War films help entertain, but disturb some

Movies can help ease fear, others reminded of family back home

Dead For Hussein

March 18, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait - Daniel Clink quit high school because it seemed pointless, but pointless turned out to be flipping pancakes at IHOP. So at 17, he joined the Army, left, then joined again.

Now 23, he is a pink-skinned private first class who imitates Arnold Schwarzenegger, dreams of a proper honeymoon with his wife at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville and awaits his first taste of war.

Never so close to combat in his life, Clink is looking to Hollywood for insight, and maybe a little motivation, as war with Iraq draws near.

On a cool desert night, he and three other real-life soldiers huddle around a glowing laptop screen to watch pretend soldiers play war in We Were Soldiers. It is a gory movie about Vietnam that glorifies camaraderie but not combat.

Clink finds it partly disturbing and partly inspiring, but altogether moving. "It's different watching it back home, where it's more for entertainment," he says afterward. "Here we're in the situation. This is reality."

Soldiers have long watched war films, but never has it been so easy in a war zone. Laptops that can play DVDs are turning dusty tents into home theaters, and much of what's playing has a martial bent, from Gladiator to The Patriot to Vietnam films.

Some soldiers say they are merely trying to pass the time and do not identify with the movie characters. They are just as happy to take in a mindless comedy.

Others say these war films fill important roles: They link soldiers to their Army predecessors. They vividly portray the strain on wives left behind. They underscore the value of teamwork. And they give some idea, albeit small, of what combat might be like.

"That's mainly for the younger guys," says Lt. David Lavelle, an ex-Special Forces member who has seen combat. "Guys who have been shot at prefer to watch funny movies."

But the Army psychologist who counsels the 101st Airborne Division says it is perfectly healthy for newer soldiers to imitate art imitating life, and death.

"It is a way to prepare for what is going to come up," says Capt. David Boyer, who is 35 and a Persian Gulf war veteran. "You don't want to shelter them."

For some soldiers, he says, "it gives them that pumped up feeling, that adrenaline rush, the `hooah' feeling."

Despite the carnage, he says, such films can also help ease the fears of war, much in the way someone with a snake phobia might feel better by being in a room with them and emerging none the worse.

And if one of these movies spurs the opposite effect on a soldier, that would be useful, too. "If they indeed are completely freaked out," Boyer says, "we need to know that now, before they get down range."

So far, troops seem to be holding up well, he says.

Boyer was an enlisted soldier during the gulf war and recalls watching Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and Gung Ho. Back then, troops had to go to the television tent to pop a tape into the VCR.

Now they can watch from the comfort of their own hooch. There are three laptops in the 15-by-30-foot tent Clink shares with 14 others. On this night, the Dell becomes the movie projector.

We Were Soldiers is based on a fierce firefight in 1965 between the United States and North Vietnamese forces. Though badly outnumbered, the Americans held the "hot" landing zone. They were led by Lt. Col. Hal Moore, played by Mel Gibson. The movie is based on the book, We Were Soldiers Once, and Young.

The DVD box describes it as an "action-packed war movie that features explosive sequences, thrilling aerial photography and unforgettable military heroes who fought for their country, their loved ones and their freedom."

The four soldiers say little during the film. Pfc. Michael Rossignol, 21, watches with his chin in his palm. Sgt. 1st Class Dale Ernst, a 40-year-old gulf veteran and Spc. Carlos Raimundi, 21, both stare straight ahead. Clink swings his legs back and forth as if trying to shake loose nervous energy.

One scene after another is filled with brutal fighting. Men burn alive, lose a limb, take bullets to the head and die grisly deaths. In other scenes, their wives emerge from tidy homes on tree-lined streets to learn their fate via Western Union telegram.

Ernst, a lanky, quick-talking Texan who lectures young soldiers for not cleaning their feet, says he treats movies as pleasant diversions from the tedium of the desert.

"I've been in long enough, and been through this before, that I know not to take it to heart," he says. "If they start taking it to heart, guys will only get depressed and worried about home. It doesn't do anybody any good."

The others do take it to heart, though.

Rossignol is a quiet man who plays a fantasy card game by himself late at night and just re-read Catcher in the Rye. What hits him most is not the battle footage but the poignant wife scenes.

"That kind of gets to me because I have an 18-month-old daughter, with one on the way," he says. His wife, Candace, is due any day.

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