Politics & Policy

War Staging

Kerry should set the videotape record straight.

It’s difficult to know what to make of the reports that John Kerry “reenacted” his greatest hits in Vietnam on a Super 8mm home-movie camera specifically bought for the purpose. Some of this footage was used, apparently, in the bio-pic shown just before the candidate made his speech tonight.

It’s beyond doubt–he acknowledged, or at least didn’t deny, the fact in a newspaper profile in 1996–that Kerry “returned later” to the locations of his missions “to record highlights” (as the Boston Globe delicately put it in the piece). I’m confused, though, whether he reenacted firefights a la Tom-Hanks-hitting-the-beach in Saving Private Ryan, or whether Kerry and his crew shot post-action, staged footage of such pedestrian moments as the former wading through paddies, skippering his boat, looking suitably pensive, etc.

Earlier this week, the Drudge Report broke the news of Kerry’s artistic endeavors in a “World Exclusive” (if you don’t count the 1996 Globe article) by quoting a forthcoming book, Unfit for Command (which instantly hit number 2 on the Amazon list), in which a Naval veteran alleges: “Kerry would revisit ambush locations for reenacting combat scenes where he would portray the hero, catching it all on film. Kerry would take movies of himself walking around in combat gear, sometimes dressed as an infantryman walking resolutely through the terrain. He even filmed mock interviews of himself narrating his exploits. A joke circulated among Swiftees was that Kerry left Vietnam early not because he received three Purple Hearts, but because he had recorded enough film of himself to take home for his planned political campaigns.”

James Moll, the first-rate documentarian who made the convention bio-pic, didn’t clear up things for me by cryptically telling the New York Observer that while “none of the footage he saw, he said, included ‘reenacted’ battle scenes” he did use some footage showing “the swift boat and various shots of the swift boat, and some firing like you see in the water. Bullets in the water.” “‘It’s just illustrative,’ he added, as the bullets in the water were not from the actual event.” In the convention short, there are also images of shells exploding, vessels bearing down on snipers, and so forth.

But, surely, bullets splashing into the water would constitute part of a battle or of a “battle scene”?–even though Moll says that they “were not from the actual event.” Were they part of some stock archival footage? Could Moll have been fooled into thinking, or been led to believe, or had understandably assumed, that whatever battle footage Kerry provided was real, but, perfectly justifiably, used bullets-enter-water footage filmed on another occasion to make his dramatic point–namely, that John Kerry served honorably and bravely in Vietnam (which I would agree with). In that case, Moll must also believe that the bullet film was real. Is it? Don’t ask me, I wasn’t there.

Does any of this really, in the end, matter? Nobody’s saying that Kerry faked footage to win himself a Silver Star (though the grainy, amateurish film of Kerry tramping through the grass reminded me of that hilarious fake 1967 footage of Bigfoot lumbering into the woods, swinging his arms and looking back at the camera); they just say he may have “reenacted” events–violent or not–that happened.

It all hinges, I think, what his motive was for the reenactments. Take, for example, the immortal Robert Capa photo of the unnamed Spanish Republican soldier in the moment of death, knees bent, his torso thrown back by the impact of the bullet and his arms outflung, the rifle sailing away but still touching his fingertips. It was staged by the then-obscure Hungarian freelancer, as has now been decisively proven, but Life’s 1937 caption nevertheless encapsulated the emotional force of the Spanish Civil War: “Robert Capa’s camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Cordoba.” When the photo was originally published in a French magazine in 1936, however, the caption suggested the shot was meant to be symbolic, and in any case, there’s no wound evident. Capa, though he knew perfectly well that Life had got it wrong, never bothered to correct the misleading impression the anonymous caption-writer had created. (Indeed, Henry Luce, Life’s gruesome editorial director and a propagandist of some note, declared the necessity of “fakery in the allegiance of truth.”) There were three reasons for Capa finding the lie compatible with his conscience: first, he was a congenital liar; second, it was useful for his career to maintain the fiction; and third, he was a determined opponent of totalitarianism, and the shot therefore served a larger political purpose.

And what of Kerry? Why did he stage material? Personally, I don’t think his filmic activities amount to a Capa-esque fraud. He was a young man, and perhaps thought that war was kind of exciting and fun (he’s not alone in this: J.B.S. Haldane, a once-famous Marxist biologist in the 1930s, wrote about what a fantastic time he had fighting in the trenches in the First World War, and even volunteered for more time on the Western Front), so he took the martial equivalent of holiday home-movies. It’s also important to keep in mind that at the time Kerry was filming his exploits–especially early on–he was not disenchanted with the Vietnam War; that came later. From what I’ve seen of the footage, these are positive action-man shots, not negative images of maimed civilians, dead GIs, etc. My own view is that John F. Kerry, an immensely ambitious man, was obsessed with emulating JFK’s PT-109 heroics, and wanted a record, possibly for the election-winning memoirs of his wartime service that he dreamed he would one day write. So, it is more than likely that these movies were intended to aid a political career when he returned home, but, owing to his antiwar activities of the 70s, ended up being stored in the cupboard until the admission that one had served in Vietnam was not the disgrace it once was.

Kerry would be well advised, if only to take the sting out of Unfit for Command, to state clearly which footage is real and which is staged ex post facto.

Alexander Rose is NR’s deputy managing editor.


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