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Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (2007)

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Writing about experience necessarily sanitizes it, theorizes Sangjoon Han, a Korean-American soldier who fought in Iraq and is one of many articulate talking heads in Richard E. Robbins's documentary Operation Homecoming. Built around the firsthand recollections of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the film is a spinoff from an anthology of essays, e-mail messages, poems and letters compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts and published by Random House.

Mr. Han's Aftermath, a fictional composite of several events, is one of the strongest and most sophisticated contributions. Written from the dual perspectives of a fleeing Iraqi farmer and an American soldier who shoots him after repeatedly shouting at him to stop, it reaches a tragically absurd conclusion in which the American treats the farmer whose vital organs were piled on top of him with an IV.

As you absorb the most graphic images of combat and how it changes people in these works written by soldiers but read by nine actors, sanitize is not a word that comes to mind. The best pieces portray combat as such a heightened sensory experience that it demands to be written about, and they suggest that war can turn ordinary men who wouldn't think of keeping diaries into latter-day Hemingways.


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