In 1970, British documentary film maker, Michael Grigsby made one of the first films to examine the impact of war on American soldiers recently returned from brutal jungle combat in Vietnam. Entitled I Was a Soldier, the film focuses on Dennis, David and Lamar in their attempts to readjust to “normal” life after a year of combat in bloody Vietnam upon returning home in the barren and desolate Texan hill country near San Angelo. The film poignantly portrays the aftermath of surviving Vietnam as described in their own words.
In 2012, Michael Grigsby with creative collaborator Rebekah Tolley produced a sequel, We Went to War. Filmed in vivid color, it is often intercut with sepia-toned segments from the 1970 original. Dennis and David are now forty-two years older and Lamar’s life, who died in 2002 from an Agent Orange-related illness, is described by his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Michelle.
We watch Dennis driving a Corvette alone in 1970 and today a Ford truck; David fishing by himself as a young man and today as an old man; and Lamar working his ranch in 1970 and as a greatly haunted version of himself in a home video from the late 1990s, only a couple of years before he died. Dennis and David discuss the prolonged impact of war, both immediately in 1970 and all throughout their lives. Lamar discusses how war affected him in 1970, while his wife and daughter discuss how they as well as Lamar were affected by the aftermath of the combat he experienced throughout all of their lives.
A prominent theme is how lonely and isolated each has felt, and how they have never been able to forget the war, how it has always haunted them.
In 1970, there was no official diagnosis for PTSD, but the whole panoply of symptoms are discussed for what today is an entrenched medical malady, both within the vast healthcare industry as well as by mainstream culture. The symptoms depicted in the film include nightmares, dissociative states, intrusive recollections, startle reactions, difficulties with intimacy, anger and rage, self-medication with alcohol and drugs, hyper alertness, avoidance of crowds, survivor guilt, etc., etc., etc.
The segments with Lamar’s wife and daughter poignantly portray the reality that family members, as well as the veterans themselves, are burdened by war. Michelle even speculates that her children, Lamar’s grandchildren, have been affected by their grandfather’s experience of that long-ago war. She is also deeply angered that her father died due to exposure to Agent Orange, which the government denied was a cause of his illness until shortly before he died. David additionally relates how one of his daughters had Agent Orange-type anomalies at birth. He describes, however, how impossible it is to specifically document the exact date or the location where his unit was sprayed with Agent Orange as required by the Veterans Administration to approve a claim.
A most poignant segment consists of pictures of Dennis, David and Lamar in jungle fatigues in Vietnam, while we hear voices of other Vietnam era veterans from cassette tape-recorded letters home express how awful the war is. Elsewhere in the film, recordings from loved ones, partners and a mother are heard, each expressing their worries and how much they miss their soldiers.
Both David and Dennis discuss how senseless the Vietnam war was. This sentiment is echoed by Michelle, Lamar’s daughter, although his wife Barbara finds it hard to believe the war had no meaning, since that would mean his death was also meaningless. A sense of angry betrayal and deep bitterness about the government is a pervasive theme throughout the film.
By 2012, only David had begun to receive counseling from the Veterans Administration. A moving scene is Dennis sitting in a Dairy Queen with two younger veterans from the recent wars in the Middle East, Jarod, who’s survived three suicide attempts, and a Tish, a mother, who worries about how her absence during deployment as well as her ongoing PTSD impacts her children. As she softly cries, Dennis reaches over to pat her on the arm, a most affecting gesture of identification and empathy between soldiers from different generations and wars. They comment upon the tragedy that there are 18 suicides daily among soldiers and veterans of our nation’s wars!
Shocking as this may seem to many citizens today, this is typical of how American veterans throughout history have been mostly neglected by the government for whom they fought, beginning with those who founded our nation by fighting and winning the Revolutionary War. Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786 was the result of veterans protesting the loss of their farms to the State of Massachusetts for nonpayment of taxes because they never received cash bonuses they were promised from the Continental Congress. More recently, in 1932, WW I Bonus March veterans, who also never received their promised monies, along with their families were violently dispersed in Washington, DC by army troops under the command of then Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur.
Richard Severo and Lewis Milford’s Wages of War: When Americans Came Home — From Valley Forge to Vietnam adroitly demonstrate how the needs of most cohorts of American veterans have largely been ignored and disregarded by citizens as well as their government. The War Comes Home by Aaron Glantz describes that this historical trend continues with veterans from our most recent wars in the Middle East. In February of 2014, Senate Republicans successfully blocked passage of a Democrat sponsored bill that would have substantially increased benefits and expanded medical services for veterans of the Middle Eastern wars and all veterans.
The information presented by We Went to War, building upon the 1970 depiction of I Was a Soldier, is not new. It has been documented in hundreds of novels and non-fiction books, scores of narrative as well as documentary films, and theatrical plays. What is perhaps unique is the desolate bleakness of the exterior Texan landscape within which the veterans and their families live. Whether in the sepia tone version of 1970 or the vivid color portrayal of 2012, the landscape becomes a most appropriate visual metaphor for the emptiness and hardened sensibilities of the interior lives of the three veterans.
Politicians, Wall Street Bankers and members of the elite class, who own and manage the industries that produce the weapons of war, may prosper, but the common people, who fight and suffer the most significant losses of war, gain little from their experience of combat. Instead they live with endless heartache and suffering. With poignant bitterness, David explains,
“It always comes down to money, any way you look at it, it’s gonna be money and at the end there’s not going to be no money. There’s no money. You’re gonna have the same thing that you grew up with, no more no less — just a few rich people and the rest of us are gonna stay the same!”
The proverbial “they” say a picture is worth a thousand words — I suppose, then, this moving picture must be worth a thousand-fold more words. That’s certainly how I experienced We Went to War — I was deeply moved and saddened by how effective the ravages of war upon citizen soldiers and their families is depicted by this most adept and masterful documentary.
Full disclosure here, I am certainly not an unbiased nor an objective observer — I too was a citizen-soldier, who volunteered for duty in the senseless war of Vietnam. Subsequently, for years I worked as a health care professional with veterans suffering from PTSD. In addition, I have been a Veteran For Peace activist with veterans returning from the recent “senseless” wars against terrorism. As well, I too am a victim of war with a 100% permanent disability rating for PTSD and Agent Orange-related coronary disease.
Yes, we older vets from Vietnam had to deal with an actual draft; however, the younger vets of the presently winding down Middle Eastern wars essentially had to deal with a poverty draft. Since so many working class jobs with decent pay have been exported overseas due to globalization since the Reagan Revolution in 1980s, many young adults, both men and women, volunteered for service in the US military. Sometimes this was for expanded VA college benefits, but often it was also due to military life offering them and their families a much higher standard of living than the downsized US economy could provide for working and middle-class families.
Also, whereas most Vietnam-era combat vets endured only one tour of duty in a combat zone, like Dennis, David and Lamar, many OEF and OIF veterans have experienced multiple tours, which drastically increases the likelihood of PTSD. As well, the signature wound of veterans from the Middle Eastern wars is TBI caused by powerful explosions from IEDs, whose long-term affects are most difficult to rehabilitate. Also, just like in Vietnam, advances in battlefield emergency trauma procedures as well as ready accessibility to intensive trauma facilities, saved many lives despite horrible and permanently debilitating injuries from lost limbs to severe burns.
In Vietnam we had Agent Orange and other defoliants. Veterans from the Middle Eastern wars, however, shall likely face unknown illnesses due to DU, depleted uranium, heavily utilized throughout the battle space. Therefore, it is probable we can also expect long-term consequences to impact veterans of these wars too, just as We Went to War has delineated so effectively what has happened with Vietnam combat vets.
Another pernicious challenge faces many current members of today’s US military. Unless the new “cold war” with Russia over NATO’s encroachment into the Ukraine turns hot, there is a strong likelihood that the US military shall face drastic RIFs — reduction in forces, especially ground forces. Some report the US Army will be cut back to personnel levels as low as the army was prior to World War II. This will result in massive early retirements with reduced or insignificant retirement benefits for many soldiers, men and women, currently on active duty.
If I had my druthers, We Went To War would be required viewing for every politician who votes to start and fund endless war, as well as the members of the elite class who mostly prosper from it. But, that’s not likely to happen.
Hopefully, however, We Went to War shall receive prominent play throughout Public Broadcast stations, as well as being available for distribution and sale to the general public. In fact, the British producers hope to be able to distribute the film throughout the United States next year in 2015. Coinciding with the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the start of the American War in Vietnam, there would perhaps be no more fitting endeavor to balance somewhat the massive Pentagon public relations effort to make noble the travesty of the Vietnam War than widespread showing of this remarkable film. I entreat others to join me in helping to make this possible.