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‘The Long Road Home’ Reminds us of the Consequences of War
November 7, 2017  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

Six weeks after PBS aired Ken Burns’s sobering The Vietnam War, we have a sequel: National Geographic’s The Long Road Home.

The Long Road Home, an eight-episode series that premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET, dramatizes in brutal and mesmerizing detail the journey of an Army unit sent to Iraq in 2004.

Nominally, the mission was to help stabilize and rebuild the country that Americans and coalition partners had officially liberated from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

In theory, the troops would simply ensure the safety of the grateful Iraqis while the water was hooked up, the power restored, the housing rebuilt and democracy allowed to sprout and flourish.

What these troops found in reality, with zero warning, was more like the sixth circle of purgatory.

For starters, there was no widely grateful nation. The troops were entering a land torn apart by war, some significant visible part of it perpetrated by the United States. They were entering a country that multiple aggressive factions saw as up for grabs.

They were entering a country where the good guys and the bad guys often looked the same, where a friendly wave from an Iraqi woman could set you in the crosshairs of a militant’s rifle or a child could be gathering intel on your position.

Mainly, they were entering a country where most people, even people who wished them no harm, didn’t feel they belonged.

In Iraq, as in Vietnam before, we saw ourselves as agents of peace and freedom. To most of the Iraqi people, we were intruders.

The Long Road Home starts with the long goodbyes back at Fort Hood. The soldiers are assured, and in turn assure their families, that this is a safe, feel-good mission.

Little more than an eyeblink after arrival, the unit has been ambushed and cut off under withering fire. The first soldier has been fatally wounded.

Equally crushing, those ambushed soldiers have already realized there is no victorious endgame here. The only win is getting out alive.

The Long Road Home doesn’t use that realization to deliver an overt political message. Where the Burns Vietnam series used individual stories to draw historical conclusions, The Long Road Home sticks almost entirely to those individual stories and lets the viewer figure out what they add up to.

By spending much of its time on the grim and terrifying drama of combat, The Long Road Home nestles firmly into the pocket of a thousand previous war movies, right down to a sniper reciting a prayer in the same manner as a sniper in Saving Private Ryan.

Similarly, the homefront scenes are often reminiscent of the fine Lifetime series Army Wives, which is a compliment. The dramas and the casual conversation both at Fort Hood and Iraq, while sometimes compressed for script purposes, feels credible and real.

That, in turn, is a compliment to Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who wrote the meticulously researched book on which this series is based.

Featured characters here include Lt. Shane Aguero (E.J. Bonilla), leader of the unit, and his deputy Sgt. Eric Bourquin (Jon Beavers). Where Aguero starts out trying to be a voice of healing, reason, and reconciliation, Bourquin makes it clear he has little use for any Iraqi, including the unit’s translator. The only way to stay safe, he figures, is to distrust and if necessary neutralize them all.

Aguero reports to Lt. Col. Gary Volesky (Michael Kelly), who buys 100% into the official American reason for sending the troops in the first place. Once those Americans start rebuilding the country, he declares, the Iraqi people will respect and thank them.

His sentiments are echoed back home by his wife Leann (Sarah Wayne Callies), who heads the spouses’ support group at Fort Hood. She assures everyone that everything will be all right because that’s what the military has assured her and Gary.

It’s the kind of blind faith that is susceptible to being shaken.

The Long Road Home makes it clear that we didn’t go into Iraq with the goal of paying a terrible price for pursuing a misguided goal. It’s just hard to come away from the book, or the series, not thinking that’s what happened.

And while it feels uncomfortable to turn human suffering into grist for a political discussion, it’s hard to watch this and not picture former Vice President Dick Cheney, the ideological architect of the Iraqi war, saying years later that no, he would not do anything differently.

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The show sounds like it's going to uncomfortable to watch, which is what I think those who created it want us too feel-actually, when should we feel good about any war since VJ Day?

Those who should feel most uncomfortable are Presidents Obama- who continued our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan-and Trump, who is adding troops to those already there. All that said, I think those who will really know the human suffering that is associated with these unwinnable wars are the families standing next to the beds of those in the VA hospital or those crying beside the graves in Arlington.
Nov 8, 2017   |  Reply
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