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PBS Lets Vets Themselves Describe Life Inside the War Machine

Documentaries for Memorial Day focus on the troops’ experiences.

'Going to War''Going to War,' PBSGoing to War. PBS. Monday, May 28, 9 p.m.

Served Like a Girl. PBS. Monday, May 28, 10 p.m.

So, an easy solution to the problem of Adderall abuse: It's called "Afghanistan."

"I think it's hilarious that in America now, we have this big thing about medications and being present and all this other kind of stuff," says a military veteran in PBS' Going to War. "Because you're never more present than you are in wars. Soldiers have figured this out eons ago. You have to be present to get shot at. I guarantee you are locked in."

Going to War, produced by veteran documentarian Michael Epstein (LennoNYC) and spearheaded by commentary from war correspondent Sebastian Junger (Restrepo) and Vietnam veteran and author Karl Marlantes (What It Is Like to Go to War), is a collection of interviews with vets of U.S. wars over the past 60 years, plumbing their feelings about what to many was the most significant experience of their lives.

PBS has packaged it on Memorial Day with the peculiar but ultimately endearing tale of women back from the front, Served Like a Girl, the first directorial effort by filmmaker Lysa Heslov, airing as an episode of the Independent Lens series.

The relationship between soldiers and war is never as simple as outsiders make it out to be. Some certainly hate it. But others find a human resonance in war that otherwise eludes them: A sense of purpose, of brotherhood and even, paradoxically, of security. One vet interviewed in Going to War recalls that he felt safer in Vietnam, where "you know somebody's got your back. In the world, it's dog eat dog."

That is, arguably, not a typical human response. But one of the most interesting things about the documentary is the frank admission of the soldiers—both male and female—is that they aren't typically human, or at least weren't when they were in the military. Going to war would be impossible, they say, if the military didn't strip them of ordinary human sensibilities and rebuild them as a hive mind.

The whole point of basic training is aimed at obliterating any sense of individuality. "The ego, it has to go," says one vet. When that's accomplished, drill instructors begin levying collective punishments: If one soldier's bunk isn't made right, his whole unit has to do punishment marches. By the end, the vets say note approvingly, all notions of personal survivability have been erased. "The moment you have self-preserving thoughts," says one, "everything's going to hell."

The near universality of the experience emerges in a segment of Going to War in which vets from different units, wars and decades are all asked the same questions and their answers edited together in a stream-of-conciousness rap. First thought upon entering a war zone: "What the hell am I doing?" Second: "What's wrong with those guys I'm replacing?" says one. "Zoned-out zombies, a mean hard look on their face." The third, at the sound of the first bullets: "My God, we're being shot at."

Within the common framework, of course, the soldiers have individual stories. One of the most chilling comes from Al Grantham, who quit his bricklaying job in Alabama to join the Marines and fight in Vietnam. Knocked senseless by a North Vietnamese bullet during the battle of Hue, he was loaded onto a stack of casualties on the back of a tank and hauled outside the city. It wasn't until he heard a medic shout, "Hey, this one's not dead yet"—Grantham's first thought was, "that poor sumbitch must be hurt bad"—that he realized the rest of the passengers on the tank were corpses and the poor sumbitch was him.

Yet the thinness and easy erasability of the line between life and death were not, for many of the vets, the most frightening discovery. It was the realization that they were, in some fundamental way, broken. "You're tired of being tired, you're scared of being scared," remembers one.

And a former Marine describes with agonizing calm a day in Iraq when six car-bombs exploded in 15 minutes around his unit's urban position. When the explosions finally stopped, all that could be heard were the shrills of Iraqi women cradling their dead. The Marine officer, trying to count his men and plot his next move, could barely hear himself think. "Maybe," he wondered idly, "I could kill them to shut them up." His next shocked thought: "What am I capable of? ... My God-given conscience is not going to stop me from doing these things."

Served Like a Girl, in the early going, seems almost whimsical by comparison. It follows the contestants in the Ms. Veteran America beauty pageant, which raises money to support homeless vets.

They seem, mostly, an ordinary collection of female twentysomethings with only the occasional crackpot loose end—notably the contestant whose mother's nipple was pecked off by a chicken. ("He had my nipple and I had his butt," she declares without rancor.) Backstage at the pageant, much of their conversation consists of which self-administered sex toys best stand up to the rigors of desert warfare.

But as the film continues, the scars left by their combat tours start to be revealed: Broken marriages and child-custody fights. Macabre nightmares. Crippling guilt that they walked away from an IED explosion and their companions didn't. Not all the scars are emotional. It's not until about a third of the way through Served Like a Girl that you realized that one principal character is missing her legs. The Miss America pageant will never look quite the same to me again.

Photo Credit: 'Going to War,' PBS

Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin is the author of Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras and (with Ana Rodriguez) Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison. He writes about television for the Miami Herald.

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  • Pro Libertate||

    Ejaculation?

  • Pro Libertate||

    That was in response to "What do soldiers think about during war?"

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Nobody wants to die in a pool of their own ejaculate.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Mastersergeant Baiter would disagree with you.

  • ||

    Well . . . almost nobody.

  • ||

    Eek. Should have read that before I posted. Apparently I'm indulging a 20-year-old vicious rumor made up by someone who hated Hutchence and wanted to turn his actually quite pathetic suicide into something scandalous and embarrassing.

    I'll show myself out.

  • JonFrum||

    PBS on Why You Should Hate the Military.

    Over the years since Viet Nam, they learned that maybe that baby-killer talk was less than productive. So now, they frame their military coverage on either 'look how damaged these poor veterans are' or 'look how terribly the Pentagon/V.A. treats our suffering veterans.'

  • Ken Shultz||

    They've lost everyone but the choir, haven't they?

    I tried to watch what passes for the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour the other day.

    It was like trying force myself to eat snails. They're so far gone, there's no hope.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Figures you wouldn't appreciate the subtle taste of escargot. Which is really just the taste of butter.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    Yeah pretty much. I once had escargot, while on a cruise. It's basically some chewy meat-like thing that is completely saturated with butter, so you can't taste the actual meat.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    If you cannot taste the snails, it was cooked incorrectly.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    FYI: Most Escargot snails are raised specifically to be eaten. They are encouraged to eat certain plants to give them different flavors.

  • ||

    Another fun fact: snails are not indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. French people brought them and some got away and flourished. Snails are hard to find "in the wild" in France, but here they are common pests.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I'll just take the butter then and skip the snails.

  • ||

    I'll just take the butter then and skip the snails.

    ^ This. I can think of approximately 10M better ways to consume butter than soaking a snail in it and then eating the snail.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    Yup I knew it wouldn't be long before the Patriotically Correct crowd comes along to complain about anyone depicting soldiers as anything other than G.I. Joe caricatures.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    "Soldiers are real human beings."

    "WHY DO YOU HATE THE MILITARY, COMMIE????"

  • Ken Shultz||

    "Going to war would be impossible, they say, if the military didn't strip them of ordinary human sensibilities and rebuild them as a hive mind."

    And yet people have been going to war without that training for thousands of years. They're called "irregulars".

    Without that training, they might not have been as interested in going to Vietnam, but there were plenty of locals in Vietnam who ended up on either side of the conflict--but never went through anything like basic training.

    It would be interesting to contrast things from their perspective.

    Maybe there should be a response to Going to War like Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" is a response to "Heart of Darkness".

    Maybe start here:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Ly_Hayslip

  • John||

    That is a great point Ken. And the other point is that "irregulars" are nearly always more vicious and dangerous than trained soldiers. The idea that you must have your humanity stripped to kill is absurd. People love to kill each other. People will kill each other out of hate and fear. You have to lose your individuality in those situations to remain disciplined and under control in those situations. The author of this piece acts like the training is a bad thing that makes people more dangerous. No, it makes them controllable and less dangerous in deadly situations and in doing so makes the whole more effective.

  • ||

    There's also a personally adaptive nature to the conditioning as well. They even note that it 'wears off' once they leave the military despite no one having to train them how to be individuals again.

    Pro athletes, astronauts and flight crews, shipping crews, etc. are all subjected to more rigorous socializing. They don't lose their ability to say "I scored a goal.", "He landed the rover.", "I was the first to set foot on solid ground.", "We did it as a team.", and "I couldn't have done it without the offensive line."

    It's a bit of a glossed over convenience that allows them to say "The training killed those people." Irregulars and illegal combatants are just crazed zealots but these people are personally insulated as soldiers just following orders.

  • John||

    Trained soldiers will stop killing when you tell them to and only kill the people you tell them to kill. Untrained fanatics not so much. And that is an important difference.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Trained soldiers also dont tend to run away under fire.

    It takes balls to expose yourself and shoot back at enemy troops firing at you, after an ambush.

  • Mark22||

    People love to kill each other. People will kill each other out of hate and fear.

    Some people do, most don't. That's why some people become murderers and rapists and others don't. People are actually different from each other.

    The author of this piece acts like the training is a bad thing that makes people more dangerous.

    And he is right. Most people will not kill another human being unless strongly compelled to do so. Military training attempts to break down that barrier (and it can be broken).

    No, it makes them controllable and less dangerous in deadly situations and in doing so makes the whole more effective.

    It does that too, because violent people need to be controlled, whether they were violent to begin with or turned violent through training.

  • Ariki||

    OR turned violent through circumstance.

    Under the right conditions everyone is a monster. Everyone.
    Well trained soldier's are, for the most part, controlled monsters.
    This is the preferable option for society.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    What percentage of soldiers in Vietnam were these irregulars?

  • John||

    Depends on how you define irregulars. The entire Viet Cong were irregulars. But some of them were highly trained soldiers sent to train and lead the less or untrained ones. And many of the "regular" NVA troops were barely trained at all.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "What percentage of soldiers in Vietnam were these irregulars?

    Why is that of any significance?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Technically most soldiers in Vietnam were conscription soldiers.

    They were drafted, went to bootcamp, went to Vietnam, and were likely wounded or died.

    Professional soldiers typically were the sergeants and senior officers.

  • ||

    They were drafted, went to bootcamp, went to Vietnam, and were likely wounded or died.

    Professional soldiers typically were the sergeants and senior officers.

    And as far as I can tell, this has always been the case. Much Medieval warfare was essentially propping up lines of conscripted peasants so the nobles on horseback could mow them down.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The USA moving away from the draft to a professional army is the best way to go.

    If a major war breaks out, the USA uses active army first and adds in national guard, then the draft would be re-instituted.

  • ||

    Agreed. My father-in-law's hot take on Vietnam was that the lesson learned is that conscripted soldiers in a faraway country they've never heard of are not the most motivated to make sure things go as planned.

  • LarryA||

    My take on it was that the bean-counters didn't understand the concept of a "combat unit." In most other wars and early in Vietnam (As in We Were Soldiers) units trained together, then fought together.

    In my platoon soldiers, from privates to platoon leaders, rotated out of the jungle every three days, as we were resupplied and the individual finished his 365 days. The same bird brought in new soldiers who were just starting their tour.

    In one unit, we got the word that "the company was going home." In reality, the guidon, unit insignia and files went home. We were issued a new flag and insignia, and were renamed a unit no one had ever heard of. No soldiers went anywhere.

    "Units" were just boxes on the map, representing how-many-ever soldiers were there at the time.

  • Mark22||

    then the draft would be re-instituted.

    Just make sure we send the women to the front lines as cannon fodder at least as much as the men. Gender equality, baby!

  • Ariki||

    Yeah this is one of my go to lines for feminists.
    "Equality means your 50kg lithe daughter is getting shot at in the foxhole with my 110kg athletic son. Is this really what you want?"

    Makes them think at least. Biology is a bitch.

  • John||

    I think it's hilarious that in America now, we have this big thing about medications and being present and all this other kind of stuff," says a military veteran in PBS' Going to War. "Because you're never more present than you are in wars. Soldiers have figured this out eons ago. You have to be present to get shot at. I guarantee you are locked in.

    Pretty much that. And the downside to it is that after you have been that present and had that experience, everything else seems boring and meaningless. Short of becoming a rock star or a famous athlete, what can you ever do that is going to be that intense and focusing? The world never looks the same.

  • ||

    Short of becoming a rock star or a famous athlete, what can you ever do that is going to be that intense and focusing?

    For my father-in-law, it's been motorcycles and alcohol. But yeah - that's what he's always said. Life is never exciting again after you've been in combat.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    For my father-in-law, it's been motorcycles and alcohol

    It's not an accident that most of the original Hell's Angels were World War II combat vets.

  • 68W58||

    This is absolutely true. I never once fired my weapon in four deployments to Iraq/Kuwait, but it was exciting and fun and there are large parts of it that I miss.

  • Pro Libertate||

    It's pathetic that we humans insist on killing each other or or dominating other humans. But that's what we do, even if a relatively few of us object. So much we do is wrong and embarrassing.

    I think the U.S. usually means well in its various conflicts, but we've gotten too used to running up the body count. I'm not saying we're at fault, as most of our conflicts are with some nasty governments and people, but the blood remains on our hands however much we justify our cause.

    And there's no easy solution.

  • John||

    I think the problem is not the body counts we inflict on the enemy. It is our complete aversion to body counts on our side. By that, I don't mean casualties are a good thing or that we should not try and avoid them. They are a bad thing and we should avoid them. What I mean is that we have these casualty-free wars like Libya and Serbia such that we seem to judge whether a war is just or worth fighting largely based on whether it costs us any casualties. It never seems to occur to anyone that if a cause isn't worth dying for it isn't worth killing for either. If the answer to the question of "should we go to war" is "only if we can do it without taking any or very many casualties", we shouldn't be going to war.

  • Pro Libertate||

    "[I]f a cause isn't worth dying for it isn't worth killing for either."

    Indeed.

  • ||

    What I mean is that we have these casualty-free wars like Libya and Serbia such that we seem to judge whether a war is just or worth fighting largely based on whether it costs us any casualties. It never seems to occur to anyone that if a cause isn't worth dying for it isn't worth killing for either.

    Yeah - I remember hearing exactly that as a criticism to our initial approach in Afghanistan. The culture of Afghanistan is such that it doesn't matter how many of them you kill, if you're killing them remotely from an airplane, they aren't going to ever come to respect you in any way, let alone surrender to you. They'll just be sad that they got ambushed by a society of cowards.

  • Robert||

    The living ones, yeah. But what if there ain't any left?

  • Robert||

    What if we develop advanced means of warfare, such that we could do things like kill or incapacitate or inflict pain on individual targets just by thinking it? Like voudou?

  • Cy||

    The automation of war over the last 20 years is easily one of the most terrifying things that the USG has "accomplished." How many people we've killed while sitting behind computer monitors thousands of miles away,
    dropping bombs on their countries, is sick, morally disgusting and completely unnecessary.

  • Dillinger||

    >>It's pathetic that we humans insist on killing each other or or dominating other humans

    yes.

    >>And there's no easy solution.

    power corrupts. shame.

  • Mark22||

    It's pathetic that we humans insist on killing each other or or dominating other humans.

    No, it isn't pathetic at all; it's life: competition for resources and reproduction. In the West, we have mostly managed to construct complex societies that manage to do that without violence, but violence isn't just part of human nature, it's part of life.

    But that's what we do, even if a relatively few of us object are pampered, ignorant, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing pricks who like to pose as pacifists while reaping the rewards of a safe and secure society

    FTFY

    I think the U.S. usually means well in its various conflicts, but we've gotten too used to running up the body count. I'm not saying we're at fault, as most of our conflicts are with some nasty governments and people,

    Wow, not only do you take the position of a self-righteous prick, you then justify America's foreign interference. Let's be clear here: it is not America's job to kill "nasty governments and people". It is America's job to defend Americans. It is "pathetic" that we have allowed people to hijack our government to kill for non-defensive purposes, and that's something we need to fix.

  • Yellow Tony||

    Part 1
    War is scary; war is a life changing experience; but war is just.
    When I was in high school, I saw the harrowing and perturbing effects first hand: crying men, bloody orifices, dejected visages, and immorality justified by fear and animus. All these visuals, smells, and tastes that resulted in a tempest that nearly concussed me the moment I opened the door. As a rational human being, my first thought was discovering the reasons behind this horrific spectacle, but I was naive. I wasn't prepared for the cause; one that hasn't been dwarfed to this day.
    Many steps down the hallways attracted the attention of the fallen men. Their crimson eyes would pierce my soul like a laser; their mouths would yell a stentorian silence. I could not build up the courage to help or reply to their tacit rage and sorrow--indeed, I simply gathered the evidence I was there on the bottom of my shoes.
    I finally neared a door of some ostensible importance, and in one forceful push, I was submerged in the terrifying brilliance of the cause: two ragged and tearful groups of men position themselves against the other, preparing for one last offensive. Each army carried a flag.

  • Yellow Tony||

    Part 2
    On the left, a piece of cloth was etched with the justice of Luna!
    On the right, a thin sheet of aluminum was etched with the love of Seto Sun!
    Yes, the nebulous conflict that weighted me down upon my arrival to the school was caused by two idols, two chest sizes! And I understand this rage. This proxy war between flat and busty is a just one! While many have fallen, the blood must continue to spill! Without realizing it, I was proclaiming these realizations, these truths! My meager muscles prodigiously enlarged at an astronomical rate; my voice became deep, powerful, and emphatic! I jumped a distance no mere mortal could ever hope to achieve, and now I stand int he middle of this war. And I proudly and emotionally yell: "Flat is justice!" And thus I led Luna's army to ostensibly tell the world that flat chested women are women too.
    This is war; this is evil; but this also justice.

  • gormadoc||

    Fucking weebs.

  • Yellow Tony||

    To all of you pigs who rudely ignore women whose chest testicles are lacking in size, I hope you learned something.

  • ||

    Anything bigger than a handful, you're risking a sprained thumb.

  • TangoDelta||

    I sprained a thumb once.

    The horror. The horror.

  • ||

    One of the things I come away with after talking to VietNam vets is the contempt that enlisted men have for their "college boy officers" and particularly their generals who were "not prepared to fight the war the way it should have been."

    Some have seen this as opposition to the war in general, rather than a complaint that we just didn't "hit them hard enough" and "didn't want to win".

    Unfortunately, it is hard to see exactly what "winning" in VietNam would have actually meant.

  • Robert||

    Bribery.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Invading North Vietnam and fighting off the expected Chinese invasion of Vietnam would have been a start.

    What it takes to win is not really that hard to deduce. Its actually doing what it takes to win that is politically hard.

    I hate Truman for many reasons but he knew that dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan would save hundreds of thousands of American's lives and win the war quickly. Even the rapid Russian advance of Manchuria and Kurile Islands would not ended WWII.

  • LarryA||

    the contempt that enlisted men have for their "college boy officers" and particularly their generals

    That's been around at least since Rome invented legions.

  • Mark22||

    The whole point of basic training is aimed at obliterating any sense of individuality. "The ego, it has to go,"

    Kind of what the left wants to do with the entire country. It's quite literally the objective of both socialism and fascism.

  • Liberty Lover||

    The whole point of basic training is aimed at obliterating any sense of individuality. "The ego, it has to go,"

    Boot camp is brainwashing pure and simple. Been there.

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