War is hell, but returning from war is really rough too. As we’ve realized the devastating effects of PTSD and how severely it has affected an entire generation of American soldiers, war movies have more frequently shown us the human effects of conflict. In my view, that is a welcome and long overdue change. I was somewhat apprehensive going into Megan Leavey, because I feared that it would try to glorify or justify the invasion of Iraq. That’s a non-starter for me because there was no legal basis for the invasion or occupation, and no glory to be had over there. You will never convince me that it was a good idea for the U.S.A. (and not just them) to send hundreds of thousands of troops to a no-win situation in the Middle East. Many of those troops didn’t come back and those that did were never the same.
Megan Leavey (the movie) is the story of one of those troops. Megan Leavey (the person) is a former marine who was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Leavey’s experience in Iraq must have been the most stressful tour of duty imaginable, because Leavey toured Iraq with a partner: a bomb-sniffing dog named Rex. Leavey and Rex went “in front of the front lines” to sweep for bombs and weapons intended to kill the troops supporting the new Iraqi government.
The Iraq we see in Megan Leavey feels authentic. Much of Iraq was (and still is) a war zone, an awful place for a soldier to be, and a worse place for civilians to be. Whatever their reason for joining the armed forces (and for Leavey her reason is to escape upstate New York), the American soldiers deployed there were largely good people with good intentions. We can judge their leaders for numerous bad decisions and questionable motivations, but the fact remains that the soldiers on the ground were doing their best while in harm’s way and on edge because the threats they faced were not obvious. It was not just buried bombs, though that was the prime threat to Leavey and Rex. Most of Iraq’s residents did not (and do not) support terrorism, insurgency, or Saddam Hussein. But a few of them did, and they weren’t wearing name tags, so for an American soldier, every single person not wearing the same uniform as you might be planning to kill you.
Whatever your political views on the war, it should be obvious how bad a situation it was to be an American soldier in Iraq, and in fact politics often get in the way by dehumanizing the situation. With the knowledge we have today, you can (and should) be against the invasion and occupation of Iraq while also sympathizing with the troops who suffered through that insanity. Megan Leavey chooses to remain neutral on the political side and focus not just on the war but also on the aftermath, in service of Leavey’s (and Rex’s) story. The result is a compelling tale that is broader than Iraq, and Kate Mara’s performance really conveys the anguish that returning soldiers suffer through, whether they’re humans or dogs. It’s a very focused movie and more of a tribute to the bond that forms between us and our dogs than a true war movie. I really enjoyed it.