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The Truths of War
The War Tapes • Commitment And Sacrifice
BY RICHARD CURREY

A new documentary film, The War Tapes, premiered in late April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Word of mouth from the military and veterans’ communities, as well as glowing reviews, led to a surprise for festival organizers: Tickets were in very short supply by the day of the premiere. As the lights went down in the 900-seat Tribeca Performance Space, there was standing room only.

Yet it was not so long ago, according to The War Tapes director Deborah Scranton, that nobody much wanted to finance a documentary about a National Guard unit in Iraq. She and her production partners initially drew only lukewarm reactions. More than one potential backer suggested that we have been, and continue to be, inundated by news and images of the war in Iraq, and a film treatment would be unlikely to find an audience.

This sentiment will strike a chord among Vietnam veterans who recall how the distinctive imagery of the Vietnam War was engraved on the consciousness of virtually every American, yet Vietnam stories in film and print were rejected by publishers and film producers for years after the war. The reasons were similar to those heard by Scranton: Americans were exhausted by the war, we had seen all we could bear, there were no new stories to tell.

One of the people who recorded some of that quintessential imagery of the Vietnam War is former CBS combat photographer Norman Lloyd. As the nation allegedly wearied of the Vietnam War, Lloyd’s stunning footage from his time with an infantry platoon in Cambodia disappeared into the vaults of CBS. Some of it was destroyed; some remains unaccounted for. But like Deborah Scranton, he knew that an important story still needed to be told, which led to his campaign to recover his own film and use it in creating the documentary film Commitment and Sacrifice. Lloyd’s film joins The War Tapes in offering powerful reminders of the moral predicament of the warriors who fight, and the ordeal of families and loved ones living with the mix of pride and anxiety that marks their burden.

Commitment and Sacrifice is still in post-production and has not yet been released. The War Tapes is in contention for several more major film festivals before it reaches hometown movie theatres, television screens, or DVD rental. Readers can watch Marc Leepson’s “Arts of War” column in these pages for ongoing news about both films. But know this: Both are must-see films for the veterans community.

BRAVO 5/7: VIETNAM & IRAQ

Commitment and Sacrifice follows the 1st Platoon from Bravo Co., 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, on a punishing combat operation in Cambodia in the spring of 1970. After a reunion of those soldiers in 2004, we return to the same unit (reactivated 30 years later for service in the Middle East) on the ground in Iraq with another set of young men, the newest members of Bravo 5/7, facing similar doubts and challenges to their older counterparts.

Meanwhile, The War Tapes tracks Charlie Company, 3/172 Infantry (MOUNTAIN) Regiment of the New Hampshire National Guard on harrowing convoy security missions in the Sunni Triangle. We follow the unit before, during, and after its tour, and also join family members and loved ones at home while their men are in Iraq.

While Commitment and Sacrifice hinges on the recovered Vietnam War combat photography of Norman Lloyd as well as Lloyd’s more recent filming in Iraq, The War Tapes uses another technique. Director Scranton received permission for several soldiers to serve as the actual filmmakers. They would carry the cameras (on their vests or helmets or mounted on weapons or in their Humvees) and film their days and nights, recording the world and events around them. As they did so, Scranton and her crew filmed the soldiers’ families and loved ones at home: a mother, a wife, and a girlfriend.

Norman Lloyd said he was “only a little older than the soldiers he hooked up with” when he rappelled out of a chopper hovering above the jungle floor in Cambodia on May 17, 1970. “Those were the days when you lugged a big camera and shot actual film,’’ he said. No video, nothing digital. Combat photographers were all a lot more careful back then, more conservative about how much film we exposed.”

Lloyd was a rookie cameraman when he arrived in Cambodia, and he assumed that if he wanted to get good shots of “the action,” he needed to be up front, not too far behind the point. “We walked into an ambush, and I hit the ground. There was dirt flying and tree limbs falling and deafening noise. It was chaos. Terrifying chaos. I kept trying to get up, to get my camera in position, but the firefight was so intense, it was impossible. I began to understand what these guys were experiencing what they were going through.”

A key event in Commitment and Sacrifice is the taking of Shakey’s Hill (named for a much-loved soldier nicknamed “Shakey,” who was killed in the initial assault on the hill). Lloyd’s camera seems to be afloat, swept along by the 1st Platoon as it made its way up the slope, taking and inflicting casualties in a running firefight, culminating in a final push to overrun a machine gun emplacement at the summit.

Lloyd intercuts his original combat footage with contemporary interviews, as surviving members of the 1st Platoon tell the story. As they relate the story of the battle, Lloyd cuts back to his 1970 footage, and we see them again, 34 years ago, exhausted, mud-smeared, and determined. The effect is powerful and poignant.

Commitment and Sacrifice follows Bravo Company to the end of its Vietnam tour. The men of the 1st Platoon scattered, not seeing each other again until a 2004 reunion at the Texas ranch of one of the platoon members. Lloyd and his camera were there, and it was, as such events are, tinged by a sense of remembrance and quiet sadness and the joy seen among men who together shared the most intense experience of their lives.

And precisely where a more standard Vietnam War story might end, Norman Lloyd takes the story of Bravo Company forward, through its reactivation and into Iraq.

Soldiers With Video Cameras

There was nothing initially easy, Deborah Scranton said, about “convincing the powers that be in the New Hampshire National Guard to let me put video cameras in the hands of soldiers. The key throughout has been mutual trust.”

With a green light from the unit public affairs officer, Scranton credits trust-building for establishing the necessary rapport that ultimately helped create the extraordinary documentary storytelling we see in The War Tapes. “The guys pelted me with questions at first,” she said. “What were my politics? Would I twist their words? I promised these guys that we would tell their story, no matter where it took us. And that’s what we did.”

Several volunteers were interested in participating, and Scranton finally settled on five men to serve as the movie’s “soldiers with cameras.” Each man was issued a Sony video camera and a stack of blank tapes. She communicated with each through a combination of e-mail, instant messaging, downloaded clips, and the actual footage itself, sent back at regular intervals from Iraq. Eventually there would be 800 hours of raw footage.

The War Tapes chronicles harsh realities. This is combat dictated by insurgents firing from the cover of roadside houses, of the randomness of IEDs and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). This is, like Vietnam, a war without front lines or an easily identified enemy, and none of the soldier-cameramen avert their lenses no matter the moment or its horror.

Strangely, however, one of the most powerful moments in the film is not chasing down insurgents or images of charred corpses after an IED attack. It is instead a few moments with soldier-cameraman Specialist Michael Moriarty as he walks, alone, through a backlot filled with the wreckage of vehicles exploded by IEDs and RPGs. As Moriarty trains his camera on the twisted frames and burned-out hulks, he wonders who lost their lives in these catastrophes. “Somebody’s husband,” he muses quietly. “Somebody’s brother, somebody’s son.” It is a potent and lyrical image of the costs of war.

“I stayed out of Iraq precisely because I wanted this story to be uncluttered by me,” Scranton said. “I didn’t want my ideas intruding. If I were in-theatre, I’d be the ‘director,’ shaping the story, even if unconsciously. What I wanted and what I think we’ve achieved is for me to get out of the way and let the soldiers be the storytellers, let the movie be an expression of their energies, their feelings, their truths not mine.”

Early reviews of The War Tapes agree that Scranton and her soldier-collaborators achieved their goal. Writing in the New York Times, film critic Stephen Holden praised The War Tapes as offering “a stronger taste of the Iraq war experience than any film I can remember… it is fascinating to observe how a prevailing cynicism about the war doesn’t undercut the deeply felt patriotism of these men… Once encountered, you will never forget these [soldiers] or their loved ones. They are the bedrock of who we are as a nation.”

That bedrock quality is apparent in Norman Lloyd’s film as well, certainly among the veterans of Bravo Company who, in a kind of unintended symmetry of tradition, symbolically hand off responsibility to the men who serve in the same unit, 35 years later, in another war, in another part of the world.

The screening of The War Tapes incited some volatile exchanges between audience members, and between audience members and words spoken on-screen. It struck me that, no less than in the Vietnam years, we are a passionate people, sometimes passionately divided by our beliefs, always intense in our feelings about what constitutes the right thing to do about perceived or actual threats to our national security. But Michael Moriarty, on stage for a post-screening Q&A, took the mike and spoke powerfully to the notion of division. “You look at the guys standing up here,” he said. “We served together. We might not always share the same political opinions, but let there be no doubt about this: We are brothers. We would do anything for each other.”

This same quality of a potent kinship forged by service also hovers in the words of the veterans of Bravo Company in Commitment and Sacrifice. It is the arc of tradition that links these two movies, deepens the impact of each, and makes each so important for veterans and for all concerned Americans. Our warriors, now and throughout our history, have been windows on the crucial events of our times, and they also carry the spirit of those times, sometimes in ways they don’t understand. They might be conflicted or confused by the events they witness or participate in. They may be marked by grief and the entity we now know as PTSD, yet they are buoyed by common purpose and lasting friendship, fueled by integrity and loyalty.

This is the real story told in The War Tapes and Commitment and Sacrifice. Both films eloquently remind us that if we are to have any hope of understanding ourselves and our history we can never stop listening to the stories of soldiers and their families, the stories hidden behind the news reports and dispatches and official statements, under the details of troop strength and deployments and the order of battle. Both these remarkable films speak of the deepest truths of war, commitment, love, and loyalty for two conflicts that indelibly mark two generations, using two different filmmaking techniques representative of the technical potentials of two eras. Yet these films achieve an accuracy and integrity that is as hard-won as it is essential, and brings home insights and understandings that we, as a nation, continue to need.

“If my film can help and heal, for even one veteran, nothing would please me more,” Norman Lloyd said. “The key is connection, which brings hope and possibility. If my work serves this goal in any way, then I’ve succeeded.”

“We leave our warriors isolated far too often,” said Deborah Scranton. “It’s time to change that, to bridge the gap. We must have compassion for our warriors. They did the job we asked of them. Perhaps, through empathy, we can learn to do a better job with the healing.

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