Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience

Writing about experience necessarily sanitizes it, theorizes Sangjoon Han, a Korean-American soldier who fought in Iraq and is one of many articulate talking heads in Richard E. Robbins’s documentary “Operation Homecoming.” Built around the firsthand recollections of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the film is a spinoff from an anthology of essays, e-mail messages, poems and letters compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts and published by Random House.

Mr. Han’s “Aftermath,” a fictional composite of several events, is one of the strongest and most sophisticated contributions. Written from the dual perspectives of a fleeing Iraqi farmer and an American soldier who shoots him after repeatedly shouting at him to stop, it reaches a tragically absurd conclusion in which the American treats the farmer “whose vital organs were piled on top of him” with an IV.

As you absorb the most graphic images of combat and how it changes people in these works written by soldiers but read by nine actors, “sanitize” is not a word that comes to mind. The best pieces portray combat as such a heightened sensory experience that it demands to be written about, and they suggest that war can turn ordinary men who wouldn’t think of keeping diaries into latter-day Hemingways.

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  1. It’s just an amazing documentary. I have always admired people who did not lose heart and continued to write even in wartime. My friend’s grandfather was a writer, and when he was drafted for war in 1942, he continued to write his novels. During the war he wrote 4 novels and about 30 essays. This is really worthy of respect. My friend always respected his grandfather. He taught my friend all he knew, and thanks to the knowledge gained, my friend received a writer’s position at I think that this is a unique phenomenon when a person gets to the war and does not gives up, continuing to do what he likes. Thank you for sharing this movie.