world’s tallest peak in 1996 when eight climbers died in worst disaster on the mountain. But imprisonment in Hoa Lo was not a natural catastrophe; it was the result of human agency, and we need to understand the motives and actions of the captives as much as those of their captors. Mock, whose next project is a feature about Frank Zappa, noted that she and Sanders conducted more than thirty hours of interviews in order to make Return With Honor, and that they plan to make the complete set available to libraries. In advance of their release and uncertain about the film, I conducted a few interviews of my own. The film celebrates triumph over adversity, but I was puzzled about whether anyone not seen on camera returned without honor. According to Madison, “seven or eight” of the P.O.W.’s did not return with honor, while McNish estimated the figure at “fewer than 3 percent.” Risner pointed to only two “who had not held their end up,” and who were ostracized at the time by the others and later not made welcome at P.O.W. reunions. All three credit their comrades’ performance under extreme stress to the fact that almost all the American prisoners at Hoa Lo were officers and pilots \(about two-thirds Air Force and oneeducated than the general military population. As the ranking officer, Risner stressed the importance of maintaining discipline, through regular physical exercise and mental activities. He credits his own ability to survive seven-and-a-half years in Hanoi to his Christian faith. In the film, several of the men describe how they finally gave in to unbearable torture, how the Vietnamese were in fact able to find a breaking point for everyone. If so, why not spare yourself the agony and tell the torturers what they want to hear immediately? According to Risner, you can bend, but you do not break. The official position was that torment is to be endured until you feel that there is risk of permanent mental or physical damage. Still, why wait for that stage, if it is going to come eventually anyway? McNish offered three reasons: personal honor which begs the Falstaffian question of just what honor is; the fact that easy capitulation merely encourages them to come back to you later; and the fact that as long as you hold out you are distracting them from working over someone else. Was eight years not enough time to get around to abusing everyone? “We were determined to return with honor and to support each other no matter what,” proclaims ricd Cherry in the film. A major at the time, Cherry, who is African American, contends that he was singled out for particularly harsh treatment because of his race and senior rank. Madison, who was a colonel, told me that he could recall only two instances in which the fact of his blackness figured in interrogations just after the assassinations, respectively, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Otherwise, the fact that Madison was a Texan was more of a liability: “One of the most pressing interrogations I had was about LBJ.” Those who “returned with honor” seem utterly uninfected by doubt or even ambivalence. Neither then nor now, claims Tom McNish, has he ever questioned the legitimacy of his mission: “I was a fighter pilot, and I went to do what I was trained to do.” He refuses even to concede that the United States lost the war to which he sacrificed sixand-a-half years. Still believing in a monolithic Eastern bloc, even though China and the Soviet Union were fighting each other across their borders, he insisted: “We never lost a military battle. The fact that we were able to tie up China and Russia for eight years contributed significantly to our eventual success in the Cold War. It meant time and money that they could not spend spreading Communism in the rest of the world.” Robbie Risner, too, still believes that geopolitics is a game of dominoes: “Creeping Communism was taking over country after country. Korea and Vietnam proved to the world that America was unpredictable. We preserved what we thought was worthwhile.” After Risner, who had been a decorated Korean War ace, was shot down over Vietnam, his face was on the cover of Time. A copy of that issue made its way to Hoa Lo, where an interrogator gloated: “The only people we would rather have captured are Johnson, McNamara, and Rusk.” It seemed appropriate to ask Risner, who retired as a general, what he thinks of how Robert McNamara now repudiates American involvement in the war that he, as Secretary of Defense, orchestrated. Finding more fault with the younger McNamara, Risner attacked his conduct of the war, blaming it on a lack of military background. “We were never permitted to win,” he explained, impatient with the constraints of constitutional democracy. “We were always under restrictions. The civilians were running the war.” After Tom Madison retired from the Air Force, at the rank of colonel, he became a financial consultant with Merrill Lynch. Dismissing McNamara’s revisionist book, he vowed: “I am not even going to read it.” Madison remains convinced that he sacrificed five years and ten months for a worthy cause: “We won the overall. world objective.” As proof, he points to Vietnam today: “American businesses are in there and thriving.” “Overall,” concluded McNish, who became a doctor after leaving the military, “the effect of the P.O.W. experience on my life has been positive.” And he claims that the vast majority of his fellow prisoners have been successful since returning from Hanoi. Even their rate of divorce has not exceeded the national average. After writing a book about his experiences, Risner found sufficient closure to return to Vietnam three years ago with $50,000 worth of medicine for the country’s children. At the end of our conversation, Madison assured me, “I’m trying to look to the future.” The producers of Return With Honor look to “platform” the film, to expand its national distribution by stages, starting in Texas, home to a sympathetic military culture. It was screened at Austin’s South By Southwest Festival in March, and after a commercial premiere in Austin and San Antonio on June 4, it opens the following week in New York and Seattle and the week after that in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In about a year, expect a TV broadcast and distribution on video. Its screening now coincides with the twentyfifth anniversary of the release of the Vietnam P.O.W.’s as well as with the presidential bid of Senator John McCain and an air war in Serbia. In a sense, we all remain prisoners of war. It is as challenging as ever to determine how to return with honor. Steve Kellman, Ashbel Smith Professor of Comparative Literature at U.T.San Antonio, writes frequently about film for the Observer and the San Antonio Current. 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 11, 1999
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