Though I am an infrequent movie theater-goer, I went with a friend to a preview of the new film “Last Full Measure,” a dramatized account of the spontaneous and ultimately successful effort to secure a posthumous Medal of Honor, the highest decoration for conspicuous combat bravery in the U.S. armed forces, for Airman William Pitsenbarger Jr.
It sounds fairly humdrum, though the cast is led by Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, the ageless Christopher Plummer (90), William Hurt, and, in his last film, Peter Fonda, and was co-produced by 50 people, including Mark Damon.
Any experienced person is fairly resistant to the normal allure of war pictures, but this one gains momentum after an ordinary start, builds gradually, strengthened by consistently good acting, and ends very affectingly.
The emotional commitment of the actors and producers is communicated subtly by the plausibility of the narrative and the solid presentation of what are generally called traditional values: family, country, bravery in uniform, medical professionalism in the face of mortal danger, and quiet, dignified religious faith, the last personified by the deceased’s mother, portrayed by Diane Ladd, who is a relative of playwright Tennessee Williams.
It actually happened, which is presumably why the film was made, and in the film and in fact, virtuous recognition of the cause eventually prevailed over cynical and venal politics.
Avoidable TragedyApart from the sensations mentioned, “Last Full Measure” had a particular effect on me as one of those who always supported the Vietnam War effort by the United States—I was attending university in Canada at the time and was very much in a minority, although not a very inconvenienced one.
I had the privilege of visiting Vietnam for six weeks in the autumn of 1970, in my very minor capacity as publisher of a small Canadian daily newspaper. But I had the invaluable advantage of a recommendation from former President Lyndon B. Johnson, whom I had visited and corresponded with.
Because of LBJ’s patronage, I met all the leading U.S. and South Vietnamese figures, including President Nguyen Van Thieu, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, and Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. And I met and developed a great admiration for the patriotism and dedication of many American military and diplomatic personnel.
This film, vivid in its detail, was haunting in its reconstruction of that magnificent effort that now seems to have been doomed, but was not. No tragedian has ever devised such an improbable plot as the Vietnamese hex on America. The Democrats under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson plunged into Vietnam, despite advice from its senior surviving generals, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, not to do so.
They shouldered aside the South Vietnamese army, but didn’t follow the further advice of Eisenhower and MacArthur that if the United States did enter the war, it should cut the flow of supplies and reinforcements along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam through Laos and into the South. Kennedy had conceded the “neutrality” of Laos, which then-former Vice President Richard Nixon correctly called “communism on the installment plan,” and Johnson intermittently bombed military targets in North Vietnam.
The authorization to send 550,000 draftees into this quagmire was the vague Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, which was based on a bowdlerized version of an encounter with North Vietnamese torpedo boats, from which no damage to American ships resulted. Johnson failed to explain why the country was in the war, even as 200 to 400 Americans died in combat every week.
Completely flummoxed, Johnson withdrew from his reelection campaign and stopped the bombing of North Vietnam, having been substantially deserted by his party. Nixon came into office, having criticized the Democrats’ conduct of the war for many years, announced “Vietnamization,” won the support of the “silent majority” of Americans, trained up the South Vietnamese as he drew down the U.S. expeditionary force, triangulated the Great Power relationship with China and Russia, and recruited both countries to help push North Vietnam to peace.
When the North invaded the South in April 1972, Nixon ordered 1,000 airstrikes a day on the North, and raised that to 1,200 a day every day he was on his state visit to the Soviet Union. The South Vietnamese defeated the communists on the ground, albeit with heavy U.S. air support but no ground support, and peace was signed.
Terribly Misunderstood ChapterAmerican history has largely written off the entire enterprise as a misconceived disaster, morally, as well as politically and militarily. But the United States was admirably motivated and was acting to defend an ally that had been invaded, and was joined by its South Korean, Thai, Filipino, Australian, and New Zealand allies. It won the war militarily, but was undone by the Watergate debacle.
Nixon warned in his “Silent Majority” address on Nov. 3, 1969, that “North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States; no power on earth can do that except the United States.” It could, and it did.
I sat with Americans in Saigon and listened as they played tapes from their families at home, and met some of the wounded men at the hospital at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, where Phantom jets took off four abreast. On one occasion, flying back to Saigon over the Mekong Delta, in one of about 50 helicopters more or less in formation at sundown, I was reminded of two famous French war observations.
Charles de Gaulle, when he passed through Stalingrad in 1944, said, “What a great people.” His host, a Soviet general, said, “The Russians?” and he replied, “No, the Germans, to have got to the Volga, a brave nation.”
And I also thought of Gen. Pierre Bosquet, who famously said of the charge of the Light Brigade (1854) as it unfolded, “C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” (“It’s magnificent, but it isn’t war.”)
Vietnam was unsuccessful strategically, but it was a great human and national effort in an admirable cause. That it was an immense tragedy doesn’t mean that those who served should be despised or ignored.
In associating this war with Abraham Lincoln, by taking its title from the address at Gettysburg—“Last Full Measure” (by which Lincoln meant death in combat for the Union)—and portraying these veterans and their families so poignantly, the numerous producers and brilliant cast have taken an important step in the redemption of a terribly misunderstood, and often distinguished chapter of American history. It’s well worth watching.