'Brothers,' On Board With Lt. Kerry

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2004

It is often said that generals prepare to fight the last war, never the next one. That seems to be the case with "Brothers in Arms," a 2003 documentary from Paul Alexander that tells the story of Lt. John Kerry and his boat, PCF-94, in Vietnam all those years ago. (It is, by the way, the first of two PCF-94 movies this season, the second being "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry," due Oct. 1.)

Extremely pro-Kerry, the movie obviously has been released hurriedly to respond to, or merely capitalize on, the current controversy on Kerry's service in the war and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who've raised questions about it.

I will, you will be happy to learn, navigate my way around that issue at full speed astern and damn the torpedoes and the e-mails. We'll let the people who've been shot at parse the evidence and draw their own conclusions, as almost certainly they will. As someone who spent the war marching in parades, I will not comment on combat performance.

This film appears calculated to rebut charges that Kerry faced in 1996 in a Senate reelection campaign and that he presumably felt he'd face again. Thus it in no way confronts the issues leveled against him by the Swifties, as they are now called, and offers no tangible evidence -- there is some muddled recollection -- one way or the other about the now-famous incident on the Bay Hap River and the rescue of Green Beret James Rassmann. Nor does it deal at all with the first Purple Heart.

Rather, Paul Alexander's movie is constructed to repel accusations from that Senate campaign that Kerry was a "war criminal" in Vietnam, and that his act, specifically his shooting of a wounded Viet Cong soldier, which led to his Silver Star, was against the laws of war. As members of his crew -- David Alston, Mike Medeiros, Del Sandusky and Gene Thorson -- testify over and over in the film's longest section, this fleeing enemy soldier was carrying a loaded RPG (rocket-propelled grenade launcher), which he certainly intended to deploy against PCF-94 once he secured new cover. It seems to me -- again, no lawyer -- that Kerry not only had the legal right to dispatch any armed antagonist who had the potential to endanger his own crew, craft and mission but, moreover, a moral obligation to do so as well. That's certainly what snipers do all the time, as well as mortar men, artillery men and anyone flying air support. It's called battle.

As for the rest of "Brothers in Arms," it's mainly an archival film -- alas, the director uses footage of the PBF (Patrol Boat, Fast), a 50-footer Kerry commanded, interchangeably with footage of the much smaller, 31-foot PBR (Patrol Boat, River) -- with Oprah-like confessions. I was surprised to learn that two of his surviving crew members had serious drinking problems after the war and consider themselves victims of combat stress syndrome; that hasn't been much publicized.

Will this film do Kerry any good, or the Swifties any harm? My bet is: Not a bit, one way or the other.

Brothers in Arms (68 minutes at Visions Bar Noir) is unrated; it contains no objectionable footage.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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