Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience

Richard E. Robbins' aptly titled documentary “Operation Homeland” explores the personal accounts of American troops by using their own words. The film is built upon the Operation Homecoming initiative created by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to gather the writing of soldiers (and their families), who have fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Through interviews and dramatic readings by such actors as Robert Duvall, Josh Lucas, Beau Bridges, Blair Underwood, Justin Kirk, Aaron Eckhart, Chris Gorham and John Krasinski, the docu transforms selections from this collection into an examination of the subjective experiences of the men and women serving in U.S. armed forces, while providing context to these experiences through a broader look at the universal themes of war literature, a growing genre.

The writing in the docu is diverse, covering poetry, fiction, memoir, letters, journals, and essays. The stories recounted are by turns sad, funny, violent, and uplifting. Yet each one displays honesty and intensity rarely seen in other explorations of the war. Through this cross-section of men and women, it offers a window into the human side of America's current conflicts. “Operation Homeland” also includes interviews with American war writers from other conflicts, including Tim O'Brien, James Salter, and Anthony Swofford (whose book has been made into the film “Jarhead”)

NEA's Operation Homecoming initiative has collected thousands of pieces of writing from service members and their families. The film takes a handful of this writing as a central element, presenting readings of the soldiers' words. These readings are brought to the screen though a variety of techniques that avoid recreations. Some stories are told through archival news images of the war, while others use visual images and montages to accompany the words of a poem. A few employ illustration or animated still photographs, though always rooted in the writers' original words.

As expected, many of them voice complaints about their experiences abroad and at home: unexpected and even forced recruitment into the war effort, the inevitable endurance of boredom and emotional trauma, the expectation to be thanked when returning home, and the disappointment by the actual reaction.

At the core of the writing is a need to come to terms with their painful and emotional experiences. The soldiers, young and old, express their hopes that people will listen to their stories and try to understand what they have seen. As with other war writers, going back to the “Iliad,” the soldier-writers here are trying to find meaning in the chaos and brutality of war. In this respect, the film tries to put a humanizing look at those who suffer the dehumanization of war.

The works selected for the film vary a great deal in quality, though they are all vividly descriptive and draw you right in. Some of the writings are fairly trite, replete with clichs. Camp Muckamungus is Parker Gyokeres attempt at a humorous letter home, but it's mostly pointless, potentially trivializing of the servicemens experience. In contrast, Mike Strobls Taking Chance emerges as one of the most memorable piece, detailing his journey that accompanies a fallen solders remains across the country for a hometown burial.

“Operation Homeland” belongs to a growing body of war docus that includes Gunner Palace, The War Tapes and The Ground Truth, though Robbins film has a narrower scope, in its exclusive focus on the troops literary endeavors.
End Note

“Operation Homecoming” is part of the series America at a Crossroads, broadcasting on PBS in 2007. Funding was provided by The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Boeing Company, and the Independent Television Service.

Making his first feature, Richard E. Robbins, an award-winning producer and director, has been making documentaries for PBS, cable, and network TV for more than a decade. He is a veteran of ABC News and PBS's Frontline. From 1998 to 2004 he made docus for Peter Jennings at ABC News, covering such subjects as the war in Afghanistan, the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan, and gang wars in Los Angeles. Robbins is a founding member of The Documentary Group.

The Documentary Group

The Documentary Group was founded by the core members of PJ Productions, following the death of broadcaster Peter Jennings, in 2005. They are dedicated to continuing the tradition of responsible and powerful docus that Jennings had made a major part of his journalistic career.

Credits

Running time: 81 Minutes.