On Wednesday, November 14, 2007, Hollywood came to Madison, Wisconsin. Paramount Pictures sponsored a free pre-release screening of "Stop-Loss," which is due to hit theaters nationwide on March 28, 2008. (It will be released in the U.K. on April 18, 2008.) Writer and director Kimberly Peirce, best known for directing "Boys Don't Cry," was in attendance and took part in an extended questions and answer session after the screening.
Telling the War Through Soldiers' Eyes
The film centers on the experience of a soldier who has completed his tour of duty in Iraq, only to find he has been "stop-lossed." A postcard for the film distributed at the screening defines the stop-loss policy as "The retention of soldiers in the service beyond their expected term. Using a loophole in soldiers' military contracts to prohibit servicemen and women from retiring once their required term of service is complete. Also widely known as a 'Back Door Draft.'" The character, Brandon King, does not resist returning because of political convictions about the legality or validity of the war. Instead, he tried to express to his lifelong friend, with whom he served, that there is just no more room in his mind for experiences of seeing his friends who are serving under his command mutilated and killed.
Much of the story focuses on Brandon's efforts to avoid being sent back to Iraq, and the ultimate decision he has to make about running away, or continuing to serve despite his belief that what the military is doing to him and others is wrong. He is clear in his belief that while he honored his contract with the military, they are not honoring their promise to him by keeping him enlisted against his will.
A Very Personal Account
Peirce came to this story in a very personal way. She was in New York City on 9/11, and was shocked when her eighteen-year old brother -- like so many others -- decided to enlist in the military as a result of the attacks. She told how she would be asleep in bed and would hear an incoming Instant Message on her computer from him. She stayed in close touch with him through email and IM, trying to understand what the experience was for him and his friends. She considered making a documentary, and started that process, but decided ultimately on a fictional movie as the best way to tell their stories.
When her brother was home on leave, Peirce heard pounding music from the other room and found him riveted to a computer screen, watching video that he and his fellow soldiers had shot in Iraq, edited, and set to music. She was struck by how powerful it was for him, and decided to do a film that not only told the story from the soldiers point of view, but that incorporated the video they themselves were shooting. As we waited for the screening to start, we watched a 10 to 15 minute loop of video shot by soldiers and set to music that ranged from country to rap to heavy metal. Many of the images were disturbing, while others showed the more mundane aspects of military life like shaving and sleeping.
Peirce, as a professional filmmaker, was amazed at the quality of the video. She asked her brother how they found a tripod. He answered that they "tripod" was a sandbag. Similarly, she wondered how they were able to give the perspective of a soldier in a tank. They had taped the camera to the front of the tank, so it was exactly the vantage point of the tank driver.
Record Rates of Desertion
Peirce's decision to rely heavily on the interviews she did with soldiers in order to write the story in an authentic voice demonstrated what can be gained from listening to the people on the front lines. It was interesting to read in the same week that the Army's desertion rate is up 80% since 2003. William McMichael reported in The Army Times that in 2006 (the last full year for which there is data available), "All told, 4,698 soldiers were declared deserters, according to Lt. Col. Darryl Darden of the Army's office of the deputy chief of staff for manpower and personnel. That is a 42.3 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, and the highest annual total since fiscal year 2001, when 4,399 troops deserted."
Even more interesting is that while the desertion rate in the Army is growing, it is declining in other branches of the armed forces, which are less highly deployed in Iraq. Again according to The Army Times, "At the same time, desertions fell in two of the other three services. A total of 1,036 Marines walked away last fiscal year, marking a three-year decline. Navy desertions -- 1,129 during the 12 months ending Sept. 30 -- fell for the seventh straight year." The Air Force is also seeing low levels of desertion.
An Associated Press story on desertion quotes Roy Wallace, director of plans and resources for Army personnel. "We're asking a lot of soldiers these days. They're humans. They have all sorts of issues back home and other places like that. So, I'm sure it has to do with the stress of being a soldier." Wallace added, "My personal opinion is the only way to stop desertions is to change the climate ... how they are living and doing what they need to do."
The option of going to Canada to avoid prosecution for desertion -- which is addresses in the film -- is not a good possibility judging by a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, the court declined to hear the appeals of two American soldiers who deserted in 2004, who "refuse[d] to participate in what they call an immoral and illegal war." They applied to live in Canada through the Immigration and Refugee Board in 2005, but their applications were rejected.
The board ruled that they would not be at risk of their lives if they returned to the United States, nor were they at risk of "cruel and unusual treatment or punishment." While they would face prison time if they return to the U.S., "the board ruled that they would not be at risk of their lives if they returned to the United States, nor were they at risk of 'cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.'" Not all Canadian politicians agree. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said Canada should not "facilitate the persecution of American war objectors by deporting them to the United States."
All of these issues make "Stop-Loss" an important film to see and to further discussion, particularly among young people that may be considering military service. The film may not be "political" enough for some, and too political for others. It does not take a position on whether the War in Iraq is just or not, whether the answer at this point in time is to stay or leave. But it does provide rare insight from the soldiers' perspective.