We interviewed Craven about his thoughts on the film, and on war, generally.
Q. You work on fictional pieces, mostly. Why a documentary film of interviews with war veterans?
A. I started making documentaries in the 1980s – and I teach documentary filmmaking and we’ve produced several of Bess O’Brien’s documentaries here at Kingdom County Productions. So I don’t feel too far removed.
I was initially approached by Bob Miller, a Brattleboro World War II vet, about the possibility of making a film on vets. Interested in the role of the White River Junction VA hospital, he also helped raise much of the budget for the film, which helped tremendously. He’s tireless, and involved with many progressive causes.
Q. The film features a wide array of combat soldiers of different age groups. How did you go about finding these veterans?
A. In some cases, one vet led to others. Several came to us through Stuart Selikowitz, a VA surgeon and an Army combat surgeon in Vietnam. Stewart knew several of the vets, including Battle of the Bulge vet Curt Whiteway from Craftsbury, and Bob Fuller, an OAS assassin in WWII Germany. Fuller worked for Stuart, as a surgeon’s assistant.
I met Vietnam vet Wayne Karlin on a trip two years ago to Vietnam. Wayne was a Marine helicopter gunner who has devoted his life since the war to writing and publishing fiction by Vietnam vets and Vietnamese.
I had trouble wrangling Vermont Iraq vets, so Jonathan Miller is from western Massachusetts, and Abbie Pickett, the only women in the group, is from Wisconsin. I’d heard about Abbie from a friend and former KCP employee, Jacob Conrad, who works for an LA-based NPR new show. Jacob had interviewed Abbie for their show and thought she was good. She was also featured in a front-page NY Times article about returning Iraq vets.
I heard about WWII vet and POW Cliff Austin from Greg Sharrow at the Vermont Folklife Center.
We interviewed 26 vets but only used 11, due to the limitations of space–and to accomplish the film’s structure that we developed. We’d like to include others in a special dvd.
Q. Is there a "red thread" that connects these different voices in your film, would you say?
A. I see the film as a kind of circular and evolving dialogue that allows us to get to know the individual vets progressively, as they reveal more about their experience. I see the common ground as the human experience and long-term impact of war. How war changes you. I think that all the vets touch on that–and it’s important to consider this when sending people into combat–that you are asking them to undergo changes and have long-term consequences that are impossible to measure–consequences that will affect them and anyone they’re close to.
Q. You came of age politically during the 1960s – the Vietnam War years. In what ways is the global "war on terror" similar to and different from the Vietnam period?
A. I think that the war on terror is, of course, different. Al Queda carried out an attack on American soil, which the Vietnamese did not do. But I’m not sure how Iraq relates to the war on terror, except to fan its flames. Journalist David Halberstam was interviewed by Fresh Air’s Terry Gross shortly after 9/11 and he quoted a CIA memo that advised the Bush White House to "not" escalate the conflict with Al-Queda. Instead, it urged the government to "dry up the swamp" by pursuing vigorously criminal justice for September 11th co-conspirators; pushing for resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; working hard for democratic reform in the region; and launching a policy of constructive engagement that would diffuse Al-Queda’s appeal to disillusioned and marginal people. That suggestion was, of course, rejected.
Whatever is happening to neutralize Al-Queda is largely done in secret, so it’s very hard to know much about it.
The war on Iraq is similar to the Vietnam War because it really was unprovoked. It is a "desired war" and a "political war" that had nothing to do with September 11th. And, of course, Saddam Hussein had been supported by the U.S. since 1963, when he and others became a political front to neutralize progressive secular political forces–through assassination and other string arm tactics. His growing potency also proved useful against ethnic and religious factions and against the Iranians. But he had outlived his usefulness, especially when he wanted to move against Kuwaitis who were drilling under the Iraq border for Iraq’s oil. As the New York Times reported extensively before the 1991 Gulf War, Hussein was initially given a green light for his move to push Kuwait back from the disputed border. But then Bush I changed his mind and Hussein went in further, provoking the stand-off and war. This kind of back room politicking also happened during the Vietnam War, as the Pentagon Papers clearly show. The Diem Assassination, trumped-up Tonkin Gulf attack and resulting Congressional resolution, and much more. There are many similarities.
As former Bush Treasury Secretary John O’Neill said in his book, the Bush agenda for an invasion of Iraq became clear in the very first cabinet meeting after the inauguration–fully nine months before September 11th. So, in this way, the Iraq War is similar as a pre-meditated attack and occupation aimed at gaining geo-political control in the region. And, in the case of Iraq, better access to $9 trillion worth of oil. Like Vietnam. local resistance has grown, even among disparate political groups. And it appears that there will be long-term repercussions. During the Vietnam War, there were also domestic efforts to curb dissent and control the media. This is being done again–in ways that apply lessons learned by the establishment. As during most of the Vietnam War, Congress is again proving ineffective in dealing with the war and with administration misrepresentations aimed at having their way.
The other similarity, I guess, is the racial component of both wars. I think that we Americans are able to tolerate a brutal war against a stated "enemy" because we dehumanize them as "the other." This is not entirely healthy. And it parallels what we find most objectionable about Al-Queda–the way they objectify us and strike willfully and at random. I saw a recent film, Turtles Can Fly, about Iraqi kids waiting for the American planes to arrive and start bombing. It’s a useful film, if for no other reason that it allows us to see the human dimension of the Iraqis. And an artistic expression out of the chaos.
There are many other parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, including the use of torture and the ways in which the American presence united disparate political groups in opposition. But one significant difference between the two wars involves the elections in Iraq–which resulted from substantial Iraqi pressure on the ground against initial American resistance. The elections have put into motion a political process that’s much more complex and open than anything that occurred during the American occupation of Vietnam. That’s a hopeful sign–and its being watched by the U.N. and the international community. Whether the political process can truly take root and govern effectively remains to be seen–and depends on future moves by the resistance and the U.S. military.
The war on terror is different than the war in Iraq, although I guess it’s becoming joined in a kind of self-prophecy resulting from all the de-stabilization that has made Iraq more open and vulnerable to Al-Queda and its off-shoots.
The world community could have been joined very effectively, I think, to isolate Al Queda and even to push for political reform in Iraq, if that was desired. These opportunities were missed. War always represents the failure of diplomacy. In this case, diplomacy wasn’t given much of a chance. The resulting war has a human dimension and an immense human cost on all sides. "After the Fog" tries to grapple with just one side of all this.
Q. What do you hope this film might accomplish? What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
A. I hope audiences find their own personal meanings in the film that resonate. The film is meant to pose questions rather than state the answers. I hope the film shows the human cost of war so that we are mindful of what we ask people to endure–on all sides. I also hope that it increases awareness about the needs for lifelong care for many of the soldiers who serve.
"After the Fog: March film showings currently scheduled include:
· 7pm, Fri. March 10, Enosburg Falls High School, Vermont
· 4pm, Sat. March 18, Montpelier City Hall (Green Mountain Film Fest)
Rutland, Bellows Falls, and other dates are being organized and will be announced as soon as they are set.
Additional bookings, DVD’s of the film, and more information are available by contacting Jay Craven at Kingdom County Productions 802-592-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo from Marlboro.edu