SXSW: <i>Where Soldiers Come From</i> and the Myth of Small Town America

This film affected me in a deeply significant way. Much like these kids, I grew up in the country. Options were few; you could try to find a minimum wage job, or if you were lucky, you could take over the family business or farm.
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I recently had the opportunity to see an early version of Heather Courtney's new documentary, Where Soldiers Come From, a deeply emotional film following a group of young men from the Upper Peninsula (UP) who enlist in the Michigan National Guard following high school, and find themselves in the midst of the war in Afghanistan. The film itself is moving and well-made, contrasting the lives of working class rural young Americans, many of whom have few options in their communities, with the stark reality of war.

In full disclosure, Heather is a close family friend. In all honesty, that has nothing to do with the power of this film. I suppose it affected me in a deeply significant way. Much like these kids -- and they are kids when they enlist, but not when they come home -- I grew up in the country, in my case the foothills of the Ozarks in Arkansas on a dairy farm. Options were few; you could try to find a minimum wage job, or if you were lucky, you could take over the family business or farm. Sadly for many in working class rural America, Wal-Mart has managed to wipe out most small family businesses, and agribusiness, with farm subsidies that only go to their 'industry' destroyed the family farm. I joined the Arkansas National Guard in the Cold War, and it helped to pay for college. Later, I went on active duty in the US Army, and spent another 20 years (and three wars) in the service.

When I see these young citizen-soldiers, it reminds me that we, as a country, still have not addressed the plight of rural America. Other than the well-received Winter's Bone and platitudes about small town values, Hollywood and Washington have ignored the impact of joblessness and drug abuse on small town U.S.A. Much like the crack epidemic in ethnic inner city neighborhoods in the 1980's, drugs like meth are destroying the "small town America" that some, especially on the right, believe exists just beyond the suburbs. Joblessness, thanks to big box stores and outsourcing of jobs overseas, is at record levels. Where Soldiers Come From reminds us that we, the citizens who send our young men and women off to war, owe them not only salaries, GI Bills, and health care, but we owe them more options than military service alone. For me, I was a professional soldier -- I knew what was expected of me, and was more than willing to do the job. The Army was my home, my family, and made me who I am today... but I knew that it would also make demands, perhaps even the ultimate demand, in exchange.

Like I did in the 1980's, Heather's powerful film shows what few options remain to decent, hard-working young Americans. The young men in the film are not a polyglot squad from a World War II movie. There is no Jewish kid from New York, no knife-loving Hispanic kid from Puerto Rico, etc. Their story is real, not an idealized vision of war for public consumption. Viewers from their generation will see themselves in many of the scenes, listening to their Ipods, playing Xbox, etc. In contrast to the excellent Restrepo , which I am sure it will be compared to, Where Soldiers Come From is less a combat documentary than a 'quest story' in the traditional sense. For the soldiers in the documentary, it seems as if they have few choices that remain after high school, and that they go because they have few choices -- not that they wanted to serve as professional soldiers (as National Guard soldiers, and in no disrespect to our fine Guardsmen and women, they aren't 'full time lifers' like the Regular Army troops in Restrepo). While combat and violence are important in the film, it is the story of these young men, traveling from the lakes and woods of the UP to the valleys and villages of Afghanistan, and back home again, that is the real tale.

If you are in Austin next week, be sure to watch this important film. Watch it not only because it is fine documentary by an experienced and talented filmmaker, and not only because it is a film about men in war, but watch it and think, "could we have done more for them and their communities, given them more choices before they left, and how can we help them when they come home?"

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