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The Real Casualties of War

Old and new documentaries make the political personal.

Dorothy Woodend 17 Feb

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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"Never give up." Journalist Martha Gellhorn ends her collection of essays The View from the Ground with these words.

For more than 40 years, Gellhorn reported on wars and their effects, and if there one thing to be learned from this extraordinarily tough lady, it's that you better keep is your eyes and your ears open because, if you don't, someone may cut them off, either literally or metaphorically. With that in mind, take your ears and eyes, while you still have them, to two documentaries opening this weekend in Vancouver: one is 35 years old and the other relatively new, but they share common ground.

Winter Soldier screens this Sunday (February 19 along with Harlan County USA) at the Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver. Eugene Jarecki's documentary Why We Fight opens on Friday, February 17. It is a useful exercise to see both films back to back, since they represent both the political and the personal and the terrible interchange between the two.

Why We Fight captured the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival; and is in keeping with the tone of many recent political documentaries. There are, however, some crucial differences, not the least of which is the scope of its argument. The film begins with Eisenhower's farewell address in 1961, in which he warned his countrymen about the dangers of the growing American war machine. It was a parting shot, but a prophetic one, as almost everything the president feared came true, somewhat like a bad fairytale with an unhappy ending that is still being written.

War between democracy and capitalism

Jarecki intertwines the experiences of ordinary people living in extraordinary times, including a young army recruit named William Solomon; Wilton Sekzer, an ex-cop from New York City, who lost his son on September 11; and Karen Kwiatkowski, an ex-pentagon official who chose to leave her career after twenty years because "I thought I was seeing a hijack of our defence policy." Carefully and systematically, the film builds a portrait of American imperialism that is difficult to resist.

If the director occasionally strays into bombast, (Johnny Cash singing Hurt over a montage of war imagery is a little much) he still manages to make a strong case for war between democracy and capitalism, two systems conjoined in Western thought, but now terribly at odds. Expert after expert testifies to the level of corruption in the current US government, an organization largely staffed by people with an economic interest in the business of war. If you read anything political at all, you may already be familiar with this information, but the film also inadvertently proves something more daunting. It is Ms. Kwiatkowski who is given the final words in Why We Fight. "I think we fight because too many people are not standing up saying I'm not doing this anymore."

So where are those people, exactly?

The American government has lied, stole, sent its sons and daughters to be killed or maimed, but largely, it seems, the American public either doesn't know, or worse, don't care. Despite Lewis Lapham losing his mind, and many other sane people beginning to call for revolution, the overall feeling still seems to be one of terrible passivity.

Why? If you believe what Michael Adams talks about in American Backlash, you could make the argument that the American population is so sated, fattened, stupefied with shopping and bloated with a sense of entitlement grotesquely out of proportion with anything rational, that they simply aren't interested. I'm sure there are as many opinions as there are people willing to share them, but when the director posed the titular question, what he largely got back was a uniform response, "We fight for freedom." But the freedom to do what? Make money seems to be the most obvious answer, since the ultimate argument the film makes is that war is good for business, because war has, in effect, become a business. And an extremely profitable one at that.

The old disappearing trick

If Why We Fight is some ways writ large -- from Iraq to Washington, spanning the globe -- Winter Soldier is written on the individual bodies of young men. Filmed largely in a Howard Johnson Hotel in Detroit (a blander setting there could not be for the telling of war time atrocities), the film has mostly been unavailable for the last 35 years.

The Winter Soldier Investigation took place in 1971, and involved more than 125 Vietnam vets, giving testimony about everything they had witnessed or perpetrated during the war. The My Lai massacre of 1968 was only just coming to light, and the organizers of the conference thought the testimony of a large group of soldiers might refute the US government's stance that My Lai was merely one isolated incident. Despite the courage of this act, both from the vets, and the filmmakers, their effort failed. Mainstream journalists who were invited to cover the Winter Soldier Investigations, didn't report on it. The documentary was shown on a local New York network, screened at Cannes and Berlin and then, effectively disappeared.

Ah, yes, the old disappearing history trick, an oldie but a goodie. Jane Fonda is quoted in the film's press material stating, "It took such unbelievable courage for them to do that. They were disparaged by the Nixon administration, but all of them were telling the truth and they shook while they spoke and I realized while I sat there that these men, by virtue of their collective truth telling, were being redeemed... They were asking American people, 'Come with us, understand what this has been. Understand the nature of this war that your young men are being put into by its nature atrocity producing. This is how we will be redeemed as a nation' and we did not listen."

This is not an easy film to watch: ordinary young men face into the camera and talk about killing women and children. But the most startling thing about this film is that this same film could be made today: there are the same images of terrified women and children on the news, the dead and the dying in a far off place and big, well-fed Americans grinning for the camera. "Don't ever let your government do this to you," says one of the Winter Soldier participants. But not only did they do it again, they did it even bigger and better -- Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, outsourcing torture -- and on and on it still goes.

Sleeping awake

Another chilling line in Winter Soldier is from a young soldier who returns from Vietnam and says that for the first time in his life, he feels awake; like he'd been asleep his whole life, which eerily echoes Gore Vidal in Why We Fight saying it's the United States of Amnesia. No memory, and what is history, but memory writ large. But memory is a problem, hence the concentrated and relentless effort that is poured into erasing it. Remove the film, censor, lie, do whatever you have to. But until the bodies get deep enough to block the view of Desperate Housewives on the TV, don't expect too much action from the mainstream population.

The large social forces at work still come down eventually to individual human bodies, carrying out the work of war, and often these bodies are so terribly young, on both sides. It becomes the necessary work of artists, filmmakers, journalists and what Eisenhower called "alert and knowledgeable citizenry" to counteract the business of war, and there are films doing just this. Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo to David Zeiger's Sir! No Sir!, good old Joe Dante (Homecoming) and a veritable army of others, waging tiny skirmishes wherever and however they can. But watching these films forces you, the viewer, to relate to what you are seeing on a personal level. What else do you have control of, except your physical self, even if that self is just a small person sitting in a room alone, wondering what to do, how to be brave, how to tell the truth.

It's curious that documentary filmmakers and a few film critics were the only ones to talk much about Winter Solider 35 years ago. It took courage then, and it takes it now, and that is the final message of both films, that of personal responsibility. A soldier speaking the truth in order to be redeemed is a Catholic notion certainly, but also one that far predates organized religion. Deep in their hearts, almost everyone has an instinct for the good, and it takes a lot to numb and silence its constant tug, like ignoring a child desperately pulling your sleeve.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.  [Tyee]

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