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Documentaries make war a bitter reality

October 14, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

A maxim tells us that it takes a nation to declare a war but that it takes men to fight one. So who are these men and what are their fears and dreams? It's been a topic for consideration since before Homer.

Now come two television documentaries that, while not epic, provide a close-up and compelling look at who serves and who sacrifices when America goes to war. In one, the war has been over for three decades, in the other, it still rages -- but in both cases the emotions are raw.

Each of the documentaries shows what a battlefield looks like from ground level and how frightened families back home pray for the best and prepare for the worst.

First comes Saturday's premiere on the Discovery Channel of the second season of "Off to War: The Story of the Arkansas National Guard's Journey to Iraq."

With nearly half of the U.S. troops in Iraq coming from the National Guard and Reserves, "Off to War" has front-page timeliness. In the first nine months of this year, 220 guards and reservists have been killed; almost 500 in all since the U.S. moved to topple Saddam Hussein.

Filmmaking brothers Brent and Craig Renaud have focused on 57 members of the Arkansas National Guard and the families they left behind in rural Clarksville. The result is a realism that is candid and even painful at times to watch.

Some of the Guardsmen believe in the U.S. mission in Iraq. Others do not. None appears to have any faith in the Iraqi army.

"I don't think these people appreciate anything we're doing," Spc. Matt Hertlein says of the Iraqis. "They just want to watch us die. It makes me sick." Spc. Thomas Erp is equally bleak: "They stare at you with those blank faces and empty eyes. They don't want us here, and I don't blame them."

The troops stay sharp while searching for that hidden bombs or the car that might be driven by a jihadist bent on suicide.

Some of the more emotionally powerful moments involve the troops' families. One marriage appears to be crumbling under the weight of distance and suspicion.

Hovering over the troops and their families is a vague sense of having been tricked by a bait-and-switch scheme. Most never realized that part-time duty in the National Guard could morph into full-time deployment.

One of the heroes of "Off to War" is Lana Irelan, whose husband, Sgt. Wayne Irelan, was badly wounded and is now home and undergoing medical treatment. Her son, Donny, has been booted out of the military and is moving home with his wife and child. Lana is battling for government benefits. The camera follows her as a doctor tells her that her husband will never recover the use of his arm.

"We have a sticker on our car that says, 'Freedom is not free,' " Lana says, her voice trembling. "It's not."

On Monday, "Two Days in October," taken from journalist David Maraniss' book "They Marched Into Sunlight," deals with a war as different in its terrain and geopolitical assumptions as the desert is different from the jungle.

Still, the damage done to men and women in combat and their families at home remain unchanged.

"Two Days" tells the story of an Army patrol in Vietnam that, in October 1967, was ambushed by the Vietcong. The patrol route had been ordered by a light colonel eager to please an important general who was eager to please an even more important general. Misgivings by a company commander about the route were dismissed.

The result was a disaster. "It sounded like every weapon in the world was being fired from all directions on us," says medic Tom Hinger. The Army brass duped the media into thinking the patrol was a smashing success.

In retelling the ill-fated mission through the eyes of survivors -- both American and Vietnamese -- "Two Days" is heart-pounding in its intensity and attention to detail.

Embedded within is the emotionally wrenching story of the patrol commander's shattered marriage -- his wife was suing for divorce, unable to take the strain of an Army marriage. After the shooting stopped, the body of Lt. Col. Terry Allen, the son of a World War II general, was found clutching a picture of his three daughters.

The literary conceit of the Maraniss book, and the documentary, is that there is a rough equivalency between the 64 soldiers killed in the patrol and 65 students injured a day later at the University of Wisconsin when police used teargas and batons to break up a peaceful antiwar protest.

Some people will buy that parallelism, others will not. It probably depends on how you define sacrifice.


'American Experience: Two Days in October'

Where: KCET

When: Monday 9 p.m.

Ratings: TV-PG-VL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for violence and coarse language)

Executive producer: Mark Samels. Producer and director: Robert Kenner. Telescript: Allen Rucker. Story by: Allen Rucker and Paul Taylor. Based on "They Marched Into Sunlight" by David Maraniss.


'Off to War'

Where: Discovery Times Channel

When: 10 p.m. Saturday

Ratings: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

Producers Brent and Craig Renaud. Executive producer Jon Alpert. Executive producers for Discovery Times Channel Bill Smee, Diana Sperrazza and Vivian Schiller.

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