Prisoners of a crappy war

I don't regret protesting Vietnam, but "Return With Honor" has humbled me before the heroism of our military.

Published July 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There are at least four truly great movies out there right now -- "The King of Masks," "Three Seasons," "The Buena Vista Social Club," and "Return With Honor." I saw the latter almost a year before its release, because one of its filmmakers, Freida Lee Mock, also made a documentary about me. Perhaps there is some sort of conflict of interest in my writing about it, and I can expect to hear from Robert Shapiro before long. But this film is so vast in its scope, grief and war and redemption, that Anne Lamott as subject just doesn't compare.

"Return With Honor" is simply one of the best documentaries in years. Everyone I know who has seen it feels the same way and it is getting the sorts of reviews that sound suspiciously like affectionate family members wrote them. But mostly people don't go out of their way to see documentaries, and I want to urge you to do so -- I will stake my reputation (such as it is) on the fact that it will change your life, change it a little, but forever. And it will bring you joy.

It is ostensibly about Vietnam, a full-length movie about the American pilots who were shot down over North Vietnam and their captivity, which lasted in some cases for almost nine years. It is about their torture and their torturers, the effort to survive, physically, spiritually, with their humanity intact and to return to the United States with honor -- to have looked out for each other, to have refused to divulge military secrets. But it is also about you and me and God and greatness, faith, hope and love.

All these years some of us have had heartfelt opinions about the war, that it was a bad war and we were right to protest. I still have this opinion. And all these years, most of us have felt horror and disgust toward the Vietnamese who tortured the POWs. In this movie, there are indeed heinous descriptions of the tortures inflicted. But because the American pilots portrayed in the film do not seem to hold any hatred in their hearts for their captors, I was brought to neutral, which, because my scale of antipathy started in the minus zone, is actually positive. Also, I have not been the biggest booster of former captives John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, or James Stockdale, who was Ross Perot's befuddled running mate; and now I am humbled before both.

Freida Lee Mock and her partner, Terry Saunders, guide us through history, weaving a tapestry of interviews with dozens of these pilots 30-some years later, and with their wives, who lived for years without knowing whether they were wives or widows. Mock and Saunders have included never-before-seen footage shot in 35 mm black and white of the men in the days immediately after capture, which the filmmakers discovered in Vietnamese government archives. There is footage of the prisons, of the men in their cells, of the propaganda tapes they were forced to participate in and which were then sent to the U.S. government and the devious ways the prisoners thought of to get the truth across. One man repeatedly blinked out the first letters of "torture" in Morse code while spouting dull assurances that they were all being treated well. Another pilot, with his hands hanging casually in his lap, is giving the bird: When the image was reproduced on the cover of Life magazine, the offending gesture had been airbrushed out, leading the pilot's little nephew to believe for years that the Vietnamese had cut off his uncle's middle fingers. "Return With Honor" documents the pilots' transformation from top gun aviators -- as one pilot says, John Wayne and Superman rolled into one -- into tenderhearted people, trying to stay alive and to take care of one another, hoping against hope to see their families again.

One pilot says early on, "I can't even stand unpleasantness, let alone torture," and this pretty much says it for me. And then he does -- endures the unendurable. He does it, this superhuman feat of endurance, in the same ordinary way the rest of us bear hardship: one day at a time, and sometimes one hour, and always with a little help from our friends.

Though separated from each other by thick walls, sometimes by empty prison cells as well, the pilots came up with brilliant ways to communicate with each other. Mostly they tapped, five or six words a minute in an ingenious code based on a grid of the alphabet, sounding, as one pilot says, "like a den of runaway woodpeckers." They swept in code, coughed in code, sneezed in code. They tapped and swept and coughed for two and three years to men they had never seen, and eventually learned to read each other's moods, to know when someone was close to madness and needed a little spiritual CPR. One pilot says, "The Vietnamese wanted to keep us from communicating so we couldn't gain strength from each other, but they couldn't."

In tapping on the walls, the walls came down -- not the physical
walls, which did not crumble, but the more psychically dangerous walls that
the torturers put between the POWs, of being separate and desperately anxious
to get one's own pain to stop. And yet the torture of listening to someone else
being tortured was worse than anything happening to them, which they were
more easily able to bear. When they had come through another bout of
torture, they tapped, in effect,
Hello! I'm still here, and so are you; we are here together.

One of the most powerful moments in the film is an interview with a man describing a
session of torture, during which he was trying against unspeakable odds not to break and
give his torturer any useful information. He ran through every prayer he
knew, and then he gave up; he thought, OK, you've got me, and surrendered
to the pain. It was as if he had moved over a track, so that what was happening to
his body was not even relevant, that it was happening over on another track.
And his prayer was answered: Finally out of the loop of resisting, he felt
freedom from pain and fear. Moments later, the torturer fell apart, crying,
running from the cell, shamed. It was as if the torturer saw something so profound that
it can't really be put into words -- but, to try: such goodness, something so
big, so shining,
so full, like seeing source -- that he saw that what he was doing wasn't
working. Maybe he finally felt the bond of being human, lost the distinction
between us and them and just saw the us.

Vietnam was so long ago that it's sometimes almost quaint,
and it's hard not to feel that it's over. But it's not. The deep wound of
this war is just less obvious, like an old abscess you've gotten used to.
Watching this movie I never felt ashamed that I protested. It was a crappy
war. But at the same time, I've never before felt such profound pride in our

Listening to the American pilots (and their wives -- tender, feisty,
tough, loyal, as heroic and articulate as any of the pilots themselves) will
leave you stunned
with admiration, for what and how they endured, for how far gone they were,
and how one step at a time they came back from that. One pilot speaks so
calmly that he could be discussing sports technique, yet what he's talking
about is his effort to commit suicide by smashing his head against the wall
of his cell. Another man describes and then displays the drawings he made in
his cell using the discharge from his infected wounds. One pilot
demonstrates his memorization of the names of 200 POWs, a
rapid-fire mental ticker tape stream that he could give to his commander
when he got home.

"Return With Honor" is finally about humanity, about people under
extreme duress who have
had to jettison all they knew before, all security and comfort, like people
you may know who've had cancer or lost a child. They came through reaching
for courage, with the best of being human, and so we listen. The ego here
has fled; there's not one vainglorious phrase in any of the interviews. All
they had to deal with was what was -- and what was in this case was about as
terrible as could be. So they did the best they could, with what they had to
work with, and at first it seems like so little, but turns out to be as big
as life, as breath, faith, concern for others. Somehow even in their cells
they sometimes found the spaciousness of hope and friendship; somehow, more
often than can be imagined, they praised the day.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

MORE FROM Anne Lamott

Related Topics ------------------------------------------