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Laramie Movie Scope:
Leave No Soldier

A movie about three veteran's groups with divergent goals

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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September 1, 2009 -- This 2008 documentary film compares and contrasts the goals of three veteran's groups, all protesting certain U.S. government actions during the Bush Administration. The arguments presented by the groups are very different. One group makes emotional arguments which are circular, the other two make linear arguments that are intellectual and analytical. These arguments are similar to the ones made in the 2008 presidential election and in the current health care debate. Emotional arguments tend to have more force, and often win out over intellectual arguments.

The emotional arguments come from the “Rolling Thunder” veterans group that annually rides into Washington lobbying for better treatment of veterans. Led by Vietnam-era veterans, and including Korean, Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans. This group is uncritical of the Iraq War, but argues the government is not doing enough for veterans returning from war. Artie Muller, a Vietnam vet who is the Rolling Thunder leader, makes the familiar argument that those who oppose the Iraq War are unpatriotic because it is impossible for him to believe that a person can oppose the war while at the same time supporting the soldiers who fight in it. This, of course, is a circular argument. It means that in order to be patriotic by Muller's standard, one must support any war in which U.S. soldiers are fighting, no matter how pointless the war may be or how long it lasts or how much is costs the rest of society or how much it damages the security of the United States. It also follows that to “support the soldiers” in the way that Muller means, many more soldiers will be killed and maimed as a direct consequence of that support. To support the war effort that is killing and maiming soldiers is a peculiar, destructive and expensive kind of “support” for soldiers fighting in a war. You could argue that Muller is “supporting the soldiers” to death and mutilation by the thousands. With “support” like that, who needs enemies? Yet this argument has repeated many times by people who ought to know better.

The groups making linear, analytical arguments is the Veterans For Peace (VFP) group and the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). VFP which is led by another Vietnam veteran, Stan Goff. Veterans For Peace are marching from Mobile to New Orleans to highlight the damage to the Gulf Coast which remains years after Hurricane Katrina struck. Goff argues that the trillions of dollars being spent on the Iraq War should be spent instead on domestic problems, like restoring the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. The march is being held, Goff says, to point out the domestic costs of the Iraq War. Veterans For Peace opposes the Iraq War, but it also does something that Muller can't imagine them doing, Veterans For Peace also supports the troops fighting in the Iraq War. VFP's argument is to bring the troops home, that is their way of supporting the troops, by stopping the war and stopping the maiming and killing of more troops.

Another argument made by the Rolling Thunder participants is that the soldiers fighting in Iraq are somehow protecting the United States by stopping terrorists from coming into the United States. This must be an emotional argument since it certainly makes no sense. There is no positive connection between United States border security, its travel checkpoints, homeland security apparatus, and the war in Iraq. The oft-repeated argument is that it is better to fight the terrorists “over there” than it is to fight them “here.” The Iraq veterans who appear in the documentary dispute that argument, saying the Iraq war creates more terrorists than there were before and that makes the U.S. less secure from future terrorist attacks. Iraq veteran Michael Blake said when he served there 2003 and 2004, what he saw in Iraq caused him to believe “We weren't doing the right thing there and that our policies were self-defeating in that we were creating terrorism and breeding it rather than stamping it out.”

One thing that Rolling Thunder and the two veterans peace groups all agree upon is the fact that veterans programs to support soldiers returning from combat are inadequate. Support for physically and mentally wounded veterans are not adequate to handle the multitude of problems facing veterans returning to civilian life. Muller says in a speech before a big Rolling Thunder crowd at the nation's capital, “We're short doctors, we're short nurses and we're short staff. Veterans are waiting five and six months to be treated, especially for pain ... we need same day treatment.” In an interview, Muller said, “When a war's going on, great. Everybody loves the veterans, but when the war's over, they forget real quick.” The late David Cline (he died Sept. 15, 2007), a Vietnam veteran marching with Veterans for Peace, says pretty much the same thing in the film: “Historically in this country the treatment of veterans has been pretty shabby. Every generation of veterans going back to the Civil War, have, after the war, been forgotten about.” The film here inserts newsreel footage of the bloodshed in Washington caused by federal troops clashing with thousands of World War I veterans in 1932 in the “Bonus Army” riots over pay the government owed the veterans. Cline refers to the Bonus Army conflicts in his comments.

Garett Reppenhagen of both the Kosovo and Iraq conflict, and a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War said, “The military took my power away and I was a tool, and manipulated to do these things. But with Iraq Veterans Against the War, I can take that power back and I can empower myself. I've been speaking out about what I did and telling people that I did wrong, and that's confession. I've been saying its wrong and I'm not going to do it again ... which is repentance ... I'm going out there and I'm trying to change the world. I'm trying to help the veterans that fought it, help the Iraq people that I've hurt and help our nation heal its government so it can't happen again and that's atonement ... I can do all these things through IVAW, through Iraq Veterans Against the War ... That is a huge, healing step.” Members of Rolling Thunder said something similar about feeling empowered by their movement after having felt so powerless when they came home from war. Diane Carlson-Evans summed it by saying, “We are not going to forget the MIA-POW's. We are not going to forget them. We are not going to forget each other. If nobody else fights for us, we will fight for each other. If nobody else cares about us, we care for each other. We'll take care of each other the way we took care of each other in Vietnam. We'll get each other home.” Diane Carlson-Evans is a member of both Rolling Thunder and Veterans for Peace.

The film effectively cuts back and forth between the Rolling Thunder veterans in Washington and the veterans marching in Alabama and Louisiana. Many of the veterans in all three groups seem to have in common is the pain of loss. Many of the veterans pause to reflect on those who died in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. There is a sombre visit by the Rolling Thunder veterans to the Vietnam War memorial in Washington. The Rolling Thunder group, in particular, seems concerned that the dead of the Vietnam war are slowly being forgotten. Many of the same emotions well up as the veterans on the peace march stop to visit the Mississippi Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Ocean Springs and its display of row upon row of pictures of young men, some just boys, long dead. This is a moving film which effectively depicts the varied faces of war and its aftermath. This film rates a B.

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Copyright © 2009 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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