to Hoa Lo. Bob Shumaker attempted to escape through suicide, by slamming his head against a wall, and Stockdale, too, tried to take his own life. Pete Peterson, who is now the American Ambassador to Vietnam and lives three blocks from the prison where he was confined for six-anda-half years, describes abuse so unbearable that he sometimes longed for death. The attractions of life within the Hanoi Hilton are made palpable through footage of actual interrogations and images of implements of torture, including meat hooks and a cruelly creative rope trick. Sam Johnson, currently a Republican Congressman from the Dallas area, recalls the mock execution he endured: “They pulled the triggers and went click, click, click….” Attempting to break their prisoners in spirit and in body, the Vietnamese captors toyed with general morale by tempting some with early release. Twelve accepted, but John McCain, critically wounded when he was shot down on October 26, 1967, refused to leave Hoa Lo before others who had been there longer or held higher rank. Seaman Douglas Hegdahl was ordered by his senior ranking officer to accept early release, in order to tell the world the names of 268 P.O.W.’s he had laboriously memorized. Neither Hanoi nor Washington \(for differP.O.W.’s, and the film recounts the campaign by wives of missing men to determine whether or not they were widows. Return With Honor concludes in 1973 with the Return with footage of P.O.W.’s filing out of Hoa Lo and into buses that carry them through the streets of Hanoi to waiting cargo planes. The men receive an exuberant reception at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where for the first time in years they can revel in showers, beds, and victuals. “I had nineteen fried eggs my first night at Clark,” recalls one former prisoner. In San Francisco, the men are reunited with their families and enjoy a public homecoming befitting heroes. Despite the common canard that anti-war protesters spat on returning veterans, these men were welcomed back with joy and gratitude. “I got more attention than I deserved,” McNish, who lives in San Antonio, told me. “Our homecoming was one of the few positive things to come out of the Vietnam War. It was an issue to unite behind.” The Vietnam War was the most divisive moment in American history since at least the rise of the labor movement, a century ago. But a majority of those alive today have no personal memory of the lengthy conflict, from 1961-72, that cost the lives of 50,000 Americans, more than 1.5 million Vietnamese. We can surely all unite behind the proposition that 462 Americans were brutally mistreated, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, but is such consensus bought by concealing contentions over just what it is we were doing in Vietnam? What went on in Hoa Lo was an affront to the canons of human decency but what should we say about aerial attacks on civilian populations? Robbie Risner, who now lives in Austin and was, as a lieutenant colonel, the highest ranking officer among the P.O.W.’s, told BOB SHUMAKER ATTEMPTED TO ESCAPE THROUGH SUICIDE, BY SLAM-MING HIS HEAD AGAINST A WALL, AND STOCKDALE, TOO, TRIED TO TAKE HIS OWN LIFE. me that he does not understand why elderly women tried to harm him when he was captured in North Vietnam. Yet their motivation does not seem much of a mystery; Risner was after all bombing, not crop-dusting, when his plane was brought down. Questions about the legitimacy of what Risner and his comrades were doing in Vietnam surely shape the way you view Return With Honor. But it would take a mighty hard heart not to feel relief and even elation when the long, excruciating incarceration is finally over. In the final frames of the film, Paul Galanti, who spent six-and-a-half years behind closed doors he was powerless to open, observes: “There’s no such thing as a bad day when there’s a doorknob on the inside of the door.” And, hawk or dove, the audience walks out of the theater with renewed gratitude for a life in which it is possible to walk in and out of theaters. Refusing to indulge in self pity about the six-and-a-half years stolen from him in Hoa Lo, McNish declares: “I’m very lucky to have come home.” He reminds me that many of his comrades did not come home, except in body bags. From his current home in Austin, Tom Madison, who left behind a wife and son during his six years in Hanoi, insists: “They had a much harder time than we did.” Unstated is the fact that Vietnamese on the ground had a much harder time than most of their American attackers. In 102 minutes, Return With Honor is enormously effective at taking its viewers through the long arc of emotions experienced by hot-shot American aviators, through the many years of torturous captivity until release. It is less successful in clarifying exactly what it means to return with honor. Frieda Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, who produced and directed Return With Honor, managed earlier to overcome divisions over Vietnam with Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. That Oscar-winning documentary is an admiring profile of the young Asian-American architect who created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Though Lin’s bold design at first angered those who insisted on a representational, martial monument, her abstract black granite elegy succeeds in uniting viewers in nonsectarian grief. Alumni of the Air Force Academy’s class of 1965, which included many of the P.O.W.’s, initially approached Mock and Sanders about telling their story. But all agree that the filmmakers were free to show it as they saw it. Speaking from Santa Monica, where their non-profit American Film Foundation is based, Mock and Sanders explained that they saw the ordeal as best told from the point of view of the prisoners, at the time they were experiencing it. Vietnamese do not speak for themselves. “We wanted to avoid politics,” insisted Sanders, who identifies himself as a Democrat, as did most of those who prosecuted the war. “It’s a story of survival that happened to be set in Vietnam,” stated Mock, who noted analogies to the experiences of kidnap victims or survivors of the Holocaust. The description was echoed by P.O.W. McNish: “It is the story of human endurance and resilience in the face of stress.” Explaining the decision to focus on just what happened in the Hanoi Hilton, Mock maintained: “We began with the premise that the public already knew about the war.” The result is a film that could be likened to Alive!, the feature about Uruguayan rugby players stranded in the Andes, or the IMAX movie Everest, based on footage shot by a camera crew that just happened to be near the JUNE 11, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25
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