As Plato noted many wars ago: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Only a fool can say to what end wars are fought. More than a million Americans, veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq, can say something personal about war. In a project called Operation Homecoming, the National Endowment for the Arts dispatched professional authors including Tom Clancy, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Jeff Shaara to conduct writing workshops at 25 military bases. An open call for stories, essays, poems, letters, and journals bearing witness to war yielded more than 10,000 pages. Selections were published in an anthology edited by Andrew Carroll. Richard Robbins, who directed documentaries for Peter Jennings at ABC, extends the franchise with a powerful film that combines eloquent readings of recent warriors’ texts with images of combat and interviews with veteran writers and recent veterans.
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience opens with a bang, a poem called “Here, Bullet” read by its author, Sgt. Brian Turner, and it concludes with “Kasbah,” another explosive poem by Turner. Other selections, delivered by actors such as Beau Bridges, Robert Duvall, and Aaron Eckhart, include: “Medevac Missions,” Cpt. Ed Hrivnac’s harrowing account of tending to the wounded; “Taking Chance,” Lt. Col. Michael Strobl’s report on his assignment to escort a dead Marine’s remains to burial in Wyoming; “Men in Black,” Spc. Colby Buzzell’s unnerving description of surviving an ambush in Mosul and then returning to engage his attackers again; and “Camp Muckamungus,” Staff Sgt. Edward Parker Gyokeres’ comic primer to military desert life. “We joke about what scares us,” Gyokeres explains in one of the brief interviews separating selections. Older authors who fought in earlier wars — Paul Fussell, Joe Haldeman, Yusef Komunyakaa, James Salter, Tim O’Brien, Anthony Swofford, and Tobias Wolff — provide enlightened commentary on the terror, boredom, and absurdity of organized slaughter.
Some of the participants are confident enough in the mission to reenlist, others rail against the decadent insouciance of a society that sends its young to fight for a cause no one understands. But Operation Homecoming does not aim to proselytize as much as humanize. Still photographs, film footage, and animated sequences effectively complement what words can scarcely render.