Seattle Times

Friday, April 15, 2005, 12:00 A.M. Pacific

Movie Review

Documentary gives voice to wars' anguish

By Tom Keogh
Special to The Seattle Times

"In combat, men become each other's mothers," says Jonathan Shay, author of "Achilles in Vietnam" and one of many commentators on the psychology of soldiers in harm's way in the new documentary "Voices in Wartime."

Such is the close and painful bond between warriors, Shay continues, and it is unknowable to those who have not experienced it. Former war correspondent Chris Hedges further explains in "Voices" how war movies rarely penetrate the most ubiquitous emotion in battle: "Fear is so pervasive that carrying out basic functions is very difficult."

No wonder it is so hard for many survivors of war to find words to express what, Hedges says, has "altered them." Yet there is a form that even the superintendent of West Point, Lt. Gen. William Lennox, tells "Voices" director Rick King is suitable for capturing the anguish of loss and the sensory overload of fighting: poetry.

An overview of the historic relationship between war and poetry, "Voices in Wartime" touches upon Homer's graphic descriptions of carnage in "The Iliad," Walt Whitman's lyrical account of America's Civil War, the legacy of such World War I soldier-poets as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and the shattering recollections-in-verse of Vietnam vet David Connolly.

"Poetry was one of the ways I tried to stay sane after what I'd been through," Connolly says.

"Voices" also includes readings by Nigerian poet Chris Abani, India's Sampurna Chattarji and Colombia's Antonieta Villamil.

Hedges says that it is the state and media that give a nation language to describe and understand wartime policy. "The role of poets," he says, "is to take us back to our center as human beings."

King takes stands against genocidal wars — but not America's current engagement in Iraq — and he embraces different perspectives. On one hand, we hear from a young American officer who quotes verse that helped steel him for hostilities, while an Iraqi poet describes U.S. forces as disorganized cowboys.

King's film does take up Poets Against the War, a phenomenon that grew after first lady Laura Bush, concerned about stoking anti-war sentiment, canceled a 2003 White House symposium on poetry. Some of the dis-invited participants, including Sam Hamill and Emily Warn, are seen protesting the Iraq war through readings on the day they were supposed to sit down to dinner with the president.

Tom Keogh: