Friday, August 19, 2011

What We Don’t Talk About: PTSD

      There are a number of taboos in contemporary American culture.  One of them is male-on-male rape and another is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  There were a number of American movies that dealt with the issue for Vietnam veterans in the late 1970s, but usually the vet turned out to be psycho and tried to kill civilians at home like in “The Park Is Mine”.  We’d taped “Waltz with Bashir” a 2008 Israeli animated film, written and directed by Ari Folman, and it nails the after effects of war for soldiers.  In this case, that was the 1982 Lebanon War when Israel invaded southern Lebanon because of continued conflicts with Palestinians living close to the border.  Israel was tacitly supported by both
the United States and the United Nations.  However, an international commission investigated massacres on September 16 at the Palestinian refugee camps in the Sabra and Shatila neighborhoods of Beirut and concluded that Israeli forces were indirectly or directly responsible even though members of the Christian Lebanese Phalangists actually conducted the killings.   Two days earlier, Bachir (Bashir) Gemayel, Lebanon’s President-elect and a senior member of the Phalange Party was assassinated.  

      That’s a quick overview of the situation, but a viewer doesn’t need to know that in order to get and respond to the film.  It’s Folman’s autobiographical investigation into why he cannot remember what he did during the invasion, though he was a nineteen year old soldier in the Israeli Defense forces.  He interviews old friends and comrades, none of whom feel that they behaved heroically, but all remember Folman being present.  He realizes that he is blocking what he did in order to survive mentally and emotionally.  When he does finally come to see what he did, the movie pulls off a major coup.  It shifts from animation to the live news footage of the massacre’s aftermath.  It reflects Folman’s use of a narrative (or lack thereof since he cannot remember) and medium (animation, which turns fact into fiction through representational art) that are finally dropped in favor of a reality that cannot be ignored – the massacre’s victims (Lebanese and Palestinian civilians) and his role, however circuitous, in that event.  

      “Waltz with Bashir” sharply conveys that soldiers are trained, but still unable to figure out what is really going on in any situation during a war, and that in many cases, they are facing a kill or be killed dynamic.  I kept thinking that this must be what it’s like for American forces in Iraq.  Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” captured the fear and the thrill of the Iraq War, but that was about a bomb detonation unit, not combat infantry.  Kayla Williams’ extraordinary memoir of serving in Afghanistan “Love My Rifle More Than You” nails the excitement, desperation, and boredom of service, but also examines various physical, mental, and emotional after effects of our current wars.  However, I don’t know of an American movie that does so.  That should be a major concern for our national culture because it reflects our decision not to take these wars seriously.  

      The TV show “Cold Case”, which ran from 2003 – 2010 (concurrent with both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), addressed PTSD in terms of murder and its aftermath.  The subtext in each episode was that murder froze the participants so that no matter how much time passed, they did not fully age or mature until the case was solved.  The hook for the series was that two actors played each of the suspects and that it was one of the few fictional narrative series to deal with the seismic shifts in American culture over the past sixty years.  Personally, I thought they did the best with the stories set in the 1970s and the 1990s.  One unintended gag was that if you wanted to commit a murder, do so in Philadelphia because they wouldn’t solve it for at least a decade.

      Sixteen years ago, my sister worked for Walter Reed Medical Center as a member of a team interviewing Desert Storm veterans.  That was a very short war and considered successful in meeting its objectives in 1991.  Three to four years later, after assessing many veterans’ mental and emotional issues, my sister ascertained that almost every one of them had either emotional, mental, and/or physical issues for which they would need medical, educational, and career support for years, if not decades.  It begs the question of whether we have come through for them.  That’s a drop in the ocean compared to the vets that have been returning from Afghanistan for almost a decade and Iraq for eight years.

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