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"It's very easy to see what the MOD are afraid of". Irene McMillian, part of the team behind David Modell's 'Stories of Separation', describes the obstacles faced in the making of the films.
The Making of War Torn
"We are lacking manpower. Desperately need more helicopters... the RAF have been utterly, utterly useless."
When Major James Lodon's emails were leaked to the press in September in which he described the shortcomings of the British forces in Afghanistan, they attracted a great deal of attention from the media. It's highly unusual for any soldier, particularly a high-ranking one, to present such negative and forthright views from the front line. The result was an embarrassment to the government and to the MOD. It was news over which they had no control. News they didn't want anyone to hear.
Events like this don't have to be so embarrassing for the MOD. It is because opinions are so rarely given by serving soldiers that when they are, they carry enormous weight. We know that if a soldier puts himself on the line by making his views public, then he must hold those views very strongly.
When David Modell and I set about contacting the families of soldiers currently serving in Iraq with a view to publishing extracts of correspondence between themselves and their sons and daughters for this series of short films about the effect absence has on both the families and the soldiers, we found the responses surprising.
Dealing with subject matter like this is always going to be difficult. Some people will want to keep their letters private or may fear they contain compromising information they don't want to be made public.
There are also so many diverse ways of communicating now - mobiles, phone texts, emails and the mre traditional forces airmail - that it is not always possible to retain the communication.
What we found to be the greatest obstacle to reporting the correspondence was not the transitory nature of it, it was the fear of the imagined consequences for the soldiers if they indulged in candid expression of their thoughts and feelings.
Letters to and from home do not always contain accounts of a living hell or dramatic events. Some soldiers actively enjoy their time away. Moreover, soldiers are told to keep their letters cheery and not to dwell on the war too much. As a result, the letters can reveal the mundane, everyday goings on of life, told from two very different viewpoints. Some letters really don't mention the war at all. It seemed bizarre that the soliders would object to apparently harmless correspondence being published.
The United States has recently published a book of letters between soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. It promises to be the most honest account of life in the armed forces as told through correspondence. Stories of fear, heartache, the brutality of war and the physical and mental toll war takes. This is not a book that claims to gloss over the realities of war and steer clear of the negative effects both on those fighting and those waiting at home. We are now familiar with the letters from the Vietnam War, but the publishing of those letters was only made possible by the fact that it was all done after the event. What is interesting and unique about this book is that it has been compiled and published while the war is still being fought.
More interesting still is the fact that the book was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and therefore indirectly funded by central government. The US military don't appear to be in any way threatened by this honest reporting. There seems to be little concern that such accounts will dent the public's perception of the conflict or create a negative view of the government.
It may be that the reason for this is the general sense of openness about the military in the United States. There is a large number of netweks for the forces that anyone can easily tap into. The number of military groups and organisations is huge.
By contrast, the military in this country has always been much more secretive. We are more likely to forget about the families back home, only to be reminded when a soldier is killed. But the majority of those families whose loved ones are fighting for their country do not have to deal with death. Their children and partners will come home. It is perhaps the sense of being out on a limb with no support that is the most difficult for families. There are only a few groups and networks here. What we found is that families are desperate for a degree of support that really doesn't exist. We spoke to people who were connected to groups like Military Families Against the War who themselves were not against the war at all. They just wanted to be in touch with other people going through the same experiences.
Here everything goes on behind closed doors. Many of the parents I spoke to want the public to understand what life is like for them and those at war and were only too happy to share their letters, only to be shocked by the absolute refusal to cooperate by their children. This left many parents bewildered and unable to understand such a high level of hostility to the idea. Some parents were threatened with no more letters, or a considerable censoring of information.
This lack of forthcoming isn't simply about the British tradition of keeping a stiff upper lip.
In some ways, it's very easy to see what the MOD are afraid of: a dent in morale, loss of public confidence in the armed forces and in the government, confidential information getting out. But is is the attempts to keep such a tight lid on things that leads to an outpouring of public concern when information does emerge. It is the rarity of these accounts that leads to the public perception of them as negative.
To deny the ability to allow people to express their thoughts and feelings is to fail to acknowledge that they have those feelings at all. Dani-Hamilton Bing's 19 year old son is in Iraq. She describes how it feels to be a mother when your child is a long long way away and experiencing things that she knows he can never tell her about. Often, the things that are not spoken of are as telling as those that are. The emotions she describes are easily understood because they are common feelings, and she needs and wants to talk about them.
It was already difficult for soldiers to voice their opinions about the experiences, but since those emails came out of Afghanistan, it will be increasingly difficult for soldiers to express their thoughts while they are still serving. At the time, the MOD described the leaked emails as moving accounts of battle life, but 'unfortunate'. I spoke with an ex-soldier who informed my that everyone in their squadron had been told to keep quiet. If any had been found, directly or indirectly, talking to the press, then there would very definitely be consequences for their careers in the army.
What would be the harm in revealing the human side of war? The long absences of loved ones, the loneliness, the joy at having your son, daughter, husband or wifre return hom to you safely, or the heartache of never seeing them again. Like any parent or partner, they just want their loved ones home. But wanting his doesn't automatically amount to an anti-war sentiment. Those who don't get their loved ones back are strangely often the ones who find it easier to talk more openly about how they feel. They are less threatening. The MOD can always look upon them as being driven by the personal bitterness of grief, so they can be critical of the armed forces. That's okay. They are not going to embarrass anyone.
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