Do Women Watch War Films?

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were embedded for 10 months, with the US Army; but I feel like I have been embedded with the RAF for the last 10 years. An anthropological observer, trying to understand, and navigate the plethora of unwritten codes of conduct and expectation. Up until last year, when Hagar was deployed, I would bury my head in the sand, crack open the wine, count up to the middle and down again until he came home, whilst avoiding the news as much as possible. I didn’t even want to look at the war. In the 12 years we have been together he has been to Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Iraq (approx 4 times) and Afghanistan (approx 4 times) – to be honest I lose count. I would say that probably over 50% of our relationship has been apart. At one point, he was doing 8 weeks on and 8 weeks off, so ‘going to war’ just became part of our every day life.

The tempo of ops for all the Chinook guys and gals is high. In fact, Hagar was awarded a Mention-In-Despatches after one deployment for some daring do. It was difficult to know what to say, how to support him because his ‘away journey’ was one I could never understand. There wasn’t a break for either of us. It’s hard to explain it, but this bouncing apart and coming together, with profound life changing experiences happening in an unknown country, with ramifications, and meaning, that aren’t everyday dinner conversations, are hard to put into words, and so, often, he didn’t. He just brooded, and found his own way back to us, whilst I watched, and waited in the eaves of his darkness, for the unraveling to occur.

In September 2008, I began researching, and writing, a battlefield memoir about the role of the Chinooks, in Afghanistan, and in the British Armed Forces. Suddenly, I was forced to confront face-on a subject matter that I had been purposefully ignoring. I was very lucky to be surrounded by experts that helped, and supported me, on my journey, starting at The Great Game; to the fall of the Northern Alliance; to September 11th; to the Bonn Agreement. I had always buffered my fears, with the certain comfort that the Chinook is the best defended aircraft, and the aviation best bet, for my own warrior-class serviceman. The whole tempo of the memoir was centred around the notion that the Taliban had identified the CH47 (Chinook) as a glory target. They called it the cow. It was the ultimate prize to down one, and dance around it, showcasing their majesty to the world. Never in the history of the British Chinook force had an aircraft been shot down in combat.

I laid down the 100,000 word manuscript in 10 weeks in an intensive, marathon writing session, where I became unnaturally immersed in a conflict I had never visited, flying an aircraft I had never flown, as a person I would never be. One month after the book, hit the bookshelves, the worst happened. Hagar got a call at midnight, summoning him to work. I knew before the story broke in the media. A British Chinook had been shot down in Afghanistan. The first ever in it’s history. I knew the pilot. I knew the pilot that picked them up. It felt very up, close and very personal, and I had a huge disproportionate reaction to it and freaked out. This cushion of safety, of vigilance, of aircraft redundancy, of training and being the best they could be shattered around me and all over of a sudden I was hit with the under-deniable reality of the true danger of Afghanistan. A danger, that I had been blissfully, and ignorantly, ignoring as a coping mechanism for the endless churn of ops that I was enduring from the domestic frontline.

Since the book was published, I now bravely look the ‘war machine’ in the eye, and try to make sense of the conflict. All the research and understanding hasn’t made me any wiser. I am just frustrated by the complexity of the problem. I am a problem solver. I am a fixer and Afghanistan is an intricate, layered, very tricky puzzle indeed.

So as a wife of a service man do I watch war films? The answer is yes, I do. I have done since before I met Hagar. The first war film I loved was ‘Sink the Bizmarck’. Hagar and I watched Band of Brothers and Pacific religiously. They are brilliant depictions of combat. In fact, I think Restrepo is the documentary that Band of Brothers would have been if it had been recorded in real time; in the same way Tim and Sebastian recorded Restrepo. The notion of brotherhood at the heart of the war machine, that Tim discusses in our interview, is not new but it has never been so acutely and accurately captured as in the making of Restrepo.

The wives and families of Restrepo troops watched the film, and gleaned an understanding of what their loved ones had experienced at the outpost. One wife said, “I wish I had seen RESTREPO before my divorce, it’d given me an understanding of my ex-husband’s experience that I wish I had had while I was with him. He never shared.”

When I spoke with Dan Kearney he told me he had stopped feeling. He had buried his emotions, deep inside his soul and thrown away the key. Men are not sharers. Sharing is a sign of weakness. The men of Restrepo are warriors; they are Spartans. They write tattoos shouting “Stop Feeling Sorry For Yourself”. The military men want you to understand by osmosis what they have experienced, and then instinctively know how to empathise, love and support them as they internalise their pain and emotions. At the sharp end of combat, tattoed in war paint, armed and braced for battle the young Spartan is an adrenaline charged, fighting, macho machine. But in the aftermath, in the comedown of combat, in the bosum of home, when the adrenaline surges out of his body; he is a boy again, with skin, bones, and feelings that he would rather not have.

As a wife of a military pliot, and the mother of a young son, there is a lot to be gained from watching Restrepo. It’s a brave watch, with a window into battle. It shows that “war is not the glorious adventure depicted on films; it’s cruel, destructive and worst of all, indiscriminate in the slaughter and maiming of women and children and non-combatants who play no part in the conflict.”

But it is a film of great energy and spirit. It will show you into the soul of the soldier and help you understand the highs and lows, the strength and the vulnerabilities, and the intensity of war. Sometimes, you need to look at things you don’t want to see to understand the things you can’t see.

What’s interesting for me is that two, very serious, aging social observers and recorders, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, went into the edge of Armageddon and got so much more then they had ever bargained for. They became esconced; enchanted by the brotherhood and joined them. I suspect that was not what they forsaw at all.

At the launch of Infidel, Tim Hetherington’s latest book, he stood before the room and he looked exposed and vulnerable like a Ninja Turtle without his shell. But, I can imagine embedded in battle, with his flack jacket and camera, he is shooting his own weapon, and is in a warrior-class of his own.

The creation of his book, the film, Restrepo, and Sebastian Junger’s book, War have a created an incredible insight to the psyche of the soldier. Infidel, the leather bound, black, stunning, book of creativity is an homage to the Spartan Warrior, from the outpost Restrepo. A collection of moving, beautiful, tragic and uplifting images, recording and illustrating, the feral, adrenaline charged pack of brothers that fought on the edge of a mountain, trying to build a road, fighting an enemy they couldn’t see and didn’t really understand but knew hated them; the Infidel.

Restrepo open’s today to see it: click here

To buy Tim’s book click here

To buy Sebastian’s book click here

You know if you want to get your man the ultimate box set for Christmas – there is the Restrepo trilogy, if you add in the DVD, which is out at the end of November. Then, if you are a wife like me you can watch it behind a pillow. It’s worth look see.

The Tim Hetherington Exhibition is being hosted by Host Gallery, click here

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I just wondered ladies is this a film for you? If not, why not? Please share.


48 thoughts on “Do Women Watch War Films?

  1. What an absolutely outstanding blog babe – written with all the sensitive insight to military human nature you have gathered over the years coupled with your awesome journalistic skills to deliver the message in exactly the ‘right’ way – something I could never imagine being able to do myself! Once again, you humble me with the breadth of you talent my love. BZ

    I like the bit about my daring do too…….x

  2. I’m not sure if I’d watch that one, I prefer the “classic” war films, my all time favourite is “Ice Cold in Alex”! But I’m sure hubby could persuade me, probably when it comes out on DVD.

  3. It’s next to impossible to share an experience as personal as combat. The adrenaline, the excitement, the danger… similar to women trying to describe childbirth, it’s equally diffiucult to describe combat. And then add in the comradeship…again, impossible to describe to people who haven’t experienced it.

    But a few movies – Saving Private Ryan, Breaker Morant, and now Restrepo, at least explain it to the public. It’s not the technicolor that makes Restrepo so effective, but the message. With so many months of combat time, Sebastian and Tim became brothers with the squad, and viscerally understood what combat and brotherhood is all about. And then their writing and filming skills enabled them to translate what they felt, saw, tasted, and smelled to “War” and “Restrepo.”

    Should women watch war films? Sure, why not? But “Restrepo” is more than a war film, it’s about nobility and comradeship, and those qualities are important whether you’re a man or a woman.

  4. Another amazing piece of writing Clare. I am learning so much through your blog. As for the film, I think I should but I’m not sure I would be able to.

  5. Claire, a brilliant post and an insight into your world as a military wife, it’s often easy to forget the ones left behind, waiting, hoping, praying for their loved one’s safe return.

    I have watched war films a plenty, they are not generally my genre, mainly because a lot of Hollywood blockbusters have a way of twisting history to suit the story – usually to make the US military look good. However, I would watch this documentary, it’s not acted, it’s pure and real and would educate me. My husband would definitely watch it so the box set may well figure in his santa sack.

  6. An eye opener on so many levels – both in terms of trying to gauge your husband’s experience and those of his comrades (impossible for a civvy like me) and your own experience. I can see how watching these films, reading the memoirs is a way for you to meet your husband’s and friend’s experiences half way, an attempt to bridge the gap of understanding. You’re braver than I would be, you all are. My head would be buried so deep in the ground I’d be chewing bedrock.

    • I don’t read the memoirs – I am Bridget Jones girl at heart. I only wrote the Chinook book because we got a commission from Penguin. To be honest I would never have read it otherwise. Having said that I did try and write it in a style that balanced the needs of the informed and the layperson. I am not brave – I feel like the Universe is holding my head and forcing me to look and demanding to know what I think. Look at my interview with Tim, I just want to talk about the funny stuff – all the other interviews are about the civilian casualties and PTSD!! I am still in denial.

  7. I cannot bring myself to watch war films. In the days before Chick was born (when I was a wild Naafi bird!!!) my ex spent the majority of our relationship away, either in the Falklands, Kosovo etc and as you describe I didn’t know how to help him when he returned and he just didn’t want to talk about it. Now that I’m older, I understand why he wouldn’t want to talk about it to me but at the the time felt like he was shutting me out. I struggle to watch and read the news, not because I’m not interested but because one of these days it’s going to be my ex or my friends that have been blown up in a road side bomb or are being repatriated to RAF Lyneham covered in the Union Jack. Sorry…..the point of my rambling comment was that no I don’t watch war films because it still feels too close to home! This was a fab blog post Claire xx
    p.s. Love Hagar’s comment πŸ™‚

    • Yes, I know that head burying in the sand strategy. It’s difficult to know what to do for the best anyway. There is a part of men that love war and soldiering until they have had enough that is. I wonder if we could get you to watch Restrepo. It will sadden and suprise you all at once. Thanks – Hagar *tsk* – I wonder what he’s after. I am only joking. He wrote it instantly so he must mean it. Bless him.

  8. Thankyou sweetheart for yet another beautifully written piece. I do find myself really torn now though, I know I SHOULD be able to watch war films and years ago before my boy went to Afghanistan I would have watched and felt little more than admiration for the realism/special effects etc………… but since his first tour I literally choke on the lump in my throat. I sit there staring at the film imaging Liam in every shot! its too unbearable and I just CANNOT bring myself to continue. Upstairs in a treasured tinned box set is Liams “Band of Brothers” his absolute favourite, I so want to watch it and hopefully one day…. so in answer to you question Hun……………I used to, but just cant anymore x

  9. A thought prompted by your comments on Spartans… I think that All this talk about PTSD undermines soldiers by making them go to that soft squishy emotional place right after being hard and methodical. I asked my Spartan what he thought. He said that all he wants to hear is Well done. ( with a thumbs up for good measure).

    Absolutely the support should be available for those who want/need it. But our whole existence civi and military is so cautionary and protectionist these days. As a first aid person at work, sometimes I just want to laugh at people and tell them to get over it. I don’t of course. Maybe all this caution isn’t making us safer and more well adjusted. Maybe it’s making people softer and less aware ( stupid/ lazy).

    And in answer to your question, yes I watch military movies, often with the taste of bile in my mouth and/or tears rolling down my cheeks. I know they are not entirely accurate but as others have said, it gives me a fraction of an idea what my other half sees.

      • Hildavyn,
        My comment was not intended to diminish the gravity of PTSD for those and their families who experience it. However it seems to have come full circle now so that it is assumed that all of the guys are going to have a problem and that anyone who says they are fine must be in denial.
        I’m sorry for any offense you took from my comments. I hope this cleared it up.

    • I agree. Although, we all have comedowns from adrenaline highs and I think that often it’s just a form of comedown – like a hangover. There is a lot to be said for man up wet pants and suck it up. It’s just striking the balance between empathy – why are you being such a moody b*stard and right that’s enough wallowing it’s time to get back on the bus. It’s all about mental attitude. I love what you have brought to the debate. Thanks!

      • Sorry, but I have to disagree here. PTSD is ral, and it affects people for a long time. Not only the men, but also their families. My husband is a Vietnam veteran, and suffers from it. After the war, his ex got repeatedly kicked and beaten at night in bed, because of his dreams. It was not a pleasant time I’m sure.
        He too was one of those who “suck up and bear it”, and don’t talk about it. Now, so many years later, he is starting to break down again, and not only in his dreams. He does not want to see Restrepo with me, because it is “too real”. Yes, we do watch war movies, he loved watching Band of Brothers with my daughter, and is happy that he can share his passion for all things civil war with her. But this documantary is just too real and raw for him to endure.
        So please, don’t overlook the reality of PTSD, even if your spouses/sons/daughters do “suck up and bear it”.

      • Thanks for commenting Hildy. I think this is a really important point. I think we have to tread very carefully into this film. It’s hard to look and it is real – but I guess what we can take away from this is that we should think very carefully about when and how we send our military into battle and how outcomes can be achieved. I think women like yourself, and myself, need to get into the debate and say – is this the only way to resolve this situation?

  10. That was brilliant, I’m about to “share” it wherever and whenever possible. I’m definitely buying the book for my guy as I know it would float his boat.

    As for me. No. War films always leave me feeling sad and angry. I’m either miserable for the dead young soldiers or the innocent civilians. I just don’t have the mental strength.

    We were in the desert in Qatar recently and by pure coincidence spent an afternoon with a group of young soldiers who were on rec leave from Iraq. I sat with a 19 year old boy (he was a boy) and ate lunch. The poor guy couldn’t get three words out before I had tears in my eyes thinking of his mother and how worried she must be. I’m definitely tooooo emotionally unstable for war films!

    Once again, great post, I thoroughly enjoyed it.


    • Those babies make you emotionally unstable. I felt differently after I had kids – more emotional. But maybe if you faced these fears and watched it then you would be passionate enough about how and when we choose to use the war machine. It’s because women look the other way that we let the men get on the with fighting when we could be saying is ‘war’ the actual solution! Let’s use our choices differently. Maybe we chickolas need to be stronger to protect our own interests and the innocents. Putting those pesky boys on the naughty step. Thanks for commenting. I loved your modern family post – although I haven’t seen it so I can’t say whether you are right or not.

  11. Brilliant post thank you, very honest and open. It’s my first time here and I was drawn here by the title ‘Should women watch war movies’? My first thought was a resounding “Yes, of course why not? Love them, myself. After reading your post I was wondering if perhaps you meant if women with husbands / friends / family, should watch war movies when the reality is so close at hand? That, of course, must be a personal choice, but perhaps some of them would be provided with an insight and feel even prouder of their men?
    All the best from NZ

  12. Darn you … I like the ‘head in the sand’ la la la option … and now you have gone and made my brain cell think, wish you hadn’t!!


  13. Beautifully written, pitch perfect and deeply moving. You are a very talented lady, and brave in your determination to face your fears. Yes, I watch war movies. Like you, I suspect, I need to know about the ‘unspoken truth’. Perhaps it’s the journalist in me?

  14. Amazing movie…gut-wrenching honesty. A must see for those of us who crave insight to what our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, are experiencing (or have experienced) to one degree or another while deployed. Thanks for your blog – strength in numbers!

  15. Pingback: Three Milly Mums Restrepo Screening « Amodernmilitarymother's Blog

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