“A documentary photographer tells history that the man at the typewriter cannot tell, because we’re dealing with emotions, we’re dealing with people dying in front of our face.” A fighter pilot during World War II, Hal Geer went on to work as a producer and editor for Disney and Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes series. He’s remembering his work as a newsreel cameraman during the war for a brief introduction to Seeds of Destiny, a 1946 film produced by the US War Department—which is not to say that Seeds of Destiny is a terrific example of what Geer is saying.
It is to say that documentary comes in many forms, and that these forms have changed over time, and that any “emotions” can be shaped. If this isn’t news, it bears repeating, in part because war documentaries may be especially prone to shape emotions. War, and the films that take it on, are premised on and immersed in politics, no matter how apolitical they purport or want to be.
Just so, the films assembled for Memorial Day on the Documentary Channel exemplify the range and depth of how war documentaries do their work—how they move viewers, tell stories, and make cases. The films look at a range of experiences, from Civil War re-enactors in Battle of Little Sayler’s Creek to the history of the National Guard in For My Country to Vietnam War veterans sharing their memories of their own especially tough battle, in Honor in the Valley. Each of these stories is emotionally complex and morally difficult, nuances the films evoke variously.
Battle of Little Sayler’s Creek offers a series of interviews with re-enactors, dressed in Confederate and Union costumes, describing both the historical figures’ experiences and their own, how they endure physical hardships an imagine psychological ones. Sometimes these difficulties have to do with philosophy (“I have a few times portrayed a Confederate soldier,” notes one player, “And I just didn’t feel comfortable doing it”) and sometimes with some very basic logistics, as when Surgeon Major James Mills explains the rudimentary nature of medicine at the time, the lack of instruments, and yes, the prevalence of amputation: the film doesn’t linger on these disturbing aspects of reenactments, but Mills makes sure you’re aware of the pain endured.
The documentary does include some observations regarding the politics of the war, including both sides of the argument over what the South was fighting for (state’s rights or slavery), a young woman playing a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to fight (“As long as I keep my mouth shut, they cant tell”), a first-time black re-enactor’s self-description (“I think its gonna be fun because I get to ride horses, which is a thing I love to do”) and an admittedly subjective overview offered by Wendy Lee Oliver, the president of the Sayler’s Creek Reenactment and Preservation Committee. The event regularly brings tears to her eyes, she says: “I know how General Lee felt,” she adds, concerning what “we down here in the South call… the war of Northern Aggression.”
As Battle of Little Sayler’s Creek cuts from interviews to battle scenes, it suggests both the participants’ investments and how they might look from another perspective, not exactly skeptical, but not wholly devoted to the war as a cause, either, whether as a fixed history or as a political identity marker. The Documentary Channel’s other offerings are more straightforward, including Tin Can Sailors Will Not Be Forgotten, occasioned in part by a reunion of veterans who served on the USS Morris during the second world war, “The last real war we had,” as one vet puts it, “When everybody cared” (the film notes the ship was decommissioned in 1945 and used for scrap metal two years later).
Filmed by one of the veterans’ sons, Greg Berg, the film features memories of the ship (“It was a beautiful ship,” says one vet, “very streamlined for that time), as well as personal experiences during the rescue missions they typically were assigned. “There were sailors jumping over the side,” goes one story, “I don’t know how many we picked up, but we had ‘em all over the ship.” The film emphasizes the process of remembering, the effort it takes and how it matters, for history in an abstract sense, but also in the sense that it serves a more immediate, ongoing, and communal identity. One 81-year-old former sailor remembers his veteran brother, who died two years ago, and a woman recalls the father she never knew: “It was just before his 22nd birthday when he was killed,” she says, “He was young, so we don’t have much memorabilia.”
While memorabilia surely helps to keep memories intact, it’s not the only means by which these documentaries do their own recovery work. Narrated by General Wesley Clark, Search for the Flyboys: Ghosts of Palau tracks the efforts to find the remains of Jim Nelson’s father, a fighter pilot shot down during WWII. A team headed by anthropologist Bill Belcher goes to Palau, with just 30 days allotted for their work. As the film points out, this work is difficult and painstaking (searchers sift through dirt one bucket at a time, divers find what seems to be the plane, with no trace of a body, some 70 years later). Clark also notes that in the decades since the war, it’s become clear that prisoners—those men like shot down like Nelson’s father—were often tortured and beheaded; the film reveals as well that Japanese soldier, living in island caves for months on end, sometimes took to cannibalism. If it’s impossible to know what happened to Nelson, the film maintains the significance of the search, the endeavor to remember, to provide families with “closure,” but perhaps more importantly to keep alive the stories of war, both horrific and valiant.
In this, Search for the Flyboys is like other war documentaries that remember in order to caution against war. Honor in the Valley includes interviews with marines trained by Medal of Honor winner First Sergeant David H McNerney, concerning their time with Army’s A-Company 1/8 4th Infantry Division, in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967. Filmed during a reunion in 2007, the documentary features discussion of the recurring difficulties of the jungle terrain and weather, as well as an event the soldiers haven’t discussed with others before, the film serves as both commemoration and caution. Medals can be deserved, but war always exceeds such symbols.
Body of War uses the experience of Iraq war veteran Tomas Young, returned from battle in a wheelchair and now (in 2008) campaigning against the war, to make a similar point. As the film’s emotional focus, Young also provides a striking visual. Introduced as he pulls on his pants in his bedroom, Young tells a familiar story concerning his decision to enlist. “When I made the phone call on September 13,” he says, “It was because I saw the pictures of [George Bush] standing on top of the pile, saying we were gonna smoke these evildoers out that did this to us, and we were gonna find ‘em in their caves.”
Operation Homecoming provides an unusual set of images for veterans’ memories, illustrating a series of poems and books with photos, reenactment, and in the case of Colby Buzzell’s “Men in Black,” a series of graphic-novelish animations. “I observed a man,” he writes, “dressed in all black with a terrorist beard, jump out all of the sudden from the side of a building. He pointed his AK47 barrel right at my fucking pupils.” After a shootout, the young protagonist finds himself “smoking like a chimney, one right after another,” contemplating the incredible fact of his own survival. “People just don’t get it,” says Buzzell in interview, “What do you say to someone who hasn’t been there?”
This is the soldiers’ dilemma, how to tell their stories, to make clear the awfulness of war, and yet make sense of it somehow as well. Their experiences are like and unlike that of other wars’ veterans (as Joe Haldeman notes, “None of them was drafted,” but still, the situation is what it is: “It’s about killing the enemy: get ‘em hard and get ‘em fast and then go home”). While Jack Lewis examines the racism that sustains differentiation and fear (“There’s a lot of hajii this and hajii that”), Sangjoon Han says he wants, in his writing, to “try to humanize the decisions of the soldiers.”
This is a far cry from the work of Seeds of Destiny, the 1946 propaganda film that focuses on the havoc wreaked during the war on children, in particular. Rather than considering specific perpetrators, those who fought bravely or reluctantly or under duress, the film suggests that wartime devastation only creates more problems—whether as victims or as monsters produced by their own experiences of brutality and pain. Left to “roam like wolf packs, begging and stealing,” the children appear in harrowing footage, their eyes wide and their faces gaunt. Will they be new Einsteins or new Hitlers, the film asks, offering a powerful indictment of war as a concept and practice, underlining the cycles perpetuated. War photographers may be “dealing with people dying in front of our face,” as Geer says, but anyone who experiences war must struggle to make sense of it.