Even though Barbara Sonneborn had successfully managed to rebuild her life after her first husband Jeff’s death in Vietnam, she had nonetheless been haunted by his fate for nearly thirty years. During that time, she gradually came to realize that she wasn’t alone; that there are thousands of other women – on both sides of that horrific conflict – whose husbands didn’t come home. Eventually, this prompted the narrator and director of this sobering documentary to travel to the verdant but tortured land of our former foe herself in search of closure. “Regret to Inform” not only chronicles Sonneborn’s journey to Que Sanh, the village where her husband was killed, it also explores the heartbreaking, largely overlooked perspectives of the war’s widows; the unsung surviving casualties of America’s most unpopular war.
The American widows wistfully reminisce about their husbands and recall the ideals for which their spouses enlisted. A few read heart-wrenching letters from their dead husbands; letters that had arrived after they’d received the dreaded “Regret to inform you” telegrams telling them of their sudden widow-hood. The Vietnamese women, meanwhile, recount their own tales of loss, not only of their husbands but oftentimes of their homes and entire families.
This magnanimous inclusion of several former North Vietnamese and Viet Cong women not only makes “Regret…” a very noble endeavor, it also neatly reinforces the no-brainer notion that grief and loss cut cleanly across the ideological spectrum. However, the end result is not unlike that of a teacher whose own child is in her class. Just as that teacher tends to be tougher on her child in her effort to be evenhanded, so, too, does this film from an American woman come very close to displaying an over-corrected bias for the Vietnamese point of view.
While the American widows, for instance, display understandable difficulty reconciling pride at their husbands’ patriotism with the knowledge that their loved ones most likely committed unspeakable atrocities, nearly all their Vietnamese counterparts recount horrifying tales of innocent spouses dying while defending their homeland from American aggression. Now, I’m hardly a right wing war hawk, but even I can see that this is over-simplified revisionist history.
“Regret…” should have at least mentioned why three American presidents of wildly different political stripes believed it was necessary for the United States to fight in Vietnam… and why that debate still rages to this day. Yet, not a single person in the film mentions either the spread of Communism or the Domino Theory – both legitimate fears during those High Noon years of the Cold War.
Similarly, while slaughtering women and children is unspeakably horrific, so, too, was the common Viet Cong “tactic” of using their explosives-laden children as unwitting Kamikaze weapons against the GIs. That doesn’t make the American GIs’ wholesale slaughter of innocents acceptable, of course, but reminding the audience why the men felt they could trust no one would have been far more evenhanded.
Without that balancing context, “Return to Honor” inadvertently comes dangerously close to sullying the reputations of the American men it – and its widowed subjects – seek to honor. Even so, the film remains a thought-provoking and beautifully photographed anti-war film that shows us from the widow’s unique perspective that war is hell for casualties and survivors alike.