With the massacre at Fort Hood and reports that President Obama is about to approve the sending of 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, “The Good Soldier” arrives at movie theaters in the nick of time. What is needed desperately right now is a shot in the arm for the antiwar movement and this deeply moving documentary about the conversion of five soldiers to the cause of peace supplies it in spades.
It opens tomorrow at the Village East Theater in NYC tomorrow and elsewhere around the country soon thereafter. Check http://www.thegoodsoldier.com/ for screening information.
Covering some of the same territory as the 2006 “The Ground Truth”, including one of its principals—the remarkable Marine Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey, “The Good Soldier” is distinguished by its ability to evoke the often painful stories out of the five veterans to maximum effect. While not quite dealing with the same subject matter of Ford Maddox Ford’s 1915 novel with which it shares its title, this documentary directed by the wife and husband Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys could have begun with the same words that open Ford’s novel: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Unlike the Ford novel, however, this story ends happily as the five soldiers unburden themselves from their guilt and join the antiwar movement as an act of salvation both for them and for humanity.
The veterans come from different generations and conflicts. With the exception of the Korean War, every slaughter starting with WWII is represented.
Two of the soldiers are white North Carolinians and when we first see them on camera, they appear the most unlikely antiwarriors possible. Chief Warrant Officer Perry Parks, who bears a spooky resemblance to Lee Harvey Oswald, flew helicopters in Vietnam. Accompanied by stock footage from the war, he talks about killing civilians from his helicopter gunship. During his second tour of duty, he decides that the antiwar movement was in the right and changes course completely. He becomes a hippie and roams around the country. Paradoxically, he reenlists only because he needs the money training soldiers how to fly helicopters. Today he is very involved in a small Pentecostal church in Rockingham, North Carolina where he tries to convince fellow parishioners to oppose the war in Iraq. Listening to him describe his newfound pacifist beliefs in a deep drawl makes you feel that anything is possible.
Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey is cut from the same cloth as Parks. He tells us that he was born in a trailer park and became a gung-ho Marine, working as a recruiter for a number of years. In the 2003 invasion, he had a mental breakdown in the field and fought for and won an honorable discharge. He was represented by Gary Myers, one of the lawyers in the My Lai trials. We see Massey as he goes from one antiwar rally to another. In perhaps the most inspiring moment in the entire film, we see him on his own picketing a Marine recruitment station with a sign denouncing the war. This activism, ironically enough, was spurred by the traumas of being a “good soldier”. Now he is a “good soldier” fighting for peace. He explains:
We were on the outskirts of the Baghdad stadium, and there was an incident with a red Kia. They didn’t stop at the checkpoint, so we lit them up. I’m pulling the trigger as fast as I can, three victims were expiring rapidly… There was one man sobbing, ‘Why did you kill my brother? We’re not terrorists!’ I just wanted to close my ears each time he said it. It was being permanently burned into my brain. I lost it. The night before that – that was the last night I got a good night’s sleep.
The corpsman came over and dumped the bodies by the side of the road. I wish I could take that day back. I’d give anything. My CO (commanding officer) asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘It was a bad day; we killed a lot of innocent civilians.‘ He replied, ‘No, today has been a good day.’ I thought to myself, buddy boy, you’re in a world of shit now.
Imagine, being married for eleven years and it’s your anniversary and your spouse rolls over and says Happy Anniversary, but there’s something I have to confess to you. I have never loved you. Everything has been a lie. I just used you and by the way, the kids aren’t even yours either. That’s how I felt – betrayed by the Marine Corps.
This is the second movie co-directed by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys. Their first, made in 1997, was “Riding the Rails”, a superlative study of teenage hoboes during the Great Depression now available from Netflix.
Their work reminds me once again that the strength of the progressive movement in the United States should not be calculated simply on the basis of how many people belong to nominally left organizations. The dedication of talented directors like Lovell and Uys to put their time and energy into projects like this that might not have any immediate prospects of making them rich is proof that the sea change that began in the 1960s is still with us. It has impacted the GI’s who have become peace advocates, the documentary film makers who are inspired to tell their stories, and hopefully the millions of Americans who will rededicate themselves to fighting an escalation in Afghanistan. As the directors state in the press notes:
The simple revelations of their soldiers’ hearts, the wetness of their eyes, the emotion of the music that says what they cannot, the pauses and quietness, even the absence of narration pull at the psyche and whisper, “Does it really have to be this way?”
It does not really have to be this way, as long as we fight to prevent it.