Where Soldiers Come From, the latest in a slew of documentaries about American military recruits muddling through a tour of duty in Afghanistan, pointedly enters theaters as we observe another anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. But the film's true historical referent is the end of the Vietnam War, when U.S. soldiers returned home to a thundering silence — or, from certain quarters, to outright hostility. Today, to judge by the swelling torrent of nonfiction films bearing witness to the plight of the American grunt in and after Iraq and Afghanistan, we can't apologize enough for blaming the messengers.
Helped along by advances in digital technology, just about anyone with airfare and a camera can tag along with an Army unit these days and follow it home. But though it's essential to keep asking what we're fighting for — as most of these documentaries do —there's an inevitable risk of mediocrity in numbers. There's also the risk of blunting our sympathies: No matter how urgent the narrative of comradeship under fire — nor how frustrating the return home to five minutes of glory and a lifetime of struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and inadequate support services — its endless repetition courts indifference.
Up to a point, Where Soldiers Come From covers that familiar ground in a familiar way. Heather Courtney, who wrote, co-edited, shot and produced the film, rode a bomb-sweeper with a small band of National Guardsmen from the small town of Hancock, in Michigan's beautiful Upper Peninsula. With them she endured the tedium of waiting, the terror of undetected roadside bombs blowing up in their faces, the creeping disillusion when they saw no progress in a war whose purpose they had understood only imperfectly, if at all.
What's different, as the film's title suggests, is Courtney's focus on the modest community that raised these young men, whose families defy stereotype about the demographics of non-officer Army recruitment. Neither Dom, a sensitive lad studying graphic art in college, nor Cole, an easygoing everyman with a penchant for stand-up comedy, joined up to escape troubled childhoods. Their reasons were practical and banal — a recruiter's promise of a fat signing bonus and college tuition, the absence of any other career plans — and their decisions taken with what seems a hair-raising lightness.
Both were raised in solid, loving, working-class families — one military, one not — in a stable environment. (As stable, anyway, as a town can be when it's had to remake itself from mining town to tourist hub, and when cycles of recession have left the lucky ones working two jobs.) Parents and girlfriends — patriots all, yet disgusted with the Bush administration and hopeful, on the eve of the 2008 elections, about a promised Obama troop drawdown — are far from thrilled about the boys' decision. But they throw their collective weight behind them.
No doubt the fact that Courtney herself grew up in northern Michigan helped open up these self-effacing citizens, so clearly unaccustomed to explaining themselves. The director has a storyteller's grasp of the telling detail: the carefree dive into Lake Superior; a farewell cake iced with thanks for the boys' upcoming service; the Army educator who, shepherding recruits through a month's perfunctory training, can't pronounce the name of Afghanistan's president. She draws sharp contrasts between snowy rural Michigan and the parched mountainous terrain where the boys serve, charts their eventual return home to run-ins with G.I. Bill bureaucrats, details their struggles with traumatic brain injury — the legacy of repeated concussions even in soldiers who don't suffer a direct hit.
More than most documentaries on the subject, Where Soldiers Come From builds a world for these young men and watches it turn upside down, reframing itself slowly and painfully around the unforeseen consequences of snap decisions. Offering no commentary, Courtney positions herself as an observer, yet her choice of moments to capture leaves us in no doubt where she stands.
"Hearts and minds," Dom murmurs with heavy irony as he hands out candy to Afghan children, and Courtney keeps the camera running when his friend Bodi erupts into a bitter tirade. Openly admitting that he hates Afghanistan and its people, he insists that the Army has turned him into an all-American racist.
For Dom, stricken with TBI, there will be relief through his art and a neatly redemptive ending to the movie. But it's Bodi's desperate, abandoned rant that will echo in our minds, the unofficial voice behind the official remembrances of Sept. 11.