The perception of an event can be almost as important as the actual event itself. This may be most true during war and is certainly evident in HBO's new documentary Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq. The documentary, which comes from James Gandolfini’s production company, features Gandolfini interviewing 10 different soldiers who have returned home from the Iraq War, all of whom have different thoughts and feelings about what happened to them.
In the very first interview, the notion of an "alive day" is explained. This is the day that a soldier's injury occurred — it is the day that the soldier did not die (though they may have come close). As the notion of an "alive day" is explained, the first interviewee, Sgt. Bryan Anderson, states that he dislikes the term. He, quite understandably, has no wish to celebrate the day he nearly died. It is not that he thinks living is bad, but he has lost so much and suffered so greatly because of what happened on that day that he is not happy to celebrate a day he thinks is one of the worst of his life.
Other people interviewed feel differently. Some like the idea, and some are thrilled to celebrate their “alive day.” Some would go back to the war if they could, some would never have joined the army in the first place if they were again given the chance.
It truly is all about how people perceive the world around them and their part in it. One of the returned soldiers explains that he joined the army because he saw movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, which, he says, glorify war. The vast majority of people who watch either of these films walk away with the message that "war is hell" and is not something to be glorified. Who is right? If he went to war because he saw something in the films about the glory of it, the good of it, is he necessarily wrong for that opinion?
Making judgments about people and ideas can be quite difficult. Having to support an opinion that will upset a multitude of people requires a certain amount of strength and conviction. Alive Day Memories eschews any notion of passing judgment about the soldiers and the Iraq War, except in Gandolfini’s thanking the soldiers for their efforts. He is not saying by his thanks that he necessarily supports the war, rather that he supports the troops (he is not saying that he does not support the war, either).
The only takeaway message that the film leaves the viewer is that a far greater percentage of people fighting the Iraq War survive their injuries than have ever survived war injuries before. It has left our society with an entirely new segment, one whose opinions must be heard and considered. Of course, the segment in question has no cohesive viewpoint (nor should they necessarily), so it makes the task far more difficult; how can our society celebrate people’s “alive day” if some of them do not wish to celebrate the day they almost died? And that is the most basic of the questions that can be asked.
Without an overarching message, the documentary tends to be nothing more than loosely connected interviews with soldiers along with interspersed videos of the soldiers at home and in the battlefield. There are even videos of vehicles blowing up that have been released by the “insurgents” in Iraq. Some of it is gory and much of it is touching, but without a more defined, overarching message the viewer is left with little to remember other than distressing stories of war. And, as the documentary clearly shows, the viewer can take those stories and create any meaning they want from them.
Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq will air repeatedly on HBO and HBO2 in the coming weeks, with the first airing this Sunday, September 9, at 10:30pm.