Every war story can be told from a variety of viewpoints – from that of the winners or the losers, the politicians or the soldiers, or, as in Barbara Sonneborn’s documentary Regret to Inform, the widows of the dead soldiers.
This may be the most painful viewpoint of all because it’s the hardest to rationalize. The soldier was either fighting for a just cause or just doing his duty; the politician was responding to historical forces larger than himself; but the war widow’s loss can hardly be soothed by the frail justifications of war. And rarely have these justifications been so frail – so illusory – as in the war in Vietnam.
Sonneborn received the news that her husband Jeff had been killed on her 24th birthday, and the framing of the film is a journey she undertakes more than 20 years later to the place of his death. Interspersed are interviews with war widows from both sides of the conflict and, though the particulars of their stories vary, the overriding theme remains a shattering loss of innocence.
The idea that America would send its young men – the average age was 19 – to fight in a war of cataclysmic pointlessness was anathema to the vast majority of its citizens for the greater part of the war. And so, on the American side, we have stories of husbands who went because they were supposed to, because they wanted to make their families proud, or to serve their country by battling some threat they were told had grown too dangerous. Letters home reflect their confusion and fear at having been thrust into a chaotic civil war. Then the letters stop coming, leaving the wives to suffer emotional dislocation in a land of affluence and freedom.
The Vietnamese widows’ stories are grislier – not worse, just bloodier – since many of them were living on the actual battlefield. They may have started out with a firmer idea of a cause, but they all ended up with the same battered hearts as the American wives.
Sonneborn’s use of archival footage is exemplary and her sense of balance will be maddening only to those still anxious to take sides. In the end she arrives at the spot where her husband was killed and marvels because it seems so "ordinary." But then it would be – she’s looking for something extraordinary, something nobody ever finds.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].