Ain’t We a War Story?
–by Kristen Tsetsi
I wanted to fist-bump First Lady Michelle Obama when I learned that she had asked Hollywood’s writers and directors to “help ‘promote a better understanding and appreciation of the sacrifices made by military personnel and their families’ by integrating their experiences into TV, movie, and digital-media story lines.”
This is something I’ve been communicating with publishers about since 2007, when I started pursuing publication for Pretty Much True…, and something I recently discussed with a Hollywood type over the phone.
Publishers have said, “There’s no audience” or “The market is saturated with war stories” – this as new soldier-war stories have published, and continue to publish, on a fairly regular basis since people started writing them.
The Hollywood figure, after telling me America was ready for another real war story, indicated that the real war story America was ready for was not necessarily the war story that didn’t center around service members fighting in war. The home front war story, as I understood his message, should be the story that offers some hope and happiness, such as in the Lifetime show “Coming Home” and the upcoming TLC program “Surprise Homecomings.”
The problem with these homecoming shows is that they reveal little to nothing about the many and varied home front war experiences. Thanks to the many books and movies exploring various soldier perspectives, types, and experiences, the viewing audience, upon seeing the service member walk into the arms of his or her dog/best friend/lover/parent/spouse, can – as well as can be expected – imagine what it’s like for the service member to see his or her loved one. They have some idea of what it might have been like for the service member to be away.
But what do they know about how it feels for the person receiving the service member?
And why should they care?
This Hollywood figure is not alone in believing the home front war story – the one that leads to the grateful, tearful, sometimes awkward, sometimes numb, sometimes frightening, sometimes distant homecoming – has little to offer. I’ve been asked by people who are curious about Pretty Much True… how much “action” could possibly be found in a war story that doesn’t involve bullets, tanks, the ever-present helicopter (that often doesn’t even belong there, a pet peeve of my Blackhawk and Chinook pilot husband’s), and explosions. Where is the drama? What’s the story?
Even Randi Schmelzer, the author of the piece linked to in the opening paragraph of this article, voices the sentiments of (too) many when she writes, “The question, though, ultimately, is whether or not civilian viewers [because I'm a writer, I'll add "and readers" - KT] will be interested in military families’ stories.”
I’d like to edit that question (occupational hazard – I’m currently a full-time editor) to read, “The question, though, ultimately, is why we believe civilian viewers/readers aren’t interested in military family stories.”
And why is that?
My theory is that it’s simply because we’re not the ones at war.
War experiences on the home front, whether delivered as nonfiction or fiction (and the fictionalized stories are no less true, mind you; as Tim O’Brien writes in his Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried, “Story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth”), suffer a fatal flaw no other experiences seem to suffer in quite the same way: that of comparison.
On LIFT’s Facebook page, I shared Schmelzer’s comment regarding whether civilian viewers would be interested in the stories of military families (which, as I see it, includes all friends and loved ones), and one page member responded, in part, with the following:
We’re such an amazingly diverse group of people: the only thing that holds us together is a spouse (or 2) who works in the military. It’s more than what most people have in common, but is it enough for a real-to-life story that builds understanding/compassion without pity?
Even most of US don’t see the story in it, but that’s because we’re somewhat indoctrinated to say, even to ourselves, “We’re not the ones at war.” This indoctrination is internal, by the way. When Ian was in Iraq, I would be in the middle of writing him a letter about a particularly bad/difficult/anxiety-ridden/hellish-like-no-other day I was having trying to deal with the idea of possibly never seeing him again, and I would think, “Well, hell. How much can I really talk about this without feeling like an ass? I get to sit here in my temperature controlled apartment, beer in the fridge, steak in the freezer, and no one outside trying to kill me. He has it worse than I do.“
To be honest, that thought was inspired not by what I actually believed, but by what I was afraid he would think as he read my letter. “Are you kidding?” I imagined him thinking. “At least you’re not HERE. Quit your whining.” (For the record, this is not something he ever actually thought.)
What I truly believed, and what I still believe, is that the war experiences of those who go and those who stay are not at all comparable, and not because one has it so much worse than the other, but because they are – for all of their similarities (something I’d like to get into in a later post, using Dave Grossman’s On Killing as a point of reference) – completely different.
To say the home front war experience is lacking compelling – not to mention worth-telling – elements compared to the weapons-war experience is a bit like saying a person who loses all four limbs has a less valuable story than the person who loses his or her mind. One is more physically violent than the other, but both have highly dramatic impact on the day-to-day life, relationships, interactions, perspectives, and outlook of the person experiencing the change.