Chronicle of Philanthropy - Feature

DISPATCHES  Waging Peace Through Philanthropy

March 27th, 2005

Waging Peace Through Film and Poetry

By Brad Wolverton

Like seven generations of men before him, Andrew Himes was expected to become a Baptist preacher. But that plan changed when he was in eighth grade and a race riot broke out in his school in rural Tennessee. As he watched his classmates scream obscenities at two black children bused in from across town, he saw something deeply wrong with the world and vowed to play a part in changing it.

Mr. Himes, 55, has been fighting for social justice ever since, and his latest effort is as executive producer of a new documentary film called Voices in Wartime that makes its debut in New York City on April 8 and in theaters in other cities across the country a week later.

Mr. Himes describes the movie, which comes on the heels of the second anniversary of the war in Iraq, as a meditation on war -- a reflection of war's costs and lasting trauma, observed in part through the words of famous poets. Unlike several other documentaries that have captured the American public's attention in the past year, including Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's examination of the Bush administration's actions after the events of September 11, 2001, Mr. Himes says his film is not politically motivated, and that he deliberately put his focus on suffering, not military force. A nonprofit organization Mr. Himes has set up here, the Voices in Wartime Network, will use proceeds from the movie and other fund-raising efforts to support veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological ailment that has affected many U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq. The online network will also give people a place to share poems, essays, and other things they have written about the pain of war.

This is the first movie Mr. Himes has produced, but he believes his experiences working to create social change have prepared him for his new role.

Tall and thin, with a long, serious face, Mr. Himes has been hardened by years of protesting wars. He dropped out of college to voice his opposition to the Vietnam War, and during one demonstration in Washington got eight teeth knocked out by a police billy club. He returned to the rural South for most of his 20s and 30s, where he worked as a civil-rights organizer.

By the 1980s, Mr. Himes realized that to reach more people with his ideas, he would need to expand his skills. Fascinated by technology, he set out to learn how he could use it to give people the tools they needed to improve their lives. He became an expert in writing computer code long before the Internet came into prominence, and he spent six years at Microsoft heading a unit that produced the software company's first Web pages. Mr. Himes left Microsoft with enough money to do whatever he wanted, and he started pouring some of his cash into nonprofit efforts, including Project Alchemy, a venture he established to provide technology tools to hundreds of grass-roots social-justice organizations.

But his love for that project faded as President Bush was preparing to invade Iraq. Mr. Himes, who keeps a sign in his front yard that says "wage peace," believed more important work called.

Protesting this war would be different. Not only did Mr. Himes have new tools with which to wage his battle, but he was eager to try a different approach than he had before. Instead of participating in public demonstrations alongside people who shared his deep distaste for war, he wanted to find a way to reach out to people who did not necessarily oppose war. He just needed a subtle way to get their attention.

"I wanted to get at what it is that really unites us as Americans and human beings -- what are the core beliefs and values we all share, and how can we have a conversation that's really deep and genuine based on our common shared values, and not based on disagreements we have about specific government policies," Mr. Himes says. "If we only talk about government policy or a specific war, that just turns into an argument."

The idea to do a movie came shortly before the war began, as the first lady, Laura Bush, invited a group of acclaimed American poets, including Sam Hamill, to attend a White House poetry symposium. With war in Iraq on the horizon, Mr. Hamill planned to turn the event into a demonstration against the use of military force. He put out a call for antiwar poems, gathering thousands of them on a makeshift Web site. Mrs. Bush abruptly canceled her event, saying she did not want it to turn into a political forum, but the idea of using poems to voice opposition to the war stuck.

Part of Mr. Himes's movie [directed by Rick King and produced by Rick King and Jonathan King - note added by Voices in Wartime editor] chronicles the efforts of Mr. Hamill and other poets opposed to the invasion of Iraq, but the film takes a much more broad and objective look at the role poetry can play in times of war by documenting the views not only of people opposed to war, but also of people inside the military and at its highest levels. The movie uses nearly three dozen examples of poetry to give voice to the consequences of military conflict, and it shows how poetry can quiet the demons that soldiers often encounter upon their return to civilian life.

Using words from poets, soldiers, and war correspondents -- and images from thousands of years of conflict -- the 75-minute movie captures the sounds and looks and smells of war that only come from firsthand experience. Some of the images in the film -- like the one showing an American soldier in the Korean War consoling a comrade -- are remarkably tender. Others are as gruesome as the acts they depict: three dead soldiers, their hands bound behind their backs, floating face down in a pool of water.

Poetry from Homer, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman comes to life in the documentary, as their words are blended with images from wars from each poet's time. Whitman, who was a nurse in the Civil War, writes of soldiers wishing for a merciful end to their lives. A line from his poem "The Wound-Dresser" is read slowly, evoking a long, somber moment:

Come, sweet death! be persuaded,
O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.

Langston Hughes, one of the poets Mrs. Bush had planned to celebrate in her symposium, was a longtime activist for peace and social justice. Listening to his poem "Expendable," as a field of white crosses in a military cemetery appears on screen, it is hard not to wonder how the poem would have sounded echoing through the White House in the days leading up to war:

We will take you and kill you,

We will fill you full of lead,
And when you're dead
In the nice cold ground,
We'll put your name
Above your head --

If your head
Can be found.

To give the documentary an immediacy, [Director Rick King and Producer Jonathan King] film several lesser-known modern poets walking through their neighborhoods reciting their work. David Connolly, a Vietnam veteran from South Boston who still has nightmares about his time in Southeast Asia, is the most memorable. Walking beside a chain-link fence, he reads from his poem "Why I Can't," with the rapid, angry cadence of a rapper:

Ratshit and the Weasel and I
are behind this paddy dike, see,
and Victor Charlie's
he's giving us what for.
And Ratshit, he lifts his head,
just a little, but just enough
for the round
to go in one brown eye,
and I swear to Christ,
out the other.
And he starts thrashing,
and bleeding, and screaming,
and trying to get
the top of his head
to stay on,
but we have to keep shooting.

Because a majority of people in the film have witnessed combat, their voices give the documentary an authenticity it would otherwise lack if it merely captured the words of angry liberals opposed to war. Craig White, a television cameraman, describes footage he shoots that never makes it on network news: "In modern warfare, as I saw in Iraq, people don't die like they do in television or the movies. You don't see people get hit with a weapon, have a big red spot, and fall down. Arms come off. Heads come off. Torsos are severed. People just explode."

[The filmmakers] find an unlikely star in Lt. Gen. William Lennox Jr., the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Mr. Lennox trains the officers who lead U.S. troops in war, and he wrote his dissertation on war poetry. Numerous times in the film, Mr. Lennox extols poetry's importance in helping soldiers and innocent civilians deal with loss. His appearance balances the film's underlying antiwar message with one of compassion, as he portrays soldiers as victims.

"For an infantryman, for those who are in combat, it's very hard for them to articulate what they experience," Mr. Lennox says in the opening scene of the movie, as bombs light up Baghdad. "They go through a whole series of emotions: joy, elation, horror, fear. Many have said that it's very hard to articulate that experience, and I think that poetry is the only way that you can deliver all of those feelings simultaneously."

Before he helped make this movie, Mr. Himes says he tended to see soldiers as trained killers -- rather than victims. This movie changed him. It made him realize that however much he disagrees with the mission of soldiers, they still need support when they return from war. Mr. Himes says he was particularly moved by a scene in which Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, talks about the deep grief that soldiers experience when their closest comrades are injured or killed.

"They have trained together, they have drilled together, and they go into this terrible danger together. That bonding is a phenomenon of nature. It is incredibly intense," Dr. Shay says. "I don't believe that the metaphor of the brotherhood of arms is strong enough." In combat, he says, "men become each other's mothers."

Mr. Himes says that making the movie has helped him mature as a professional and as a person. "When I was younger, I felt the only really important voice in the world was mine," Mr. Himes says. "Now I realize that whatever point of view I have is not that important in the context of what's happening in the world.

"If you want to create peace, if you want to create healthy communities and build a sustainable world, it has to be a world in which lots of people feel they have their own voices," he adds. "You can't preach at the rest of the world and tell them what you think the solutions are."

Copyright © 2005 The Chronicle of Philanthropy

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