The weirdly nebulous war in which we've been engaged for the past few years has inspired a long list of documentaries that seek to shed light on why we're fighting and what the repercussions of fighting are. Voices in Wartime takes a slightly different approach, looking at war as an emotional concept that is often difficult to describe in words. Voices in Wartime looks at the history of war through the words of poets who have sought to describe the immediacy of the battlefield or the devastation of civilians through symbolic imagery and lyrical words. As Lt. Gen William Lennow, Superintendant at West Point, says in the film "Poetry gives you the only way that you can deliver all of those feelings simultaneously." And Voices in Wartime combines a tapestry of often disturbingly unedited war footage with some very powerful words.
The film divides its time between poets who have experienced battle and poets who use their skills to protest conflict. The jump-off point of Voices in Wartime is the ironically named "Poetry and the American Voice," a symposium organized by Laura Bush that was supposed to honor Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson and Langston Hughes. Scheduled during the run-up to the Iraq war, the event was to feature several notable poets who no reasonable person could expect to visit the White House without comment. Stunned by the first lady's naiveté and apparent tunnel vision, invitee Sam Hamill started gathering support to turn the event into a discussion on the impending war. Once Bush wised up she canceled the event, inspiring the poets to organize a website to collect poems from all over the world addressing the war. When submissions began to flood in, often from children and amateurs, the poets knew that there were many out there who shared their thoughts.
While the film features a decidedly pacifist slant, it also explores the history of war poetry, including Whitman's gut-wrenching Civil War poems and even some ancient verses from Homer. The most moving sequence, however, may be the one dealing with the First World War, where soldiers dug in to filthy trenches and waited to die by the millions. The film tells the story of soldiers Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon who used poetry to explore their extreme shell shock. Some modern soldiers echo their sentiments on the toll prolonged exposure to conflict can take on a person. These battlefield POV poets are not the anti-war activists that most people would think of when you say "war poet." Instead they took the flowery prose of the romantics of the pre-war generation and melded it with their own experiences with horror. Sassoon's "Does It Matter?" ponders the repercussions of losing limbs and sight in hauntingly flippant language. His status as a war hero confounded the British government as he used his voice to question the necessity of war.
Sassoon, like all the combat veterans in Voices in Wartime, knew that the psychological damage of war is as real as the physical. Whether it's called shell shock or post-traumatic stress disorder, this mental and emotional injury is unavoidable and real. The film suggests that this outcome is perpetually undervalued by those who make decisions and those who weren't there. As author Jonathan Shay says in the film, "What spills blood, spills spirit."
Voices in Wartime can be choppily edited and confusingly structured, but that seems to be due more to filmmakers' desire to cover so many different sides of their story: from the history of war poetry and warfare itself to underreported wars in Africa and Latin America, modern American foreign policy, and the backgrounds of the diverse people who have submitted poems during the current conflict. But this formless, passionate mix sort of makes sense, considering how much there is to say and how difficult it can be to find the words to say it. As Owen said back during the First World War, "I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn."
A couple of trailers for Voices in Wartime are also available along with some text screens describing additional material available from the Voices in Wartime Project.