“If you’re far enough away, it’s still not quite like shooting people.”
That’s what it was like shooting people in Vietnam, according to a helicopter pilot for the army. Perry Parks and four other soldiers go in front of the cameras of Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys and talk about life and death.
Helplessness and Shame
Denver Film Festival (32)
Parks is crisply dressed in his olive uniform with polished brass. He’s got a long face, a thin body, and a straight-laced demeanor. When we see him later flying his own helicopter he’s tidily dressed in a button-up oxford. We also see him at church with a men’s group. So it’s pretty surprising to hear him talk about shooting people. It’s almost as surprising to hear him casually mention years of “severe drug abuse,” divorce, and drifting across the country with long hair, given his current stable-seeming persona.
Parks speaks eloquently about the sense of helplessness when being fired at. Flying a chopper requires both hands, and when bullets come toward you, you have to fight your instinct to throw your hands over your face, to remain calm and hope for the best.
Ed Wood served in WWII; he speaks of arriving in France for his first battle. He was a replacement troop, which is the worst thing you can be because the troops already there resent you and feel no camaraderie toward you. He was thrown into the air by a shell and somewhere in there caught a piece of shrapnel in his head. He was sent to a hospital where they operated on his head without morphine. He was sent home, where his father was ashamed that he had “only” lasted a few days.
Anger and Injustice
Will Williams served in Vietnam, and he tells some amazing stories about his own anger and hatred. He says he enjoyed the killing. He finished his tour and came back home, but signed up for a second tour because thought he’d probably end up killing a war protester if he stayed home, and he didn’t want that. He preferred to be where it was okay for him to kill his enemies. Williams is a peaceful man now, but that peace was a long time coming, and it’s still disturbed by his violent and angry youth.
Jimmy Massey is the most recent veteran. He served in Iraq. He tells of a vehicle that stopped at a checkpoint where it was supposed to, but some American soldier started firing. Three civilians were shot. Massey tried to get help for them but his fellow Americans stopped him, saying there’s nothing we can do. While the Americans watched a man die, the civilian’s brother wailed at the soldiers to help. It occurred to Massey — particularly after not finding any weapons on the body — that they were killing innocent civilians and nobody was taking responsibility, and that’s not okay.
Massey was eventually discharged from the army, at his own request. But at first the army psychologists wanted to call him a “conscientious ob
Michael McPhearson served in Gulf War I, and he has some of the most insight into what it means to be a soldier. He saw friends give in to the thrill of war; he saw them kill enemy troops that were trying to surrender. When he expressed disbelief, he found himself in a scary minority.
He came to the realization that his government was asking him to kill another human being. And although he was willing to enter into that contract, he looked closely at the bargain and found a double standard. If a soldier kills someone when he shouldn’t, even if he’s “just following orders,” he can be court martialed for following an immoral order. But at the same time — more importantly, at the time of the order — he is told that he really don’t have a say in the matter; that he must follow the chain of command.
McPhearson realized it’s the military’s way of covering its ass and pushing the blame down the chain of command. He realized that he was going to have to take responsibility for his own actions — more importantly that he was going to have to live with his own actions. He left the military soon thereafter. His son has since joined up, and McPhearson made sure his son understood and accepted the agreement that he was making with the military.
The Good Soldier would have been a decent documentary if it had only included footage of the interviews. But Uys and Lovell spice it up with pictures and footage from the wars that these men served in.
When I see a movie that includes footage of long-past wars, I assume that the footage is illustrative and not literal, but in the case of The Good Soldier, I’m not so sure. The soldiers have all aged and the medium is low-fidelity, but it’s possible that Uys and Lovell found real footage from the day (or maybe the tours) that these men recall. If so, color me impressed.
At the risk of sounding callous, I have to say that my unfairness detector started to go off toward the end of the film. The Good Soldier has a very pro-peace slant. There are Americans who are hawkish who would say there is no nobler purpose than serving your country (by joining the military). There are soldiers who would say that a willingness to kill — without asking questions — is the key part of that noble job. If that’s you, you may not want to watch this documentary (although come back in 15 years and see if you still feel that way).
Eyes Wide Open
Killing another human being is thrilling. It’s horrifying. There’s no undoing it. That’s what these soldiers have to tell us.
Doing it for your government, with all the protections of training and chain of command doesn’t remove fact that you are now a person who has killed another person, and that you, personally, have to live with it.
Uys and Lovell’s film shows us that these are some of the psychic costs of war that an individual soldier might pay. Anyone wanting to join the military would do well to know them before signing up.