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Television’s scariest holiday isn’t Halloween

TELEVISION IS INEVITABLY so starved for ideas that holidays are greeted with a deluge of themed episodes, specials and movies, from monster marathons and “Ugly Betty” Halloween get-ups to the parade of Christmas fare that starts arriving around Thanksgiving.

Between Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin and Snoopy skating into yuletide, however, sits Veterans Day, and in recent years all the Halloween merriment has made for a jarring transition into a more sobering sort of fright-fest, embodied by programs related to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Veterans Day falls on Nov. 11, which brings a medley of docs tinged with pain and poignancy — material that’s difficult to watch but should be compulsory viewing for anyone sequestered away from the human costs the war has exacted. Flag-waving tributes are fine, but they only chronicle part of a story the broadcast media have dealt with too sparingly while allowing the political class to bandy about the expression “support the troops” as an applause line until it is virtually stripped of meaning.

Among projects airing to commemorate Veterans Day is CNN’s “Combat Hospital,” a harrowing portrait of 16 days inside an emergency room in Baghdad. It’s a slightly less grisly but no less melancholy execution of a similar approach HBO used in its Emmy-winning production “Baghdad ER,” which will repeat on the network the same day.

In both productions, the camera catches wounded U.S. troops and Iraqis rushed into surgery amid groans and agonizing wails of pain. During the “CNN Presents” installment, one young soldier frets about his shredded leg.

“Dude, that left leg. I’m sorry, it’s coming off,” the doctor tells him. “I can’t lie to you.”

Another army doctor, Robert Mazur, confesses that members of the medical staff “try not to follow up on the patients” and think about what happens to them next, which is surely a sanity-saving maneuver, since one patient survives surgery only to die later in the hospital.

Equally powerful, HBO on Demand features “Last Letters Home: Voices of American Troops From the Battlefields of Iraq,” director Bill Couturie’s understated yet emotionally wrenching 2004 Veterans Day doc, in which relatives read the final missives from loved ones — frequently received after they had learned of the soldier’s death.

Showtime, meanwhile, offers filmmaker Richard Hankin’s “Home Front,” which focuses on an Army Ranger who returns from Iraq blinded and suffering from a brain injury, as he and his family adjust to the limitations of his life. It’s a story told plainly and without judgment — and as much from the perspective of Jeremy Feldbusch’s parents, whose lives are forever altered as well.

Of course, the day will incorporate the usual flurry of war-related movies, most tied to World War II. HBO, for example, is rerunning its compelling miniseries “Band of Brothers” (along with the documentary “We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company,” about the participants who inspired it), Showtime trots out “The Guns of Navarone,” Turner Classic Movies offers “The Longest Day,” and AMC’s medley includes “Patton,” “To Hell and Back” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

Nevertheless, the traditional celebration of men and women serving in the Armed Forces takes on a decidedly different tone against the backdrop of present-day conflict, especially one that has left the U.S. so bitterly divided and so many depressed by daily accounts as the war’s death toll mounts.

TV news too often dispatches Veterans Day with facile, inch-deep memorials, but documentarians have clearly risen to the challenge, even if most of their work is confined to narrower pay-TV platforms.

Whatever the venue, though, this particular holiday menu not only runs a chill up the spine but can put tears in your eyes. In a medium that blithely throws around the term “reality TV,” Veterans Day also delivers an uncomfortable brush with true reality and a glimpse at another kind of horror story — one that’s far scarier than any zombies, ghouls or goblins.

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