March 18 2013 12:00 AM

'Where Soldiers Come From' takes a tough look at the realities of combat


Friday, Nov. 4 -- Remember the days when young men enlisted in the military because they wanted to fight to preserve the American way of life, or defeat a foreign threat or simply see the world? Bodi, Dom and Cole, the trio of young men from Michigan's Upper Peninsula who are the central figures in "Where Soldiers Come From," didn't join the National Guard for any of those reasons. They did it for the money and, as two of them note, a feeling of "I might as well do something with my life."
Heather Courtney's straightforward, absorbing documentary follows the young men from their isolated hometown to a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan, which literally shakes them up: They're assigned to seek out improvised explosive devices, some of which they don't find until it's too late.
For them, Operation Enduring Freedom quickly turns into Operation Increasing Pessimism. Their tour of duty doesn't leave them with favorable feelings about the war or the country they are allegedly liberating. The subtle shocks in Courtney's film come from the slow but visible changes in the guys as their disillusionment with what they are doing grows. They envision the next generation of Afghans as carbon copies of their parents: "poor and war-stricken."
"I never really hated anyone until I joined the Army," growls Bodi, who is arguably the bitterest of the bunch. He may be wearing a uniform, but he talks like an Occupy Wall Street participant, nothing that "unless you rule a corporation," you're worthless. His friends agree with him.
While documentaries that question the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are easy to find, aside from a few casual mentions of Barack Obama and John McCain, "Soldiers" is far more concerned with personalities and relationships than it is with politics. We meet the men's families and girlfriends, all of whom seem to be struggling to make ends meet by waiting tables, doing hair or waiting on disability checks.
Even those who come back physically unscarred face daunting challenges (possible traumatic brain injury from multiple concussions, nervous disorders, a Veterans Affairs system that is great at losing paperwork and rejecting claims but not so great at anything else, etc.). There are no easy tears or simplistic sermonettes in "Soldiers," but there is a disturbing rumble below the surface: Perhaps it's the sound of hundreds of Coles and Doms and Bodis marching into military recruiting offices not because of patriotism, but simply to get a paycheck, putting their lives on the line solely in the hopes of making a living.

Showing at Celebration! Cinema Lansing; also screening next week as part of the East Lansing Film Festival.