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Film Reminds of Moral, Fatal Wounds Suffered by Vietnam War Survivors

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

By Fred A. Reed

During the surge of demonstrations that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, one slogan caught my attention: “Say his name!” A couple of nights ago, as we were watching a new film, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, that slogan took on new power. Took my breath away, in fact. Here’s why.

On the last day of the trial, Tom Hayden makes a final statement on behalf of the accused, a disparate group that represented opposing voices in the antiwar movement of the sixties, along with Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale, who had no connection with the charges on which the other six were being tried, and whose colleague Fred Hampton was shot to death by Chicago police during the trial.

Hayden must swear to the judge that he will speak respectfully and thus seek the favour of the government.

This he undertakes to do. Then picks up a notebook in which co-defendant Rennie Davis has listed the names of all the young Americans thus far killed in Vietnam. (In reality, the list also included the names of Vietnamese dead.) There are nearly 5,000 names. As the courtroom erupts in shouting and raised fists and the judge stalks out, Hayden continues. Continues to say their names.

In that moment lies embedded the film’s resonance with the present.

There too, for me, lay its resonance with my own past as a Vietnam War draft resister. And with the short life of my late brother, who died by his own hand from wounds to the spirit suffered during his military service in Vietnam.

Alongside the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, where the names of the more than 45,000 American dead are engraved, stands an invisible virtual wall that bears the names of those who killed themselves in the course of that criminal enterprise and in the years that followed.

Unlike the conscripts, swept up from the small towns of America’s heartland and from its inner city ghettos to face an ‘enemy’ determined to free its land from their presence, the “survivors” bore moral wounds that festered, turned malignant and eventually destroyed them.

Was their crime one of complicity in atrocity? Was it guilt at failing to stop what they could never have stopped? Was it remorse at not having—like the Chicago Seven—attempted to do so? Were they, too, mortally infected by the ideology of Operation Phoenix and like orgies of torture and assassination?

The Trial of the Chicago Seven is an imperfect film. It takes liberties with facts and indulges in dramatic shortcuts. I would not criticize it for that. What film inspired by real events as this one does not?

The uncommon courage of the men on trial is unmistakable. Their human weaknesses make them credible. The mass movement they imperfectly represented was powerful. But the final courtroom scene, where Hayden reads the list, explodes these hesitations, and echoes here and now, the present moment. The past.

“Say his name!” I said to my wife Ingeborg, sitting beside me.

“You say it!” she said.

“James Blanchard Reed.”

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