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Trouble in paradise, forgotten vets, remembering Tiananmen

A brown boobie in “Hidden Pacific.”Tandem/USFWS/USFWS

Who hasn’t dreamt of running off to a desert island? Especially during these days of ubiquitous media, environmental decline, political divisiveness, and endless delays on the T.

The next best thing might be watching Ian Shive’s spectacular and fascinating IMAX documentary “Hidden Pacific,” which visits three such spots now protected as national wildlife refuges and marine national monuments.

Among them is Palmyra Atoll, part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and over a thousand miles south of Hawaii. Long the reputed site of pirate treasure and once rumored to harbor monster crustaceans, it serves as a breeding ground for thousands of terns and the aptly named boobies. And monster crustaceans do indeed lurk in the interior: crabs 3-feet broad, with claws as powerful as the jaws of an alligator. They roam the woods in search of their favorite prey — coconuts. But more awesome are the manta rays, which are more than 18 feet wide. In one impressive scene researchers lure them to the shore at night, shining lights in the water to attract the microscopic plankton that the giants feed on.

Midway Atoll, part of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, has seen its share of history. It was the site of ferocious bombing during the World War II battle that bears its name, as testified to by such relics as the shell of a shattered airplane hangar. Now the island is the nesting ground of giant albatrosses, whose down-covered chicks are the size of Thanksgiving turkeys.


A part of American Samoa, the Rose Atoll boasts pristine coral reefs tinted pink by algae. They swarm with hundreds of species of fish and are patrolled by alarming-looking sharks. Baby sea turtles sprint across the beach, and the the forest echoes with the cacophony of exotic birds.

However remote they may be from the rest of the world these islands remain at its mercy. Tons of plastic debris litter their shores and pollute adjacent waters, killing the wildlife that mistake it for food. And Rose Atoll is among those national reserves that the current administration might be planning to open up to private exploitation. Though still robust and teeming refuges from civilization, their survival depends on our awareness and involvement.


“Hidden Pacific” opens July 1 at the Simons IMAX Theatre at the New England Aquarium.

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Improperly vetted

At some point, according to David Zeiger’s documentary “Sir! No Sir!” (2005), someone changed the narrative of the Vietnam War from that of a hopeless quagmire based on delusions and lies that killed more than 50,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese to a noble crusade lost only because of craven politicians and treasonous mobs of hippie demonstrators. This revisionist history was affirmed by the media and popular culture.

This version of the war has served the purposes of those who have involved us in similar conflicts since then, and probably plan to do so in the future. But the truth, according to Zeiger and the vets he interviews, is that thousands of soldiers themselves opposed the war, covertly and sometimes openly, and paid the price with their freedom, sanity, health, and sometimes with their lives.

Their activities paralleled the antiwar movement at home, as soldiers’ disillusionment with the military’s motives and methods grew. They started with coffee shops where GIs could meet, discuss their concerns, and read the rudely satiric underground magazines that some were covertly publishing. Later they took to the streets in demonstrations, including a 1971 march organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, in Washington, D.C. Thousands participated, many of them throwing their medals onto the grounds of the Capitol.


Increasingly they refused to obey orders. More than 400,000 deserted. In extreme cases some murdered and maimed superior officers by “fragging” (dispatching them with a fragmentation grenade). Increasingly bad morale, the decline in effectiveness, and the threat of mutiny, Zeiger argues, compelled Richard Nixon to begin withdrawing troops, replacing them with Vietnamese forces in his vaunted “Vietnamization” strategy, and intensifying the bombing.

They say that history is written by the victors. A better way to put it, Zeiger suggests, is that history is hidden by the powerful who — win or lose — remain unchanged.

“Sir! No Sir!” can be seen on Ovid.

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Party disfavor

According to those who run China, the events that occurred in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, never happened. Tanks and soldiers brutally crushed a huge, ongoing, peaceful demonstration for democratic reform, killing as many as 15,000 people. But today no one in China can talk about it, write about it, or mention it online.

That is the situation that Ian MacMillan addresses in his documentary “Tiananmen: The People Versus the Party.” With archival footage of the scenes that stirred and shocked the world combined with leaked transcripts of discussions by the party leadership during the crisis and interviews with those who participated in the events, MacMillan pieces together the genesis, growth, and bloody climax of a student movement that threatened Communist Party rule.


It is a story of misjudgments, misperceptions, and missed opportunities, not just by the party but also by those leading the opposition. Naïve and stirred by idealism and a belief that they could revolutionize the system, they might have overreached. Some of the student leaders interviewed wonder if they had settled for more pragmatic measures and compromises things might have turned out differently, possibly a more just government that respects civil rights and doesn’t need to hide the truth.

“Tiananmen: The People Versus the Party” can be seen on and the PBS Video App until July 8.

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Peter Keough can be reached at