Ghosts of Vietnam

by Published on
photo still from The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan
Michael Nolan (l) and Lt. Dan Smith meet former Khmer Rogue guard Cham Sone in Chamkar Cafe, Cambodia

The Vietnam War is America’s psychic labyrinth. For 40 years we’ve been talking about it, writing about it, singing songs about it and making movies about it. But we’re still finding new avenues of shame and mystery and pain, trying to work our way to the ugly truth at the center but finding nothing but darker and darker hallways to get lost in.

This is certainly the case in a new documentary that’s making its way around the film festival circuit and will reach Texas in October. The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, directed by Henry Corra, follows two men from rural Texas to rural Cambodia on a journey to find McKinley Nolan, a soldier who left his wife and child to go fight in Vietnam—and then disappeared in 1966 and was never heard from again. One of those men is Dan Smith, himself a troubled Vietnam veteran, who believes he spotted Nolan on a visit to the country in 2005. The other is McKinley’s brother, Michael, who says he has spent “40 years of my life on a ghost” and hopes Smith’s story can help him put it to rest.

The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan is part mystery, part fool’s errand, part political conspiracy, part heartbreaker. Questions about McKinley Nolan’s conduct and whereabouts pile up like bodies after a battle. Was he a deserter? Did he strangle two American guards before escaping a military prison? Was he captured and killed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia? Or is he still alive somewhere? Searching for answers, Michael Nolan slowly works his way west from Saigon to Binh Phuoc Province, where he meets the Vietnamese step-nephew he never knew he had, and finally into Cambodia, where McKinley may have met his bloody end at the hands of the Khmer Rouge outside a village called Chamkar Café.

For his part, Michael Nolan struggles with the fact that his brother’s fate will likely never be known. The American government isn’t interested in helping him find the truth, and those responsible for what happened may never come forward. “It’s 98 percent that McKinley is dead,” Nolan told the Observer. “But I hold onto that two percent until I can find some remains or some closure. I don’t have that closure. I have to hold onto him being alive. If I say he’s dead then that’s it. It’s too much mystery, and there are too many questions that haven’t been answered.”

It’s a story Francis Ford Coppola would love, a journey through a brutal land tainted by blood and bad memories, with a ghostly figure drawing innocents deeper into the jungle and all it signifies. Its final confrontation, between Michael Nolan and the former Khmer Rouge guard who may have been responsible for his brother’s death, is as full of emotion, pathos, guarded contrition and genuine ambivalence as any great war movie.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.