Are we sick of ‘Nam yet? Or have we forgotten the depth of that calamity? George Butler’s de facto campaign biography, detailing John Kerry’s participation in and opposition to the Vietnam War, may or may not change many hearts and minds—but it will stir memories in those who remember what senator Max Cleland calls “the beauty and terror” of Vietnam or the widespread revulsion against the war.
Going Upriver makes the essential point that the Swift boats on which Kerry served were involved in daily firefights and took enormous casualties. Also deducible is Kerry’s transformation. He was a vet genuinely changed by his experience—as well as by the Winter Soldier conference on wartime atrocities that he attended as an observer. (Someone should revive the Newsreel doc that was made about the conference—along with Joseph Strick’s still-shocking Interviews With My Lai Veterans.) Less evident, unfortunately, is the degree to which Kerry’s opposition represented the views of thousands of vets, and the singular importance that Vietnam Veterans Against the War had for the anti-war movement as a whole.
As an early spokesman for VVAW, Kerry became a precocious media personality. Then as now, he was resented for his seriousness—and perhaps because, as a well-brought-up boy, he specialized in impressing his elders. I got a charge out of Going Upriver, but as more than one person has noted, the movie’s ideal spectator would be Kerry himself. His 1971 testimony—delivered apparently off-the-cuff before a packed Senate conference room—is one of the most potent and plainspoken political speeches of the era. We could use something like it now.