Movies That Made Me - A Farewell to Arms
By Jenny Pacanowski
Often people ask me at events if I started writing before my deployment to Iraq in 2004 or before I discovered veteran writing workshops and poetry were a part of me that I couldn’t live without. Up until today, I said, I didn’t write before the war except in journals. However, today, watching old movies on my parent’s couch, I realized I was probably and most nearly born a poet.
One of the movies that’s inspired me during the WWI Centennial is based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms. A volunteer ambulance driver, Frederic Henry, and a nurse, Catharine Barkley, meet and fall in love in Italy during the Battle of Caporetto during WWI. While the time and circumstances were different, their situation 100 years ago resonates with my experience as a medic in Iraq.
The 557th medical evacuation unit I was assigned to was split up and sent all over Iraq to different bases and forward operating bases to support convoys, hospitals, and small medical stations, which is probably I related more to Frederic as an iterant ambulance driver than to Catherine as a hospital nurse. During my time in Iraq, I did medical support for convoys and watching Frederic drive towards the sounds of bombs and guns was a familiar action for me. I understood deeply why he had previously been in our terms today, “a player” because when you love someone in a combat zone, the choice to go towards danger instead of away becomes more difficult. The desire to return to base becomes your driving force. Like Frederic, my lover was also on a base hospital, he was in charge of the corpsmen in the Navy hospital that my platoon of medics was attached to at Al Asad Airbase. Going back to base at night and sneaking into his room was one of the only times I felt content in Iraq. There is something truly consoling after facing death to lie in the arms of someone you care about. It makes war less lonely. I saw that in Catherine and Frederic intense short encounter.
One part that stands out in the movie is Catherine’s rage when she thinks that Frederic didn’t mean anything he said and he just said those things to get her to sleep with him. Then he barges into the hospital and makes a point to tell her how he feels. Every convoy, every mission gives that heightened intensity that you may never come back, so say what you mean in every moment.
I find the events that lead to Frederic’s desertion understandable when he and Catherine disappear to Switzerland to have their baby. When I came home on R&R after about 7 months in Iraq, I was informed by my mother that the Army had sent a letter to her revealing that my student loan repayment in my contract would not be honored. I was also not enrolled in the GI Bill program because I relinquished that benefit for the GI Bill. I considered deeply not going back to Iraq. If the military was not going to uphold their honor and duty to fulfill my contact why would I sign my life over to them? The only thing that convinced me to return was the fact I didn’t want any of my fellow medics and best friends to run those convoys( my convoys). I knew I could not live with the fact I had put them in mortal danger and that I would not be any better than the Army institution that was betraying me if I betrayed my fellow medics. However, Frederic had that same love for Catherine as I had for my fellow medics. I understand and completely cheered him on as he deserted the military for love.
The story continues to a tragic end, which is sad yet incredibly satisfying. In the death of Catherine, at least Frederic was able to see her one last time, I find solace in having the last moments with the ones I am taking care of. It’s truly a gift to be present at their passing from this world. The world doesn’t always have happy endings and well, Hemingway really knows how to emotional gut punch you. Frederic loses Catherine and the baby, with Hemingway not even allowing a glimmer of hope, maybe it is a metaphor of war. No one goes unscathed, no one comes home the same and loss is inevitable. My poetry has that similar effect, it jabs your solar plexus, expels the air from your lungs and then sucks it from the room.
This version was with Gary Cooper when he was very young and, at the end, my mother called it a horrible movie. My mother thinks life is hard enough without depicting the grief in a movie. Maybe she thought it was horrible because she had 2 miscarriages before me, maybe because the movie ends so abruptly with death. I embraced the opportunity to be sad. The first time I saw the adaptation of the book was with actor Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, it is one of my favorite movies of all time, the haunting facial expressions of Jennifer Jones, the chiseled looks of Rock Hudson and the gut punch of emotions.
Reflecting back I wonder if in my subconscious decided that day while I was in tears that I would someday be a gut-punching writer too.
Here's a section from my poem, “Heart of the Enemy”:
The explosion silenced us
Your screams were deafening
Or was it mine?
I scrambled around the crater
The dust was blinding
Until I saw the blood
Desert sucks up blood
Quicker than water
I saw you!
With that cell phone
In your little brown hand
Die You Little M-------er
You were no longer a child
With a beating heart
Sucking on cough drops
YOU ARE A THREAT
Running across your desert
Of Sand that rakes my skin
Much like your existence
Rapes my idealism”
Did these movies design my inspiration and my life experiences write the story for me?
When I was very little, I began to see the world like an old movie, in dramatic scenes and pictures. When I say old movie, I mean the 1930’s,1940’s, 1950’s, I have always been an absolute lover of old movies, specifically black and white. As if the black and white vision gave me the opportunity to practice my creativity in color. From the moments when the main actress enters the room with the fuzzy lens of the camera set, the dress is flowing and in my head, I am assigning a color, if it is more of the white, I think pink, if it darker maybe purple or red, the magic of blk and white is the sparkle of the evening gowns never let you down no matter what the color I imagined.
In A Farewell to Arms, there are no beautiful gowns just uniforms and it adds to the starkness of their environment . The extreme measures of war are simplified by black and white. I’m not sure even with the effects today with CGI technology that war footage is improved by color. When I see Iraq in my mind, the whole world is tan except my displaced green ambulance, that now reminds me that the Army did not even care if we had the proper equipment or not. We are just warm bodies to fill the vacancies that war creates from the youth of our country.
I often wonder if many military members realize this and if it was one of the reasons Frederic deserted without explicitly saying he was going to do so. I especially remember the scene where Frederic is traveling back from the front line, hiking back with the civilians fleeing and it shows the horrors of collateral damage-a bomb lands and kills many women and children. The militaries of the world find this acceptable in war. However, as a soldier, I found it quite unbearable and a source of my post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yet when I watched the movie this time, I was visiting my parents, which always makes me strangely both nostalgic and analytical. Nostalgic in the way that when I wanted to soothe myself as a kid growing up, I would watch a movie or even if we were disagreeing about every choice I made, my dad and I could sit and discuss a movie. Analyzing its plot, the characters, the accuracy of the film (his favorite thing to do would say how xyz couldn’t happen the way it was filmed). I also like to analyze my parent’s behavior as I see myself in both of them, my sarcasm, my kindness, my ability to laugh through the struggle, my overt seriousness and my silliness too. It’s all there right in front of me playing out like a scene in a movie about the retirees and their combat veteran daughter that visits when she can’t stand to talk, listen or discuss another trauma in a workshop or on her “downtime.”
Rock Hudson - " A Farewell to Arms " Trailer - 1957
Date: May 17, 2013
My writing workshops for veterans in Pennsylvania are spaces of non-judgment, kindness, and compassion. As the facilitator of the writing workshop, I ensure that everyone adheres to these agreements. While the women and men write and then share their experiences with the group, I encourage them to hold the space and actively listen not waiting for their turn to read or respond. I found that when actively listening, it slows racing and intrusive thoughts. The groups cultivate camaraderie as well as secure a space to write and speak of your experiences releasing them from your mind and body. Often the workshops are filled with the experiences of child suicide bombers, what it’s like to kill someone, rape, and childhood, emotional, sexual and physical abuse. Over time, I have learned not to internalize others' pain.
However, after being immersed in war and trauma, going to Florida to see my parents is a huge relief. It's the downtime I have trouble creating in my own life so I fly to Florida to find myself again, or at the very least start practicing self-care that I misplaced somewhere between my parent’s house in Orlando and New York City, my home.
I joined the Army after many college courses of barely getting by on multiple university campuses convinced that if I tried enough colleges it would eventually stick. The only thing that did stick was the student loan debt and the Army promised to pay it off which didn’t actually happen but that’s also another story for another day. The Army recruiter also said women didn’t go to war. Which was also a lie.
When I returned home from the Army, I wallowed in guilt, shame, whiskey, vodka, and needles. One of the things that provided me with hope was my dogs and watching those old movies that soothed me, with their costumes, songs, beautifully engaging written dialogues. Thinking back to the times of darkness that became the fuel of my poetry – no longer about rainbows and raindrops. The funny thing is I hate modern war movies, I think they are either inaccurate, exaggerated or trigger me. However, an old classic black and white movies such as A Farewell to Arms or Casablanca, I will watch over and over feeling the relief of the creativity painting the costumes in my mind and listening to the music of that era.
Now, I perform and write poetry for the scenes of my life as if writing through the black and white lens of my trauma or life experience (whatever you categorize me in). I am grateful for the war, the drugs and poetry for leading me to the path I walk every day as a writer, lover, and facilitator guiding other veterans to find their path, their soothing, their happiness through the expression of story.
Jenny Pacanowski is a poet/combat veteran/facilitator/public speaker/actor/curator. In the Army, while deployed to Iraq, Pacanowski was a combat medic and provided medical support for convoys with the Marines, Air Force, and the Army. She also did shifts in the Navy medical hospital. In Germany, she was part of a medical evacuation company. Jenny has been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times and Humans of New York. She facilitates writing/performance workshops for veterans and their family members. Most recently, Jenny is the founder and director of Women Veterans Empowered & Thriving. In addition, Jenny collaborates with Impact Theatre, Aquila Theatre, Steelstacks Artsquest, Decruit, Battle Borne, Ithaca College, Syracuse University, Drake University and Poetic Theater Productions among other organizations. Jenny has performed at the Lincoln Center Atrium, The New York Cultural and Ethical Society, Poetic License: Kicking down Doors, The Lucid Body House, LaGuardia Community College, Aquila Theatre and many more. She has been published in The War Horse, Spring Street, Reflections; Public Rhetoric, Civic Writing and Service Learning, Journal of Military Behavioral Health, The Independent, online magazine, The Impossible Project, and multiple poetry anthologies. As a veteran herself, Jenny’s goal is to build a bridge between military and civilian culture utilizing the arts as the vehicle of communication. Jenny hopes by creating and partnering with smoother reintegration programs; it will facilitate lowering the suicide, homelessness and addiction epidemics that plague our veterans.