Online South County Independent review
"Review: 'Brats' tells uniquely American story"
Doug Norris, Arts & Living Editor, South County Independent
(Narragansett, South Kingstown, Charlestown, Kingston, Wakefield and Peace Dale, RI)
May 30, 2006
"Most people have a place they think of as home," says singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson at the
start of the documentary "Brats: Our Journey Home." But for 5 percent of the American population,
representing "the children of the American soldier, an invisible nation," home is a packed suitcase.
One of the many illuminating moments in writer-director-producer Donna Musil's documentary is the sense
of rootlessness that people who grew up on military bases feel throughout their lives. "Where are you
from" is the first question asked in the film. And it's a question that none of the brats featured in
first-person interviews can answer.
"I was born in San Francisco," said Marc Curtis. "I kind of consider that my home. But I never
At the heart of this fascinating documentary is the universal need for belonging. Brats, who may move
around the globe 20 or 30 times in their young lives, experience the world and what it means to be
American in ways that most of us will never understand. Bonds are made then broken. Loss is
inevitable, and comes often, sometimes in devastating ways.
Using archival film footage, home movies, talking head interviews and Kristofferson's songs to
provide atmosphere, the story illuminates both sides of growing up military. On one hand it's harsh,
unrelenting, abusive, an impossible childhood. On the other, there are daily lessons of tolerance,
honor, integrity and duty that serve them throughout their lives.
The movie relies partly on two previous sources - author Pat Conroy's "The Great Santini," with its
dark comic vision exposing the way the emotional needs of brat children are sacrificed for the father's
career, and Mary Wertsch's critical study, "Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress."
Kristofferson is an affecting and engaging voice as narrator. Dozens of other brats also offer poignant
commentary, ranging from retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf to a diverse group that includes children of
mixed marriages and the spectrum of the American rainbow.
The film is full of powerful little moments, especially the home movies showing American children
mixing with cultures from around the world. The interviews are extensive but always compelling and
One commentator describes the feeling of seeing the word "brat" in the dictionary and finding the
fifth reference to mean "a child, usually insignificant." Another said she liked the word, feeling
it signified "spunkiness, gumption, traits that get a kid through the military life."
They describe living on a base, which Wertsch calls "the Fortress," as a surreal slice of Americana
in the middle of a foreign land. There's one place to eat. One place to shop. One bowling alley.
One movie theater. Every base looks the same. Every house is built the same. Everyone has to follow
the same rules.
At the front lines of promoting the American way of life around the world, preserving the ideals
of democracy and individual liberty, brats and their families live a completely socialist life.
"It was like a Hollywood version of a 1950s small town," said Kristofferson. "Surrounded by barbed wire."
The socialist living conditions, and the fact that most of the brats grow up uncomfortable with the
notion of unbridled capitalism, is one of the many ironies pointed out in the film. Another is
that these brats, known as TCK or "Third Culture Kids," form identities that are a mix of all the
countries they lived in. Once they grow up and establish their lives in America, they often struggle
with the intolerance and ignorance around them, feeling more at ease traveling alone in exotic lands
than being part of a neighborhood.
The U.S. military was integrated in 1948, well before the rest of America. It was against military
law to make a racist remark or to fail to intervene when someone else made one. As a consequence,
none of the people interviewed could recall any racist incidents - until they returned to America.
"You were blue or you were green or you were khaki," said one. "People got along so well. But if
you've never lived that way, there's a tendency not to believe it."
For every positive experience, however, there were many negative ones. Pay didn't cover everyday
living expenses, so families often went hungry at the end of the month. The pressure on children to
be good was intense. Bad behavior could end up in their father's report and sabotage his career.
After all, if he couldn't control his kids, how could he be expected to command troops?
Wertsch called it "the hall of mirrors." Said one interviewee: "Anything I did reflected directly
back to my father and his career."
To counteract behavior problems, parental rules were often severe and dehumanizing. One man, with
tears in his eyes, describes a time when he was forced to sit in a corner for an entire year (minus
hours spent sleeping, in school or in the bathroom) because of some rule he violated.
In the military, seconds count. Everybody knows his job. Nobody questions orders. But the nature of
children is to question everything, to experiment, to rebel and to make mistakes. So the brat is
forced into a kind of anti-childhood, and often develops outstanding survival skills but sacrifices
an emotional life in the process.
The patriarchal nature of the military is described as a lingering problem. One study of children
from every background indicated that military boys have the highest self-esteem of any adolescents,
while military girls have the lowest. The problem in both cases, notes one observer, is that in
the military, there is only one acceptable model of manhood, the warrior. And if you were a military
girl, you were either beautiful and dutiful or invisible.
Brats also deal with loss constantly, in big and small ways. One interviewee said they left behind
21 dogs, because dogs don't move with you. You lose your friends, your teachers, your mentors, your
coaches on a weekly basis. And there's always the possibility that your father gets killed.
"When that happens," said one brat, "we have to leave that community when we need it the most."
As a rule, military brats tend to be open to other cultures (Schwarzkopf describes having to eat
a sheep's eye as a kid when his dad was on a diplomatic mission in Italy), can go anywhere and
talk to anybody. They develop a sense of mission and integrity, a devotion to a cause greater
But they struggle with permanence. And they struggle with being civilians.
"Being in the military is about service," said one brat. "Being a civilian is about acquiring
The Internet gave brats a sense of belonging, the notion that they were part of a lost tribe,
with shared experiences, and could rely upon one another as a community.
Representing more than 4 million Americans, brats have made their mark on the culture. They were
the invisible soldiers, outsiders in their own country, respectful of both American ideals and
cultures from around the world.
Explaining his decision to serve in the military and then become a singer/songwriter,
Kristofferson said: "It was how I felt I could make the world a better place, like my daddy
tried to do."