Not fit to air

A look at excerpts of "Stolen Honor" -- a film that rehashes old charges about the Vietnam War -- reveals the extreme partisanship involved in its production.

By Peter J. Ognibene
Published October 19, 2004 4:40PM (UTC)
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The charges in "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," which the Sinclair Broadcast Group has ordered its 62 TV stations to air in prime time before the Nov. 2 presidential election, should not be considered news, especially since the documentary's primary aim, according to producer Carlton Sherwood, is "exposing John Kerry's record of betrayal."

If one browses Sherwood's Web site and views excerpts of his 42-minute film, it becomes clear that he has produced nothing more than an attack ad that suffers from elephantiasis. The film's charges are not new -- they've been floating around for more than three decades.

Yet Sinclair's corporate relations V.P., Mark Hyman, who also provides conservative commentary for the company's TV outlets, recently told CNN: "I can't change the fact that these people [Vietnam POWs] decided to come forward today. The networks had this opportunity over a month ago to speak to these people. They chose to suppress them. They chose to ignore them. They are acting like Holocaust deniers and pretending these men don't exist."

In reality, America's Vietnam POWs came forward quite some time ago and have already received considerable acclaim. Five of the POWs in Sherwood's film appeared in the 1998 documentary "Return With Honor," a stirring tribute to Vietnam vets that was shown in theaters and broadcast by PBS. Though some of the men commented on antiwar demonstrations in that film, no one mentioned John Kerry, who was then a senator but not a declared candidate for president. So Hyman can hardly claim that POWs have not gotten airtime to describe what they experienced in Vietnam.

Dig a little deeper into "Stolen Honor" and its partisan roots pop right out.

Sherwood's film pieces together interviews with 17 POWs. One of them, George Day, a retired Air Force colonel, says: "This man [Kerry] committed an act of treason. He lied, he besmirched our name and he did it for self-interest. And now he wants us to forget." Though the "Stolen Honor" Web site lists the colonel's medals, it fails to mention his long participation in Republican politics. On a Web site associated with a class action suit filed on behalf of veterans, Day cites his political credentials: "Past Florida State Republican Committeeman. ... He was a delegate to Republican Conventions, Chairman of the Reagan Committee in Okaloosa County, Florida. In 1984, he was National Chairman of Veterans for Reagan and campaigned extensively for and with the President. He campaigned nationally for President Bush in 1992, and Jeb Bush for Governor of Florida 1998, John McCain for President and Bill McCollum for Senate in 2000."

Leo Thorsness also appears in the documentary. Again, the "Stolen Honor" Web site lists his military awards but makes no mention of his two campaigns as a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in South Dakota. He lost to George McGovern in 1974 and Tom Daschle in 1978. He subsequently moved to Washington state and ran as a Republican candidate for the state Senate, winning a seat in 1988.

Three other men who appear in Sherwood's documentary were appointed by the Bush administration to the Advisory Committee on Former Prisoners of War under the Department of Veterans Affairs: the chairman of the panel, Thomas McNish, as well as Kenneth Cordier and Paul Galanti.

Cordier appeared in one of the original anti-Kerry ads sponsored by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. And when the press linked Cordier to the Bush campaign's veterans committee, he resigned the post.

Galanti was the Virginia chairman for Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. After McCain's 19-point win over George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, all eyes turned south to the Virginia and South Carolina primaries. "It's going to be tough," Galanti said at the time. "Bush has got all the rubber-stamp Republicans on his side."

I respect the men who appear in Sherwood's film, even though I disagree with their fundamental premise that Kerry and other Americans who opposed the war in Vietnam were somehow responsible for prolonging that conflict and their incarceration. I would argue that President Nixon's "secret plan" to end the war -- without which he would have lost the presidential race in 1968 -- had more to do with the continuation of the war than did the protests of antiwar activists. In later years Nixon acknowledged he had no secret plan. As president, he ordered American troop withdrawals -- 25,000 in 1969, 50,000 in 1970, 150,000 in 1971 -- and periodically stepped up the air war to persuade the North Vietnamese to come to terms at the Paris peace talks.

By the end of 1968, the year of his election, 36,000 Americans had died in Vietnam. By the time former naval officer Kerry testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1971, an additional 18,000 Americans had been killed in action. That year Nixon clinked glasses in China with Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai, and South Vietnam held "elections" with just one presidential candidate, Nguyen Van Thieu. When Thieu later became an obstacle to the negotiations, Nixon secretly promised he would return U.S. forces to South Vietnam if the North broke the truce. In the end, Nixon's actions had more to do with dragging out the Vietnam War than anything the 27-year-old Kerry could possibly have said or done.

The controversy over who prolonged the Vietnam War has been going on for more than 30 years. The only thing that's new about "Stolen Honor" is its angry personal attack on the Democratic presidential candidate. In fact, the film is little more than an elaboration of the latest attack ad by the Swift Boat group, which recently morphed into the "Swift Vets and POWs for Truth."

Day, Cordier and Galanti all appear in the new ad. They have a right to be partisans -- just as the public has a right to be skeptical of the objectivity that went into the making of "Stolen Honor."

Peter J. Ognibene

Peter J. Ognibene, a former Air Force officer, is a Washington writer.

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