Originally published by USA Today
It struck me then that I had no idea what it meant to go to war. I knew nothing of the separation, the loss, the sacrifice of war because nothing war-related had been asked or expected of me or my family. At that point, America had been at war in Iraq for five years (longer in Afghanistan), and I was almost entirely removed from it.
In the decade since, I’ve tried to hold on to that epiphany — to regularly remind myself of the burden carried by the many for the benefit of the few. I rarely succeed. There are too many distractions: work, bills, headlines screaming for my attention about the latest celebrity scandal or political crisis — to say nothing of the daily challenges of parenting and sustaining a marriage. Against this cacophony of normalcy, it is easy to forget that nearly 200,000 Americans are deployed overseas, including 26,000 serving in combat zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
As a nation we excel at waging war, yet we are criminally indifferent to its costs and consequences. We celebrate the men and women who serve in our armed forces — thanking them for their service at sporting events, airports and parades. But rarely do we stop to listen to their experiences, especially those in combat.
Even more rarely do we move outside our comfort zones and consider what it really means to go to war. If we did, we might be a little more measured in our celebrations, because the truth is there is little to celebrate. There is more boredom, rage, hate, fear, exhilaration, loss, malice and even love in war than there is glory. There is, without a doubt, bravery and sacrifice, but there is an unspeakable sadness as well. Most of us would rather not be bothered; I sometimes think we celebrate war as a way to avoid facing the truth about it.
This was my mindset as I approached Going to War, a one-hour PBS program featuring Karl Marlantes, an author and Vietnam War veteran, and Sebastian Junger, whose film about the Afghanistan War, Restrepo, which he co-directed with Tim Hetherington, is the gold standard for documentary war reporting.
Over the course of six months, I met dozens of veterans from America’s wars in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, and was given the privilege of telling their stories. I heard about loss, bravery, humility, pain and suffering, malice and love. I was told about the reality of killing, and of the voices that haunted, later, at home.
I’d like to think making this film was cathartic for everyone, that in their telling and in my listening, we were able to bridge the civilian-military divide that separated us.
I do not mean to suggest that a single film can be a panacea to the problems that confront us or our veterans. A more responsive, less bureaucratic Department of Veterans Affairs as well as a greater understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder are far more important. But I believe that listening to what our veterans want to tell us is a first step toward healing and reconciliation. It might even keep us from mindlessly waging war again.
As one veteran told me, “(We) don’t want to be celebrated. We want to be heard.”
Michael Epstein is the producer of Going to War, a one-hour Vulcan Productions and PBS documentary.