Off to War

So you’re, say, a turkey farmer in Clarksville, Arkansas. You sign up for the National Guard, thinking it’ll be a fairly cushy gig, a chance to make a little extra cash and hang out with your pals on the occasional weekend. Next thing you know, you’re on your way to Iraq, where it’s about as cushy as a stone bed and every single day you stand a good chance of getting your rear end blown off. That’s exactly what happened to the men who appear in Off to War — From Rural Arkansas to Iraq, a four-disc, ten-episode 2005 documentary directed by Brent and Craig Renaud. Of the 2800 Arkansas National Guardsman called up in 2004, 57 were from Clarksville, and it’s their stories that we follow most closely, from before they leave until after they return. These are plain, blue collar folks, mostly young, many with wives and families, whose 18-month deployment includes a full year in Iraq. At first, a few see it as “an opportunity.” Others think it’ll be “fun.” Another says simply, “I love to fight.” But they also face losing their jobs, their businesses, perhaps even their mariages, to say nothing of their lives. And once they actually get to Iraq, things change in a hurry, as the notion of winning hearts and minds turns to “It’s not worth it” and “Why am I here?” Their equipment is ancient and appallingly inadequate. Their training is insufficient, to say the least (“They say you should train for the worst and hope for the best,” says one. “We trained for the best, and the worst happened”). The irony of the U.S. Army rebuilding homes that they destroyed in the first place isn’t lost on these soldiers; neither is the fact that many of the people they’re there to “liberate” genuinely hate them and wish them dead (and some do in fact die). And while some remain committed to their duty and ideals, even if they’re not sure what that means, most simply want to survive and go home. Meanwhile, the filmmakers also spend a good deal of time with the families the men left back in Arkansas as they do their best to cope in the absence of their principal breadwinners, wondering if their husbands and sons will come home alive and if it makes sense to vote for George W. Bush in November. All of this is presented in without artificial drama; there’s no narration, just the voices of the men, women, and kids whose quotidian lives are being filmed.  This program is about as real as reality TV gets. Extra features include commentary (by directors and soldiers) on some episodes, photos, extra scenes, and more. –Sam Graham

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