For most of us, the war in Afghanistan is nothing more than an abstraction. It isn't our sons and daughters who are doing the fighting and dying and we don't have to sacrifice in order to pay for this war. It's no surprise, then, that we know little, if anything, about what the war means for the men and women serving in Afghanistan, and to their readjustment at home.
I'm as haunted by this reality today as I was 40 years ago when I returned, relatively unscathed, from the war in Vietnam and began to help my fellow Vietnam veterans who weren't as fortunate. The sad truth is that we still haven't brought thousands of those Vietnam veterans home.
Now, 40 years later, a new generation of U. S. soldiers, some of them the sons and daughters of my fellow Vietnam vets, are struggling with their own physical and psychological scars. And how much do we know about their struggles and how much do we care? We pay lip service to their sacrifice and talk a good game, but do we open our hearts and our ears to them? Do we even know what they're going through?
Fortunately for this generation of veterans, there's a host of gifted and talented filmmakers, documentarians mainly, who have dedicated themselves to telling these important stories. And now, the work of three of them -- director/producer Danfung Dennis and producers Mike Lerner and Martin Herring -- has created an extraordinary film, Hell and Back Again, which has been nominated for the Best Feature Documentary at this Sunday's Academy Awards.
As with my own war in Vietnam, one that Hollywood and most of the film industry avoided for far too long, Hell and Back Again poses provocative questions: What does it mean to lead men in war? What does it mean to come home -- injured -- and build a life anew? The answers are painful, but they need to heard.
In Hell and Back Again two overlapping narratives are intercut -- the life of a Marine at war on the front, and the life of the same Marine in recovery at home -- creating both a dreamlike quality and a strikingly realistic depiction of how Marines experience the war in Afghanistan.
The story follows the U.S. Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, as they launch a major assault on a Taliban stronghold in Southern Afghanistan. Within hours of being dropped deep behind enemy lines, Sergeant Nathan Harris's unit is attacked from all sides. Cut off and surrounded, the Marines fight a ghostlike enemy and experience immense hostility from displaced villagers. Frustration grows on both sides, as any common ground, or success, seems elusive.
The parallel story begins with Sergeant Harris's return home to his wife in the U.S., after he is severely injured. He's in terrible physical pain and becomes addicted to his pain medication. But his psychological pain may be worse, as he attempts to reconcile the immense gulf between his experiences at war, and the terrifying normalcy of life at home. These two stories intertwine to communicate both the extraordinary drama of war and the no less shocking experience of returning home, as a whole generation of soldiers struggles to find an identity in a country that prefers to be indifferent.
As I know from my own Vietnam experience, and from a course I teach on the war at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that visual imagery is a powerful medium for truth. The images of a burning Buddhist monk, of the street execution of a Vietcong prisoner, of napalmed girls screaming as they try to escape a bombing, have as much impact on my students and their understanding of the horror of the Vietnam war as anything I can tell them.
Through Hell and Back Again, Dennis, Lerner and Herring are trying to revive that tradition, believing, as many of us Vietnam veterans did, that shared experiences will ultimately help. In the process, they are hoping to shake people from their indifference to war, to this war, and to bridge the disconnect between the realities on the ground and the public consciousness at home.
I would love for Hell and Back Again to win the Oscar this Sunday. But, more importantly, I'd like it if every American would see this film, bridge the disconnect and build a common humanity. And then go out and do something to heal the wounds of veterans like Nathan Harris.