Over the years there have been any number of narrative films about Vietnam veterans ranging from the sensationalistic Rambo series to quieter and more serious films like “In Country” or “Coming Home”. As for documentaries, they tend to be made under the impact of the antiwar movement such as “Winter Soldier” or harrowing tales of survival like “Return with Honor” or “Little Dieter Loves to Fly”, both of which are focused on the ordeals of POW’s.
If you’ve seen these sorts of films, you’ll have a little bit of trouble getting the hang of “My Father’s Vietnam”, a documentary that premieres on VOD today, a deceptively modest but powerful work that combines stock footage, family photos and interviews with a number of veterans who were connected in some way with a man named Peter Sorensen whose son Soren directed the film.
The documentary begins with an epigraph drawn from a letter Ernest Hemingway wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925 that “war is…the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.” This of course is not only appropriate for the experience the film contemplates but the particular connection made between Peter Sorensen and another soldier named Loring M. Bailey Jr. who was killed by an IED in Vietnam. Sorensen and Bailey, known to his friends as Ring, were white, middle-class and well-educated men who became friends at Officer’s Candidate School after joining the army in 1968 and discovering that they shared a love for Hemingway.
Either of them could have figured out a way to stay out of the military as I and most people from their milieu did but they joined mostly as a way of fulfilling a necessary obligation. Neither were particularly gung-ho but there were factors that likely influenced their decision. Sorensen came from a long line of military men, including the director’s great-grandfather who is seen in a Danish army uniform at the beginning of the film, looking for all the world like a cast member of a 19th century operetta.
Ring Bailey’s father, who died in 2010 at the age of 96, is interviewed throughout the film. He was a lifelong employee of the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut where he designed warships. Unlike Peter Sorensen, who describes the Vietnam war as imperialist toward the end of the film without using the word, the elder Bailey says nothing about the war itself. His thoughts are riveted on his dead son who was lost to this senseless war at the age of 24 back in 1969. At one point, when you see him with an American flag lapel on his suit jacket, you assume that he was likely part of Nixon’s “silent majority”.
The other figure with a key role in the film is Ring Bailey’s brother-in-law Rik Carlson, who was an SDS member the year that Bailey was killed. He had a beard and shoulder length hair at the time with a willingness to do anything to oppose the war, including risking arrest for putting oil drums in the Connecticut River that were supposed to look like mines just after Nixon mined Haiphong harbor. Despite his hatred for the war, he loved his brother-in-law and remains haunted by his death. Forty-seven years after his death, he can’t help but cry over his loss.
Peter Sorensen is a thoughtful and reflective man whose recollections anchor the film. He had hopes of being a journalist before enlisting and actually realized them in the military after being reassigned to a media unit after writing an article about a battle with the Vietnamese. He tried to arrange a transfer for his friend Ring Bailey who was killed before it could come through. Like Rik Carlson, he can’t get the dead man out of his memory.
Soren Sorenson decided to make the film in order to figure out what made his highly introverted father tick. To some extent, this was a change of personality that followed the trauma of Vietnam. He suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome for years without understanding what was bothering him. In being interviewed by his son, he probably experienced a catharsis similar to those who have had successful psychotherapy.
For his part, Soren Sorenson was inspired to make the film to understand what made his self-contained father break down into tears at the Maya Lin Vietnam Memorial in Washington when he accompanied him at the age of 8. It disturbed him to see a strong man sob.
My own father, who died in 1970, was in the thick of the most brutal American campaign in Europe during WWII—the Battle of the Bulge. I could never get him to speak about it and doubt that having a video camera would have made much difference. For him, as it was for most GI’s, the war was such a horror show that he would not want to relive the experience even if only in his mind. He came back from Europe with the hope of enjoying a normal life and a modicum of security. The post-WWII boom fulfilled his wishes up to the point when LBJ escalated the war and turned me into a revolutionary. I sometimes wonder what he would make of the world today, with its ever-increasing insecurity for people like him and its non-stop imperial wars. I suppose he would have remained tight-lipped as ever, the characteristic of a man who simply lacked the perspective to put everything into context. As for me, I have that perspective but would have much preferred to have been untouched by the war that forced me to dig deeply into the question of why it began in the first place. Although Trotsky was misattributed by the wonderful leftwing novelist Alan Furst, I was impacted forever by these words: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”