“Your real bare bones job is to go out and kill people.”
This is the epiphany that five soldiers, all survivors of different wars, reach in The Good Soldier. When the familiar rhetoric of honor, courage, valor, discipline and compassion are stripped away, what is left is a simple and disturbing fact: a soldier’s job is to kill.
The documentary film, directed by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys, explores this stark realization through interviews with soldiers spanning four different wars. Released last November and now available on DVD (watch trailer below), The Good Soldier underscores the essential unchanging inhumanity of one of humanity's most recurrent pursuits.
Army Private Edward Wood has a hole in his head from World War II that tore through his relationship with his family, and almost led him to suicide. Army Staff Sergeant Will Williams was overwhelmed with a sense of revenge after seeing a friend’s brains fall from his skull in Vietnam. Army Chief Warrant Officer Perry Parks slipped into alcohol and drug abuse after witnessing the “collateral damage” of his air raids over Vietnam. Army Captain Michael McPhearson fought in the Gulf War because there were no other options in his economically depressed hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina. U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey still lives with the guilt of opening fire on a crowd of unarmed protesters outside a military facility in Baghdad.
These five soldiers speak candidly about war, sparing no detail and fearing no reprisal. Their stories are horrifying. They saw men, women, and children die. They have killed in the name of duty. As they choked out their stories of falling into a spiral of revenge and bloodlust, a knot grew in my gut and tears welled in my eyes. Despite the intimate violence of their tales, I could not turn away from this film. Those of us who have never been to war can only imagine the horror. But these men have lived it, and this film captures their shame, guilt, and sorrow.
The Good Soldier is as blunt as the soldier’s stories, framing their words with file footage of explosions, gunfire, charred corpses and severed limbs. Footage from World War II to the Iraq War is paired with music (ranging from brass band, to Crosby Stills Nash and Young, to Nine Inch Nails) that fits the period as well as the blunt tone of the film, without ever distracting from the somber reality of destruction. The darker scenes—like when Massey recounts a story in which his squad opened fire on a red Kia that got too close to their Humvee, and then did not provide aid after realizing the victims were innocent—are not accompanied by music.
Besides causing and witnessing raw brutality as soldiers, what these five men share is atonement. They have all renounced war, and now fight for peace. Wood has written three books about war. Parks began attending anti-Iraq War rallies. Williams speaks out on behalf of the Peace Coalition. McPhearson is the executive director of Veterans for Peace. Massey is a founding member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Although explicit about war, The Good Soldier is, at its core, implicitly about peace. It dismantles the military’s romanticized notions of a “good soldier,” who in reality, is just a good killer. Although the military views soldiers as tools (as McPhearson puts it), the film reminds us that we must separate the warrior from the war and re-humanize our soldiers. If we ever hope to have a military as compassionate and caring as recruiting commercials portray, our soldiers must learn more than just killing. Otherwise all they will ever know is war, even if they do survive it.