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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.)


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Christine L said...

This story touched me from start to finish, I have worked in Mental health nursing the past 8 years, i understand a lot about the stigma in mental health but was shocked to learn detail on the statistics for suicide and missed diagnosis for PTSD. This documentary is inspiring, the men that shared there personal stories are brave and heroic, i wish every one of them the best in adapting back into today's society/everyday living and hope they don't ever give up because the life they came home too needs them just as much IF not more as the battle field once did.

Forever Thankful for the ppl who risk their "ENTIRE" lives for us.

xo Christine L

Gord Hockridge said...

Thank you for doing this Judy. I watched the War in the Mind....and I cried. Something I have not done but tried to for 40 years. I served with 1 Commando group in Cyprus in 1974. I was 22.
What our regiment (Airborne Regiment) did, under strength was nothing short of amazing. Our government buried it. I realize now that I had PTSD as far back as 1975. I guess you can say I was one guy that fell through the cracks. I have been accepted into the VTP and start January 17. I look at it as my last chance to become normal.

Anonymous said...

Why am I unable to see this via a link a friend sent from Canada. I live in the US and this documentary is blocked here. War in the Mind: a film about trauma