Veterans assess ‘Star Wars” portrayal of battle

By Nicole Viviano
Staff Writer

Luke Skywalker releases his fighter’s proton torpedoes into the Death Star’s only found weak spot, creating a chain reaction of explosions. Han Solo in the iconic Millenium Falcon pulls away from the massive space station alongside Skywalker, escaping the blast without a scratch.

In the 1977 George Lucas film, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope,” the heroes are placed against tremendous odds. Lives are lost, spaceships explode, planets destroyed – and yet, the intergalactic soldiers return unscathed from the cataclysmic rebellion. Despite Lucas growing up in the aftermath of World War II and writing the film during the Vietnam War, the realities and horrors of real combat are not translated in his epic space opera franchise.

A panel of three U.S. veterans and one active lieutenant colonel sat and discussed the differences between war in reality versus dramatized war depicted on the silver screen on Oct. 19 in the Library Auditorium on a panel sponsored by the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and the College’s honors program.  

Lincoln Konkle, a first year seminar professor who teaches the course “Star Wars: Films & Adaptations,” brought his students to the event. Konkle and Nathaniel Parker, the full time AmeriCorps member at the Center for Community Engaged Learning, helped moderate the event.

The discussion on the relationship between real war and the movies focused on the veterans’ and current lieutenant colonel’s military experiences. The panel unanimously agreed that Hollywood does not accurately depict what U.S. soldiers endure both physically and emotionally in times of war. According to the panel, erroneous portrayals of combat contribute to society’s glorification of war.

“You can’t watch something for an hour and a half or two hours and say, ‘I really know what these guys went through,’” Lt. Col. Peter Gilbert said.

Former Vietnam war soldiers recount their experiences. (Meagan McDowell / Photo Editor)

Gilbert also explained that the realities of war often kept soldiers far removed from their lives back home.

“You are so detached from American society, when you come back you don’t know who won the Super Bowl, you don’t know who played in the World Series, you don’t know the dynamics of what’s going on in the government because you’re focusing on staying alive,” Gilbert said.

The lieutenant colonel explained the conditions of his past deployments where he at one point went without mail for six to eight months and how he celebrated two Christmas holidays away from home and family during a 15-month tour.

The panel discussed the false and misleading characterization of the war action heros who easily brush aside the grizzly terrors just experienced in the movies. When asked if any film accurately portrayed the realities of war, as they know it, the answer was a resounding no.

Gilbert further shared the information for a National Geographic documentary available on YouTube, “Restrepo,” stating that it is a start in trying to comprehend what goes on in times of war. The film follows military involvement in Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, in 2007, when Gilbert was deployed as company commander.

Retired colonel and current attorney Emil Philibosian sat on the panel and described his tenure in the military, which started in 1968 during the Vietnam War. He recounted the cold-shouldered welcome he experienced in the foreign jungle of Vietnam. As a young soldier, a new set of fatigues was equally as dangerous as the North Vietnamese Army. A new uniform meant a new, inexperienced soldier. The men who had been in country and combat for the time that others came and left knew that fighting alongside the replacement soldiers was high-risk.

“You grew up real quick,” Philibosian said. “You matured quick. You had to.”

As former deputy commissioner of veterans affairs in New Jersey, Philibosian was responsible for the state’s three veterans’ homes in Menlo Park, Edison and Paramus. Having managed World War II and Korean War veterans, he witnessed first-hand the effects of  the traumatic switch from foreign combat back to homes and communities – an element of war not touched on in many film reenactments. Philibosian said that veterans’ reintegration programs were virtually nonexistent. Mental health concerns went unaddressed until the 1980s, when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledged the issue.

The mental and physical repercussions of the hostility and bloodshed associated with combat are yet another element that film either chooses not to show or portrays inaccurately.  

Panelist and former Marine Corps warrant officer Thomas Reddington expressed his issues with the “sanitized versions of violence” he sees in film, specifically referencing Star Wars. Movies where the antagonist goes through “a hail of gunfire and stormtroopers are dropping dead all around,” where they make it safely to their spaceship, acting like nothing happened, does not mimic the experiences that rattled Reddington during his tenure in the marines. When these characters live through a near death experience, it’s unsettling to see a nonchalant, and sometimes comical demeanor in response to the event.

Another panelist, former Special Forces of the 101st Airborne Division Combat Unit Eugene Marsh, served three years in the army, which included one 15-month tour in South Vietnam where he led a platoon into combat over two dozen times.

“I had to fight everyday to survive under conditions that I’d never expected,” Marsh said.  

Upon his return to the U.S., Marsh felt he received little emotional support –– there were no counseling resources or other forms of aid for veterans. Marsh found it hard to readjust to ordinary life and seek employment. He became homeless for nearly three years upon his return home and 25 years later was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.

Marsh currently sits on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Philadelphia CHERP Veterans Community Advisory Board, VCAB, and has earned his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and master’s degree in clinical mental health, both at Rider University.  

Marsh joined the army to escape racism and bigotry in South Carolina, and became a foot soldier, a “grunt.” What he came to experience during his service he felt has not been addressed in the movies. He specifically recounted the 1986 film “Platoon” and its portrayal of African Americans as lazy and holding back soldiers.

“The movie itself does not give us the credit for the contribution that we made to the Vietnam War,” he said.

The inaccuracies in film and history associated with race and mental illness in the military were two topics at the core of Marsh’s story. He stressed that the revered stories told in film, whether they are Audie Murphy’s and John Wayne’s, are not true. The “gut and glory” found in war movies, that is adored by action fans perpetuates the negative stigma of soldiers and veterans seeking help for mental illness. The initiatives taken to re-educate on signs and symptoms of mental illness, such as PTSD, works against the imagery of the stone-faced, hardened war hero in film, making it all the more essential.

Like Marsh, Reddington found his own path to higher education, after his 24 years of service. He recently graduated from Rider University in 2015, with a bachelor’s degree in political science and homeland security. His accomplishment made him his family’s first college graduate in his generation, among 19 cousins. Reddington is now looking into graduate work and currently works as Coordinator of Veteran Affairs at Rider.

The panel resonated well with audience members. Meredith Megee, a junior English and secondary education dual major, said that students can benefit from listening to veterans.

“People should take an interest in this kind of stuff,” Megee said. “Not because it should be their duty, but because it’s something that’s good to reflect on.”