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April 4, 2007

Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience

In "The Storyteller," Walter Benjamin observed that soldiers returning from the First World War returned from the war "not richer, but poorer in communicable experience." In the essay, Benjamin illustrates the challenges of putting the experiences of mechanical warfare into narrative form. This difficulty of communicating the experience of war has provided a challenge for writers and filmmakers who have attempted to describe soldiers' experiences, as we saw in a number of Iraq War documentaries, including Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland, as well as the fictional adaptation of Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoir, Jarhead, but as the Iraq War continues to unfold, we are again faced with the challenges of putting the events of the war into narrative form.

In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts created the "Operation Homecoming" program to help soldiers write about their experiences during the war. The program, which featured a range of writers including Tom Clancy, Mark Bowden, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Tobias Wolff, inspired an anthology of journal entries, short stories, poems, and other writings, and now some of these writings have been compiled in the documentary film, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (IMDB), which is set to air on PBS stations on April 16, as part of their "America at a Crossroads" series.

Operation Homecoming, directed by Richard E. Robbins, takes on the challenge of putting the soldiers' stories into visual form. The film mixes dramatic readings of the soldiers' writings by actors including Aaron Eckhart, Blair Underwood, and Beau Bridges with interviews with the soldiers and other writers, including Tim O'Brien, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Tobias Wolff. In all cases, the soldiers' stories return to the question of using narrative to make sense of their experiences, and the value of this documentary is, in part, its illustration of the varied approaches the soldiers take in trying to represent their wartime experiences. These stories are represented visually through a variety of techniques, including a memorable animated sequence recalling the blocky images seen in graphic novels to illustrate Colby Buzzell's story, "Men in Black," as well as a variety of visual styles designed to distinguish each individual story.

The segments touch on a variety of aspects of the war experience. In "Medevac Missions," Ed Hrivnak describes the experience of attending to wounded soldiers and speculates about how the soldiers will cope after they return home from the war in language that recalled, probably unintentionally, the Walter Reed scandal and the very problems with the medical treatment soldiers have received. Edward Gyokeres' "Camp Muckamungus" uses dark humor to capture some aspects of the absurdity of war, creating what he calls "a primer for desert life." And Jack Lewis's "Roadwork" describes the experience of identifying with an Iraqi man who had lost his son.

The film typically avoids taking an explicit political position on the war, and as a critic of the decision to go to war in Iraq, I sometimes wanted a documentary that took a more explicit anti-war position. And as someone who has written quite a bit about grunts' eye documentaries, I also wonder whether these documentaries romanticize the war, but I think that Homecoming underplays that impulse to some extent. As Robbins observes in an interview, "we wanted to talk about the human side, the personal, the experiential." Of course, it's impossible to completely avoid "politics" when it comes to representations of war, but my sense is that the film's relationship to the war is an ambivalent one. As Buzzell observes in "Men in Black," one of the goals of such a project is not to take a position on the war but to continue writing and, therefore, continue living.

Update: Just came across a blog promoting Buzzell's book, My War, which I'd love to read at some point in the future.

Update 2: Also worth checking out: this Janice Page Boston Globe review of Operation Homecoming. I think she's right to emphasize the fact that the film is about the writer's ability to be a "witness."

Posted by chuck at April 4, 2007 7:23 PM

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Chuck, Like you, I was hoping for a more political, anti-war position to erupt from Operation Homecoming (this would seem like a natural progression). After watching, however, it seems like it was Robbins intention to keep it separate from those “grunt’s eye-view” docs you mentioned. Being detached from the political realities of the war allows the film to focus on the personal, emotional realities of these soldiers. I agree that Robbins’ main intention was not to romanticize the war, but in many ways I feel there’s no way not to do that with these soldiers, now writers, given Homecoming’s source material and the inclusion of respected war writers such as Tim O’Brien and James Salter, not to mention the quotes from Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence. Although the film often argues that these soldiers are “regular people,” they are presented as so much more. I think the culminating message of the book and film is that the experience of war, any war, is larger than anything words or images can ever capture. At any rate, I found the various visual narrative techniques for each soldier’s story to be compelling, and I’m definitely adding OH and Buzzell’s My War to my reading list.

Posted by: filmsnob at April 17, 2007 10:22 PM

The distinction between "grunts-eye" docs and Op Home is a useful one, I think, and my comments probably blur that line a little. Still not sure how to address the question of romanticizing war. Several of the segments in this film certainly do that, but the idea that war transcends representation also seems ideologically problematic to me. Buzzell's book is on my reading list, but I have no idea when, or if, I'll have time to make any kind of dent in my pleasure reading list.

Posted by: Chuck at April 18, 2007 10:17 AM

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