I’ve been busy working on other projects over the last few months, and have asked a few former colleagues to help out with the blog. Here’s a great piece by Brandon Lingle.
“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.” – Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
Cast and crew from National Geographic’s documentary series, Inside Combat Rescue, led a screening and panel discussion at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. on Feb. 1 for more than 700 cadets and faculty.
The panel included Jared McGilliard, Inside Combat Rescue series producer and three Airmen who appear in the series: Staff Sgt. Brett Taylor, Pararescueman; Capt. Seth Davis, Combat Rescue Officer; and Maj. Devin Ryan, HH-60G helicopter pilot.
The sneak peak and dialogue offered a unique way to share the stark realities of Afghanistan to Air Force Academy cadets—future officers—who want and need to hear about war. The engagement came the day after rescuers found Maj. Lucas Gruenther’s body in the Adriatic Sea following a several day search. Gruenther, an ’03 Academy graduate, perished when his F-16 went down on a training sortie. The panelists were largely unaware, but some cadets spoke quietly about the lost pilot, and mulled his story’s warnings, as they filed into the auditorium.
While the Academy is much like any college around the country, reminders of war echo throughout the grounds. The campus teems with statues, quotes, and images that honor bravery and sacrifice. But tidy memorials and historical vignettes do little to put a human face on war, and these abstractions can drown out the grim realities. Inside Combat Rescue strips away the politics, rhetoric, and posturing to provide a personal view of the conflict. The show’s unflinching look at war imparted an important first-person perspective for these young Airmen… some of whom will deploy to Afghanistan before the year’s end.
In an auditorium two-hundred yards from the Academy’s dark granite War Memorial listing graduates killed in combat, the standing-room only crowd asked varied questions ranging from embed logistics and filming techniques to details of pararescue training and deployed life. But, the panelists especially grappled with one cadet’s question: “Does this series romanticize war?”
On a certain level, any depiction of war romanticizes this sad phenomenon of our species. McGilliard acknowledged that he battled this reality throughout filming and post-production. He came to the conclusion that one way to guard against war’s glorification is to honestly portray the real costs.
“This series brings to light not only the true, unblinking, and brutal consequences of war, but the humanity of it as well. It’s a perspective that should be shown, discussed, and honored,” he said. “We stayed very true to the story of the rescuer’s mission and the realities of this war. If anyone should be honored, the Airmen in this show should be. No group of people, and no other mission, is more deserving of the spotlight.”
Major Ryan said, “I have no problem that combat rescue and personnel recovery gets romanticized. We’re not killing, we’re saving lives.”
“Our biggest goal was to make something that the people involved could look back on and be proud of,” said McGilliard. “I hope it creates conversations about this war. The media has shied away from telling the story of this war. The outcome of this is that the sacrifices many of our servicemen and women have made there, whether in death or in brutal injuries like amputations, have been too easily forgotten. I hope this show not only sheds light and introduces the public to the rescuers, but also the stories of the heroes who have paid a larger price in this war. History is told in stories. I fear that without these stories, this war and the people who have been affected the most may be forgotten. Hopefully this series can play a role in never forgetting.”
While the Academy audience has some understanding of the costs of war, an overwhelming majority of Americans likely do not. Inside Combat Rescue may help narrow the gap in understanding between the 99 percent of Americans who have no connections with the military during these wars and the 1 percent who do, and the even smaller percentage who have been involved in combat.
Author Donald Anderson writes in When War Becomes Personal, “If it seems to fall to the historian to make distinctions among wars, each war’s larger means and ends, the trajectory for the artist, regardless of culture or time, seems to fall towards an individual’s disillusionment, the means and ends of war played out in the personal. For the individual soldier, the sweeping facts of history are accurately written not in the omniscient, third-person plural, but in the singular first.”
With Inside Combat Rescue, we’re lucky to see some first-person perspectives of America’s longest war.
Brandon Lingle served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a public affairs officer. His nonfiction was noted in “The Best American Essays 2010,” and he is an editor of War, Literature & the Arts, published by the United States Air Force Academy. He is an active-duty Air Force major stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense or United States government.