By now, it's hard to say anything new about the Vietnam War, and maybe we shouldn't try. The grand themes have all been sounded: valor, horror, defeat, redemption. Perhaps we now need quieter stories about people making peace -- with their former enemies and themselves.
Such a story is In Country, an hour-long documentary featuring WQED personality Chris Moore and two of his Army buddies, Leroy Perry and Andrew Boone. Together, the men return to Vietnam (where Moore was sent in 1970), traveling highways once infested with mines. They accompany a Pittsburgh-based aid group, Friends of Da Nang, as it helps Vietnam heal from its wounds, and they see how the country has reinvented itself.
There's a dearth of war stories here: Moore served in a non-combat construction unit, and his most harrowing tale involves a narrowly averted highway accident. (The anecdote, however, becomes an apt parable about military occupation: "I was on the wrong side of the road, in the wrong, in his country, getting ready to kill him," Moore recalls.) Perry and Boone served longer than Moore, and the war clearly weighs more heavily on them. Perry has to flee a war-museum exhibit; Boone, seeing children whose birth defects may have been caused by Agent Orange, plaintively asks, "Where did we go wrong?"
Such moments of grief and consolation come across as genuine ... which is to say both poignant and slightly awkward. There's a home-movie feel to In Country, which oscillates between moments of honesty and charm, and moments where it lacks focus.
Watching it, you can't help reflecting on the fiasco in Iraq. ("We were young, we were GIs, we thought we ruled the world," says Moore. "And we did stupid stuff.") But if the Vietnamese resent us, In Country doesn't show it. It does show a profusion of American logos -- a Coca-Cola plant, a Ford dealership -- and Vietnamese teen-agers breakdancing. If capitalism and mass culture are war by other means, maybe we didn't really lose.
Groups like Friends of Da Nang, meanwhile, are healing wounds on both sides. Moore's documentary may also help: A day after its Nov. 9 premiere, Moore told me he'd been "overwhelmed" by the response.
Too bad we had to drop all that napalm to get here.
WQED plans future screenings of In Country, and the upcoming DVD can be ordered at wqed.org.