Gripping portraits of Americans in war

As Memorial Day approaches, the country remembers its heroes with gratitude. Two documentaries on The Learning Channel inspire empathy for and appreciation of the sacrifices of American soldiers.

War in the Gulf: The Soldier's Story (May 29, 10-11 p.m.) has soldiers and pilots who fought in the Gulf War tell their stories as archival footage illustrates their testimonies. This highly technological war has been recorded with pristine clarity by seemingly ubiquitous news video.

Eyewitnesses recount Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and then Saudi Arabia, and American casualties from "friendly fire." POWs describe how they withstood torture. Others tell of months of waiting in the desert for the ground invasion. Despite all the high-tech gear, it still comes down to man against man.

This is a gripping portrait of war from the American perspective - all of it based on ABC news footage. And while there is no attempt to explain the politics behind Saddam's invasion, or even the politics behind America's involvement, the film helps us understand what individual American soldiers experienced there.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982, and every year it brings more and more visitors to view the 58,220 names engraved into the stone. The poignant documentary Vietnam: Stories from the Wall (May 29, 9-10 p.m.) takes up the lives of four different men whose names appear on the Wall.

Richard Fitzgibbon was the first casualty of the Vietnam conflict, but the government refused him a place on the wall, saying he died before the war started. His name was added in 1999 after his family fought for his cause for decades. He and his son are the only father and son whose names appear there.

Richard Luttrell left a letter and the photograph of a Viet Cong soldier and the soldier's little daughter at the wall. Mr. Luttrell had carried the picture for 20 years before he finally tracked down the daughter of the Vietnamese officer to ask for her forgiveness. It was not that he felt he made the wrong choice (he killed the Vietnamese officer in a confrontation), but once he became a father he understood his old enemy's humanity, and it moved him to make his own peace.

These stories, and the others, are presented without maudlin tendencies. But they help us understand both the human cost of war and the courage of individuals in the face of armed conflict and its aftermath.

The families of the men chosen for the film have their own visions of what the wall means. And each man and his family are motivated by matters of conscience.

The world has breathed a little easier since the Berlin Wall came down, but a new film stirs up old memories of Cold War fears. On the Beach (Showtime, May 28, 8-11:35 p.m., parts I and II) is based on the same source as the 1959 film with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner - the novel by Nevil Shute.

This updated mini-series version includes lots of special effects, computer graphics, and contemporary moral relativism.

Armand Assante, who is no substitute for Peck, plays an American submarine commander, Dwight Towers, who brings his ship to Australia after an American and Chinese nuclear conflict devastates the Northern Hemisphere.

Placing his ship at the disposal of the Australian Navy, Dwight is made admiral and ordered to return north to search for life and the slim chance that a glitch in the ozone may have vacuumed up all the radiation and left some place supportive of life.

While in Australia he falls for the story's love interest, Moira (Rachel Ward), who is already loved by the brainy, but cynical scientist, Julian (Bryan Brown), who knows things are hopeless, yet grudgingly helps out the Navy.

Large-scale destruction is viewed from a distance - the image of the Golden Gate Bridge as a twist of melted iron, San Francisco as smoking rubble. Up close, we see the empty streets of Melbourne with debris floating about and anarchy reigning, and a deserted Anchorage, Alaska.

Even with a love triangle at its core, it's a melancholy spectacle. It is meant to shake up complacency, and it does despite its romanticized view of the end of the world. It is, at its heart, a cautionary tale, just as the novel and the earlier film were. It is meant to remind us that nuclear war is still a threat and that diplomacy had better improve or the consequences could be grim. It implies that all the citizens of the world must take responsibility for the world's future.

However, a cautionary tale is meant to make us think - and this one just doesn't give us enough to think about.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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