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Through the Lens: “This is Not a War Story”

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

This is Not a War Story,” a film directed by Talia Lugacy, centers around a group of veterans in New York as they cope and create community through art, poetry and paper making. Written by Lugacy in collaboration with Jan Barry, Kevin Basl, Nathan Lewis, Walt Nygard and Eli Wright, the film focuses on veteran life in the incommensurable aftermath of war.

“This is Not a War Story” establishes its tone with Dave Van Ronk’s anti-war folk song, “Luang Prabang,” and its piercing refrain: “Mourn your dead, land of the free!” If the film’s title was not a clear enough declaration, Van Ronk’s evocative lyrics clear up any ambiguity and immediately ground us in the knowledge that this story will in no way be exalting war. 

We are introduced to one of the main characters, Will (Sam Adegoke), a veteran who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as he reads a poem pondering the size of the Vietnam War memorial if it also listed the names of all the veterans who died of suicide.

We then meet Isabelle (Talia Lugacy), who is freshly out of the Marines, as she begins to work in a veteran workshop, where they specialize in making handmade paper out of military uniforms. Here, she is informed of the workshop’s mission: “We want vets to tell their own story, in their own words and images, on paper that they make themselves.”

In this scene, we meet the men who run and participate in the workshop as they introduce themselves and where they served: Eli (Wright), Walt (Nygard), Jan (Barry), Kevin (Basl), and Nate (Lewis). These actors—all veterans—collaborated in the making of the film. Though they are characters, their stories are their own. 

Centering veteran voices in the narrative of war and life after war is incredibly important. Media depictions of veterans tend to regard them as figures rather than actual people. Ideologies get inscribed onto the figure of the veteran. “This is Not a War Story” allows for veterans to voice their own ideologies derived from their firsthand experiences. The film will not allow veterans to be disenfranchised in their very own narratives. 

“This is Not a War Story” seeks to amplify veteran voices. The film, like Will, has a bone to pick with Hollywood’s depictions of war. Will directly calls out “American Sniper,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Saving Private Ryan” and mocks popular filmic depictions of PTSD.

At the workshop, Isabelle is unsure of her first task, but she finds unexpected release from the sound produced by ripping uniforms into scraps. We get a glimpse of the comfort that this workshop provides as Eli smiles knowingly and asks, “Feels good, huh?”

Though the workshop is undoubtedly a positive outlet, we learn that this is also a place that is unavoidably touched by loss. Eli acknowledges the overwhelming number of memorializing artworks he has been making, saying, “[It] seems like every time I’m finishing up one, I got to start on another.”

Unfortunately, we learn this trauma is not localized. It spans generations. A Vietnam veteran comments on feeling jarred by the sickly familiar sight of the veterans of today returning home with severe, gruesome injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This is Not a War Story” is devastatingly honest. It highlights the beauty in these veteran-created spaces but it acknowledges that “healing is not some [...]  point of arrival. It’s just something you’re doing, all the time.” Artistic expression through poetry, printmaking and visual art all help, but they do not remedy traumatic experiences nor do they dissolve the complicated emotions that arise in the aftermath of that trauma. 

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The film provides an honest look at the reality of being a veteran while harboring antiwar feelings. Many return home deeply traumatized -- physically and mentally -- and are made reliant on Veterans Affairs resources that are often insufficient or unhelpful.  

Lugacy is particularly interested in the moral injury that many veterans experience, as evidenced by Eli’s confession, “Coming home from a war that you don’t feel morally justified being a part of [is] not easy to live with.” The feelings of guilt, shame, anger and betrayal even complicate the way one responds to, “Thank you for your service.” Will confesses he thinks about responding with blunt honesty: “I know you’re not thanking me for being a hero. I was a pawn.”

War movies are often the vehicle for nationalist sentiment, while also being strangely disconnected from the profound depth of emotions felt by the very people who witness war firsthand. We see depictions of sadness and loss, but they take a backseat to large visually dynamic displays of war and combat. In these films, even scenes of terror generate an awe-inducing visual glory. 

“This is Not a War Story” is a haunting antidote to these films and their casual trafficking in war glorification.The film is subtle in its aesthetics but refreshingly blunt in its politics. Stunning performances abound amongst its largely veteran cast. But, above all, “This is Not a War Story” is so compelling because it boldly demonstrates the sort of stories that can be told when veteran voices are actually valued, instead of circumscribed.

“This is Not a War Story” is available for streaming on HBO Max.

Contact columnist Shannon McCammon at shannon.mccammon@richmond.edu.

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