The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News March 7, 2008

Iraq Documentary Brings War Experience Home

“War is a passage. Whether you live or whether you die,” writes US Army Reserve Staff Sergeant Jack Lewis, who has served in Mosul and Tal Afar. “If you undergo a change that significant, it’s a story you feel like you have to tell in a way.”

Executive Producer Tom Yellin and a team of filmmakers have captured those stories and writings and set them to film. Operation Homecoming: Writing the War Experience began as a PBS documentary but quickly became a critically-acclaimed Oscar nominee.

Yellin spoke at a film screening in West Lecture Hall on Wednesday evening as part of the College’s three-part speaker series on the Iraq war. 

The audience watched in silence as soldiers’ stories and poems, originally collected by the National Endowment for the Arts, unfolded though animations, reenactments and real-life footage addressing death, killing, boredom, homecoming and other issues.

“What was most interesting to me was to discover how complicated it is for them to deal with the kinds of things and choices you have to make when you’re in the military,” Yellin said. “It’s the sense of not knowing that you have to live with [it] for your entire life. You’ve engaged in war activities and you don’t know whether or not what you did was justified.”

Yellin wanted to make sure that the soldiers’ messages made it to the rest of the country.

In Oberlin, the proportion of people familiar with the military is likely to be even less than in the rest of the United States; a quick search of Oberlin’s alumni database reveals that about 100 Oberlin alumni, including both recent graduates and venerable professionals, currently serve in the armed forces in a myriad of positions.

However, many of the people serving as soldiers are around college age.  “As one of the…writers says in the film, we’re asking 18 and 19 and 20 year olds to do things that essentially put them in conflict with their own values,” said Yellin, adding that his perspective has changed since his children, including College first-year Isabel Yellin, have grown.

Asked about recruitment on college campuses, like the full-page ad for the armed forces the Review printed a few weeks ago, Yellin said Oberlin students should remember that many people in the military are not as different from Oberlin students as they may think, and that it’s important for the military to be diverse.

“If you think that it is appropriate for our country to have armed forces, and I believe that it is appropriate, then I think recruiting from all segments of society is really valuable, including college campuses,” he said, “Two of the writers [in the movie] had college experiences that were very similar to Oberlin. One of them graduated from Dartmouth.”

 “One of the things I would urge students here to do is find a way to spend time around people who serve in the military…. I think more interaction would be very valuable, because my sense, having spent a lot of time around people in the US military, is that as a group they are more reflective, more mature than a lot of other people of similar age partly because of things that they have to deal with,” said Yellin. 

“And I am very opposed to war,” added Yellin. “I think war is a terrible thing.  I’ve seen it up close.  It really should be the very, very, very last solution…but I think much of the responsibility for that doesn’t lie with people who have served in the military.”

Yellin emphasized that expressing the reality of war and agreeing with its politics are vastly different.

“I’m far less interested for the purposes of this film in the politics of the war in Iraq than I am in the experience for the people who participate and also in the kind of great tradition and artistic expression…. Lots of art is inspired by intense human experience,” he said.

The film’s artwork certainly brought Operation Homecoming’s message home for Oberlin students.  “The experiences involved are so singular,” said College first-year Sophie Miles. “I don’t think they could have been explained in any other way than through the words of the people who lived it.”


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