Shawn Kelley’s documentary memoir, My Father’s Brothers, recounts the events of June 29, 1966, when, during the Vietnam war, a platoon of American soldiers stumbled upon a large North Vietnamese force in the dense jungles northeast of Saigon.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the company came under fire. What started as a routine patrol became a defining moment for each of the men of the Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne division. The filmmaker interviews his father, Jack T. Kelley, and other survivors about what happened on that day and how it has impacted their lives.
Even half a century later, the veterans have difficulty keeping themselves together to tell their stories of bravery and heroism. The many instances of grace under fire are an astounding testament to the will and endurance of these fighting men. But, of course, that one day changed their lives forever. As the years went by, the strength of that day, for those who lived through it, morphed into sadness and trauma wrapped up in survivors’ guilt that has taken much away from the warriors who fought with such tenacity.
Kelley begins My Father’s Brothers by saying that his father never talked about the war. This is typical of many warfighters. Once a soldier has stood in that particular hell, knowing they could as easily die as live and nothing but luck would make the difference, one must question how you could ever make anyone understand? They tell of crawling through mud made of soil and blood and how calls for the medic were met with the response, “the medic is dead.” As it seemed clear they would be overrun, they fell back and gathered their last grenades to use on themselves rather than be taken prisoner.
“…a platoon of American soldiers stumbled upon a large North Vietnamese force…outnumbered and outgunned…”
With trembling voices, the Vietnam vets talk about June 29, the hell of being caught alone against a superior force, and the deaths of their friends. What isn’t really dwelt upon is that there were also men facing the other way, at whom our troops were throwing .223 cal bullets at the rate of 700 rounds per minute. We were, in fact, on their land at the time.
My Father’s Brothers is a beautifully done doc about a particular battle in Vietnam. These stories are as important as they are horrific. Kelley means the film as a gift of respect to his father and the Americans who fought on June 29 and during the rest of the conflict. In the style of Saving Private Ryan, it succeeds at this goal, as the images fade from the screen, the horns swell, and we feel that pride in the American soldier, particularly for those who fought in Vietnam, who came home to be reviled and vilified. This is appropriate.
The men fighting in Vietnam had no clear idea why they were there. Then, in a moment of horrific clarity, one of the veterans speaks of traveling back to Vietnam and meeting men who had fought on the other side. One of them pointed out that they were all, on both sides, just young men doing what their country asked them to do at the end of the day. Young men, convinced of their invincibility, blood up, and surging forward with a war cry, “all the way, sir,” become old men (if they live), who can barely function, and who are doomed to forever live one awful day over and over until they die. For what?
The true horror of a warlike Vietnam is that so many people just died for no real reason. If Vietnam has taught us anything, it’s that the cost of war is too high. Shawn Kelley pays tribute to his father and his father’s brothers-in-arms with My Father’s Brothers while at the same time reminding us of this terrible price.