The Veterans Forgotten by the War State

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After running films on the wars in Iraq and Syria, as well as the military-entertainment complex, Inclinations Film Club returns with the UK premiere of This Is Not A War Story.

This is Not a War Story tracks a ragtag group of Iraq and Vietnam veterans based in New York. The support groups and art-making they share keep them together, despite the spectre of their friend’s suicide and the dawning fact that healing from war is sometimes impossible.

This hybrid narrative film was produced over three years as an ongoing collaboration with a thriving community of veterans. They have found purpose as artists and papermakers, who begin their work by shredding and pulping their uniforms. To paraphrase the veteran Eli Wright, this is an act of reclaiming their identity as they break the weave and threads that bind them together as soldiers. The uniforms are turned into paper which becomes the skin for their printmaking and art. Their critique of war, and of their own roles within it, form the apex of the film’s rallying anti-militaristic cry. This Is Not A War Story carefully and unblinkingly faces the legacy of war that leads so many veterans to suicide.

In advance of the screening with Talia Lugacy I wanted to better understand how she made the film, about the issues it raises and the lived experiences of combat, social isolation and moral injury faced by army veterans. Talia is a filmmaker, actor, educator and writer based in New York.

Rastko Novaković: Your film is a terrible indictment of the US war state. I often find that there is not enough understanding of the extent and logic of it in Europe. On the one hand there are the layers of US hegemony: Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine and how it was projected globally through the idea of the unipolar World. But there is also the deep militarism which permeates all areas of life and is bipartisan in nature. Can you speak about how your film fits into a wider reckoning with the war state?

Talia Lugacy: Well, it does this in multiple ways, actually, and by design. Part of it relates to the subject matter of the film, and how it’s handled – and part of it is in terms of the production itself. About the latter, I’m not sure how widely known it is in Europe that the United States Department of Defense has very deep ties with the Hollywood system, going back decades. If you make a film funded by a studio, the DoD has their fingerprints all over it – they have script approvals – so everything from Top Gun to Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper all have had DoD approval in terms of their content and presentation. So we were determined not to seek funding from those traditional sources, and also – we were determined not to compromise or adjust the film we had made when a distributor wanted to license and release it. It was a huge gamble, but those compromises would have rendered the film pointless.

We set out to make a film about war that was not, in fact, the traditional war story as audiences have come to know it. And that points to the subject matter and treatment of the film – lots of movies in the past have claimed to be or attempted to be anti-war films. But in the very depiction of war – think Apocalypse Now, Platoon, etc – war itself is romanticized by the fact of being made cinematic. It cannot be otherwise. Paradoxically, the more brutality and harshness you show of war, the more cinematic and thus seductive it becomes. So no matter your intent, the result is that audiences engage with war in a romanticized way. There is no way in film to convey the stench of death, the horror of fear, the visceral shock and disgust – the story, the distance as a viewer, the safety of the theater environment – all this counteracts any ability to truly immerse you in the horrors of war. So inevitably you get the thrill without tasting the fear or death.

So to have a war film that, firstly, does not show scenes of war, was our first commitment. We had several that rendered the film worth making – not depicting the female Marine in terms of sexual trauma – but the most important one to us was the depiction of trauma and healing itself. If you were funded by a studio, you would be obligated to depict trauma and healing in a traditional and I think untruthful way – someone suffers, they get some help, and they have a realization and they’re better. Whereas in reality, someone suffers, they may reach out for help, they may not – they often die by suicide (more soldiers die stateside by suicide than die in combat) – and if they’re able to keep reaching for help, healing is continual process, it’s something you show up to every day, if you can. The problem with the former rendering is twofold: one, the person in the audience who does struggle, and who has not had such a convenient realization and bounced back to life, feels all the more alone, alienated and inadequate – it completely compounds their suffering, far from alleviating it; two, and this is the crux of it politically, suggesting that soldiers can “heal” and “go back to normal” is a damning justification for continuing to endlessly send people to war.

RN: Can you talk about how the experiences of the 94 year-old WWII veteran Gould Colman informed the film?

TL: Without Gould, this film could not have been made in the non-traditional and uncompromising way it was made. His home is where the second half of the film was shot. But far beyond this, Gould became an essential ally during the entire making of the film. For years before we shot anything, I would visit Gould, spend hours and weeks with him at his home, and plan everything from the logistics to the movement of dialogue scenes, everything. And Gould’s perspective on war was integral to this. He was stationed in Germany during WWII and as a returning veteran, he was able to buy farmland, to go to college, to build his own home and to eventually work as an archivist for Cornell University. Gould’s influence was ubiquitous among the veterans on the film – he was a beacon of health, resilience, humor, and longevity. He would take his 1930s tractor out and mow his whole property, he’d change the tractor tires and then have plenty of energy and clarity to sit fireside with a drink and talk for hours.

The primary insight that came across in terms of the subject matter of the film as it relates to Gould, is that World War II veterans could have a tremendous clarity about the stakes of the war they were fighting. Whereas the Vietnam-era veterans, and the younger generation, of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, had no such clarity to depend on. No matter how bad things got for Gould’s generation, and it got dark, of course – there was always the clear reality that this was a necessary war and an essential mission. I think this marks the fundamental difference in the generations and why Gould, for example, did not return with crippling trauma. For the veterans of all our later wars, moral ambiguity is a factor.

RN: The way you prepared the film is significant. It was a process of getting to know the vets and working with them. When you came to shoot, you worked in short bursts across 6 months, rather than a standard industry-style schedule of a few weeks. Why did you work this way and how did it shape the film?

TL: Primarily this was done because of financial limitations. As we did not have, would not have accepted (and surely would not have gotten) studio funding, we were on our own to produce the film at a very low budget. So it was strategic, to shoot in shorter increments, in 2-5 day commitments. But also, it was creatively strategic because I needed to be able to watch the footage in between the shooting. I knew that between the improvisational aspects and the non-actors, I would need to gauge the quality of the footage as we went, and shift gears if needed, and that takes time. But yes, in order to pull this off, there was over a year of immersion whereby I spent all my free time with the veterans – in their studios, at their poetry and art events, learning the craft of papermaking from them, learning its history, and so on – and through this immersion, I was collecting moments, accents, anecdotes, things that struck me as having to find their way into the film. I would then, throughout that process, revise the script to make room for these things, to build in a place for them. So it was “improvisational space” within the script – but it had to be structured deliberately, in order to resonate with the themes of the film as a whole. I always wanted to make a film this way.

The “normal” method of shooting horrifically long days for 4 weeks or less, and then being “done” with the shoot – is really damning creatively, not to mention unhealthy. This way makes much more sense, because you have time to think and reconsider. Many directors have worked this way, but it’s usually a luxury – Kubrick, Wong Kar Wai, Charlie Chaplin. There’s so much sense in it. Most independent films try to squeeze a feature into 18 days, long brutal days, in order to make the film in one swoop. I didn’t want to do this – I don’t want to put us all through that – and ultimately, in order to achieve this hybrid film, I couldn’t have. We needed the space and the time to be comfortable improvising, for the veterans to get to know the crew and for us to build relationships that foster a warmth of environment that compel true, sincere improvisation – I wanted them to be able to be themselves – and in a harried rush that could never happen.

RN: Tell us more about what ‘moral injury’ is, and why it is relevant to understanding and challenging militarism.

TL: Moral Injury is a concept that was still relatively obscure when we embarked on the film, but it’s gained a lot of traction since. The preferred way of speaking about trauma and veterans in the cultural conversations here hinged upon – and still do, to a great extent – the traditional idea that trauma comes from seeing your buddy die, from experiencing violence, explosions, combat, etc. But moral injury posits that trauma also comes from being in a place of moral ambiguity – being an occupier, in other words. You might not be engaged in combat 24/7 – but you might be busting down doors of homes, forcing an Iraqi family to evacuate their home, causing humiliation and suffering. There is also the complexity of giving the order to kill remotely. You get a report of an Iraqi with a shovel in the middle of the night, you give the order to kill, not knowing that on account of the intense heat in Iraq, farmers often are forced to work at night. Moral injury is related to guilt, essentially. It points to the crossing of an internal moral threshold, and thus losing ground and clarity as to where that threshold was – the moral compass is violated – and you are generally not on the receiving end of the violence, but the perpetrator of it, to a large or a mundane extent.

Either way the resulting internal conflict is not one that can be easily conveyed to a VA counselor, for example, who is working with WWII notions of shell shock. For years the VA would not approve claims for veterans who could not prove that they participated in some violence episode. This has thankfully improved, and the VA does recognize some of this complexity now. But the essential part of looking collectively at moral injury is that in doing so we are attempting to reckon with our role in these wars, attempting to undo the lie of all the heroics foisted on us by other movies and by government propaganda, and ultimately attempting to fathom why it is that 22 veterans a day stateside are killing themselves. And this is not limited to the younger generation – a huge part of that number accounts for Vietnam veterans, to this day.

RN: There are experiences here from the wars in Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq. Did you find that there were significant differences in the experience of the Vietnam and Iraq-era vets?

TL: Well, some differences, many similarities. Firstly, it must be said that this group of veterans who engaged in the film are not meant to represent the broad sweep of “veterans” in the U.S. No group is a monolith, and that surely applies to veterans in this country, most especially the earlier Vietnam and Korea era generations who were drafted from all walks of life, whereas from the Gulf War in the 90s onward, the volunteer army has very different characteristics. But it’s really hard to formalize or to generalize what those might be. As I experienced it, the deep connection between generations was a founding principle of the film, and it flourished when I met and immersed myself with these multiple generations. Seeing how much steady influence the Vietnam guys had on all the younger vets was constantly so moving. There was so much more I wanted to put into the film, it’d have been nine hours long! But interestingly, it’s here that you see just how the U.S. is missing some very fundamental rituals that earlier civilizations had for their returning warriors. Vietnam veterans have in a way taken up this mantle for returning vets of Iraq and Afghanistan – as counselors, mentors, friends. These are essential relationships, and I can’t find an equivalent to this in civilian culture.

RN: How did you work on including the veterans’ experiences? Were there some which you regret not being able to include?

TL: So many. They’re on the DVD, thankfully, but had they been in the film, it would have been far too long. There are poems. There are scenes of improvisation that are beautiful and immersive. It was actually a very painful process and took forever to edit in part because I was very attached to including as much as I could. I had to finally accept the parameters of what I was doing, the limits of it. But in terms of the process, I had a finished script when I approached the veterans of Frontline Arts. I knew some dimension was still missing from the film – and when I came across their papermaking, I knew instantly that this was it. The tearing of uniforms, that amazing ripping sound, the gorgeous metaphor of transforming the uniform – and of course, the constant conversations, overlapping, and dark humor, that went with these beautifully cinematic activities – in themselves meditative actions, actions of healing. This dimension got built into the existing script as I got to know the veterans specifically, and sorted out who would be appearing in the film, and how that would work.

It was a process of getting to know them, and letting them get to know me, call me out on stuff and refocus and challenge me, that led to what you see in the film. The whole speech about “thank you for your service” for example, came directly from echoes of what multiple veterans had conveyed to me throughout that time. We also talked a lot about war movies and how full of shit they are. All of that’s in there. It is intentionally a window into a private world that is utterly off-limits to civilians, and that was part of our goal, to build something like a bridge between veterans and civilians, so that instead of thanking a veteran for services you don’t know the nature of, here you get to see just how alike we all are. Veterans don’t just sit around and gruffly discuss war – they give each other shit about musical tastes, on and on. Our traumas have similar features. By putting a veteran on a pedestal, as American culture does, you actually push them away.

RN: The character you play shows an aspect of a woman’s experience in the military. Where did these experiences come from and what have the comments been on the film from women veterans?

TL: The response from women veterans has been amazing. The most profound moment for me was at a screening in San Antonio. A woman after the film stood up very emotional and said thank you for making a filmthat spoke my soul” – that to me was like the pinnacle, that’s why you make a film. And the comments we received through film festivals and private screenings, and from the film’s release on HBO have all been positive, from women veterans, echoing a similar note: that they simply haven’t seen their story reflected in a movie before. They’d even say that despite the politics, they could get down with it and respect it. Meaning that some veterans don’t agree with the film’s critique of the military industrial complex, but the film still resonates deeply. That was an amazing discovery.

The experiences of my character in the film were drawn from a few sources – a few women veterans who collaborated with me on different aspects of who she might be. This was where the idea that we would absolutely not define this character in terms of MST or anything sexualized. Women veterans want to make it very known that they also suffer trauma from war and moral injury not related to sex. This is huge, because nearly all American films you can think of that depict a female soldier, it is always about sex and nothing else.

But truly, the trauma embedded in this character comes from my own life. It was a demon I’ve wrestled nearly my whole life. I’m not a proponent of auto-biography, that’s not what this is. I saw in the veterans and their activities, effective work being done to figure out how to live with trauma. So I think whether I knew it or not, I was in pursuit of this learning. And it’s the empathy muscles that interest me the most here. With this story, with actors and non-actors collaborating, you have an exercise in empathy, that doesn’t stay in anybody’s comfort zone – not the veterans, not me, not the other actors. But it demands that we reach into one’s another’s experience and locate that common ground.

RN: Have you read Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (1985)? It also shows how these veterans lived with moral and physical wounds their whole lives, and often no one asked them about it. Of course it was a different kind of war, a total war, but it is remarkable in that it shows the extremity of experience and the diversity too: women sappers, snipers, medics etc.

TL: I have not read it. In my research on the film I was very narrowly focused on American veterans and their experiences. For me, because the political aspect of the film was so important, and because I could only hold so much in my head and heart at once, I needed to immerse myself in the world these veterans had experienced, and that involves all the nuances of American culture that go with that. So I didn’t want to come across a non-American account in a book and want to use it, be compelled by it, and then get confused and exasperated because it’s also essential and heartbreaking, yet it doesn’t fit into the contours of this thing I’m trying to build. I even went so far as to limit my reading research to account of veterans who served in Iraq, as opposed to Afghanistan. Because in terms of moral injury, the Iraq war is one that I believe you cannot justify on any terms. You could make an argument for the invasion of Afghanistan though of course there is no argument or justification for twenty years of occupation.

RN: We are in a different historical moment from 2021 when the film was released. And there are now two wars which have US fingerprints all over them. There is the proxy war in Ukraine which has destroyed the country, destabilised Europe, and which US/NATO is losing. Then there is the Palestinian genocide which the US is supporting at the highest level militarily, materially and diplomatically. In both cases there are only a few US troops deployed, in a covert capacity. And yet, paradoxically, it seems that these wars have resulted in significant waves of resistance to the war state?

TL: There is, we see it on nearly a daily basis here. It’s really the only thing heartening in these past very dark two years since. The protests, the surging solidarity, the resistance – it isn’t just young people, either, or just one monolithic group. During the making of This Is Not A War Story, we all pondered about the “end” of the occupation in Afghanistan and what would happen. And when it did finally happen, a lot of what the veterans expected had come to pass – we watched the country fall apart, fall back into Taliban control, and it was deafening. And now with the genocide in Gaza, and the horizonless war in Ukraine, we have ample cause for depression, paralysis, relapses into anxiety and trauma. But the fact is that we have healthy resistance, we have voices of truth coming to the surface – and it’s all we have, even as the U.S. internally is collapsing in on itself in so many ways. Taking the action of resistance, engaging with other people, reaching out and joining in – even the barest minimum, if that’s what you can do, just showing up to stop the machinery however and wherever we can. Strikes and resistance, but also joy – that’s part of what succeeded so well about the movement in the 60s. Part of what kept these veterans coming back to one another, and able to show up another day, was because of the humor and love and support, the camaraderie. It’s a matter of life or death.

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