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Another one-of-a-kind finding from looking into Courage Under Fire – a film rejected by the US military but still influenced by them.  The original script contained a scene where two combat veterans admit that fear plays a role in their decisions on the battlefield and in bonding them together afterwards.  But this scene never appears in the finished movie, despite the Pentagon and US Army withdrawing from involvement in Courage Under Fire.

The exchange takes place in the climactic scene between Ilario – a member of Karen Walden’s team who initially helped cover up the circumstances of her death – and Serling, who is investigating Walden’s combat performance and what really happened.  He is also coming to terms with his own friendly fire incident where he accidentally killed a friend and fellow soldier during Desert Storm.

Denzel Washington as Serling and Matt Damon as Ilario in Courage Under Fire

Denzel Washington as Serling and Matt Damon as Ilario in Courage Under Fire

In the original screenplay by Patrick Sheane Duncan, this conversation reveals the truth about Walden, before Ilario offers up a realistation that Serling echoes:

I figured out what all those veterans have in common. Fear. They’ve all been scared as they will ever get. They’ve plumbed the bottom of fear. Petrified scared. Until your heart stops, your lungs can’t get air, scared sick. And nothing can ever scare
you like that again. You’ve seen yourself at your worst and so…
I think you’re right, Ilario.
You do?
I did something in Desert Storm. Everybody said I made the best decision I could at the moment. They thought that it was a tactical decision. But only I know that I made the, call out of fear. Sheer, stark naked fear for my own life. And I was wrong. Some men died. They can justify it all they want, but deep down inside I know I did
what I did because I was just… plain, simple scared. It’s okay to be scared in combat.

It makes sense. But when it overrides your duty — you’ve crossed a line. We both crossed the same line, Specialist. Let’s get you some help.

He offers a hand to Ilario. Ilario takes it, self-consciously rises.

Among the long list of problems that the US Army and DOD had with Courage Under Fire was this exchange.  An undated DOD memo responding to the script runs to seven pages and makes various suggestions for story and dialogue changes.  Given that it is evidently a DOD, not Army, memo it was likely authored by Strub, and it comments on this scene:

Serling’s Friendly Fire Catharsis

In an unlikely scene between Ilario and Serling, Pg 131, both describe fear as a kind of fundamental cathartic force that bonds combat veterans. It would be more accurate to say that enduring and overcoming adversity bonds people together — the more extreme the adversity, the longer its duration, the closer the bond. As written, it’s unrealistic, particularly considering that there has been no evidence of Serling’s self-described fearfulnes, which seems, after all, very much to the point. Serling has been blaming himself for poor judgment due to fear, when, the truth was – as the official inquiry revealed – that he was not at fault. It might be more accurate if, in this moment of revelation, Serling is finally able to acknowledge – more to himself than to Ilario – that in the heat of battle, he was seized with fear… but he overcame it.

Maybe Ilario’s decision to come clean is his own long-awaited act of bravery. But it’s
hardly realistic to compare Serling’s experience with Ilario’s willful abandonment of Walden, and his subsequent complicity in the cover-up. Unfortunately for Ilario, it is disciplinary action, not help, that awaits him on his journey to personal redemption, although one presumes that his subsequent heroic actions will mitigate his punishment.

‘Overcoming adversity’ is a PR guy’s euphemism for experiencing fear of death, but not dying – a life-affirming experience that naturally bonds people together.  After all, most people have to overcome adversity in their lives, sometimes extreme adversity, sometimes caused by the US military, but it doesn’t bond them together.  If anything, it seems to make people more hostile towards the US military.

Whoever wrote this memo was low-key trying to sell the idea that soldiers do not experience fear.  Just as with ‘Marines don’t get PTSD’ and ‘we don’t retreat, we make a tactical withdrawal’, the denial of the most understandable emotions in the world underpins the institutional culture.  So much so that this rare (possibly unique) admission in a major movie couldn’t see the light of day, and was nixed from Duncan’s script.

We can dig further – such is the denial that combat could ever involve people being scared, the author of this memo claims there has been no evidence of Serling’s fearfulness during the battle, and thus of that fear contributing to the friendly fire death.  And yet, during the lengthy flashback to the Al Bathra incident, the script says in plain English:

Boom! A round glances off Serling’s tank! Serling is shaken, sweating, scared.

This directly precedes his command to his spotter to ‘find me a target’, which results in them misidentifying an American Bradley for a Russian-made Iraqi T-55.  Likewise, the words ‘fear’ and ‘scared’ appear numerous times in the script prior to the exchange between Ilario and Serling.

Nonetheless, this ending to the scene was cut, and replaced by a more symbolic exchange about finally delivering a letter to Walden’s parents.  Other references to fearfulness were stripped out, leaving the only mention being early on, when Serling asks Ilario whether Walden showed any fear when making command decisions in the midst of combat, and Ilario says she’s didn’t.  Not just this dialogue, but the entire theme of fear was effectively removed from Courage Under Fire, even though the Army and DOD refused full scale production assistance.  One of the film-makers observed in an interview with David Robb:

The military is not in the movie business. They’re in the protection business. They’re in the recruitment business. They’re in the business of promoting their own image. So there is no incentive for them to participate in a movie that from their perspective does not make them look good, or which in any way contributes to a controversial image in the marketplace.

As the Courage Under Fire documents prove, this can even be the case when they end up not working on a film, such is the power the US military wields over Hollywood.

Courage Under Fire documents

Department of Defense and US Army file on Courage Under Fire (1996)