you for yet another round of torture. The hardest part of all was listening to the screams of others under torture.

The movie reaches an intensely emotional conclusion when the men are finally released and go home to rejoin their families and rebuild their lives. While the film is careful to keep politics to a minimum, the lack of bitterness evidenced by these men, and the matter-of-fact way they tell about the experience is a wonder. They remember for us in graphic detail, but they accept their experience as part of the risk they took, part of the duty they assumed. Those who, perhaps, have the most justification to do so, do not lay blame.

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.