The small town of Hancock in Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula is a land of snow drifts, saw mills and economic decline. It’s the kind of place where abandoned factories become teenage hangouts. Five years ago, U.P. native-turned-Austinite Heather Courtney returned home with a notion about shooting a documentary that would capture a truth about small-town American life. The result was a story about three best friends in their early 20s who joined the Michigan National Guard and were sent to fight in Afghanistan. Dom, Cole and Bodi had no hardened sense of patriotism or lust to right historical wrongs. Like so many young people before and after them, they enlisted not out of any sense of duty or righteousness, but for the promise of $20,000 a year and a free college education. They signed up for a way out.
Her remarkable documentary Where Soldiers Come From (being broadcast Nov. 10 on PBS’ POV) follows Dom, Cole and Bodi from the shores of Lake Superior to the mountains of Afghanistan, where they subsist on a steady diet of violence and boredom. The boys pass their nine-month deployment running road-clearance missions in armored vehicles, spotting and detonating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) so that other vehicles can pass safely. With alarming frequency, the devices explode under the road-clearing vehicles. Embedded with the soldiers’ unit, using cameras placed in their helmets, on the hoods of their vehicles, and perched on their gun turrets, Courtney gives us a first-person view of routine violence that is surreal enough to pass for a video game.
With all that footage of exploding mines and firefights, Courtney could easily have turned her film into an extended lecture about the absurdity of the war in Afghanistan or a condemnation of the administration that got us bogged down there. But George W. Bush is barely mentioned. And aside from a few scenes from election night 2008, when the men and their families express hope that Barack Obama will start bringing troops home—and footage of those same people a year later watching President Obama announce the deployment of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan—Where Soldiers Come From is free of polemics.
If the film can be said to have a political agenda, it’s a politics of cynical humanism. This attitude is best exemplified by Dom, who begins to suspect early in his tour that being a soldier in the Afghanistan war is no better than being a pawn in a meaningless, unending game of chess, and that his country believes his life is worth only the $20,000 a year he is paid. It’s a depressing thought, but no more depressing than the realization that he may very well be killing and dying for nothing.
But cynical humanism needs its humanism, too. The movie’s pivotal scene, in which Dom writes his family about discovering and disarming an IED planted on an Afghani family farm, is a rare moment of moral awakening at the movies. Rejecting clichés about patriotism and heroism, Dom admits that the impoverished farm owner who was dragged off to prison by American soldiers as a result of Dom’s efforts probably planted that IED because the Taliban had either given him an ultimatum or offered him more money than he could refuse. Circumstances beyond that farmer’s control—war, poverty, history—had left him with no other option, the same way circumstances beyond Dom’s control left him with no option but to enlist.
Finding that kind of empathy for one’s “enemy” in the middle of a war is a minor miracle, not to mention a remarkable stroke of luck for Courtney: It’s a rare documentary filmmaker who’s fortunate enough to be present at the moment her subject’s worldview is transformed. But that’s exactly what the war, and returning home, did to Dom, Cole and Bodi: events forced them to start their lives over again, twice. Unfortunately, their lives upon returning to Michigan weren’t much different from the ones they’d left, aside from a few troubling new concerns like traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, endless trips to VA hospitals, drinking, depression and anxiety. Not to mention a lingering sense that their ability to handle those problems and integrate back into quiet civilian life had been left somewhere in the sands of Afghanistan. As Bodi says while driving to the latest in a series of doctor’s appointments, “I’d rather just be back in Afghanistan. Life is easier. All you have to worry about is getting shot at or blown up.”