‘All You Have to Do Is Not Die Over There’
‘Once a Marine’ explores hard homecomings for America’s warriors
by MATTHEW GAULT
The United States is deep into its second decade of perpetual war — and it hasn’t gotten any easier for the people fighting it. Americans call their warriors heroes, buy them beers and thank them for their service. All those little rituals make civilians feel good. They tend not to do anything for the soldier or Marine who just came home from war.
We have de-facto rituals in the United States to help civilians deal with returning warriors, but we have no rituals at all to help the warriors come home. The Veterans Administration fails as often as it helps. The U.S. health-care system makes mental care prohibitively expensive. Our drugs and booze are plentiful and cheap.
The results aren’t pretty.
Once a Marine is a new short documentary about a group of guys just home from Afghanistan. Marines made it, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s for them alone and not the rest of us. It wants to help us understand where our warriors are coming from.
What was it like over there? Once a Marine asks.
Platoon sergeant Heath doesn’t want to talk about it. “How are you going to look at someone and be like, ‘Y’know, I shot this dude in the fucking head and it was awesome,’” he says in one of the docu’s interviews. “Why was it awesome? How is taking a human life … God loved this person and you blew ’em away and you think it’s great.”
“You wanna know why?” he continues. “Because I was pinned down and he was shooting at me and saw him before he saw me and I plugged him first. And it was great because he was trying to kill me and I killed him instead. People don’t get that, they look at you and they’re like, ‘Oh.’ That’s all they’ll say … so I just keep my mouth shut.”
Heath’s hair is short and his beard his long. He’s wearing a leather jacket with a POW-MIA patch on it. He tries to drink his Coors Light off camera but doesn’t always succeed.
Chuck says something similar, but he says it with a grin, as if he might burst out laughing at any moment. Not because something is funny, but because it’s not. “Yeah, you’ll buy me a beer then you’ll ask me if I killed somebody. As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your beer. Just don’t ask your ridiculous questions.”
“I always tell the truth. Yes, I killed somebody,” he says and his grin twitches before he scrunches his face up in an imitation of the imaginary civilian he’s talking to. “‘What?’” Chuck says in a mocking tone.
“What did you think?” he says. “I told you I was in the Marine Corps. I told you I was in the infantry. I told you I was in Afghanistan twice. What do you think?”
Once a Marine comes from first-time filmmaker and former Marine Stephen Canty. In 2010, more than 15,000 coalition troops attempted to push the Taliban from southern Afghanistan. The Pentagon called it Operation Moshtarak. It was the biggest battle of the war, at that time. All the Marines in the film served together during the operation.
Canty’s docu lacks a traditional narrative. Instead, it feels like a purging. He and his fellow Marines gather to talk through what happened to them in the war and how they feel now that they’re home. Its one-on-one interviews intercut with battle footage taken by the Marines themselves. It’s like Restrepo or Korengal, but with the gloves off.
It’s spare and short and the work of an amateur, but Once a Marine has a powerful honesty lacking in most war documentaries. The Marines tell the audience things that they usually only tell each other. These are the things America’s quiet troops hold inside when they get home. There are nightmares here.
What struck me the most watching this film was how each Marine struggled when they came home and how horrible the U.S. military is at integrating its warriors back into civilian life. “Two weeks ago I was holding a [Mark 19 grenade launcher] and I shot a dude and blew his shoes off his feet,” Heath explains. “Now I’m holding a baby and I have to change a diaper.”
Worse, for Heath, are the intrusive memories. “Every time I change a diaper, I think about holding someone down and trying to pack a wound,” he explains. “Every time I wipe an ass. I don’t know why. That’s what I think about.”
Creepy ambient music plays behind the interviews. Metal band Pagan Altar plays over the combat footage. The fighting is gruesome. The emotional battles are worse.
“Honestly, that shit’s fun,” Zell, a machine-gunner, says of combat. “That shit is so much fun.” He joined at 19, on what I’ll call a considered whim. He had been toying with the idea of enlisting and drove to the recruiter’s station one morning on his way to work. He was drunk and high at the time.
“All you have to do is not die over there,” says a Marine named Doss. “You don’t have to pay bills. You don’t have to go to work, go to school. You don’t have to fucking do homework. I think that’s part of the problem. Not being able to deal with life on life’s terms.”
Doss seems to be the worst of his bunch. His journey is one of the main tentpoles of Once a Marine. It includes a Tales From the Crypt turn I won’t describe here, because you need to hear him tell it.
Hell, everyone in America should see this movie, just so they’ll stop treating veterans like they’re delicate, pitiful little dolls.