On The Eve of The Oscars

Birth of a Nation, All Quiet on the Western Front, Gallipoli, Patton, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers, The Hurt Locker and now American Sniper- cinema has focused on war with varying degrees of accuracy, honesty, integrity, and intensity. The trend has been toward greater intensity and accuracy. I can recall my father’s angry utterances at some of the WW II movies- “what a bunch of b****shit; it’s nothing like that”. That is where his comments would end; he and his generation, for the most part, endured their burdens in silence. Despite a more verbal environment for today’s soldiers, silence still prevails. In addition, as my group members have stated over and over “no matter how good the movie they can’t capture the fear, nor can they capture the chaos, as well as the horrible, deafening sounds or the disgusting smell of death/burning flesh”.

One of my jobs as a clinician is to encourage veterans to find their personal voices. They are not encouraged to retell war stories, but they are challenged to create an emotional narrative- one that explains how they have been changed, displaced and confused by the horror/pleasure/insanity/meaningful experience of war. Keep in mind, you need not be shot at to be impacted; medics, surgical techs, critical care providers and others sustain the same invisible injuries, including anger, detachment, mistrust of others, hyper-vigilance and higher risk for co-occurring alcoholism.

PTSD is a complicated condition; it takes more than a recitation of symptoms to capture its power and transformative impact. There have been eloquent parts of this phenomenon captured in dialogue of some movies, even before we agreed on the ‘label’, PTSD. One example caught my attention last week, a film noir movie, Crossfire (1947) shown on TCM as part of their countdown to the Oscars. I found this movie very boring – short bursts of dialogue akin to a tabloid newspaper. I was dosing off after a long day listening to and absorbing PTSD ‘s contemporaneous, complex emotional toxins. However, a few lines from the movie crept through -their honesty and insightfulness compelled me to locate the script. I read the following lines to my group and several veterans were as impressed with their power:

“Well hate, Montey’s kind of hate, is like a gun. If you carry it around with you it can go off and kill somebody. It killed Samuels last night”.

“Soldiers don’t have anywhere to go, unless you tell ’em where to go. When they’re off duty they go crawling- or they go crazy”.

“It’s worse at night isn’t it? I think maybe it’s not having a lot of enemies to hate anymore. Maybe it’s because for four years now we’ve been focusing our mind on – on one little peanut. The win the war peanut. That was all; get it over! Eat that peanut. ( he eats and swallows the peanut) All at once no peanut. Now we start looking at each other again. We don’t know what we’re supposed to do- we don’t know what’s supposed to happen. We’re too used to fighting, but we don’t know what to fight. You can feel the tension in the air. A whole lot of fight, and hate, that doesn’t know where to go. A guy like you maybe starts hating himself. Well- one if these days maybe we’ll all learn to shift gears. Stop hating and start liking things again. Eh?”

Truth can transcend time and context. We need insightful narratives in cinema and at home. The challenge is not just graphic depictions of what the greatest generation called FUBAR. We need individual dialogues and narratives to ease the real pain of real wars. With that being said I do hope American Sniper wins; movies of similar intensity do more than entertain. They can encourage personal narratives that heal.