Film Review: "Citizen Soldiers: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War"
By Richard Stacewicz (Reviewer)
The Vietnam War and the antiwar movements that it spawned have generated a vast number of books and films that have attempted to make sense of the war for younger generations of Americans. Although the academic and artistic output has been great, it has been dominated in recent years by revisionists who have sought to portray the war as just and in concert with the nation's democratic heritage. As a result, little attention has been paid to the emergence of VVAW during the height of the conflict and the organization's historical significance. VVAW has, however, recently become the focus of several academic studies and a documentary film by Denis Mueller entitled Citizen Soldiers: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Mueller, who acted as producer, director and part-time cameraman for the documentary, showed his just-completed film at the 30th anniversary celebration of the founding of VVAW in Chicago. He intersperses film footage of the war, American political leaders, and VVAW actions such as Dewey Canyon III and the Last Patrol, with over a dozen members' reminiscences about VVAW and its development. What emerges is a comprehensive portrait of the VVAW from its founding to the present.
The use of the term "citizen soldier" in the title of the film provides a strong indication of Mueller's perspective. VVAW members are presented as patriots who spoke truth to the lies coming out of Washington and fought to safeguard the nation's democracy which had been undermined by the war. Veterans are portrayed as acting in concert with America's democratic heritage by lending their unimpeachable voices to the antiwar movement.
Citizen Soldiers opens with a shot of Jack McCloskey speaking at the 25th anniversary celebration in New York. Jack's assertion that "the rage, the frustration, the anger, and the alienation that we felt when we came home...are signs of sanity and not insanity" sets the stage for the first third of the film which uncovers the roots of this alienation and anger.
Having explored veterans' transformations from warriors to antiwar activists, the film then delves into the history of the organization. VVAW is depicted as an organization that not only played a significant role in challenging the Nixon administration's portrayal of the war but also offered a safe haven for returning GIs who had, for the most part, been shunned by those who had sent them to Vietnam. VVAW provided a context in which veterans could work out the traumas they suffered as a result of their experiences in Vietnam. VVAW members' antiwar work and their focus on aiding their former brothers-in-arms are seen as mutually supportive roles.
Finally, the film relates the historical significance of VVAW and its lasting legacy. VVAW members describe their pathbreaking work to gain recognition of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) as a legitimate malady of the war. They also discuss the organization's work on discharge upgrading, Agent Orange, and other issues affecting veterans and their communities.
Denis Mueller, who previously produced The FBI's War on Black America with Deb Ellis, has done a great service for VVAW members whose struggles for peace and justice have been neglected by the majority of historians and creators of popular culture. What is more important, he has done a great service for younger generations of Americans who have been bombarded with revisionist accounts of the war during the past twenty years, and who have grown up in an era not unlike that of the Cold War that many VVAW members experienced at the same age. The hour-long length of the film is perfect for classroom use and should be used by anyone who is interested in providing a previously missing perspective on the war. The way in which war is remembered will have a decided impact on the reactions of young Americans to future wars. Citizen Soldiers provides further evidence of VVAW's continuing relevance to the antiwar struggle in the United States.
Richard Stacewicz teaches history at Columbia College in Chicago. He is the author of Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.