TORONTO—We’re at the point in the campaign when we’re supposed to wring our hands over the decline of politics, mourn the lack of coverage of “the issues,” and decry the media’s focus on personality and the horse race. But my guess is we’re about to get mired in the muck of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth all over again. Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, a new documentary by George Butler, hits theaters in the United States on Oct. 1. The film, which had its world premiere here Tuesday evening, is sure to land the Swifties in the news again. For one, the movie is based on Tour of Duty, the Douglas Brinkley hagiography that the Swift Boat vets say incited them to action in the first place.
More important, Going Upriver seems designed to rebut, one by one, the three campaign ads put out by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth: one questioning Kerry’s heroism during the war, one criticizing his antiwar testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and one condemning his decision to throw his ribbons over a fence in front of the Capitol during an antiwar demonstration. Butler re-edited his film in response to the Swift Boat ads, and he said after the premiere that the movie wasn’t finished until Tuesday morning. On the matter of Kerry’s conduct during the war itself, Butler has Kerry’s “band of brothers” describe his actions on “Silver Star day,” and Jim Rassman tells the story of how Kerry saved his life and won the Bronze Star in the process. In addition, numerous speakers talk about how dangerous commanding a Swift Boat was, and how deadly.
On Kerry’s Senate testimony, Butler shows the statements made by veterans at the “Winter Soldier” hearings in Detroit, where veterans confessed to committing atrocities during the war. Some of those claims have been disputed, but the Winter Soldier hearings were the basis for Kerry’s statements about atrocities before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Butler shows veterans talking about shooting children and gang raping a woman in public. In the film, Kerry protests that he didn’t personally see anyone chop off someone’s head, but he believes that the U.S. government’s policies in Vietnam—such as burning the homes of noncombatants, or creating “free-fire zones” in which all Vietnamese were deemed to be the enemy—were in violation of the laws of war.
As for Kerry’s tossing of his ribbons, Butler spends a long section of the film showing veterans angrily and defiantly hurling their medals toward the Capitol. The sources interviewed for Going Upriver discuss how “painful” the protest was, how it was “terribly difficult,” “extremely hard,” etc. Perhaps to dismiss the charge that Kerry’s protest was somehow phony because he tossed his ribbons instead of his medals, a speaker points out that some veterans threw their medals, others threw their ribbons, and others tossed their citations or even the boxes that their medals came in. Kerry was almost the last man to stand before the microphone during the protest, and according to Tom Oliphant, he “kind of lobbed” his contribution over the fence and walked away.
During this scene, Butler includes a photograph of Kerry shoving his ribbons through the fence that he left out of the film’s companion book. The next shot is the one of a crumpled Kerry, being consoled by Julia Thorne. The demonstration was designed to illustrate that “the sacrifices that we went through were for nothing,” says Bobby Muller, one of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “That’s the bitter pill, and I think that’s the harder pill to take, frankly,” than coming back and saying their service was necessary for the continuation of freedom and the American way. Throughout the film, Muller is Kerry’s most effective advocate, the man who most persuasively argues that what Kerry did when he returned from the war was not just defensible but morally correct.
Swift Boat Vet obsessives will note that there’s nothing about the (unfair) criticism of Kerry’s Purple Hearts or the fact that Kerry was likely in Cambodia in January or February instead of the previous Christmas. More important than those details, however, are Butler’s other omissions. For example, in Tour of Duty Brinkley quotes some of Kerry’s crewmates talking about their initial anger at Kerry when they learned he was leading antiwar demonstrations. Though they later came to understand his decision—and believe that he was right—at first they felt betrayed. Butler, however, shows only David Alston, who says he was glad to see Kerry speak out. On the other hand, Going Upriver is honest about something the Kerry campaign isn’t: The film bothers to point out that when Kerry volunteered for Swift boat duty, he wasn’t asking for one of the war’s most dangerous jobs. At the time, the boats were engaged in coastal patrols, checking the papers of commercial fisherman.
One more Swift Boat-related bit of news from the premiere: During the Q&A with Butler after the film was over, a member of the audience asked him why he didn’t include anything about Christmas in Cambodia. Butler explained that it’s very difficult to know whether Kerry was in Cambodia, then changed the subject to the lack of credibility of John O’Neill, the co-author of Unfit for Command. (O’Neill appears in Going Upriver when he is dredged up by Richard Nixon and Charles Colson to be a public-relations counterweight to Kerry and the VVAW.) O’Neill, Butler pointed out, denied ever being in Cambodia despite telling Nixon otherwise. But in the course of telling the story, Butler seemed to imply that he, or someone on his crew, leaked the tape of O’Neill’s comment to the news media. “We found a Nixon White House tape,” Butler began, before stopping himself. “Or, there is in existence a White House tape …”