Empathy for the Enemy: Where Soldiers Come From

Films about the human and fiscal costs of the American military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have been prevalent and popular since the country’s feeling towards the war began to sway from unchallenged support to skepticism and now to exhaustion. There are lots of them, from Hollywood blockbusters to intimate documentaries. But none I’ve seen are as thoughtful, nor as moving as Where Soldiers Come From, Heather Courtney’s lush, vibrant documentary about a group of friends (five in total, though the film focuses on the experiences of Cole Smith, Dominic “Dom” Fredianelli, and Matt “Bodi” Beaudoin) from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, who join the National Gaurd out of financial desperation and lack of employment opportunity and end up in Afghanistan just after the 2008 elections.

The film is of the highest cinematic quality, the natural beauty of the UP captured in stunning focus, the autumn trees exploding with color, the winter lakes frozen and stark, and the footage from the boy’s time in Afghanistan, where they performed daily patrols in armored vehicles searching out and detonating Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), is heart-stopping, terrifying.

The boys were not the stammering, uneducated hicks one expects from documentaries and Hollywood films about soldiers (think Stop-Loss, Brothers, Generation Kill), but instead eloquent, kind, thoughtful young men, particularly Dominic “Dom” Fredianelli, a young artist.

Cole and Bodi are empathetic, surely—they are confused, silly boys (which is not to their discredit—they should be boys). But Dom is capable at moments of Shakespearean emotion, or real reflection. Shortly after his truck is blown up by an IED, resulting in a concussion, a facial laceration and him being sent home briefly, Dom, in his calm and graceful manner, says “I didn’t know what compassion was until I came to Afghanistan. I never felt it.” He then goes on to empathize with the very people who are targeting him and his fellow soldiers with the makeshift bombs, asking himself what he would do if a foreign country invaded the United States and the rebels came knocking on his door and told him to shoot at a police car when it drove by or they would should his daughters and wife.

Dom inside an abandoned warehouse where throughout the film he paints murals and graffiti.

Dom’s ability to empathize with the Afghan people is humbling and is juxtaposed against the sentiments of Bodi, who during his tour was blown up 10 or so times and eventually not allowed to go out on patrol because he had suffered so many concussions. Bodi says he “heates Afghanistan, the people, the country.” He says since coming to Afghanistan he’s learned to hate more than he ever thought he would.

After nine months, the boys are relieved by another National Guard unit from Mississippi and briefly they speak with a young soldier who has returned to service after his civilian life fell apart and he lost his job. This seemed to me the very essence of the film: For many young men and women graduating high school or even college they are entering a world that has very little room for them employment-wise. They are left stranded, and for many stuck without anything to do the military becomes a very real and pleasant option.

Cole Smith being welcomed home from Afghanistan on “the greatest day of [his] life.”

Upon return, each of them faces different aftermaths, from struggling to get financial aid for college to suffering from Traumatic Brain Injuries and feeling more irritable and impatient, to suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Though none of the boys were killed or severely physically injured (as in, missing limbs, externally evident damage, etc.), the scars of battle are all over their faces. It’s in their eyes. They left bright-eyed boys and returned hardened, bitter young men without a clue what to do with themselves.

I can’t recommend the film enough. Go see it tonight at 8:30. You won’t be disappointed.

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