Operation Homecoming, directed by former ABC newsman Richard E. Robbins, comes to us as a product of the National Endowment for the Arts which, under chairman Dana Gioia, must have thought that it would be both patriotic and artistic to have soldiers returning from Iraq try their hand at creative writing in order to express what they saw and felt there. Whatever may have been the wisdom of that idea in the first place, it can't be denied that there are some problems with converting the product of their labors into a movie which is essentially a collection of talking heads with illustrations.
Sometimes the illustrations are montages of still photos, or file footage of soldiers marching or relaxing or fighting. Sometimes they are drawings. In one case they are shots of the scenes of where a dead Marine's funeral will take, or has taken, place, though not of the funeral itself. Sometimes the talking heads are invisible, as when Hollywood actors like Robert Duvall, Beau Bridges or Aaron Eckhart read the writings of the guys who are on camera. But always it's the words, the "writing," that holds the center stage.
There is a kind of inertness to the whole idea of "writing" which is only accentuated by the fact that you can't help noticing what's missing, which is the political context of the war. So much re-told suffering means that the movie constantly teeters on the brink of being anti-war, but it never allows itself to tip over in that direction -- which must have been the price of winning the cooperation both of the NEA and of the Pentagon. Yet on the whole, I think, I'd have preferred it if someone had been allowed to say what many must be thinking, namely that all the suffering, both physical and psychic, on display here is unnecessary. That's the usual subtext in similar accounts of the horror of war: to make it go away, all you have to do is not fight. I think that this is pacifist wishful-thinking, but at least, if someone had said it, someone else might have said the opposite, that these are necessary sacrifices.
For that idea is also left out. One of the talking heads, Sergeant John McCary, does say that we have to keep faith with the fallen by seeing the thing through to the end, but it's not clear that that's the same thing. And others who must be against seeing it through to the end are forced to be less direct about it. To me, the result looks more like a commercial than a conventional movie documentary: a commercial, perhaps, for the humanity and the compassion and the sensitivity of those whom some of us might otherwise -- it is more than hinted -- be tempted to think of as unfeeling brutes and killing machines. As I did not need to be persuaded that American soldiers are proper human beings with the full complement of finer feelings, I occasionally found myself getting a bit impatient with the movie.
I had already heard, too, and more than once, that soldiers in combat are both terribly afraid and terribly exhilarated; that they feel very keenly grief at the deaths of their comrades and remorse when, unintentionally, they are responsible for civilian deaths; that they experience both mind-numbing boredom and heart-piercing terror and that they fight more for each other, and to be allowed to go home, than they do for abstract ideas like freedom or democracy. Above all, I have heard again and again that, in battle, men just naturally revert to a form of savagery. "So much for honor and fair play; so much for the ancient warrior codes. Die, m**********, die!" It's not that I doubt any of these things; it just might have been nice to hear somebody speak up for honor and fair play for a change.
But you know that's not going to happen. Any time you put "art" or "writing" together with war you get -- at least implicitly -- anti-war propaganda. That's because art, to us, means seeing things in terms of their emotional immediacy and taken out of any political context. And without its political context, war is mere butchery. Kudos to the film-makers for being fairly discreet about this, but it is still the subtext of their work. The best way to look at the uniformity and complementarity of viewpoint of the movie is in terms of ritual. We listen to the repetition of some kinds of familiar ideas over and over again not to receive information from them but to pay our respects to those who have first uttered them and made them a part of our mental furniture.
In this case, our respects are being paid to the sacrifices of all soldiers as we listen to some of them try to make sense of their experience of war by telling how they felt about it at the time. It's no more news than the liturgy is in church, but there is some value in listening to it anyway.
Also like the liturgy, the war-narrative is thought to be appropriately dressed up in fine language. One turn of phrase I particularly liked was: "I been at the beach now for a week, and I can't find the ocean." It's the nearest thing we get to a joke, and it makes us realize that black humor is the other thing that's missing here. Once again, a reverent hush descends on the proceedings. Not that I'm complaining. As someone in Operation Homecoming says: "There's a false notion that we all ought to recover from everything....There's something to be said for remembering and not healing."
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator's movie critic. He is the author of the recent book, Honor: A History (Encounter Books).
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