The story of the Vietnam War as told through actual letters written home by those who served. [Dir: Bill Couturie/ 84 min/ Documentary-Educational/ Anti-War]
Although this film doesn’t directly address libertarian objections to the Vietnam War—the draft, the lack of a declaration of war, the irrelevance of the war to national security, etc.—it’s still a moving portrait of the men and women who were sent there, and serves as a useful reminder of the cavalier way in which government sacrifices innocent lives.
From beginning to end, the whole documentary is composed of a fabric of on-location film footage from the period (including the soldiers’ own home movies), popular music of the time (particularly songs with an antiwar flavor), and narration from well-chosen letters read by a large cast of popular stars.
It opens with amateur film of young American soldiers playing on a beach in Vietnam. It’s an innocent start that parallels the innocence of the soldiers themselves. At this point, in the letters they write home, the soldiers express confident patriotism and a sense that they will prevail. But after years of bloody, stalemated combat, the attitude of the soldiers begins to change. In filmed interviews, and in their letters, they communicate increasing confusion about the reasons for U.S. involvement. They sense that the American public itself is divided over the war, and believe that the campaign is being mismanaged. They are bitter about the ambivalent attitude of the South Vietnamese whom they’re supposed to be defending. They are despondent and want to come home.
Their lack of moral clarity and self-confidence makes the usual torments of war—constant danger, the death of fellow soldiers, and miserable physical conditions—just that much worse. Looking at the accompanying pictures of these ravaged soldiers, it’s hard to believe that their average age was just nineteen.
Interwoven with this focus on the thoughts of the soldiers themselves is a backdrop of notable events of the war: news reports of its beginning, pro-war speeches by President Johnson, the capture of American soldiers, saturation bombing, peace protests, the My Lai Massacre, the Tet Offensive, Kent State, and the creation of the Vietnam War Memorial.
The genius of this documentary is that it uses the words of the soldiers themselves to tell the story of the war. There are many touching letters read here, some authored by soldiers who subsequently lost their lives in the conflict. The list of actors reading these letters is practically a Who’s Who of Hollywood, including: William Dafoe, Robert DeNiro, Matt Dillon, Michael J. Fox, Mark Harmon, Sean Penn, Randy Quaid, Martin Sheen, Robin Williams, and more.
It would be hard to imagine a more powerful documentary on the Vietnam War than this quality retrospective. It weaves the words of the soldiers who served into a poignant verbal history. Lest we forget.