Uncivil War

Stolen Honor rewrites the history of the Vietnam War.

Vietnam-era Kerry

In perhaps the ultimate instance of the pot calling the kettle black, the Sinclair Broadcasting Company posted a press release on its Web site stating that they will not air the controversial anti-Kerry film, Stolen Honor. This Friday, they will run “a special one-hour news program” titled A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media. This film, which will draw from portions of Stolen Honor, purports to explore “the use of documentaries and other media to influence voting. …. The program will also examine the role of the media in filtering the information contained in these documentaries, allegations of media bias by media organizations that ignore or filter legitimate news and the attempts by candidates and other organizations to influence media coverage.” Now that Sinclair, the country’s largest single owner of television stations, has been forced to back down (perhaps less by national outrage than by a $90 million dollar stock loss), the company wants the public to know that it’s shocked, simply shocked, that a media outlet might—can you imagine?—abuse its power for political purposes.

This press release, a masterpiece of bald-faced corporate hypocrisy, also works as an unintentional humor piece. CEO David Smith bizarrely denies that the documentary was ever meant to be broadcast in its entirety: “At no time did Sinclair ever publicly announce that it intended to do so.” (I’ll leave you to Google that one yourself.) A lawyer for Sinclair backs Smith’s claim, sort of.”There has been a misunderstanding of what our intention was,” he told the Washington Post today, “in part because it wasn’t clear to us what our intention was.”

But there’s no need to stay up nights speculating about the mysterious intentions behind Stolen Honor. You can order a copy from the producers’ Web site, which is exactly what I did. Now that I’ve seen it, I can offer some counterpoint to the press release’s Orwellian logic and hazard a guess at what’s likely to hit the cutting room floor before Friday night, when Sinclair will show the altered doc on 40 of its 62 stations nationwide.

Stolen Honor is the kind of show you might come across at 2 a.m. as a paid infomercial on a local-access channel and leave on for a few minutes out of sheer fascinated disgust. It’s a sleazy little piece of work, a cunning act of libel-by-insinuation that introduces no facts that have not been public information for at least 30 years. The first 20 minutes consist of interviews with Vietnam POWs recounting their torture at the hands of the their Vietcong captors, with only one reference to John Kerry—a still photo of him testifying at the Winter Soldier hearings. Capitalizing on the moral revulsion provoked by these mental images of torture, the film spends the remainder of its 42 minutes trying to transmute that sense of outrage into a primal disgust with John Kerry himself. Its persuasive tactic is essentially one of brainwashing: By juxtaposing the occasional shot of Kerry’s face (at the hearings, at an antiwar rally also attended by Jane Fonda) with the gruesome torture stories of surviving Vietnam POWs, the filmmaker hopes to leave the impression that Kerry is responsible for their suffering.

This brings me to my nomination for Moment Least Likely To Appear in Friday’s broadcast: the brief segment in which producer and narrator Carlton Sherwood, with a straight face and without a shred of evidence, calls John Kerry a war criminal. And not in some symbolic, metaphorical way; he accuses him of decapitating, testicle-eletrocuting, and rape. Those are but some of the atrocities that Kerry describes in a well-known clip from the Congressional hearings of 1971:  “They [the soldiers] told the stories … at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals  … and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.” Immediately after this clip, Sherwood appears onscreen and asks: “Did I just hear that right? Was I, or my fellow Marines, being accused of the same atrocities John Kerry had committed?” Did I just hear that right? After rewinding this moment half a dozen times, I had to believe it: A film destined for the airwaves of national television on the eve of the election was coolly asserting that the Democratic candidate was a rapist and a ball-wiring baby killer. You’d think that would have come up in the debates: “My opponent has no plan for saving Social Security. Plus, he wired all those balls in Vietnam.”

According to the film’s fevered imagination, John Kerry must be one of the most powerful men alive. Not only did he single-handedly lengthen the war in Vietnam and cause the torture of POWs, but his “lurid fantasies of butchery” (a direct quote from the narrative voiceover) are apparently the primary reason for the postwar popularity of anti-Vietnam films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Casualties of War. As the film’s producer and narrator Carlton Sherwood solemnly intones near the film’s end, “Nearly every book or motion picture produced about Vietnam since 1971 echoes the litany of atrocities John Kerry laid at the feet of those who served there.” Right—because those things happened. If Kerry’s testimony overlaps with popular cultural representations of Vietnam, it’s not because Francis Ford Coppola sat down with the senator to storyboard his movie; rather, both Coppola’s film and Kerry’s testimony tapped into the anguish many Americans felt about our nation’s participation in a bloody and pointless war.

Stolen Honor’s rhetorical strategy goes something like this: John Kerry claimed that atrocities were committed by some of the 540,000 troops deployed in Vietnam. Therefore, John Kerry must have committed atrocities. The 12 POWs rounded up to tell their stories come off as unwitting pawns of the film’s specious logic. These men take Kerry’s assertion that war crimes occurred as a personal accusation. Yet strangely, the film also continues to assert that no war crimes ever took place at all. And the veterans’ outraged denials that atrocities of any kind ever took place in Vietnam (except, one of the men concedes, as part of that one-off My Lai Massacre thing) only certify this film as a document of the lunatic fringe. Even supporters of Vietnam acknowledge that some war crimes took place during the course of the 10-year conflict.

In one of the many unsavory news developments  connected with the Stolen Honor story, Mark Hyman, Sinclair’s vice president and one of its on-air political commentators, has said in a CNN interview that networks who oppose the airing of Stolen Honor are comparable to Holocaust deniers (presumably because they refuse to open their eyes to the war crimes of … John Kerry?). That analogy might more appropriately describe those eager to rewrite one of our country’s most painful memories for political gain.