SOLOMON: New Film Challenges Us to Talk Honestly About War
Toward the end of the stunning new documentary "Regret to Inform," the camera focuses on the widow of an American pilot who died in Vietnam. "I don't think he wanted to be an aggressor," Diane Van Renselaar says, her voice etched with sorrow. "I think he was unwillingly cast in that role the moment that he started flying those missions over North Vietnam, and I think he knew it."She goes on to ask herself the kind of questions that have been scarce in U.S. media since the end of the Vietnam War: "Is your husband a hero? Is he a murderer? What is he? Did he kill people over there? Yes, he probably did. And were these people a threat to his country? No they were not. I don't see my husband as a murderer, but at the same time we have to look at it for what it is, and it is murder. And is it justifiable?"Such questions are central to "Regret to Inform," a deeply painful movie airing on PBS stations in late January. But they're not the sort of questions that have been heard from journalists covering the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain.Last year, according to the Nexis database, major newspapers in the United States published more than 160 articles that used the phrase "war hero" to describe McCain. News accounts emphasize that he bravely withstood years of torture as a POW after a missile brought down the Navy plane he was flying over Hanoi. But the same news stories bypass a more-than-minor detail: Like other U.S. pilots, McCain participated in an air war that killed large numbers of Vietnamese civilians.If Van Renselaar and other American war widows can publicly explore wrenching questions about the actions of their husbands in Vietnam, why can't journalists ask similar questions of a major candidate for president?After all, McCain has long trumpeted his Vietnam experience. In 1982, the slogan of his first campaign for Congress was "Ready to Serve Again." A recent McCain-for-president ad was titled "Duty, Honor, Country." Eager to enhance his quest for the White House, the Arizona senator violated a law against taping political commercials at Arlington National Cemetery.Barbara Sonneborn ended up using the medium of film in a very different way. On her 24th birthday, in 1968, she received a telegram from the Pentagon that began: "We regret to inform..." Her husband, a soldier in the U.S. Army, had been killed in Vietnam. More than 30 years later, "Regret to Inform" -- which she produced and directed -- is premiering on TV screens across America.Just prior to the broadcast on the PBS series "P.O.V.," Sonneborn and several other women who appear in the movie visited some U.S. cities to initiate a new global effort that includes an online memorial -- "where war widows from around the world will register their names, share their stories and launch a campaign for international understanding and peace." (For details, go to www.regrettoinform.org or call 1-877-END-WARS.)Among the widows on the tour was a physician, Nguyen Thi My Hien. "The bomb dropped on top of the house, trapping my husband in the shelter," she recounts. "After the bombing, the people on the ground heard his cries for help. But the debris was so heavy, it took hours to reach him, and he was already dead. And to think, as a doctor I saved so many lives, but I couldn't save his."Another Vietnamese woman in the film, Phan Ngoc Dung, speaks of what it was like to live in a country under such unrelenting fire. "The death and destruction were so horrible, so painful."Here in the United States, we've been encouraged to believe the absurd myth that television brought the Vietnam War into our living rooms. When we confused fleeting TV images with the actual carnage being inflicted with our tax dollars, we didn't have a clue.In the documentary, Sonneborn describes conversations she had with her husband: "I remember before Jeff left we talked about how afraid I was that he would get killed. We never talked about the fact that he would have to kill people, maybe even a child. I realized that we hadn't ever talked honesty about what war means."Hopefully the superb film "Regret to Inform" will help journalists and many others to talk honestly about what war means. Some might even ask Sen. McCain why he expresses pride instead of remorse about his role as a bomber pilot in the Vietnam War.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."