A sobering reminder that war is more than smartly-dressed politicians exchanging barbs about what’s best for America, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience powerfully encapsulates the horrors and tribulations that our brave soldiers go through every day overseas, while refusing to focus on what we tend to concentrate our daily energies on; the question of whether we should be there at all. Rather, Operation Homecoming—centered on a series of writings by soldiers who have participated in the Iraq and Afghanistan war, as gathered by the National Endowment for the Arts—profoundly explores the human side of war and its numerous lingering effects on its active participants. Various poems and letters by current troops in Iraq (and Vietnam veterans) are accompanied by visual collages that emphasize the stories’ cores. From animated stills to archive footage, many of the sequences stretch traditional documentary format without resorting to hokum. The narratives are read by the writers themselves, who may not physically be on the battlefield anymore but whose minds fight torturous wars every day. Wracked with having made impossible decisions again and again (inevitably, many of them turned out to be the wrong ones), these men and women may never again sleep as soundly as they did before setting out to serve their country.
Operation Homecoming takes no sides, and certainly isn’t a film about politics: indeed, it offers a fresh perspective on the soldiers and their mindsets. All we, the everyday folk, really know about Iraq is what our newspapers tell us, what CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News report daily. Sound bites and quotes from platoon leaders, or battalions bellowing, “Hi Mom!” on Thanksgiving is the closest we get to their hearts and minds. Sentimental patriotism pervades documentaries and feature war pictures; even great films like The Bridge on the River Kwai all builds up one monumental, tide-turning event. Operation Homecoming dares to delve into the fear, torment—and surprisingly mundane day-to-day routines—that make up the lives of Sergeants, Captains, and Colonels alike. Certainly, every soldier has a different agenda for being there, but I suspect that Operation Homecoming captures a universal emotion extremely accurately: no matter why they’re fighting or what they think of the cause, they won’t let their fellow soldiers down by not giving it their all. The humanity and indescribable difficulties of these brave souls is beautifully depicted in their writing. Seeing the war through a different set of eyes, I found myself not caring about Republicans and Democrats for the first time in a long while. It’s ironic that it took so long to make their view the priority, rather than our own political preferences and views about the purposes of the war’s existence. I may never support George W. Bush and his various agendas, but I’m no less thankful that Operation Homecoming has provided me with a touching portal into a world that I, as a passive observer, can’t begin to comprehend.