Content Advisory: This article contains references to death, sexual assault, suffering, torture and other horrors of war.
People, good people, have approached us about the ethics of running an experience like A War of Our Own. They want to know whether we appreciate the gravity of what we are dealing with; and the background behind choosing to run a live action experience like this.
Steve Metze is busy with his National Guard duties around Hurricane Harvey right now, but he thought it was important to address this. This is his response.
– Matthew Webb, Organizer
I’ve been deployed a few times – Desert Storm, Bosnia, and Iraq.
In Desert Storm, I had a man walk up to me after we’d liberated Kuwait to tell me unsolicited how he had tracked down the man who had sexually assaulted his wife. He demonstrated how he had shot the man execution style.
Because he wanted me to know.
I attended a dinner in a Kuwaiti palace. I wandered off in stupid-2nd Lieutenant fashion on my own. By chance, I found a luxurious bathroom that had been converted into an actual torture chamber with metal bed frame and springs attached to an electrical generator. There was a tray covered in rusted sharp implements. Either no one had discovered it though it was pretty easy to find; or just no one had gotten to cleaning it up yet. Regardless, no one else seemed to know or care about it.
In Bosnia and Croatia, I visited some relatives of our translator for what was supposed to be a friendly dinner. While I was there, they essentially made me sit through all the video footage they had shot of victims being wheeled into the emergency room during a Serbian air strike.
It was incredibly graphic and bloody, but they wanted me to know.
They didn’t watch the footage. They watched me watching the footage. They followed that with a tour of the bullet holes in their walls leftover from World War 2. They showed me the wall they had to repair because of a mortar strike a few months earlier.
I did not ask to be shown these things, but they wanted me to know.
Later in Sarajevo, a woman I had just met showed me what they called “Sarajevo Roses”. They were mortar holes filled with red resin to mark where someone had died from a mortar strike.
Outside the United Nations building in Zagreb, the largest city in Croatia, I was shown a wall of bricks facing across from the front door. Each brick was painted with the name of someone who died under UN protection.
I didn’t ask to see any of those, but they wanted me to know.
But, when we pulled out a camera to ask for an interview with the woman in Sarajevo who showed me the “Roses”, she all but ran away.
But in Iraq, because I was walking around in uniform with a camera, a local Iraqi translator came up with a girl in his arms to make sure I got her leg on video. It was a mass of scar tissue from her hip down to her knee from when she had been burned in a bombing the year before.
He insisted I take that video. Because he wanted people to know.
Then, without me asking, her mother and brother explained how the father of the family was dead and now the 15 year-old boy was their only source of income. I can name at least two other instances with people walking up with similar stories. They followed by asking for work for their boys. Children.
In my documentary, there is an interview with a soldier who saw, first hand, one of his squad shoot a young boy dead in the head because he mistook a piece of lumber for an assault rifle during a night raid.
He posted the story on the internet; then volunteered to repeat it on camera. Because he wanted people to know.
He was deeply affected by that story in ways I can’t imagine even after sitting there listening to him. And I’ve seen things too, of course. Those things affected me that I want people to ask about, but at the same time don’t want people to ask about at all.
When I hear people talking about wars and wartime, I am often surprised at how little they know. Their view of war is often based on a justifiably skeptical view of what they’ve seen in Hollywood movies.
Based on what I’ve seen, the people who lived wars, want people to know. Some want to talk about it, but some just want people to know.
But we can’t know. I’ve touched on wars three times and I can’t know. I certainly can’t experience it, but what I can do, and what I can help others do, is experience something that will help them empathize with it.
I’ve made a documentary of one of the three wars I was part of, and that’s a medium that works for some people. A War of Our Own is an attempt to use another medium that may work for others.
Is A War of Our Own really stepping into the shoes of those who have lived through wars? It’s an attempt at it.
Do the participants have the privilege of removing themselves in a way the real survivors did not? Shy of us actually throwing them into a war zone, yes.
Is that a bad thing? I’m not sure.
There is a line between empathy and trauma, and there is another line on the same spectrum between exploitation and empathy.
We know we can’t recreate the experience of what is actually like to be a war zone. I’m not sure anyone would want to if we could. But I think we can share a few things I know others want us to know.
I imagine those touched by war – as soldiers or civilians – were deeply affected by what they experienced. I know I don’t want anyone trivializing my experiences, and I suspect they feel the same. But I also feel that never sharing and just hoping the world gets it – that doesn’t work either.
We need to at least try to understand, however little. We should try to know what they want us to know.