In 1970, filmmaker Michael Grigsby produced I Was a Soldier, the first documentary to follow American soldiers returning from active duty in the Vietnam war. Now, 40 years later, Grigsby returns to Texas to follow the lives of David, Dennis and Lamar, as they continue even now to struggle with the impact that post-traumatic stress has had on their lives and their families.
We Went to War is difficult to gauge at first, mostly because it’s almost glacially slow. But as it continues, it becomes apparent that this is the entire point. Deliberately avoiding the East and West Coasts, Grigsby takes us into the heartland of America, a place where time almost stands still. Wide open spaces and long, tranquil silences are definitely the order of the day. In a way, it’s a mirror image of the former soldiers themselves. As Dennis says, “It’s 40 years later, and what am I? I’m 40 years older.”
The film is clearly very intimate, given the level of access we are granted into the soldiers’ everyday lives. But Grigsby still manages to tie the film to the modern day; in a particularly touching scene, Dennis meets two veterans of the Iraq War, both of whom are suffering from the exact same symptoms of PTSD, and the same inabilty to share and connect with the people they love the most.
The pace of We Went to War may be difficult to get used to, but it’s a touching film which proves that, when it comes to war, we’ve been making exactly the same mistakes for decades.