On the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, the longest war in US history, I went to a screening of the new documentary "Where Soldiers Come From" at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Hollywood. The filmmaker, Heather Courtney, trained her lens on three young men from her hometown in Michigan's Upper Peninsula over a period of four years from when they decided to enter the National Guard through their nine month deployment in Afghanistan to their return home and the adjustments they faced.
Dom, a budding artist, Cole and Bodi, who have been friends since childhood, decided to join the National Guard primarily for the money, and because it would only require one weekend a month for training. Throughout the film, we get to know the families of two of the soldiers and the girlfriend of one. The film dispels one of the stereotypes I had held about the families of whose kids go off to war - that they are totally supportive of the mission and the president who send their sons off to fight.
Cole's sister says she is "pissed" that they joined. She refers to Bush as the "dumb ass in office." Cole's mother, who only started voting recently because of her husband, said she "has to vote" for Obama because, as her husband states, "We've got a better chance of the war ending if Obama wins." However, it is Dom's father who foreshadows what transpires in the film when he predicts, "You will never be the same once you go over there."
We see the boys go through training, where they are given a cursory description of the Afghan culture and government. The trainer isn't even sure if the president, whose name he mispronounces as "Kar-zee-uh," is still the president. A trainee confirms that he still is. The boys learn about IED interrogation, the job that will occupy pretty much all of their time while at war. As they get closer to being shipped off, Cole remarks poignantly that coming from a "tight knit community," they know that they can "count on each other" and that "they are not scared knowing that their friends will be there." As I watched the director pan over the faces of the soldiers packed on the transport plane going over there, I was saddened to note that so many of them were still pimple faced kids.
I don't want to reveal any more of what happens in the film, because I want everyone to go and see what the boys encounter during their nine month deployment, how their service affects their families and how they fare upon their return home. But I do want to point out something that I found especially moving, and that is Dom's incredibly mature understanding of how war and occupation can turn otherwise neutral civilians into antagonists. In one instance, where they are working a village checking for IEDs, he remarks, "If someone invaded my country and I wanted to go, and they wanted me to stop, I'd be pissed. If they pointed a gun at me, I'd stop. And then I'd plant an IED."
Later in film, after they find an IED and send the landowner off to jail, he muses on the moral ambiguity of this. One the one hand, he feels for the landowner who was just doing what he was paid to do and now he and his family are detrimentally affected. But on the other hand, the soldiers have just saved people from being killed by that IED. Dom asks, "What if people asked you to point a gun in the road and kill someone, or else I'll kill your family tomorrow?" At one point in the film, in a letter to his art teacher who really taught him the value of compassion, he questions, "What is the point of this? Why am I fighting?" Later in the film, Cole answers by saying, "I just do what I'm told. It's way too complicated." You get a sense that the important questions are asked but are never really answered by the soldiers.
Based on what happens to them in Afghanistan and then upon their return home, I walked away from the film thinking that surely the filmmaker and the subjects know they have clearly made an anti-war film. But I was wrong. In the Q&A session after the screening, I asked Dom now that he "knows the war is senseless," if he wanted to send a message to young people to "not sign up, not feed the war machine," he said absolutely not. He just wanted people to know that it was important to "involve their whole family in the decision, because everyone would be affected." He surprised me by saying that even after he saw this film, his own brother still wanted to go. And the director echoed his remarks. She said she "was making a film about friends from her hometown, and people can take from it what they want" Personally I don't see how anyone can walk away from this film and not be against this war or war in general.
One can listen to anti-war activists and speeches all day long. But nothing is more effective than drawing your own conclusions from the actual stories of these apolitical soldiers who, whether for money, a fully paid education, adventure and/or camaraderie, go to fight and then die, lose limbs or return with chronic, non-treatable illnesses. To me that is why "Where Soldiers Come From" is so powerful and why after ten years, young Americans must say enough is enough. If the government refuses to bring our troops home, we simply won't sign up.
"Where Soldiers Come From" will be playing at the Laemmle Sunset 5 through Thursday. Every night after the 7:40 pm showing, there will be a Q&A session.
- Tonight, Saturday, the filmmaker Heather Courtney and Dom, one of the subjects in the film will be there.
- Sunday: a representative from Blue Star Moms.
- Monday: representatives from Veterans First and March Forward.
- Tuesday: The Soldier's Project and Fisher House.
- Wednesday: a rep from Claremont College and Veterans First.
- Thursday: the Director of Behavioral Health from The Gary Center, a therapist and mother of Afghan vet and the Veterans Coordinator and Certifying Official from Cypress College