Unknown Soldiers

Is there a G-8 nation that does not, as a matter of course, mine its military as a subject for popular fiction in film and television?

As the world knows, the United States certainly does.  The list of movies and TV programs America has made about the Second Iraq War alone is already as long as your arm, from the hastily made TV movie Saving Jessica Lynch, to the Steven Bochco series Over There, from Stop-Loss to Generation Kill to The Hurt Locker, winner of the 2010 Academy Award for Best Picture.

From their most ancient military engagements to their most recent, almost all G-8 nations grapple with the memory of their soldiers in armed conflict: their triumphant victories, their tragic losses, the cost of their profession, to themselves and to others.  The British do it, the French do it, the Italians do it, even the Japanese do it.

Some of these popular entertainments valorize the military.  Some are scathing critiques.  Some attempt to document the horror and futility of war.  Some try to show how honour and courage are still possible even in the face of sheer terror.  Others hope for no more than to illustrate what war does to people, even to those who aren’t combatants.

All of them, in one way or another, are attempts to reproduce the experience of war, and so make an audience that may never have been in combat feel what it is like.  If only in that regard, they are all doomed to failure, because it cannot be done.  The HBO series Band of Brothers is as good a depiction of war on the screen as has ever been achieved.  As skilfully as the jeopardy might be rendered, it is still after all only jeopardy for the characters on the screen.  And thank god for that.  Any entertainment that truly reproduced the experience of war and combat would be unwatchable.  It would be unthinkable.

But all of these entertainments are nonetheless necessary.  They are means by which a society confronts its military actions, for good and for ill.  The same United States that made John Wayne’s Vietnam war movie The Green Berets also made Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Apocalypse Now, and The Phil Silvers (Sgt. Bilko) Show. Whether they are jingoistic screeds, baleful laments or absurdist comedies, they are invitations to a culture to consider an aspect of itself, and one every bit as important as the other staples of prime-time entertainment: the police, the judiciary, the intelligence apparatus, or the health care system.

And why not?  As narrative material, the combat services are just as laced with jeopardy as any cop show, any lawyer show, or any hospital melodrama – only more so.  It would be odd, would it not, if a nation quite pointedly ignored its military past and present when it got around to making dramatic entertainment?

Alone among the G-8 nations, Canada apparently has no great appetite for making war movies.  It is not a country with much of an appetite for making war either, so perhaps that explains it.  Canada goes to war, yes, but only when we believe the cause is right, and the proof of that lies in the fact that we chose to do so when we were not pressured to do so (Korea and Afghanistan) and refused to do so when we were pressured (Vietnam and Iraq II).  So perhaps we are not so troubled about our armed forces that we have to make movies about them.

Still, it is an odd absence in the cultural imaginary.  The raid on Dieppe was a crucial and tragic episode in the country’s history, and yet it took us more than 50 years, from 1942 until 1993, to make a CBC-TV movie about it.  It took us 91 years to make a movie about Passchendaele.

So why do we not pay more dramatic attention to our military?   Or, rather, why do we in the main surrender our popular depictions of the military to the news and documentary media?  Documentary accounts and news reports are both welcome and essential, but the latter are often formulaic.  Whether CBC, CTV or Global, the national news devotes the same rote 60-seconds to showing an honour guard offloading a coffin at CFB Trenton.  That media attention is necessary, but it is not sufficient.  People who die on behalf of others deserve more than just dutiful notation of their death.  There are some truths that are best plumbed through fiction, through drama, through art.

One might argue that there isn’t much of a Canadian film or television industry in the first place, so why complain that the military does not feature on Canadian screens?  But the premise is not true, and has not been true for quite some time.  The Canadian independent production industry is comparatively robust.  It makes Flashpoint and Intelligence and The Border, and any number of one-hour dramas.

One might argue that programs featuring military conflict are too expensive for our domestic film and TV industry to undertake.  But again that is not true.  Yes, reproducing the grand sweep of battlefield war – Waterloo, Pearl Harbour, Stalingrad –requires a cast of thousands, a special effects team and a gargantuan budget.  But it is not necessary to re-stage the failed Commonwealth defence of Hong Kong in order to capture crucial elements of war with dramatic realism.  What one needs instead is talent.

Plus, (thankfully) Canada has had precious few such set battles on its own soil.  Between them, the encounter between opposing forces on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 and the final charge at Batoche 126 years later lasted less than the average running time of a feature film.

Flashpoint, Intelligence and The Border are high-production-value programs full of people carrying guns and shooting at one another.  And there is an episode of DaVinci’s Inquest that takes place start to finish in a back alley in Vancouver.  The production costs of making a one-off TV movie set entirely in a First World War trench would be exactly the same.

No, it is not the production costs that prevent Canadians from making movies and TV programs about their military.  It is a deep cultural ambivalence.  To celebrate our military triumphs is to applaud how our people killed other people, and we are not terribly comfortable with that.  To rehearse our failures, meanwhile, is to remind ourselves that one of our soldiers beat a Somalian teenager to death in 1993, so shameful an episode that the elite Airborne Regiment was disbanded in its wake.  And no one is going to bankroll a movie about that.

Even our vaunted peacekeeping efforts are not without their unspeakable tragedies, when we could not keep the peace.  Is there a thinking Canadian who does not know the story of Roméo Dallaire and the horror in Rwanda?  It is to our credit and General (now Senator) Dallaire’s that the film Shake Hands With The Devil was made.  Canada is one of the few countries that makes movies about other people’s wars.  We bear our responsibility and we bare our shame.

That is why dramatizations of war and combat are so essential.  News reports from the front are necessary, but partial at best and untrustworthy at worst.  This is a country that has to airlift its military personnel into harm’s way.  We need more than bulletins and dutiful footage of flag-draped caskets being loaded onto transports at Kandahar airfield. If we kill other people and our people are killed, honour demands that we confront and consider why and how.

The most recent, extended and prominent – if that is the word for a series that few people saw – dramatic depiction of Canadian troops in a combat theatre was ZOS: Zone of Separation.  Produced by Whizbang Films, a partnership of actor/writer Paul Gross and producer Frank Siracusa, ZOS was an eight-part series about Canadian troops attempting to enforce a peace in the town of Jadac, set in a fictionalized Bosnia.  The series was created by Malcolm MacRury, one of the writers on the HBO series Deadwood, and directed by Mario Azzopardi, a stalwart of the Canadian independent production industry from its earliest days (he directed 23 episodes of the Toronto-shot CBS series Night Heat in the 1980s), one of whose specialties is shooting the pilot episodes of potential series, thereby establishing their look and tone.

A dark – and at times darkly funny – treatment, ZOS was a complex narrative charting not only the efforts of a unit of Canadian peacekeepers new to Jadac to maintain a ceasefire between Muslim and Christian militias, but the work of a detachment of four UN military observers – unarmed troops – headed by a Canadian, the lone woman in the group, Capt. Sean Kovacs.  Deftly shot and directed, crisply written, and with a cast that included international stars Colm Meany and Lolita Davidovitch, the series had both style and high production values, and its launch was accompanied by a sophisticated website that included an interactive webgame in which players had to negotiate their way out of Jadac.

Although the series was faulted by Forces veterans for rudimentary errors (actors not knowing how to stand properly at attention, how to salute, how to wear their berets, etc.) it was nonetheless highly praised by those who appreciated its narrative strengths. Although the ultimate aim was clearly to tell a compelling story, the series was at the same time an exploration of the ways in which blood hatreds fuel themselves; of the horrific absurdities of war (and civil war in particular), of the dangers and follies of trying to “keep the peace” and of the motives of those who insert themselves into others’ conflicts and the price of doing so.

And the series quite deliberately foregrounded its “Canadian-ness” rather than attempt to pass itself off as a generic production for the international TV market.  As it opens, the contingent of UN peacekeepers is pulling out, and the Canadian UN Military Observer Capt. Kovacs is awaiting their replacements, fellow Canadians.  “Knowing my luck,” she says ruefully, “they’ll be Albertans.”

Later in the series, a Muslim strongman attempts to ingratiate himself with some of the Canadian troops by offering to buy them a beer.  “Sure,” says one of the soldiers.  “I’ll have a Blue.”  The Bosnian bartender furrows his brow.  “Who drinks blue beer?”

As good as ZOS was, it aired in Canada in January and February 2009 on the subscription channels Movie Central and The Movie Network, and never again and nowhere else.  It picked up a paltry two awards at the 2009 Geminis in minor categories.  More than a year-and-half later it has yet to be released to DVD.  Although it has an international sales agent, it has garnered no international sales – and why would it?  Who would want to tune in to a series showing Canadian soldiers struggling to negotiate a political minefield in a tinderbox of a country?

Not even Canadians, apparently.  A shame.  It is our loss.  We tried to make an honest dramatic interrogation of what can happen when we send soldiers into harm’s way in other countries’ conflicts, but it sank like a pebble in a well.  The absence to be interrogated is not Canada’s failure to make such programs; it is apparently Canadians’ absence of interest in them.eg

Topia Nos. 23-24, 2010