valleyofelahDo you find yourself tearing more easily when you encounter sad scenes in movies you are watching during a flight? I seem to. In recent times, I had to fight back sobs and tears when the horse, Little Blackie, died in True Grit (2010). And I had a really hard time controlling myself when I watched In the Valley of Elah (2007).

The latest in a long line of American films wrestling with the Iraq war is “In The Valley of Elah.” Vietnam vet and career soldier Hank Deerfield, (Tommy Lee Jones), is proud that his son, Mike, (Jonathan Tucker), is serving with his unit in Iraq. But soon after returning to his home base in Fort Rudd, New Mexico, Mike goes AWOL. Hank drives there to discover, after some delays, that his son has been murdered. A local police officer, Emily Sanders, (Charlize Theron), insists the crime falls under police jurisdiction not that of the military, and together with Hank, tries to find out who killed Mike. (David Stratton, At the Movies: In the Valley of Elah)

The movie wrestles with issues like the validity of the Iraq war, and how war dehumanizes people. But what kicked me in the gut was this scene:

. Hank sits on the edge of the bed, the phone to his ear. Joan sleeps on her side.
: “Something happened, Dad. Something bad.”
And then we hear Mike start to cry. Hank is mortified.

: “Oh for Christ’s sake.”
 “Is there anyone there with you?”
MIKE (O.S.): 
“No, I’m alone.”
: “That’s good.”
. Mike on the payphone, trying to keep it together.
: “Okay, Dad, I gotta go.”
HANK (O.S.): 
“You be safe, son. Stay safe.”
“You too, Dad.”
Mike hangs up and walks away to join his unit outside.

By now the audience knows why Mike called his dad from Baghdad.

. . . Mike had struck and killed a child with his Humvee in Iraq due to a standing order to keep driving even if something or someone is in their way. This caused psychological problems for Mike, who had made an agitated phone call to his father after the event. Hank had thought that his son was only experiencing typical emotions associated with a tour of duty; he provides no words of comfort to his son and is only worried about Mike crying in front of other soldiers. Mike realizes he will not receive words of comfort or wisdom, and he ends his phone call with his father knowing he will have to find his own way to cope with the horrors of war. (Synopsis for “In the Valley of Elah,” IMDb)

Mike was shocked that he had run down a small Iraqi boy and had not been allowed to stop, to grieve, or to hand the body back to his family. In his pain and confusion, Mike reached out to his father. But his father completely misunderstands the reasons for his call. Hank thinks his son is struggling with fear and is concerned that Mike not embarrass himself by crying in front of his fellow soldiers. Mike realises that Hank doesn’t understand at all and ends the call. The trauma of what he went through would eventually destroy him mentally. Mike was damaged long before he came home and his subsequent murder.

I wept when I saw this scene because I thought of all the times that my sons reached out to me and I had not understood what they were trying to tell me, and I had either given some quick simplistic answer, or maybe even scolded them for misbehaving. I thought of the many times I had let them down. There have been many times I wished I could turn back the clock and do things differently. If only I knew then what I know now. Many lessons in life are learnt in retrospect. Parenting is definitely one of them. As I grow older I better appreciate Gordon T. Smith when he writes:

. . . we can only respond positively to current developments after we have come to terms with our past and resolved the ways that pain has intersected our lives. For this we must practice forgiveness.

We begin by forgiving our parents. This is fundamental. By this I do not necessarily mean that we have been grievously wronged — though for many of us that is the case. However, no parent has been perfect; no parent has been all that we have hoped for in a parent. Consequently, we must forgive and in compassion let go of any resentment we might have against father or mother. (Gordon T. Smith, Courage & Calling, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011, 211.)

I hope my children forgive me for my failures. I like to think they try to. I hope so, for their own sakes. So that they can better move forward without being unnecessarily bound to their past. But Smith’s advice is first and foremost a word to me.

When we were children, our parents could do no wrong. They strode god-like through our lives. When we grow up we realise that our parents are only human, and far from perfect. We must then learn to love them as they really are, each with their own mix of good and bad. And we need to forgive them.

Have I evaluated my parenting too harshly? Perhaps. And for a long time, I had to raise my two boys as a single parent, wrestling with my own demons while trying to rebuild my life and ministry. And how much of my convictions about my parenting is objective, and how much of it comes from watching movies at 36,000 ft.? God knows. But some of my shortcomings as a dad are only too real. We may not be able to rewrite the past but we can intentionally work for the future. I pray that my relationship with my sons will grow in the days ahead. After all, we know that in these last days, God “will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 4:6a NIV).