My wife and I went to a movie tonight. Stephen Spielberg's Warhorse. It was a debate whether to go. War is too personal and real to us. It is a good movie, but I am not so sure whether it was a good decision for us to go. We both left down.
Unlike most movies this day and time, Spielberg didn't show up close and personal graphic scenes of blood and gore. By today's standards it was pretty tame. For that, I am appreciative. I got it just fine that soldiers died in battle without sensationalism of bullets tearing into their torsos, or brains / guts spilling out. If one can say this about war, Spielberg did a tasteful recreation of the horrors of war, particularly the horrors of WW I trench warfare replete with soldiers charging across barbed wire laced open fields into raging machine gun fire. But the one thing that can't be muted down are the explosions from artillery shells, even if the lethality of the explosions was not graphically displayed. For me, a bomb or artillery shell exploding is too too close to home given Mike was killed by an IED - an artillery shell used as the explosive charge. Even during the Star Spangled Banner when it comes to the words "...bombs bursting...." I struggle as I bow my head, eyes closed clutching Mike's dog tag.
Warhorse is a love story about a horse whose owner loses him when his debt stricken dad has to sell him to the English Army. It is a story of a son going off to war to find his horse and along the way, losing friends and suffering violence himself. And the back story is the son leaves a dad at home who can't escape the horrors of war he suffered as a lad.
Warhorse is also about the brutality war had on the horses and about how innocent civilians are caught up in the harshness in the midst of just trying to live day to day. And I once again appreciate that Spielberg got the story across without sensationalized gore. And in a low key way Spielberg's Warhorse shows how hard war is on the family back home.
But there is one facet of Warhorse that demonstrated a vulnerability I have and I don't think I will ever live beyond. Warhorse has a good ending. A son gone to war comes home and brings his beloved horse with him. It is a quietly triumphant moment with quiet love of a mother and dad lovingly greeting their son at the front gate of their farm, hardly believing it is him, and hoping with every gaze he is whole and really alive. It is at that moment, and thankfully it came at the end of the movie for if not I don't think I could have continued watching, that I choked back sobs. It was too real for me. It was a vivid reminder what I did not get. It brought back my dreams of getting that moment even before Mike left for Iraq. It hurt.
Every parent, for that matter every family member, dreams and longs for their soldier to come home. They yearn for that moment to look with long awaited anticipation and see a son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, mom or dad come home from war. They look with anticipation to see for themselves they are alive, they are "o.k." And as I think about it now, and from time to time, I am grief stricken to the point of being sick on my stomach that we didn't get to run across the parade field and bear hug Mike and cry tears of joy. Rather, we gently touched a Flag Draped Casket with tears of grief. And when we did, we were soon to be saying a final goodbye as our life story physically connected to Mike ended as we laid him to rest.
As I choked back sobs tonight, I did so for another reason besides realizing again what I will never have. I cried because I also got a visual image through Spielberg's art of a son who did come home from war, and was struck by what his parents were feeling - thankful and happy. And I relish the opportunity to witness those whose sons and daughters came home. Recently, thanks to Facebook, I saw one of Mike's battle buddies come home and through cyberspace, I gave him a hug.
Why put myself through that? Why not just hide away and avoid it? Because I owe it to Mike to be happy for his friends and to any family who gets their loved one home from war. I owe it to them. And I owe it to myself It is not their fault Mike didn't come home. And for those who have allowed me, I cherish the opportunity to share their joy, even selfishly live vicariously through their's. And sometimes, I selfishly ask them to give their loved one an extra tight squeeze for me when they hug them.... It is so kind and unselfish of these families to welcome us when you could understand if they avoided us. After all, we are not the face you want to see when it comes to how war turns out. I admire them that they don't, for that is truly unselfish of them. They do it without relinquishing their own joy, or feeling pity for us. They make us feel like family. And I am reminded in that example of their unselfishness to share their joy with us that Mike left us a legacy bigger than treasure rooms could hold. He left us battle buddies and their families to be our friends who would not turn their back on us.
As I reflect tonight as the Moon Over Yusufiyah shines through the briskly cold night, I offer this advice to parents out there, and the rest of their family as well. If you ever find yourself feeling like you want to wring your child's neck, whether young, teen, or grown, think of how good it feels to hug it instead. And then hug them, and give them an extra squeeze for me....
proud dad SGT Mike Stokely
KIA 16 AUG 05 near Yusufiyah
USA E 108 CAV 48th BCT GAARNG