The Tap...Tap Tap Of Courage

  • Vietnam was a long time ago, of course. The rage is all but gone, or mellowed to irony. Hanoi has a real Hanoi Hilton now, with a grand ballroom and a website. My Lai is a theme park.

    But those who think of the war from time to time--how it tore America apart--remember it with a wincing clarity; Vietnam can be appallingly fresh in the mind. The other day I was shocked to talk to a young man who had no idea what the Tet offensive was. How could he not know?, I wondered, illogically. In those days (Tet was early 1968), we opened the mailbox to get the paper, and the news jumped out like rattlesnakes.

    Now Vietnam comes round again for one of its periodic encores in the American mind. The war used to make these reappearances like the ghost of Hamlet's father as played by an adolescent--overacting, howling at the universe: think of the Rambo movies or Apocalypse Now. But the American flashbacks get more reflective as the years pass. This time the war revisits in the form of two documentary films, radically different from each other (one is utterly masculine, the other completely feminine). Both bring to the subject a wisdom earned the hard way.

    The masculine film, Return with Honor, received standing ovations at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It is now being released around the country. The documentary, a nonideological then-and-now account of American pilots shot down over North Vietnam and held as prisoners of war, got the same tearful, fervent response in other previews in Washington and Los Angeles. Tom Hanks saw an early video copy and agreed to "present" the film, whose message has a spiritual kinship to Saving Private Ryan: a reassertion of the virtues of bravery, fortitude and self-sacrifice.

    More than two dozen American airmen shot down over North Vietnam tell the stories of their captivity; interviewed in front of a black backdrop, they speak without a trace of swagger or even ego (unheard of in a gang of fighter pilots). The men are understated, even serene. Their stories of torture and endurance--one was imprisoned for 8 1/2 years--are intercut with newsreels and astonishing black-and-white propaganda footage that the Academy Award-winning husband-and-wife team of Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders found in Vietnamese archives in Hanoi.

    There in grainy black and white is the young John McCain, lieutenant commander, U.S.N., shot down in October 1967. In pain, he mutters to the camera that he loves his wife. McCain--now, of course, Republican Senator from Arizona and running for President--refused the early release that the North Vietnamese offered him (his father was commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific), an act of solidarity that earned him additional torture.

    We see Commander James Stockdale (who would retire as an admiral and run for Vice President in 1992 with Ross Perot) driven to such despondency in prison that he attempts suicide. Here is the Navy's Richard Stratton "playing the Manchurian candidate," he says, pretending to be brainwashed when paraded before propaganda cameras. Forced into the same mock show, Commander Jeremiah Denton blinks out T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code with his eyelids. Lieut. Paul Galanti casually displays both middle fingers before the cameras (only to have the obscene gesture airbrushed out by LIFE magazine).

    Torture was regular and excruciating; the middle-aged former prisoners discuss it with the inspiring matter-of-factness of the unbroken. A favorite technique, "the Vietnamese rope trick," involved binding the arms behind the back and rotating them upward until the shoulders and elbows popped out of their sockets.

    What sustained the prisoners in the face of isolation and torture? They were all officers and aviators, highly trained and intelligent, the cream of the American military. In extremis, they survived on two codes--the tap code and the honor code.

    Nothing destroys like isolation. The men communicated--and sustained one another--by tapping through walls. The Hanoi Hilton, says ex-Air Force pilot Ron Bliss, "sounded like a den of runaway woodpeckers." The North Vietnamese never mastered the code, which laid out the alphabet on a simple 5-by-5 grid (omitting K, for which C was used). They tapped first the line, then the letter in that line. Thus the letter B would be tap...tap tap. The code flowed so fluently that the men told one another jokes; kicks on the wall meant a laugh. Every Sunday, at a coded signal, the men stood and recited the Lord's Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.

    Almost alone among the former prisoners, Stockdale criticizes the film, which he finds "superficial" and inattentive to the deeper mysteries of fortitude and survival.

    At bottom, Return with Honor is a sort of harrowing American fairy tale: shining heroes, knights of the air, fall to ground, to dark dungeon. They are tested in fire and darkness, and emerge with honor. Their suffering purifies the troubled nation that sent them to an impure battle. Or so the nation, emerging from the theater with tears in its eyes, likes to think.

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