In Other Words

Can an American Soldier Ever Die in Vain?

What Shakespeare, Lincoln, and 
"Lone Survivor" teach us about the danger 
of refusing to confront futility in war.

I first read Shakespeare's Richard II in college, where I also watched my first war: Operation Desert Storm. The play depicts a battle between the language of power and the violent thing itself. Violence wins. A king armed only with the poetic symbols of authority is murdered; a usurper, backed by a flesh-and-blood army of thousands is crowned. King Richard, who is fond of swearing by his scepter, is defeated by his cousin Bolingbroke, who knows how to swing a sword.

The Gulf War was about power too: stunning, swift, and (technologically) "smart" -- all of it telecast live. The efficiency of this 100-hour ground war ("the largest logistical move in history," according to the general who directed the effort) seemed to catch out even its protesters, who initially rallied under the slogan "No Blood for Oil," yet soon dispersed. Once the war was over, a sense of invincibility eclipsed a reckoning with the inevitable, enduring costs of unleashing force: continued war in the air over a no-fly zone, ongoing internal violence in Iraq, crippling sanctions, and the lingering illness of many U.S. veterans -- all obscured in the afterglow of American might.

That American might, a prelude to the shock and awe that would again rain down on Iraq in 2003, also helped obscure in national memory the politically unavailing devastation of the Vietnam War. In 1975, the ignominious fall of Saigon left Americans with a graphic symbol of what happens when violence becomes unhinged from strategic outcomes. The event offered the United States a potent symbol of futility, a disillusioning end to what until 2010 was the longest war in U.S. history. Perhaps it also made Americans nostalgic for a world in which sacrifice led to victory and in which victory looked sufficiently different from defeat. The Gulf War, less than two decades later, restored a seeming, longed-for clarity.

I've just finished reading Richard II yet again, this time with students of my own: first-year cadets (plebes) at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where the preparation of future Army officers carries on as the embers of recent wars slowly smolder out and where the grand political drama of American exceptionalism is enacted daily in the hopes and fears of 18-year-olds learning how to articulate their earnest commitment to national service. My students not infrequently describe themselves as members of the post-9/11 generation, a label that signals their solidarity in uniform even as it distinguishes them from their civilian peers and even as the nature of their future occupation grows increasingly mysterious, albeit no less vital, absent the certainty once offered in the form of deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan.

One day in class, a plebe paused at a moment in the play when a conspirator who fears that he has gone too far in open criticism of Richard -- "Most degenerate king!" -- suddenly begins to speak in code, couching further observations about the kingdom's criminal mismanagement and the prospect of armed insurrection in the extended metaphor of a ship sailing into a "fearful tempest." A second conspirator, picking up the hint, likewise laments the impending shipwreck until a third assures his cryptic friends that they can speak freely about the army massing across the English Channel under Bolingbroke's command.

"What's he talking about?" my observant student asked when he encountered the bit about the storm-tossed ship. It wasn't a passage I had planned to spend much time analyzing, but it turned out to be the perfect illustration of a point absolutely essential to the enterprise of understanding Shakespeare: namely, that the images and metaphors he uses, difficult and oblique though they might seem, are inseparable from his meaning.

The passage also has broader resonance, for whenever people describe violence with abstraction or indirection, in Shakespeare's time or our own, there's a reason. The conspirators' motives are particular, but their language offers a fine example of the stratagems people employ when they are trying to talk around ugly and dangerous things.

In 2014, we are contemplating the end of the costly, inconclusive wars in which the United States has been embroiled for a dozen years; Iraq and Afghanistan have proved interminable and inconvenient -- embarrassing to all save perhaps their most fervent original designers. Debates about force and the language through which it is described -- issues of violent means and elusive ends -- are as pressing now as they have ever been. Yet we seem unable to talk about them frankly or to recognize, as my student did, when and why people resort to linguistic subterfuge.

The language most often used today to talk about war is suffused with a sentimentality that seems to belong more properly to some faraway age. It isn't Shakespearean metaphor, yet it is a code of distortion, misdirection, and concealment. This may strike readers as a strange assertion to make about an era frequently celebrated for its knowingness and ironic detachment. Yet even after the revolutions in modern consciousness ostensibly occasioned by conflict in the 20th century, a pernicious American sentimentality about nation and war has triumphed, typified by demonstrative expressions of, and appeals to, a kind of emotion that short-circuits reason.

It is a language of the heart that works to insulate us from the decisions we have made and paradoxically distances us from those whose military service we seek to recognize. We see it in the empty profusion of yellow ribbons and lapel-pin flags. We hear it in the organized celebrations of American heroes and patriotic values: celebrity public service announcements, beer commercials about military homecomings, the more jingoistic variants of country music, and the National Football League's "Salute to Service" campaign. All these observances noisily claim to honor and celebrate, in the words of the NFL, "the service and sacrifice of our nation's troops." We have become exhibitionists of sentiment: The more public and theatrical our emotional displays, the better we seem to feel.

* * *

Yet sentimentality does more than shape the way we commemorate wars. It has real-world implications because it informs all those cultural and sociological attitudes in the shadow of which wartime and postwar policies are made, and because it prevents a more productive and enduring sympathy that, in cooperation with reason, might guide our actions and help us become more acute readers of war's many ambiguities.

Our predicament calls to mind the 18th-century debate over the danger of confusing the exercise of pity with sympathetic action. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, differentiated true compassion from the emotion we might feel at the theater: "a sterile pity which feeds on a few tears" and never produces "the slightest act of humanity." British writer and philanthropist Hannah More warned against "mistaking sentiment," which she defined as "the virtue of ideas," for principle, "the virtue of action." Scottish novelist Henry Mackenzie, meanwhile, observed that "refined sentimentalists … are contented with talking of virtues which they never practice" and "pay in words what they owe in actions."

Today's sentimentality about war suffuses political rhetoric, irrespective of party; Republicans and Democrats are equally adept at its tunings. President Barack Obama's 2014 State of the Union address offers one recent example. The address concluded with an appeal to American ideals "and the burdens we bear to advance them." "No one," the president insisted, "knows this better than those who serve in uniform." And then Obama called attention to Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger grievously wounded in Kandahar, Afghanistan, who was seated in the gallery next to the first lady.

The president was careful to note that he first met Remsburg on Omaha Beach during the 65th-anniversary celebration of D-Day. This allusion to an uncontroversial war set the stage for the speech's emotional peroration, in which Remsburg became a symbol of something almost entirely disconnected from his own costly service:

My fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged. But for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress -- to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.

Everyone rose in unison, and some members of Congress wept as Obama extolled the sergeant's sacrifice. In this, antagonistic leaders could evince a solidarity they had not shown since they united in sending Remsburg to war in the first place. Submerged in the celebration of a "new generation of heroes" were all those nagging questions about the use of force that ought to have dominated debate in the first place. Lawmakers seemed to be seeking absolution for their earlier uncritical enthusiasm by joining together in a tearful expression of feeling.

That's the slipperiness of sentimentality.

Celebration of the humanity of the individual -- calling attention to what is true about Remsburg's suffering, endurance, and commitment -- is a vital national act. But once a soldier becomes a symbol, an abstraction available for political ends, we deny him or her the humanity we strive to celebrate. Sentimentality distances and fetishizes its object; it is the natural ally of jingoism. So long as we indulge it, we remain incapable of debating the merits of war without being charged with diminishing those who fought it.

Just a few weeks prior to Obama's address, the fall of Fallujah had prompted comparisons to Vietnam. The battle for the Iraqi city in 2004 held great significance for those who won it, and the raising of a black insurgent flag -- like the hoisting of a pirate's skull-and-crossbones on a ship or of enemy colors above a desert fort in a 1930s Hollywood movie -- seemed another emblem of futility. Some of the Marines who watched it unfurl began to wonder whether the lives of their fellow Marines, as one veteran put it in the New York Times, "were sacrificed for nothing."

"It was irresponsible," another said, "to send us over there with no plan and now to just give it all away."

This is not what Americans expect to find at the end of their war stories. Indeed, if sentimentality tends to elicit the emotions without binding the will, an equally dangerous consequence of an overreliance on the heart is the compulsion to transform even the most ambiguous tragedies into inspirational "good-news" stories.

* * *

Without a strong head to resist the temptations of sentimentality, a writer might find herself facing the predicament of Ivy Spang, the hapless protagonist of Edith Wharton's 1919 "Writing a War Story." When war breaks out, Spang forgets her ambitions to be a poet and goes to Paris to work in an Anglo-American hospital. There she is asked "to contribute a rattling war story" to a morale-boosting monthly being prepared for circulation among the wounded. "A good rousing story, Miss Spang," exhorts the editor, "a dash of sentiment, of course, but nothing to depress or discourage.… A tragedy with a happy ending -- that's about the idea." After several false starts, Spang serendipitously discovers a true war story, originally transcribed from a soldier's unvarnished account by her former governess, who had also worked for a time in a military hospital.

The published story's first impartial reader, a soldier and novelist who happens to be among the war-wounded patients at the hospital in Paris where Spang works, admonishes its author: "You've got hold of an awfully good subject … but you've rather mauled it, haven't you?" In adding "a dash of sentiment," Spang had ruined the material she had been given. She had acquiesced to an editor's demand to shape the story of war into a sentimental absurdity by giving it a happy ending.

The kind of war story we crave today is much the same as Spang's: We search for a redemptive ending to every tragedy. After more than 12 years of engagement, grasping wherever and however we can at a cleansing goodness that might close the book on two wars that launched so many more questions than they answered, we find no solace in the inconclusive, and we remain uneasy contemplating our own capacity for a violence that has not served a climactic, universally agreed-upon end.

Witness, for example, the recent media coverage surrounding the opening of the film Lone Survivor, based on the book by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. In a January interview, CNN's Jake Tapper suggested that there was an air of "hopelessness" about the film -- that the deaths of Luttrell's comrades in Afghanistan during an operation gone wrong "seemed senseless." Luttrell responded angrily, wondering what film Tapper had seen: "We spend our whole lives training to defend this country, and then we were sent over there by this country, so you're telling me that because we were over there doing what we were told by our country that it was senseless and my guys, what, they died for nothing?"

Cable, Twitter, and the blogosphere exploded with vitriol against Tapper for his failure to appreciate a true American hero. Only a few columnists subsequently weighed in about the need for a debate over whether Americans have in fact died for some enduring change in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dying for something gives shape to a life, salvaging it from the oblivion of destruction and shifting focus away from the merits of the cause. Calling a death "senseless," as Tapper proposed, on a mission gone wrong condemns that life to the relentless circularity of betrayal and doubt. Suggesting that a death in battle was in vain -- "Lives were wasted" in Fallujah, a former Marine told the Times, "and now everyone back home sees that" -- also starkly exposes what the World War I poet Wilfred Owen described as the "old Lie" about the unadulterated sweetness of dying for one's country.

The imposition of happy endings on war's tragedies may momentarily assuage the heart. And who could fail to understand the intensity of Luttrell's desire to seek a balm for grief, guilt, and the constellation of emotions besieging the lone survivor of a battle? Yet the perpetuation of the "old Lie" also insults the head. Writer and Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien's injunction, in which the echo of Owen can be heard, is pertinent: "A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it."

In a climate in which the pressures to sentimentalize are so strong and in which victory and defeat are so difficult to measure, it seems a moral imperative to discover another way to read and write about a war in order to avoid falling into this hazard.

Futility might be found at tactical, operational, or strategic levels. During wars, especially long wars, replete with confusion and fluidity, with fleeting, costly gains and losses, archetypal moments such as the raising of a flag -- over Iwo Jima or Fallujah -- offer a discrete tableau amid an otherwise indecipherable jumble. It isn't easy to determine whether a war is futile. Perhaps it never has been. Are all lost wars futile? Are all victories worth their price? Might Pyrrhic victories be described as futile too?

Wait long enough, of course, and many of history's victories are reversed.

* * *

As a postwar malaise seems to settle like silt all around me in 2014, everything I've been reading -- from Shakespeare to Lincoln, from Studs Terkel's The Good War to David Mitchell's Black Swan Green to Tobias Wolff's Vietnam memoir In Pharaoh's Army -- feels crowded with the ghosts of 20th-, 19th-, 18th-, even 14th-century wars that have been commemorated, misremembered, and forgotten. This literature is shot through with evidence of the dangers of sentimentalizing war and refusing to accept responsibility for the damage it does regardless of the justness of the cause.

This monitory chorus includes the contributors to Terkel's oral history, such as an army nurse who recalls the shocked look on the faces of well-to-do Pasadena matrons in 1946 at the sight of disfigured soldiers from the local hospital being taken for walks on the city streets: "It's like the war hadn't come to Pasadena until we came there." Or the Marine E.B. Sledge, author of the World War II memoir With the Old Breed, who describes his war as a "matter of simple survival" and "totally savage." "We were in it to get it over with," Sledge recounted to Terkel, evincing none of the need for redemption so obviously felt by Luttrell. "Wasted lives on a muddy slope.… What in the hell was glorious about it?"

Mitchell's bildungsroman, meanwhile, charts a year in the life of Jason Taylor, a keenly intelligent and imaginative 13-year-old boy in England whose adolescent crises take place against the backdrop of the 1982 Falklands War. Jason reads the Daily Mail, while his older sister reads the Guardian. In the headlines from these papers, we find contrasting strains of language: "The Daily Mail's full of how Great British guts and Great British leadership won the war," while the Guardian's "got all sorts of stuff not in the Daily Mail," including stories about woefully untrained Argentine conscripts and their general ignorance about the islands they were sent to secure. Jason, who keeps a scrapbook about the war, believes, "People'll remember everything about the Falklands till the end of the world." Soon, however, Jason, his village, and the nation move on, while the Daily Mail turns its attention to "whether Cliff Richard the singer's having sex with Sue Barker the tennis player, or whether they're just friends." All that will endure, Jason's sister tells him, are the land mines.

Among the American writers who wrestle with but never feel the need to diminish the truth about war's impact, Wolff stands out. In Pharaoh's Army offers a portrait of My Tho, a Vietnamese provincial town that the recently departed "French had made … so they could imagine themselves in France" and that the U.S. Army declared off-limits to most of its personnel. "I was glad the American troops were kept out," Wolff explains. "Without even meaning to they would have turned the people into prostitutes, pimps, pedicab drivers, and thieves, and the town itself into a nest of burger stands and laundries. Within months it would have been unrecognizable; such was the power of American dollars and American appetites."

Yet the most forceful of all the writers I've been spending time with is Abraham Lincoln, who refused in his second inaugural to absolve anyone -- North or South -- of responsibility for the "mighty scourge" of the Civil War. Even earlier than that, in 1838, Lincoln knew that "passion has helped us, but can do so no more." In an address to the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, he insisted that passion "will in future be our enemy. Reason -- cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason -- must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense."

Of course it is the Civil War that spawned the ne plus ultra of sentimental American war stories in the "Lost Cause" apologia, a spirited cultivation of the idea that the industrialized North unleashed the uncivilized warfare of the modern age against an opponent that was fighting according to the dictates of old chivalry. D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation gave sensational visual representation to this Southern narrative of the war. In the ultimate perversion of affection, the archly sentimental film engineers viewers' sympathies toward the Southern slaveholders whose principles they simultaneously deplore. Its juxtaposition of villains and victims tempts hearts to triumph over heads; that is the corrupt source of its corrupting power.

In an interview on the occasion of its rerelease in 1930, when asked whether his film was "true," Griffith replied:

Yes, I think it's true.… A story of people that were fighting desperately against great odds, great sacrifices. Suffering. Death. It was a great struggle, a great story.… Did you read about Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg? Pitiful thing. There were boys, like in many a battle. When the fathers dropped the guns, these nothing but children picked them up and went on fighting, and they fought to the bitter end. It's easy enough to tell that kind of a story.

It is much harder to tell another kind of story, an unsentimental story. It is much harder to speak of war in a pellucid, forthright mode. Doing so has become alien even to our own wised-up age, entrenched as war has become in absolutism and what remains a misguided faith in the cleansing, redemptive power of violence. It is a faith expressed in then-President George W. Bush's remarks on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, when he described the Iraq war as embodying "the highest calling of history" and the assembled sailors as bearing the message of the prophet Isaiah "wherever" they went: "To the captives, 'come out' -- and to those in darkness, 'be free.'"

* * *

"I'm confused," one of the plebes confessed when we reached the third act of Richard II and he discovered his sympathies shifting from the apparently victimized Bolingbroke to the irresponsible and duplicitous King Richard. It is Richard who knows before everyone, including Bolingbroke himself, that his cousin cannot stop -- the momentum of war will not let him -- until he has secured the crown for himself. "Up, cousin, up," King Richard tells Bolingbroke, who has kneeled before him. "Your heart is up, I know, / Thus high at least [pointing to his crown], although your knee be low."

To the surprise of my student, it is Richard, the king of dreamy poetry, who now displays by far the keenest, most unsentimental understanding of the actual dynamics of force. As philosopher Simone Weil once noted, force blinds those, like Bolingbroke, who imagine they can control it. In the collision between symbolic and practical might, the latter wins, and King Richard intuits that all will suffer for it.

England's civil wars gave Shakespeare fodder for eight plays. When next he shows us Bolingbroke, now the title character of Henry IV, Part I, the energetic usurper is changed utterly: He rules a kingdom full of trenches, a land soaked with the blood "of civil butchery." King Henry is cut by the double "edge of war" that he first unleashed.

When Fallujah fell in January, some heard echoes of Khe Sanh in Vietnam, won at great human cost and then evacuated in 1968. Five years later, in 1973, Frederick Weyand, commanding general of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, announced the deactivation of MACV: "Our mission has been accomplished. I depart with a strong feeling of pride in what we have achieved and in what our achievement represents." Weyand's rear-guard rhetorical action, reported in American newspapers, sounds cynical given what we now know to be the outcome of the Vietnam War -- until, that is, you have had the opportunity to listen to enough officers, whose earnestness you do not doubt, when they come home from Afghanistan. They are heavy with the death of fellow soldiers and simultaneously fighting a sense of futility with an insistence about the meaningful progress they have seen. How many courageous and honorable friends, either on their way to Afghanistan or relieved at their good fortune in coming home, have told me with a gallows-humor grin that no one wants to be the last American to die there?

Now, as the United States emerges from Afghanistan and Iraq, is the time to think about these wars -- indeed, all wars -- with our heads. The language we use to talk about matters of power and violence can influence the future use of American force. To the degree that we allow the undeniable suffering and sacrifice somehow to redeem all causes -- that we allow our guilt to obscure the realities of devastating, indecisive wars -- we increase the likelihood of finding ourselves in a similar predicament again.

In focusing on a moment of linguistic indirection in Richard II, my student found the key to unlocking an entire play. Reading closely in this way isn't a skill we tend to take very seriously -- until we find that we cannot live without it.

Photographs by Erin Trieb

In Other Words

The Reckoning

After decades of censorship, Burma's filmmakers probe their country's dark past.

Lin Sun Oo doesn't take his eyes off the field and forest before him -- the rich green grass and the leaves on the lush trees stand, almost obediently, as still as statues. It is quiet. It is motionless. It is going to be the perfect shot, he thinks. To the right of him, his cameraman patiently peers into a viewfinder and, with a few careful adjustments, locks the image into focus.

Before long, a thin pole of a man -- an elderly farmer named U Thaung Khaing, whose tanned, wrinkled hands are weathered from decades of working the land in central Burma -- inches into view. Barefoot and dressed in a brown longyi, white button-down shirt, and straw hat, he glides along a winding dirt path that slices through the dominant green in the shot. The producer exhales. The scene is exactly what he had envisioned -- and will be the perfect opener for his upcoming documentary.

In Lin Sun Oo's film, U Thaung Khaing's soft voice narrates a moving portrayal of Than Bo Lay, a village in Magway district, where, in 2010, the regime confiscated land from the area's farmers. During the military's rule, the regime regularly appropriated property for its development projects, while offering little or no compensation to those who relied on the fields for their livelihoods.

When the 27-year-old documentarian first met the farmer, it seemed the two were equally relieved to have found one another. "We'd found someone who was very articulate and with whom we could have an intimate conversation," Lin Sun Oo says. "I think it was the first time he had got the chance to explain the impact of their loss of forest to outsiders."

But this moment represents more than a documentarian telling the story of a farmer who lost his land. It is a snapshot of two Burmese citizens -- an artist and a villager -- enjoying the freedom to speak, criticize, and document openly, without fear of retribution from the military that ruled the country from 1962 until just a few years ago. For five decades, government censors gagged not only the news media, but also the film, art, and literature communities. For filmmakers in particular, the use of camcorders without a license and the unauthorized publishing or screening of recorded material was a criminal act. And, then, in November 2010, Burma held elections, the new government instituted reforms, and things began to change.

Today, Lin Sun Oo is among a handful of gutsy Burmese who are using motion pictures to push for greater political and historical transparency. Some are new to the film scene while others are climbing up from the underground. The shift heralds a significant revolution for the country's film industry -- and for Burma's understanding of the abuses that its leaders had long concealed.

ALTHOUGH THE MAJORITY OF BURMESE HAD never seen one until recently, provocative and artistic films are in Burma's very nature. As early as 1906, 21 years after Britain took control of the entire country, crowds gathered under the stars in Yangon's narrow back streets to watch grainy images projected onto cotton sheets. But what started as pure theater evolved into a film scene far more substantial -- and political.

By 1920, Britain's hold on the country was tight. Not only did a small number of British companies dominate the country's economy, but Indian laborers were brought in to work the country's jobs, fueling widespread indigenous unemployment. Film became an outlet for nationalist sentiment. In 1931, Parrot Film Co. -- led by U Sunny, a hardened patriot unafraid of beaming his anti-British sentiment onto the big screen -- debuted 36 Animals, a film exposing the complicity of the colonial police force in illegal gambling. Other filmmakers soon began casting a critical eye on British rule in Burma. These exposés helped fuel a movement for independence that gathered pace with protests in Yangon and Mandalay by the late 1930s. In 1948, as they shed their colonial possessions in a postwar retrenchment, the British withdrew and Burma became an independent democracy.

But Burma's brief flirtation with representative government was cut short by a 1962 coup that left the military in charge. It wasn't until the 1968 rollout of the Film Council, an outfit tasked with using cinema to promote the regime's ultranationalism, that the dictatorship actively constricted artistic freedom, according to Grace Swe Zin Htaik, secretary-general of the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization. The big screen was soon dominated by films like 1979's Ah Mi Myay Hma Thar Kaung Myar (Good Sons of the Motherland) -- produced by the Office of the Director of Combat Training -- in which Burmese patriots fended off foreign meddlers.

Burmese directors, however, didn't flinch just yet, and they continued creating films. In the early 1970s, A1 Film, the country's most prominent production company, shot Journey to Piya, a film about a road trip gone wrong -- an old vehicle beset with multiple engine breakdowns served as a metaphor for the decade after the coup. This didn't go over well. And it didn't take long before the Film Council banned the film and the government put the company's founder on watch.

Authoritarian rule continued throughout the 1970s and '80s. Gen. Ne Win, who had led the coup, nationalized private industries and put them in the hands of military leaders. In 1987, on the advice of an astrologer, he announced that only bank notes divisible by nine -- an auspicious number for him -- would be allowed, causing millions of Burmese to lose their savings overnight.

Ne Win resigned the following year, but with the military showing few signs that it would relinquish its grip on the country, hundreds of thousands of people across Burma took to the streets in 1988 to demand democratic elections. The military responded with force, and within two months, up to 3,000 people were dead and thousands were behind bars.

Following Ne Win's resignation, a clique of generals from his inner circle formed a military junta. The State Law and Order Restoration Council, as it was known, continued to use film as a propaganda tool. Burma's all-time highest-grossing film, 1996's Thu Chun Ma Kan Bi (Never Shall We Be Enslaved), which was reportedly funded by the regime, focused on the British Army's seizure of Mandalay in 1885. Its heroes were a group of army generals who ignored the demands of King Mindon Min to cease resistance against Britain's conquest of the country. The film was almost euphoric in its depiction of the renegade fighters -- an unsubtle lesson in the importance of patriotism.

Decades of economic mismanagement during the Ne Win years followed by enormous military expenditures under the junta further degraded Burma's economy. By 2007, the Burmese people were furious: Sky-high fuel prices sparked the monk-led uprising that year in which more than 100 protesters were killed. Three years later, the regime, realizing citizen ire was not about to dissipate, held elections and introduced a quasi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein -- a general nicknamed "Mr. Clean" for his rare ability to avoid corruption scandals -- who instituted political and economic reforms in a bid to end sanctions and spur Western investment, all to much applause from the United States and Europe.

For filmmakers, the pivotal moment came in March 2011, when the president, in a speech, emphasized the role of the media in a free society. Almost overnight, independent media became a tool for democracy, where it had long only been viewed as nothing more than seditious and criminal by the regime. In January 2013, when the censorship board was dissolved, journalists, artists, and filmmakers were free to produce material without their work being vetted by the once-feared Information Ministry.

Within six months of Thein Sein's seminal speech, a collective of filmmakers organized the Wathann Film Festival, Burma's first such event. The documentaries it features have grown to become bold, provocative, and critical of the former regime. In 2013, its top documentary prize went to Shin Daewe, who tracked the plight of Burmese refugees from Kachin state when they fled to China in 2011 amid fierce fighting between the Burmese army and Kachin rebels. Because the government attempts to prevent journalists from entering rebel-held territory, the film offers rare insight into the human costs of this conflict.

Just a few years ago, this work could have landed Shin Daewe a 10-year prison sentence. But now, she's working on a documentary about a major industrial development on Burma's southern coastline that, upon completion, will become Southeast Asia's largest industrial complex -- but that could ultimately displace up to 30,000 people from the bucolic fishing villages that line the Dawei coast.

The budding documentary scene got another boost in January 2012, when Aung San Suu Kyi -- chair of the National League for Democracy and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate -- hosted the first Art of Freedom Film Festival. Her inaugural speech, along with its coveted endorsement of the festival, signaled the importance of the industry to the democratization process she has long demanded.

Similar to Wathann, Art of Freedom's top works have been largely political. One of the most highly acclaimed documentaries featured has been director Sai Kyaw Khaing's Click in Fear, which followed journalist Law Eh Soe as he covertly covered the 2007 uprising. Like the journalists he followed, Sai Kyaw Khaing had been underground, working as a cameraman and producer for the news organization Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a group of activists, political prisoners, and rebels turned journalists. Formed in exile in 1992, the collective established a network of journalists inside Burma to surreptitiously shoot footage of the abusive military regime. The network would then send the news to DVB's offices in Thailand and Norway, where the footage would be edited into news segments and transmitted back into Burma via radio and, in 2005, satellite TV.

The head organizer of the Wathann Film Fest, known only as Thaiddhi, is also no stranger to illicit journalism. After a cyclone ripped through southern Burma and killed up to 140,000 people in 2008, the regime locked down the region, blocking aid to victims, expelling the media, and ramping up surveillance of journalists. Videographers filmed in the delta and went about their work with meticulous care, often splitting off and entering the region with their cameras disassembled and the component parts divided up among them to avoid detection. Thaiddhi and his team wrapped up Nargis -- When Time Stopped Breathing in 2010, but his documentary, shot in the delta, was illegal, so he couldn't share it with anyone aside from a close network of friends and journalists inside Burma. The filmmaker finally showed his film in Burma in 2012.

Thaiddhi says that today Yangon has only a few production houses dedicated to documentary film -- not a huge number, but it's a laudable start, given that only three years ago there was none. Most of today's documentaries are screened only at the independent film festivals like Wathann, which is now an annual fixture in Yangon. In the festival's first year, 23 Burmese films were screened. Two years later, in 2013, some 2,500 people attended the four-day event, which featured 33 Burmese-made films.

The expansion of nonfiction film stands in sharp contrast to the country's declining commercial movie industry -- saturated with the Burmese version of screwball comedies and love stories -- where, in 2012, only 30 percent of the movies in theaters were Burmese productions. In the 1970s, when Burmese film was at its peak, an average of 70 indigenous films were released every year, according to Grace Swe Zin Htaik. Unlike the laborious and time-consuming documentaries being produced today, the big-screen mainstream movies are sometimes cheaply and hastily created in seven days, including postproduction. In 2013, the Myanmar Motion Picture Academy Awards featured 12 award categories, but only 17 films were even considered.

Zay Par, a mainstream film director, sees opportunity in the marriage of fact and fiction. He is creating a feature-length movie based on the events surrounding the 1988 uprising. If it makes it to the country's theaters, it will be the first dramatization ever produced in Burma that deals with politically sensitive subject matter since the dawn of Ne Win's rule 52 years ago. It will also be the first time the momentous events of 1988 are rendered on the big screen. His intent is deliberate: to meld entertainment and education. "We aim to promote knowledge among oppressed rural villagers -- educate them about their rights, encourage them to read more."

The public's pent-up appetite for truth is certainly voracious. In the past year, the government has granted dozens of licenses for new daily newspapers. These newspapers, as well as foreign papers like the International New York Times and the Bangkok Post, are all sold at newsstands. In the past, newsstands were only permitted to sell newspapers and periodicals approved by the government. Papers were printed and then sent to the censors; because it was costly to reprint papers after the censors had redacted information, it was not uncommon to buy a newspaper with large holes actually cut out of some of the pages.

Although the climate of fear for filmmakers has eased, there is still a hangover effect -- and of course the ruling party, while elected, is backed by the military. Lin Sun Oo says that on several occasions in 2013, while shooting his documentary, he was followed by plainclothes police officers. "They want you to know you're being watched, and sometimes they'll ask where we're going next," he says, adding that no action has yet been taken against him. Rather than succumbing to intimidation, he embraces their presence as inspiration. "Sometimes they help find subjects for your story. It's a matter of getting them to understand why we believe it's important."

The uncertainty over how this transitional period will play out pervades all rungs of Burmese society, from the military hawks anxious that democracy will dilute the Burmese elite's power to the general population, which knows all too well its rulers' mercurial nature. Burmese filmmakers, however, seem hopeful that they will be able to cast a light where shadows have long stood. Lin Sun Oo is both optimistic and cautious: "I believe that we live in exciting times. We are at the cusp of change, but I am not able to determine what these changes will lead to."

Photo: Lauren DeCicca