Film Review – The Good Soldier
What does it take to kill another person? To take another person’s life, to be the one responsible to remove another person from existence forever, and to live with that guilt is something that is hard for any regular person to bear. For a soldier, they are trained to specifically do this, to use deadly force to protect the freedoms of their fellow civilians. How does one turn the switch on, to do the thing that we know is against everything our own humanity tells us not to do? Even more importantly, how does one turn that switch off?
The Good Soldier (2009) is an independent documentary by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys, that tells of five different veterans that fought in different wars during different times. Through their own testimony, we get to hear their stories of fighting in their respective wars, the feelings of having to kill another person, and the result of those actions. The film does not take a political stance on whether or not a country should go to war, at times armed combat may be the only option for a resolution. Instead, the documentary is more personal, more intimate, focusing only on these five men, and their experiences. These men, although different in age and background, are eerily common in how they describe their time in service.
The first is Edward Wood, an army private who served in France during WWII. He saw combat very early in to his time, being a victim of a bridge attack that injured him and sent him back home. Feeling that he had done what he could, Wood describes, in an emotional scene, his surprise and hurt when he heard his father tell the press that his son fought for “only a few days.” This feeling of neglect and belief of non-accomplishment created a drift between Wood and his parents, a feeling that he would carry for nearly forty years.
The next is Michael McPhearson, an army captain who served in the first Gulf War in 1991. McPhearson is not someone that you would expect in a documentary like this. To his knowledge, he never fired and killed an enemy soldier, he was never shot or seriously injured, does not suffer from post-traumatic stress, and was able to return home safely. However, he understood what it was that would force one to kill an enemy, being trained to do it almost instinctively. He describes how blessed he was to not have to do this, but knows that there are other men serving today that have done those things, and that others have died doing it. In a revealing scene near the end of the film, McPhearson lets us know of his son that is serving in the current Iraq war, and his worry about his son’s safety. In a way, it’s as if McPhearson is telling us that a part of him has returned to the danger of combat.
Perry Parks was a pilot that flew helicopters in to drop zones in Vietnam. Helicopters were prime targets of enemy forces, and as a result, he would only fly armed vehicles, vehicles that would fire back at the enemy. Parks tells us stories of how gun fire would stream out of his vehicle, how he would see explosions that would rain down on villages (filled with innocent victims), and how he witnessed fellow soldiers wear necklaces made of human ears. Parks would describe these actions as “war crimes.” Returning from the war, Parks would live a time in depression as a wanderer, out of money and support, and falling in to a world of drugs and alcohol.
Of all the stories told in the film, the most engaging are those of Jimmy Massey, a staff sergeant who served with the Marine Corps in the current Iraq War, and Will Williams, another staff sergeant who served two tours in Vietnam. The way Massey and Williams tell of their experiences, you can see that the memories of what happened to them have been burned in to their brains. Massey talks about killing unarmed protesters, how he felt that what they were doing was “genocide” (he clearly states killing nearly thirty people), and how this expression of emotional protest would lead to his discharge from the military. For Williams, the ghosts that haunt him can be felt in the pain of his voice. Being a black man living in 1960s America, Williams brought all the hate and anger of segregation and racism with him to Vietnam. He took the deaths of his fellow soldiers and used that to kill enemies as a means of revenge. It’s almost scary how Williams describes how easily he was able to kill other people, even doing it up close and personal with a knife.
With all the political debate about the reasons to go to war, here we have a film that shows, clearly, what violence can do to a person psychologically. Many, if not all the men in the film, have trouble sleeping. Massey, despite being safe in his home, would often times find himself prepping and arming his gun as if he felt an enemy was lurking outside his window. We learn that Williams, after being taught how to be a killing machine, had trouble turning that part of himself off when coming back stateside, and we find that if he had stayed in the U.S. after his first tour, he probably would have killed someone because of this trained instinct. They feel like unpredictable animals asked to return to the cage after being told for years to attack their prey without hesitation.
The film jumps back and forth between all five stories to find a common thread between all of them: with the fear of first entering combat, to the adrenaline rush of fighting, the addictive thrill of doing such things, the feeling of hurt and loss after coming home, and then finally being at peace with their lives and their position in the world. The major issue I had was that film based itself only on the men that share the same belief. There are many soldiers that return from war that do not have the stress and nightmares that these men have, and because of that the film feels a little one sided. The movie would have been better rounded if we had a chance to hear from these other people as well, their stories are just as valid and important to hear from than the men showcased here.
The Good Soldier is very effective in presenting these five men and the lasting effects that each one of them are currently going through as result of simply doing their job. They had their orders: some left early due to injury, some stayed and continued the fight, others questioned those orders and were forced out. But in the end, they were all part of the same whole. When a person enlists him or herself in to the armed forces, they are not only giving up their body for this country, but also their mind, heart, and soul. The film questions the essence of human nature, and what happens when one is taught to go against that very idea. It is a sacrifice that these soldiers will go through long after they put their rifle down.
Final Grade: B+