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War in the Mind: a film about trauma

By Claude Adams

Judy Jackson is a veteran documentary filmmaker on Salt Spring Island who knows as much about war-related trauma as anyone working in journalism. While she was making War in the Mind, her new film about combat trauma, she was also deeply engaged in the rehabilitation of a Somali photojournalist, Salah Abdulle. Abdulle was severely traumatized when the car he was driving in was blown up in Mogadishu. Abdulle and Jackson met in Canada, and became close friends. He credited her with saving his life.

All the more remarkable, then, that War in the Mind maintains such an emotional equilibrium. Considering Jackson’s own experience with post traumatic stress disorder while this film was taking shape, she would have been forgiven a little more stridency, maybe even an occasional Michael Moore-like shout of outrage against a military establishment that downplays the link between PSTD and suicide among its soldiers.

Instead, Jackson plays it straight, letting her protagonists lead the story. There is anger in the film, but it is subliminal and subdued. One hears it occasionally in the voice of Romeo Dallaire, as he talks about the refusal of the military brass to fully acknowledge how combat and trauma go hand in hand. But the narration itself (by actor Paul Gross) is even-handed in tone. Maybe a little too even-handed for such a raw subject.

The heart of Jackson’s documentary is the experience of a handful of Canadian soldiers returning from duty in Afghanistan. All came back with trauma issues. They agree to take part in a unusual nine-month program of therapy—much of it involving role-playing--at the University of British Columbia. The therapeutic program is called “Drop the Baggage.” Even more surprisingly, they agree to let Jackson’s camera team into the room while they explore their traumas. The result is, at times, electrifying.

One of the doctors in the film talked of a “spiritual” wounding. And that brought to mind something written by Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent and author. "In the beginning war looks and feels like love,” writes Hedges. “But unlike love it gives nothing in return but an ever-deepening dependence, like all narcotics, on the road to self-destruction. . . . It destroys the outside world until it is hard to live outside war's grip . . . Finally, one ingests war only to remain numb."

Three of the characters in Jackson’s film—identified only by their first names: Tim, Wayne and Dan—also come home and find it hard to live outside war’s grip. In the film, they talk only fleetingly about what it is that they experienced on the battlefield. We hear about buddies wounded or killed while on patrol. For reasons not made clear, a lot of detail of their experience is omitted. We do, however, see remarkable video of Frederic Couture on the battlefield, as he steps on a landmine while on patrol. Realizing that he had lost a foot, the young Quebecer freaks out and tries to shoot himself. His buddies stop him, talk him down, and carry him to safety. A year later, at home, Couture throws himself off a fourth-floor balcony and dies.

Like Couture, Tim Laidler, Wayne Innis and Dan Patterson have their worst moments when they’re back home. PTSD has a long fuse. It can erupt months, even years later, in the most unlikely places. One of the soldiers in the film talks about an overpowering paranoia he felt when he visited a Tim Horton’s in his home town. “I had to sit with my back to the wall, facing the door,” he says. He was haunted by the possibility of being attacked. In a chilling monologue, Dallaire, driven almost mad by his experiences in Rwanda, tells about sitting naked at home, cutting himself with a knife and feeling comfort in the warmth of the blood flowing from his self-inflicted wounds. He said he had lost his mental “prosthesis.”

Considering how deeply PTSD wounds these soldiers, I had some reservations when Patterson rhapsodized about the benefits of the UBC therapy. In a discussion with the audience after a recent Vancouver screening of War in the Mind, he said the therapy left him “a man full of love, able to smell the flowers” and wanting to “spread the word” about how one can recover from severe trauma. In the same discussion, Laidler remembered coming home, and burying his psychic wounds deep inside him. He’d worried lest a future employer might find about it. Now, after the therapy, he brandishes his healing experience. “It’s part of my resume now,” he said confidently. He plans to screen the film for his buddies in the service—something of a risk, since many still believe that when it comes to trauma, a good soldier learns to “suck it up.”

These are very positive things. You really want to believe Patterson and Laidler have left the worst of the trauma behind them. You want to share in their joy of recovery. But then you hear the darkness that’s still in Romeo Dallaire’s voice a full 17 years after Rwanda. And you see the WW2 veterans in the film, who still can’t talk about their battlefield trauma after 60 years. You sense that parts of them have never fully recovered, and you wonder if those parts can ever be restored, no matter how innovative the therapy. (Jackson herself says it would be useful to revisit her protagonists again five years from now, to get a better sense of their recovery.)

War in the Mind is filled with bleak and sad moments, but for me the saddest comes when a Victoria, BC, couple visit the grave of their son Stuart Langridge. Langridge was an infantryman, not much more than a boy, who hanged himself in his Edmonton barracks in 2008—three years after a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

In the film, his mother, Sheila Fynes, has just returned from Ottawa, where she convinced the government to award Langridge with a posthumous “sacrifice” medal, an act that acknowledges her son as a casualty of war. The medal came with an apology.

And now she was bringing the medal to her son’s grave. The poignant scene in the film suggests that the medal and the apology afford Fynes and her husband some long-overdue relief. But I was left with a dull hollowed-out feeling: Is that all there is? “I’m sorry, and here’s a medal.” Is that our government’s best response to this recurring tragedy of soldier suicides? Writing about the oft-quoted maxim that it is “sweet and fitting” to die for one’s country, the WW1 poet Wilfred Owen called it “the big lie.” Is it not even a greater lie to pretend that the suicide of a broken soldier is somehow a patriotic sacrifice?

Even if the soldier is killed in conflict, is this really a “sacrifice?” Sacrifice implies virtue: it asks us to buy into the language of those who see military service as inevitable, honorable, and a duty. Once again, I turn to Chris Hedges: “What do you say to those who advocate war as an instrument to liberate the women of Afghanistan or bring democracy to Iraq? How do you explain that the very proposition of war as an instrument of virtue is absurd?”

Yet it’s an absurdity that we instill in Tim and Dan and Wayne and Frederic and Stuart and the other soldiers we send out to fight our wars—conflicts in distant place that may have nothing to do with Canada’s security. And when they come home confused and damaged, we wonder how we can put them together again. Perhaps one in six is psychically scarred.

PTSD hadn’t even entered our lexicon when a little-known German poet, Franz Werfel, wrote these words about combat-addled WW1 veterans: “On a storm of false words, the head wreathed by empty thunder, sleepless from lies . . . “

Sleepless from lies. Empty thunder. War as virtue. Maybe it’s in these untruths and patriotic sound effects that the trauma of the foot-soldier really begins, even before he is crippled by an IED, watches his buddies die, or inadvertently kills a civilian. Maybe it begins in basic training, when we put a gun in a young man’s hands and teach him to kill without thinking. (Clearly, the military is sensitive to this subject. Watch the TV recruiting commercials for the Canadian Forces: there’s no killing there, only dramatic Arctic rescues and sea patrols.)

These are the kinds of emotions that Judy Jackson’s film evokes, and why War in the Mind deserves a place in the canon of anti-war filmology. It may not have been her intention, but we leave the theatre disturbed and angry, and asking questions that go beyond the treatment of trauma.

(War in the Mind will premiere on TVO on Wednesday, July 6, at 9pm, and will be repeated in subsequent broadcasts. It will also be shown on the Knowledge Network in the fall.)

Why Overheated Journalism Works

By Claude Adams

Early in the pages of The End of Iceland’s Innocence, Daniel Chartier fires a familiar rocket at the print media; that journalists often hype, spin, magnify and sensationalize “the facts . . . creating an ethos to make the news more appealing to readers.”

He’s about to tell us that the banking crisis in Iceland in 2008 was a media narrative. Yes, the banks failed, and yes, there was a loss of faith in the island’s economy, and yes, Iceland’s moneymen and politicians made some terrible mistakes that reverberated throughout the European economies.

But it was the Greek chorus of international commentators, wielding the language of hyperbole, who did the real damage. “The foreign media,” Chartier says, “worsened the situation and made Iceland a pathetic example of the financial failure the world was experiencing.”

It’s a compelling argument if you look only at the tone and the language of the coverage. Chartier, a literature prof at the University of Quebec in Montreal, based his study on the reporting of nine reputable newspapers in the fall and winter of 2008, including The New York Times, Le Monde, the Financial Times, The Globe and Mail, and Montreal’s Le Devoir. There’s no denying that the reporting often lurches into the apocalyptic: Iceland’s international reputation “ruined” (Financial Times), Iceland is “about to sink” (Le Monde), Iceland “crashing down to earth” (The Australian); Iceland “like Chernobyl” (Bloomberg); and my personal favorite, Iceland “the Nordic Zimbabwe” (The Huffington Post)

Of course, Iceland is still there in the North Atlantic. It hasn’t sunk, crashed, melted, imploded or drifted into the heart of darkness. Icelanders haven’t descended into cannibalism or thrown themselves lemming-like into the icy sea. Indeed, we’ve seen very little about Iceland in the newspapers since those grim days in 2008/09, but a quick search through the 2011 CIA World Factbook tells us that Icelanders are slowly putting their economy back together again. They haven’t gone Zimbabwean.

So yes, we can agree with Chartier that the ethos of catastrophe created by the print media muddied our perception of this tiny nation, with a population—320,000—equivalent to that of a mid-sized Canadian city. But the author goes too far when he argues that “this foreign discourse . . . has constructed for millions of people abroad the only image of Iceland they will ever get.” Most of us already had an image of Iceland before 2008, and it was a pretty Tolkienesque one: a land of hardy Nordic seafarers and fishermen, the world’s most peaceful country (a 2008 global index), occupied by the happiest, the healthiest, the best-read, the friendliest, and the greenest of people. Before 2008, we thought Iceland and what came to mind were Bjork and Bobby Fischer’s hideaway and halibut and volcanoes and a capital city that was impossible to spell. But that perception has been smashed. Today, thanks to the coverage of 2008, we know that Icelanders are Europeans living on a small island who survived a terrible economic collapse. Cut their credit and they bleed. Just like the rest of us.

So the over-hyped media attention, while traumatizing, may have been a useful wakeup call, for us and for Icelanders.

That’s not to excuse hyper-ventilative reporting. Matthew Arnold called journalism “literature in a hurry” and in the profession’s galloping urgency, a sense of proportion (not to mention the literary sense) is often lost. Major events become history-altering, medical advances become breakthroughs, every revolt is a democratic upheaval, and heroes are a dime a dozen. Editors have taken Pauline Kael’s admonition to filmmakers—“Astonish us!”—and directed it at their reporters. No surprise, then, that journalists will gild the grammar and torque the story.

Chartier does it himself, with the title of his book. Iceland was never “innocent” and 2008 wasn’t the end of anything. But as you follow his story chapter by chapter, you begin to see that while the newspapers may have amped the story, all those unhappy things did happen: Icelanders did over-indulge, the country’s three big commercial banks did collapse, and, relative to the country’s size, this was the biggest banking meltdown suffered by any country in economic history. And yes, the UK government did then apply anti-terrorism legislation against Iceland to recoup money owed to British depositors. And many Icelanders have turned their attention to fishing again.

All these things happened. And likely would have happened, even if Iceland had been a media-free zone. The journalists simply added the over-rich adjectives, and in their inimitable circus-barker way, drew us into the tent to tell us about a place we knew very little about. They came, they saw, they inflated. Thus it ever was. And will be.