Soldier to Civilian

Originally posted: May 17, 2009

Greencastle, Ind. – There’s been a lot of news coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq in recent weeks, and none of it has been good. Last weekend, a U.S. air strike in Afghanistan’s Farah province killed scores of civilians. Predictably, Pentagon officials greeted this latest in a series of reports of civilian casualties with a flurry of denials and obfuscations.

Lapdogs that they are, the corporate media ran with the Pentagon spin. Taking their lead from military spokesmen, pundits and TV talking heads lamented the detrimental impact this latest atrocity might have on public opinion at home and abroad. As for civilian casualties, the chattering classes were uncharacteristically reticent. For the “inside the Beltway” crowd, the less said about the human costs of the air war in Afghanistan, the better.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates abruptly announced that Lt. General Stanley McChrystal was replacing General David McKiernan as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. This marks the first time that an acting wartime commander has been relieved of duty since Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.

It turns out that the timing of the announcement was fortuitous; news of the military shake up in Afghanistan dominated the news cycle for several days. As a result, a disturbing story out of Iraq — news that an American soldier killed five of his fellow service members — was woefully underreported.

Not surprisingly, what little press coverage the Iraq story received was couched in Pentagon spin. Military analysts were quick to trot out the usual platitudes about our need to “do more” for military men and women while they are on duty and upon their return to civilian life.

It was in this context that I was invited the other night to a sneak preview of Soldier to Citizen — a compelling and altogether engaging documentary about German and American veterans of the war in Afghanistan. The video documentary was shot, edited and produced by one of my students, Ross Robinson, who is graduating from DePauw University on May 17.

Like a lot of student videos, Soldier to Citizen is a little rough around the edges. But that’s where the comparison begins and ends. For starters, there’s the content. With the skill of a seasoned filmmaker, Robinson elicits compelling, revealing, sometimes humorous, often moving testimony from his subjects. And while the documentary is still a work in progress, Soldier to Citizen is edited with great skill and care.

Ross Robinson (DePauw '09)

Robinson weaves first-hand accounts of the Afghan mission with “people on the street” interviews recorded overseas and here in the States. “Home video” supplied by some of the German veterans gives viewers a soldier’s point of view of the Afghan people and countryside. The result is a poignant look at what it means for citizens to wear the uniform of a soldier and, equally important, what it has been like for soldiers to reintegrate into civilian life.

These are stories that need to be told. According to Robinson: “Several interviewees said that they had never had the chance to really talk in depth to anyone about their experiences, some even referred to the interview as therapeutic.” And given the “new approach” the United States is taking in the seven-year Afghanistan war, these are stories that need to be heard.

Since taking office in January, President Obama has made it clear that he intends to escalate the fighting in Afghanistan. Between the promised withdrawal from Iraq and the surge in Afghanistan, the number of returning veterans will increase dramatically in the coming months and years. And yet, we know very little about what it means for service members to deploy overseas, let alone what their lives are like upon returning home.

The irony here is that a college student — working alone and using consumer-grade equipment — has produced a documentary that addresses these issues in such a substantive fashion. Despite all of the technical and financial resources at their disposal, few professional journalists have covered this story with greater insight, compassion and ingenuity.

Ross Robinson is quick to point out that this project has been an incredible learning experience. Based on reactions to the rough cut screened the other night, it’s clear that audiences are learning a great deal from this modest, but undeniably provocative documentary as well. Not bad for a novice filmmaker.

Soldier to Civilian is precisely the sort of journalism that so-called professionals ought to be producing on a regular basis and the type of critically engaged media-making that student journalists everywhere should aspire to.

Kevin Howley is an associate professor of communication at DePauw University. Ross Robinson will spend the coming academic year in Germany teaching English to young people as a result of receiving an international graduate study and research grant through the 2009-10 Fulbright U.S. Student Program competition. His work will also include creation of another documentary.

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