Wartorn: 1861-2010

Wartorn: 1861-2010 debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Every year on Veteran's Day, parades and other events honor the efforts of our living military heroes. In the same vein, Wartorn: 1861-2010, a new HBO documentary executive produced by James Gandolfini, provides a disturbing and unflinching look at what happens to these men and women when they get home. By hyper-focusing on the stories of indviduals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), directors Jon Alpert and Ellen Goosenberg Kent have created a film that is heartbreaking and often difficult to watch, capturing people in the throes of an experience that can't possibly be understood by outsiders.

Although the term wasn't officially adopted by the psychiatric community until 1980, symptoms of PTSD have been well-documented since at least the 1800s. Footage from a 1944 Army film titled Psychiatric Procedures in the Combat Area that shows soldiers telling stone-faced officials that they "can't stand seeing people killed" precedes a series of letters written by Angelo Crapsey, who enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 at the age of 18, only to come home and kill himself three years later.

Many veterans still commit suicide, sadly, and even more who don't take their own life can experience constant feelings of guilt and fear. Many of the soldiers interviewed can't forget what they saw at war and take no solace in the fact that they were killing others in the service of their country.

Another recurring theme of the film is the inability to discuss the "bloody horror of combat". A World War II vet, talking publicly about his life "over there" for the very first time, says, "All I could do was inhale; I couldn't exhale." That failure to achieve closure often leads to divorces and strained relationships with children. We civilians may often have the confessional urge, but in the military, many of the top brass still follow the lead of General Patton, who once slapped a soldier who refused to go back to the front.  In 2005, Jason Scheuerman was told by military personnel to "man up" after a 10-minute evaluation where he expressed suicidal feelings. He shot himself the same day. Hearing this story from his father, the patriarch of a large military family, is one of Wartorn's many gut-wrenching scenes.

Gandolfini is onscreen only briefly, conducting interviews with soldiers past and present, as well as with military officials who are trying to get their colleagues to take PTSD more seriously. It's an uphill battle, because of a persistent belief "that injuries you can’t see" aren't as bad as those you can. You wouldn't tell a soldier with a missing limb to pick up his gun and get back out there, one of the officers says. Why aren't we treating psychological injuries the same way?

Wartorn saves its most powerful sequence for the end. William Fraas, Jr., was discharged from the Army after showing signs of psychological strain. Now home with his wife and two children, Fraas frequently finds himself staring at horrific pictures of his two tours of duty in Iraq on a huge computer monitor while his family walks on eggshells around him. Fraas and his wife tell us that he sometimes gets agitated in public places, that a simple trip to the store can cause him immense anxiety.  In a remarkable feat of documentary filmmaking, the camera captures Fraas beginning to panic in the aisles of Wal-mart. He doesn't break down, but we've seen enough to know that the potential is always there. PTSD attacks are like seizures, one doctor says. They can happen without warning and are extremely frightening to everyone involved.

Wartorn avoids the trap of tying PTSD to the glorification of war in entertainment and also steers clear of advocacy, which is amazing considering the subject matter. Of course, a lack of advocacy also means a lack of hope. This is a very depressing hour of television. There is no uplift, no saving of Private Ryan, and no real solutions offered. Without explicitly saying so, this film makes it clear that soldiers returning from war will continue to suffer because what happens in combat does not stay there. The mother of a soldier who committed suicide says that the Army trained her son to kill but "forgot to un-train him." Based on what we see in Wartorn, they didn't forget; that un-training simply doesn't exist. The first step to helping these soldiers is acknowledging their pain, and Wartorn can only help make that a reality.


Stray observations:

  • In an interview on HBO.com, the filmmakers say that having James Gandolfini on the team made it much easier to get access to top level military personnel. (Gandolfini probably had contacts from another documentary he made for HBO called Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq. Also, nobody says no to Tony Soprano.) Gandolfini is an imposing presence but he manages to stay in the background during his interviews, letting his subjects do the talking. This is an ego-free film.
  • Very minor gripes: Sometimes the readings of the letters are overly dramatic, and the music can be a bit much in the beginning.
  • Wartorn touches on the evolution of what PTSD used to be called: shell-shock, combat fatigue, etc. George Carlin did a routine about this in 1990.
  • There are many haunting sequences in the film, but here are two that stood out for me. One features clips from World War I where the soldiers are twitching so much that it looks like the film is playing at the wrong speed, even though it isn't, and the other features the drawings of a Marine combat illustrator, which could be published in the scariest comic book ever.
  • In some ways, getting out of the military is like getting out of prison. The world these people leave is completely different from the one they come back to. The idea of being 18 years old, spending two years in a war zone, and then coming back to the States is often very hard to relate to. 

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