Going to War. PBS. Monday, May 28, 9 p.m.
Served Like a Girl. PBS. Monday, May 28, 10 p.m.
So, an easy solution to the problem of Adderall abuse: It’s called “Afghanistan.”
“I think it’s hilarious that in America now, we have this big thing about medications and being present and all this other kind of stuff,” says a military veteran in PBS’ Going to War. “Because you’re never more present than you are in wars. Soldiers have figured this out eons ago. You have to be present to get shot at. I guarantee you are locked in.”
Going to War, produced by veteran documentarian Michael Epstein (LennoNYC) and spearheaded by commentary from war correspondent Sebastian Junger (Restrepo) and Vietnam veteran and author Karl Marlantes (What It Is Like to Go to War), is a collection of interviews with vets of U.S. wars over the past 60 years, plumbing their feelings about what to many was the most significant experience of their lives.
PBS has packaged it on Memorial Day with the peculiar but ultimately endearing tale of women back from the front, Served Like a Girl, the first directorial effort by filmmaker Lysa Heslov, airing as an episode of the Independent Lens series.
The relationship between soldiers and war is never as simple as outsiders make it out to be. Some certainly hate it. But others find a human resonance in war that otherwise eludes them: A sense of purpose, of brotherhood and even, paradoxically, of security. One vet interviewed in Going to War recalls that he felt safer in Vietnam, where “you know somebody’s got your back. In the world, it’s dog eat dog.”
That is, arguably, not a typical human response. But one of the most interesting things about the documentary is the frank admission of the soldiers—both male and female—is that they aren’t typically human, or at least weren’t when they were in the military. Going to war would be impossible, they say, if the military didn’t strip them of ordinary human sensibilities and rebuild them as a hive mind.
The whole point of basic training is aimed at obliterating any sense of individuality. “The ego, it has to go,” says one vet. When that’s accomplished, drill instructors begin levying collective punishments: If one soldier’s bunk isn’t made right, his whole unit has to do punishment marches. By the end, the vets say note approvingly, all notions of personal survivability have been erased. “The moment you have self-preserving thoughts,” says one, “everything’s going to hell.”
The near universality of the experience emerges in a segment of Going to War in which vets from different units, wars and decades are all asked the same questions and their answers edited together in a stream-of-conciousness rap. First thought upon entering a war zone: “What the hell am I doing?” Second: “What’s wrong with those guys I’m replacing?” says one. “Zoned-out zombies, a mean hard look on their face.” The third, at the sound of the first bullets: “My God, we’re being shot at.”
Within the common framework, of course, the soldiers have individual stories. One of the most chilling comes from Al Grantham, who quit his bricklaying job in Alabama to join the Marines and fight in Vietnam. Knocked senseless by a North Vietnamese bullet during the battle of Hue, he was loaded onto a stack of casualties on the back of a tank and hauled outside the city. It wasn’t until he heard a medic shout, “Hey, this one’s not dead yet”—Grantham’s first thought was, “that poor sumbitch must be hurt bad”—that he realized the rest of the passengers on the tank were corpses and the poor sumbitch was him.
Yet the thinness and easy erasability of the line between life and death were not, for many of the vets, the most frightening discovery. It was the realization that they were, in some fundamental way, broken. “You’re tired of being tired, you’re scared of being scared,” remembers one.
And a former Marine describes with agonizing calm a day in Iraq when six car-bombs exploded in 15 minutes around his unit’s urban position. When the explosions finally stopped, all that could be heard were the shrills of Iraqi women cradling their dead. The Marine officer, trying to count his men and plot his next move, could barely hear himself think. “Maybe,“ he wondered idly, “I could kill them to shut them up.” His next shocked thought: “What am I capable of? … My God-given conscience is not going to stop me from doing these things.”
Served Like a Girl, in the early going, seems almost whimsical by comparison. It follows the contestants in the Ms. Veteran America beauty pageant, which raises money to support homeless vets.
They seem, mostly, an ordinary collection of female twentysomethings with only the occasional crackpot loose end—notably the contestant whose mother’s nipple was pecked off by a chicken. (“He had my nipple and I had his butt,” she declares without rancor.) Backstage at the pageant, much of their conversation consists of which self-administered sex toys best stand up to the rigors of desert warfare.
But as the film continues, the scars left by their combat tours start to be revealed: Broken marriages and child-custody fights. Macabre nightmares. Crippling guilt that they walked away from an IED explosion and their companions didn’t. Not all the scars are emotional. It’s not until about a third of the way through Served Like a Girl that you realized that one principal character is missing her legs. The Miss America pageant will never look quite the same to me again.