Constant With Me
Some ancient man with silver locks
Will lift his weary face to say:
“War was a fiend who stopped our clocks
Although we met him grim and gay.”
—Siegfried Sassoon, “Song-Books of the War”
I can honestly tell you that there is no other feeling in the world that comes close to hunting another human being.
—Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey
“We want to stop all the collateral damage we can, but, you know, we have to conduct the war,” says Chief Warrant Officer Perry Parks. “II you’re in the wrong house, I’m sorry.” Perry appears in his dress uniform, adorned with medals. His memories of his service as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam war are at once vivid and complicated, shaped by pain, regret, and a fundamental question concerning the need to “conduct the war.”
Perry is one of five men interviewed for The Good Soldier. Contemplating what it means to be a “good soldier,” each is haunted by what he’s seen and done. Each joined the military for his own reasons, though all believed they would fulfill the usual expectations of warriors, that they would fight for freedom and defend their nation. Their experiences abroad changed them, changed their self-images as well as their understandings of the world around them, specifically their trust in structures they once felt committed to preserve.
Opening in New York on Veterans Day (after a portion of it aired on Bill Moyers’ Journal over the weekend), Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys’ documentary presents the soldiers’ stories accompanied by stock footage and the occasional personal snapshot. The familiar format helps to underscore what’s extraordinary about these stories, the fear and indignity felt by Edward Wood, an Army Private wounded in and sent home from France, 1944, as well as the anger and frustration endured by Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey, who served in Baghdad in 2003. Told by a military therapist at the Marines’ Twentynine Palms Mental Health Clinic that he had been classified as a “conscientious objector,” Massey resisted. The new status, he says, obscured his experience, first that he had “killed 30-plus individuals” during his service, and second, that he came to re-conceive the war following an incident that left civilians dead. He felt upset not only at the incident, but also at his CO’s observation that it constituted a “good day.” When he spoke up, even using the word “genocide,” Massey says, “I knew at that point that my career was done, I crossed a line.”
The other veterans in The Good Soldier experience their own versions of such line-crossing, whether by coming up against orders they doubt or undergoing horrors they can’t shake. If they all enter into war knowing that their “bare-bones job is to go out and kill people,” as Perry puts it, they are nonetheless disheartened to see why and how they are required to do this job. WWII vet Wood observes, “My generation really repressed what the war was about, we didn’t want to talk about it.” He worries that being called “the greatest generation” allows a kind of collective amnesia, for soldiers and supporters alike. “We forgot what we had done,” he says, “We forgot that we had been animals for a while.”
Wood, like Massey, sees in war a transformation of young soldiers that is not exceptional, but is instead common. Indeed, the film opens with a quotation from Dwight Eisenhower, asserting that he hates war “as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” Despite conventional celebrations of war as a means to ideals like “independence” or “justice,” it is essentially traumatic. Recognizing this difference may be the most important aspect of Veterans Day, which commemorates survivors of war, as opposed to Memorial Day, which pays tribute to those lost in war. Veterans bring their experiences home. As Army Staff Sergeant Will Williams says, “Vietnam is something that’s constant with me. I think of it every day. It keeps me from sleeping at night.” He served from 1966-‘67, then re-upped from 1969-‘71, disappointed to see protestors at home and deciding that since he was feeling angry enough to “kill somebody,” he should be back in country, where “I could do it legally.”
Though he was an aggressive fighter during the war (“Part of what drove me was revenge” for lost comrades), Williams is now a protestor himself, moved by his increasing awareness of racism in the military and at home during the war (noting especially the race riot at Cam Ranh Bay as turning point), the revelations of the Pentagon Papers, and the run-up to the Iraq war. Speaking at an anti-war rally in Madison, Wisconsin, he recounts, “I joined the military for the same reasons that the young people join now, because it is the poor people, or the people at the lower end of the economic scale, are the ones that fight these wars.”
Amid these many conflicts, the film asserts a fundamental respect for its veterans, because they have endured and fought back. Michael McPhearson, an Army Captain during the Gulf War, believes that even as troops—volunteers or draftees—are expected to “serve the public,” they are also owed something in return. “I’m giving you my body, I’m giving you my mind,” he says. “What I do ask in exchange is you don’t waste my life. So don’t send me somewhere to do anything wrong, don’t have any hidden agendas.”