With searing testimonies of those who fought in Iraq and now deal with the emotional and psychological war at home, Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War follows the interactions of combat veterans who have realized that in order to survive at home, they must deal with the anger, rage, pain, and fear of their individual experiences “in country.” Writer/director Bécue-Renard sustains an unflinching, cinema verite portrayal of the men who attempt to grapple with PTSD at Pathway Home, a transitional center for the care of combat vets in Yountville, California.
It is there the filmmaker captured the lives of vets from 2008-2013. It is there we understand how they live and stay for a season to better understand and expiate what lurks in the depths of their souls.
For many the hope is that by undergoing the therapeutic process, they will be able to negotiate the rough waters of returning to their families and a culture and society that cannot easily process what they have experienced. For others, the home is a way station on the road of life which they decide is too difficult to handle. A few make the ultimate decision like many returning vets; they choose not to live to the age of 40-years-old.
The film is the second offering in Bécue-Renard’s “Genealogy of Wrath” trilogy. War Wearied (about three widows in the aftermath of the war in Bosnia), and Of Men and War both confront the fallout, consequences and human misery and suffering in the lives of the “little people” who are often invisible or forgotten by the larger culture and society. Laurent Bécue-Renard’s camera provides a close-up into the most trenchant and visceral shared experiences of about 10 combat vets. All at one point or another, were soldiers on the ground facing death, either being injured themselves or killing others. Additionally, one was a medic, and another a mortician who readied the bodies to eventually be shipped home.
They were young when they went off to war. Their training did little to prepare them for what they witnessed. Many of them discuss how they tuned out and emotionally deadened themselves to get to the next day, knowing the next day might be their last.
At the outset, the filmmaker confronts the cultural alienation vets feel as they are driven to Pathway Home. En route they discuss the reasons that influenced them to go there (anger and rage, wives’ insistence, restraining orders, etc.). The combat vets mostly wear dark sunglasses in their group sessions with each other (to which Bécue-Renard had unprecedented access). As each of the vets discusses his reactions to dying and seeing others killed, the filmmaker does not provide their names or any information about the demographics of their personal lives. The filmmaker sensitively reveals their humanity from what the veterans discuss. From this perspective filmmakers encourage us to recognize that we are like them in their emotions and feelings and if we had gone to Iraq, we would have parallel stories.
From their reactions we are able to understand who they once were and who they are now. War events have shaped their emotional and psychological lives making them feel that it would be easier to remain at war; indeed, their return home presents alternate conditions for which they were not prepared or acclimated. As a result they used unconscious and ineffective coping mechanisms for civilian life which ended in addiction, insomnia, isolation, depression, alcoholism, rage, verbal and physical abuse of their spouses and children. Their inappropriate response to a mundane, banal existence at home brought them to acknowledge their need for therapy communicating with other vets who experienced the same dislocation and hopelessness, all symptoms of PTSD.
In filmed group sessions they discuss their confrontations with the outrageous, emotional, and shocking aspects of death. One discusses how he felt a mist over his face. He touched his face and saw blood on his hand. Not understanding, he turned to speak to his brother soldier sitting near him and saw the bleeding wounds and his buddy gagging. He couldn’t staunch the flow of blood. His friend died in his arms. He is left with the ghostly memory of his buddy being dumped in a body bag as he asks the question why was it him and not me?
There are many such stories told with matter-of-fact realism which the storyteller is still experiencing the pain of. Another vet discusses a 19-year-old suicide who was in country for two weeks, had a complete emotional breakdown, and decided he couldn’t deal with the pain. The mortician vet was traumatized by this young teenage suicide; the rigor mortis had so set in that his eyes could not be shut and the body was so hardened it had to be cracked to lie flat. Another vet discusses with tears in his eyes how he shot someone who was running (he wouldn’t stop). As he later searched the body for weapons, half the victim’s brains fell out on his shoe; the only eye remaining in the shattered face just stared and stared at him haunting the vet’s sleep and raising specters of judgment.
The filmmaker’s focus and the editing reveal that these men have been emotionally damaged. They are in terrific pain for what they have witnessed and the death they have caused. Our response is enlightenment for the filmmakers show the storytellers’ reality so that we empathize with their experiences and their reactions to them. They are unforgettable.
Throughout, the vets attempt to expiate their suffering and remorse. Without dealing with the political necessity of war, and the financial benefits for the few, the filmmakers have captured the essence of the theme of war’s horror and impossible justification. They reveal those who least benefit from combat are those who enlisted and had no idea what they would be daily facing when they were overseas. They had no idea what they would be confronting on their brutal return home. Their homecoming which they looked forward to is even more traumatic, for it is then they realize that the war is still in them though the scenery has changed. The memories will be with them forever.
The filmmakers reveal the vets’ development over a period of time as they learn how to heal in spite of having to carry around the horrors they have experienced, terrors which dodge them wherever they go, even in their dreams. Filmmakers show how the therapists slowly guide and direct them toward forgiveness. Gradually, emotions and empathetic feeling for others return. Filmmakers clearly show it is one milestone in the healing process, but the vets must continue reaching many more milestones in their development with the help of each other, their families and Pathway Home. The lessons they learn are powerful. The lessons they discuss are emblematic of why war is hell.
The documentary, an Official Selection of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, has its national broadcast premiere during the 29th season of POV (Point of View) on Memorial Day, Monday, May 30, 2016 on PBS. It is an ever-present reminder of who gains and who loses in wars which cannot be won.