[ A FILM REVIEW ]
Last Tuesday, September 13th, I was back in one of my old neighborhoods, the Stuyvesant Square area of Manhattan, where I lived when I first moved to New York City in 1972. The neighborhood is contiguous with the sprawling Beth Israel Medical Center, where I was both a client and later worked as an alcoholism counselor in the mid-70s, my first job as a medical professional. It was a nostalgic trip down memory lane, since it was such an integral part of my youth, where I first found recovery from a virulent alcohol and drug addiction. I ate a delicious dinner at a restaurant in the building where one of my wives and I had lived for a couple of years at 3rd Avenue and 17th Street.
I also remembered scenes from the horrid aftermath of 911, a decade ago, when I spent a couple of weeks in lower Manhattan as a certified Red Cross Mental Health volunteer providing critical incident stress debriefing to first responders down at Ground Zero and to families seeking information about missing relatives. One dreadful evening I collected DNA samples, swabbing underneath relatives’ tongues, and cataloguing them to be used in identifying body parts from the collapsed buildings of the World Trade Center. As a Vietnam Veteran in recovery much of my professional life, after getting an MSW from Columbia University, assisted by the GI Bill, has been dealing with issues of Post Traumatic Stress among combat veterans to include it’s correlation with alcohol and drug abuse.
The old neighborhood is quite different from when I lived there in 70s. It has been significantly gentrified during the past quarter century or so – the then run-down areas along 14th Street are today full of 20-somthings going out on the town. The East Village south of 14th Street, no longer solely a haven for hippies, artists and European immigrants, has become an upscale area of bars, clubs, restaurants and condo buildings. Nearby Cooper Square is no longer at the head of the infamous skid row Bowery district, where 24/7 homeless folks used to panhandle and wash windows to maintain late-stage alcohol and drug addictions. It too has been gentrified into a 21st Century upscale neighborhood for young professionals.
Likewise, there was little semblance to the somber scene of post-911 Lower Manhattan. Ten years ago, every bus stop and telephone booth — today mostly gone, replaced by the ubiquitous cell phone — was plastered with tattered, overlapping Xerox copies of signs, pleading for information about missing persons from the destroyed World Trade Center buildings further downtown. The air, even with heavy exhaust from Manhattan rush-hour traffic, was much clearer and cleaner than what I experienced in 2001. There was no pungent pall of black smoke, tinged red-orange from the still burning pit of Ground Zero, trailing over lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights.
I was in Manhattan to lead a Q&A session, as a long-time member of Veterans For Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against the War, after a showing of the most moving and perceptive documentary film, Where Soldiers Come From. Set in her hometown of Hancock on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near Lake Superior, the film by Heather Courtney is a poignant coming of age tale about three young friends, Dom, Cole and Bodi, who are transformed from innocent, teenage high school graduates into hardened veterans of the Afghanistan War. I could not help being struck by the paradox that a decade later America still suffers from the calamitous consequences from 911. Heather follows the three soldiers for a four-year period shortly after high school graduation, through their military training and deployment in Afghanistan to their homecoming. It then portrays most sensitively the difficulties they and their families experience during the first year back home. The film focuses not only upon the three young soldiers, but most adeptly shows the incredible cost and stress war puts upon families within small-town communities.
Coming from an economically deprived area, no longer sustained by the once large copper mining operations of the Quincy Mining Company, enticed by the $20,000 signing bonus and promise of GI Bill benefits for college from the Army, the three lifelong high school buddies along with several other friends join the Michigan National Guard. Part of an Engineer Battalion, their unit is deployed for a 9-month tour of duty in 2009 in southeastern Afghanistan. They are stationed at Camp Salerno, where their duty is to clear IEDs from mountainous roads near the Pakistan border, traveling in heavily armored vehicles. This dangerous duty is required, so that convoys of supplies operated by military contractors such as KBR can safely pass.
The film opens in stark black and white during a snowstorm. The harsh winters of Hancock average more snowfall than any part of the USA east of the Mississippi. The film deftly intermingles interviews of the three young soldiers and their family members with scenes portraying their day-to-day life and struggles, both in Afghanistan and back in Hancock. Nevertheless, this is not a political film — Ms. Courtney’s camera simply lets the subjects show their stories. The closest the film comes to being political is a comment Cole’s mother casually makes while watching the election of Barrack Obama come to a close with an overwhelming victory. She remarks that maybe he’ll do something for “the boys.” Futilely, as it turns out, she is inferring that perhaps he would stop the war so her son and his friends wouldn’t have to deploy to Afghanistan. It’s most ironic that not only were “the boys” not deterred from going to Afghanistan, but also that Obama as part of his Afghanistan surge deployed some 30,000 additional troops. The recent Tet Offensive style of an attack by insurgents within the secure zone of Kabul near the American Embassy and NATO headquarters, killing some 27 people, double downs the irony.
One of the three soldiers, Dom, is an accomplished urban (aka graffiti) artist. During the first part of the film he is depicted designing and creating with his friends, just before they leave for Afghanistan, a mural symbolizing their deployment. The setting where he and his friends gather is in an abandoned copper factory. One of the most poignant scenes Ms. Courtney records is the visit of his girlfriend, Ashley, by herself to the mural while he is deployed. Another very effective scene is Dom’s reflection upon returning to Afghanistan following a leave back home to Hancock, after he had been wounded and awarded the Purple Heart, that perhaps it would have been better for him to go off somewhere by himself, instead of coming home where he was peppered with unanswerable questions about his war experience and treated as a “war hero” by admirers in a hometown bar, as well as his family.
Though there are considerable differences, I was struck by how similar were the experiences of these young veterans with us much older veterans of the Vietnam generation of soldiers. We both soon became disillusioned with our war effort, using caustic foxhole humor to survive and maintain some sense of balance among ourselves. One major difference, however, is the homecoming experience – whereas my generation of soldiers mostly went to war alone and came home by ourselves in commercial airliners, the current generation of “war fighters” are deployed as a unit and come home with their equipment closely packed together like a bushel of tomatoes in huge Air Force troop carriers. The whole town of Hancock turned out for a “Welcome Home” parade and celebration at the National Guard Amory. Too soon, however, the sheen of the hero’s welcome diminishes, and the reality of readjustment difficulties begins to manifest.
Of the three, Dom’s readjustment seems to be most successful, perhaps due to his creativity serving as a productive way to deal with his experience. The film ends showing him completing another large graffiti mural on the back of a building at his college, adroitly assisted by his Asian art instructor. The mural depicts his transformation from innocent youth to combat veteran. The film ends with a note of hopeful acceptance, as he addresses a crowd of his friends, family and fellow students with the mural in the background. Nevertheless, he is also shown as being extremely irritable, and short-tempered, which negatively impacts his relationship with Ashley, especially when drinking. Like veterans of any combat, he most likely shall never fully forget, nor “get over” his experience of combat.
Cole, on the other hand, experiences difficulties with the VA bureaucracy losing his paperwork, making him responsible for paying back a $3,800 charge for college tuition, since the VA did not pay the college. Additionally, he suffers from an unknown stomach ailment, possibly ulcers. Bodi has been diagnosed with the signature wound of the Afghanistan war, TBI, from the numerous concussions he experienced from IED explosions, while driving the lead truck of small IED-sweeping convoys during his tour. He is especially sardonic and bitter, expressing how much he hates his experience of American war fighting in Afghanistan. Chances are good that one or both may re-enlist and be deployed again despite current disdain for their experience in Afghanistan.
This is a must-see film for anyone who is concerned about our nation’s penchant for “endless war”, especially since it appears to be expanding throughout additional Muslim regions in the Middle East and Africa by both Democratic and Republican politicians. A decade after 911 the likelihood of peace seems increasingly unlikely, since the vast majority of citizens are not directly impacted by expanding wars the US wages throughout the world.
Ms. Courtney’s poignant and sensitive film exemplarily depicts how war impacts the mostly forgotten underclass of American society. I suppose that this is the way it has always been throughout history – underprivileged persons share the burden of fighting and are most affected by wars elites of every civilization have waged primarily for their gain and profit. As the New York Times favorable review concludes:
“Though focusing on the reverberations of war in small, close-knit communities (the boys are all from the director’s hometown), “Where Soldiers Come From” is, more than anything, a commentary on class. In its compassionate, modest gaze, the real cost of distant political decisions is softly illuminated, as well as the shame of a country with little to offer its less fortunate young people than a ticket to a battlefield.”
The film is presently being shown in selected theaters throughout the country and will be premièred on PBS stations P.O.V. television program on November 10th. Check local listings for specific dates and times, as well as the movie’s website: http://wheresoldierscomefrom.com/showdates.php.