But, as anyone who has stood in front of the memorial and felt the burden of a shared, massive grief can attest, there are other ways to try capturing the scale of the madness. That thought occurred to Bill Couturie, a San Francisco documentary filmmaker, and the result in Dear America: Letters Home
From Vietnam offers a potent argument that the facts are more appalling than even the most extreme fiction.
Couturie's idea for the film has a natural elegance and originality. He matches the letters from the young men and women who were sent to Vietnam with the voice-overs of an A-list of Hollywood stars, who worked for nothing. They read the words with an unforced simplicity that is very touching. To illustrate the correspondence, Couturie did a massive amount of research in the archives of the television networks and advertised in various veterans' magazines for anyone who might like to send in a home movie or even a photograph for inclusion in Dear America.
The collective effect of these elements is quite startling and fresh. Many of the images - such as the siege of Khe Sanh and the drained faces of the beleaguered Marines - are thrice familiar. But as the actors read the letters, the men who too often died in now half-forgotten battles come to life. They become flesh and blood and all too much of the latter is spilled in the pointless carnage.
Everything is here: fear, homesickness, the discomfort of the grunt's existence in the field, bravery and a yearning to find some meaning in the war.
Some of the GIs trot out the party line, positing monolithic communism that had to be confronted before all of Southeast Asia succumbed. This was a fiercely debated contention during the war. From the hindsight of 20 years later, it is a muddled, baffling argument that adds a great deal of pathos to the words of the soldiers. Other letter writers express terrible doubts about what they are doing and hope only to get back home in one piece.
One-third of the men whose letters were used in Dear America never made it back. Here is the voice of Ray Griffiths, a private, in a few lines to his girlfriend Madeline. He notes that he is the only one left alive in his original platoon and concludes, "See ya, if it's God's will. I have to make it out of Vietnam though, 'cause I'm lucky. I hope. Ha, ha. Love, Ray." He was killed in action a few days later - on the Fourth of July, 1968.
The roster of actors who bring these words to such vivid life is distinguished. One of the most felicitous inspirations of Dear America is the inclusion of stars who have made some of the most successful Vietnam films. There is an artistic kinship between the facts and the fiction of Vietnam when Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, the two sergeants in Platoon, Robert De Niro, the savior in The Deer Hunter, and Robin Williams, the disc jockey in Good Morning, Vietnam, read these poignant letters. It is reinforced by the presence of an actor such as Brian Dennehy, who is himself a Vietnam veteran.
In a way no other movie has managed, Dear America reminds us that the men whose names are on the memorial all had hopes and dreams that were tragically shattered.
Indeed, the most affecting note in the film comes not from a soldier but
from a stricken mother. Eleanor Wimbish comes often to the monument and leaves letters to her son William, who was killed in 1969. She writes in one: ''I wonder if anyone stops to realize that next to your name on this black wall is your mother's heart. A heart broken 15 years ago when you lost your life in Vietnam. But this I know. I would rather have had you for 21 years and that pain that goes with losing you, than never to have had you at all. Mom."
Dear America was partially funded by Home Box Office, which aired the documentary earlier this year. The profits from its theatrical release will be turned over to Vietnam veterans' groups. It is showing here exclusively at the Eric Campus 3 at the University of Pennsylvania.
DEAR AMERICA: LETTERS HOME FROM VIETNAM * * *
Produced by Bill Couturie and Thomas Bird; directed by Bill Couturie; written by Richard Dewhurst and Bill Couturie; edited by Stephen Stept; distributed by Corsair Pictures. Letters read by Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Kathleen Turner, Harvey Keitel and others.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes)
Showing at: Eric Campus 3.