The final film of celebrated British documentarian Michael Grigsby, who tragically passed away on 12 March of this year, We Went to War (2013) revisits the Vietnam veterans whom he interviewed over forty years ago in I Was a Soldier (1970). Considered to be the first film which discussed and dealt with the fallout of the Vietnam War, Grigsby now rejoins Dennis Bolinger and David Johnson to excavate the last four decades, Lamar Wyatt having sadly died in 2002. Co-authored with creative producer Rebekah Tolley, Grigsby has crowned his noble career with some closing words on the tortured souls who served in this most.
Grigsby re-enters a very still Texas: lone pickup trucks breezing down endless highways, couples eating their evening meals in peace, tranquil farmlands and quiet reserves. Underneath that serenity however is tremendous sorrow; veterans and their families whose lives have been permanently damaged by the consequences of war. Dennis and David display a similar composure but explain how they’ll never truly be able to forget what happened – talking with friends can remedy trauma but doesn’t cure it.
This stillness reflects on the restorative quality of time: do we overcome great tragedy or just learn to cope with it? There are more profound statements to be found in these moments of silence than in any dialogue. The immeasurable cost of the Vietnam War leaves us speechless, angry towards the overriding senselessness that took hold after the final skirmishes ended. The roaring patriotism of soldiers who fought for their country was muzzled and the dejection that haunts servicemen today is prevalent throughout the entirety of Grigsby’s film. In many ways, the film’s matter-of-fact title signifies how there is a culture of war, an accepted tradition, which grips hold of young and sometimes vulnerable men, disguising itself as the pursuit of honour, duty and idealism.
One could argue it is coercion at the most dangerous and reckless level. Still, there is much hope. Dennis tells of how he became more thankful for life and more committed to living peacefully in what has been a tumultuous adulthood. He’s gone through divorces and served time behind bars, events which have not defined his life, but have shaped it. He says that “a soldier, over all others, prays for peace”; Grigsby facilitates a majestic debate on the search for that peace. He draws many parallels with the conflict in Iraq, suggesting that warfare is a revolving door system. There are no victors, only casualties. Crucially, We Went to War ponders the coldness of combat, but perhaps more fundamentally, challenges why we tolerate it.