About twenty years ago I had a neighbor who was a Viet Nam veteran. He was a personable man with a calm manner who was raising his seven-year-old son by himself. I remember he liked to watch Rumpole on PBS and grow gourds in his garden. He was full-blooded Apache, and had lived on the reservation until he enlisted in the military fresh out of high school. One day, he told me a story that has stuck in my mind ever since.While in Viet Nam, his commander had ordered all the men in his platoon to go into a Vietnamese village, enter each hut one by one, and murder all the occupants inside. In the first hut my neighbor entered he found an old woman standing by a stove, an old man sitting in a chair, and a young boy of about seven seated opposite the old man. My neighbor approached each one in turn, put a gun to their heads, and pulled the trigger. He murdered the boy last, a youngster who had just witnessed the deaths of his grandparents. My neighbor had done as he was ordered without thought or hesitation.
This gentle neighbor of mine, with whom I passed pleasantries, and who seemed to be a fine father to his own seven-year-old son, a man who patched his roof and waved at passersby and brought me leftover slices of birthday cake, was also a killer. Not some Jekyll and Hyde personality, but simply a soldier in time of war. He said that in the intervening years not a day went by when he didn’t think of the murders he had committed. And he said maybe raising his own son would make up for the child he murdered. I never did see how having a child, something he might have done anyway, made up for the annihilation of another child, but his story offered insights into the ways war transforms human beings and the toll it takes on their lives when they return home.
A new generation of troops now fills my neighbor’s shoes and those of his platoon buddies. The human experience of bearing the extreme circumstances of war, of assimilating the atrocities troops are sometimes forced to commit and the atrocities that are committed against them, is the subject of Brothers, a film by director Jim Sheridan and written by David Benioff. Brothers is an undeniably powerful film that stuns the viewer at every turn with scenes of raw emotion and wrenching conflict, scenes delivered in no-holds-barred performances by a superb acting ensemble.
Tobey Maguire stars as Sam Cahill, a diehard family man and marine about to leave for Afghanistan for the fourth time. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Sam’s younger brother Tom, a directionless young man fresh out of jail for petty theft. Natalie Portman plays the military wife and mother with the honesty and seasoned depth we expect from her. Sam Shepherd is solid and complex as the brothers’ ex-military father. Two superb child actors, Bailey Madison and Taylor Grace Geare, play Sam’s young daughters.
(Warning: If you haven't seen the movie, the following summary reveals aspects of the plot).
As the film opens, Sam is spending time with his wife and daughters, all of whom suffer in their separate ways at the specter of Sam’s departure. Sam’s father, Hank, remains stoic all through a family goodbye dinner in which his younger son Tom is all but persona non grata at the family table, openly expressing his disapproval of Tom and comparing him to his older brother. Once Sam leaves for his tour of duty, however, Tom begins a slow maturation as he steps in to help Sam’s wife, Grace, and provide absent-fathering to his two nieces. When news comes that Sam has been killed, Tom’s involvement helps keep the family together, despite his own grief.
But unbeknownst to the family, Sam is not dead. He and a hometown buddy, Joe, have been captured by Afghan fighters. Under torture, Joe eventually buckles. But Sam maintains his wits--until he is ordered to kill Joe or be killed himself. Sam makes his choice in a harrowing scene, is later rescued, and returns home to his wife and children, nearly emaciated and hopelessly traumatized with guilt and shock.
In one of the most wrenching scenes of the film, Sam looks on as Grace is visited by Joe’s widow and young infant, knowing full well that it was he who murdered her husband and left her child fatherless. Soon after this he implodes in an unforgettable scene of unremitting agony that ends with his attempted suicide and being hauled off to a psychiatric facility. And though he eventually confides to Grace, whether he will be able to heal psychologically, and what the ramifications are for his life and the well-being of his family, is left unanswered. The film closes on Sam and Grace seated on a bench outside the psychiatric facility, leaning into each other against the freezing backdrop of a Minnesota winter.
Brothers takes on special meaning in light of the recent decision by President Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan, a happenstance the producers of the film could not have known during filming. But the human toll of war, not only in terms of loss of life, but in terms of the irrevocable soul-destruction of the survivors, is brought to full relevance in Brothers. As movie goers, we are offered an opportunity to take action simply by witnessing the stories of those who have participated in war and whose lives have been irreversibly changed by it, reminding us how vital it is that we not turn our backs on the war experience, that we listen to our neighbors as they tell their stories, even if the story they tell is heart-wrenching, or cowardly, or cruel. The war experience varies for each of our troops--not to mention civilians caught in the midst of battle—and their responses differ depending on their individual makeup. In Brothers, the protagonist murders one of his own but only under duress by Afghan militants. In that sense, the movie plays it safe politically. However, I recently watched a documentary on PBS that showed a Viet Nam veteran, now in his sixties, admitting that for him killing had been addictive and who returned to Viet Nam a second time for the chance to kill legally. A veteran of Iraq admitted to killing unarmed civilians. Not a pleasant thing to hear, but the plasticity of the human psyche, horrific as it can be, is a subject we must consider as we watch ordinary young men and women, people with hopes and futures, return home changed, or damaged, sometimes with inclinations akin to criminals, or bearing a host of horrific memories for the rest of their lives. And whatever their experience, may we all listen.