We Were Soldiers
3 stars

by Stephen Notley

Man, the last few months sure have been warful. There was all that stuff in Serbia, and that firefight in Somalia, and the action in Columbia, and Vietnam, and I think there was a German prison camp in there somewhere.

Yep, American movie soldiers have been laying down democracy and anti-evil covering fire like the dickens since September 11. And the craziest part is, all these movies were coming down the pipe *before* anybody besides Osama and the CIA had any inkling the WTC smackdown was on its way. Somehow Hollywood got the idea two years ago that America suddenly needed a bunch of new war stories, and they all started cranking the same sausage grinder at the same time. 

And though you'd expect a big surge of vengefully patriotic spirit in the post Sept. 11 war movies, in fact none of these movies is really pro-war at all (well, except for Behind Enemy Lines).

Take, for example, We Were Soldiers, Mel Gibson's new Vietnam movie. This is the Vietnam War as 70s, 80s and 90s American filmmaking forgot to make it: a good ol' fashioned war. There's no swampy compromised morality a la Apocalypse Now, no blowing away innocent villagers, no corrupt or incompetent commanding officers, no huge friendly fire fuckups. No, this is war WWII-style, where all your guys are in one spot, the other guys are over the next hill, and you shoot at each other. 

And you know what? War *still* sucks. Even if you're not raping civilians and plumbing the terrible depths of your own heart, you're still getting your legs blown to smithereens or your skin burned off or your best friend's brains splattered all over your face just after he's told you about his newborn son.

We Were Soldiers is probably the least political of any of these recent war movies, which is pretty amazing when you consider Black Hawk Down. In fact, We Were Soldiers could almost have been called Black Hawk Up; there's the same intense firefight, guys-under-pressure action that makes up the bulk of the movie, without the sense that everything's gone wrong because the plan went sour. It's just war, soldier. 

Presumably the producers didn't figure there was any point in rehashing all the tedious history leading up to the Vietnam War, because what difference does it make? Whyever it happened, good upstanding tough-as-tough colonels like Mel Gibson had to go into battle over there and watch their men get slaughtered, and that was bad. 

Oh, sure, there's *action* --gotta have the war-movie *stuff*-- and the Americans win (sort of), or at least survive (some of them), and you get a big slice of the thing all these movies can agree on, the importance of comaraderie and loyalty to the guy next to you. Mel Gibson, bless 'im, makes for a pretty awesome commanding officer, the kind of guy who reads up on the terrain and goes over the earlier French defeats, the kind of commander who knows the North Vietnamese Army is coming up the dry creek bed before they even know themselves.  He's good, and watchable.

But is this movie challenging, or complex? No. The best thing to say about it is that Americans could probably use a few more films pointing out the crappiness of war. Because there's one big question the movie never asks, but you can't stop asking yourself: "Jesus --can't we come up with some way to straighten these messes out *without having to go to war*? Because war fucking sucks!"