Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Late night small town. A train howls and chugs across the screen as a series of titles inform us that this town, attached to a major U.S. military base has a roll call of social malaise and tragedy that fiction would blush to attempt. Shootings, suicides, depression .... everybody in? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder lives here. And then we see that for the past few minutes while we've been reading, that we've been staring at a stressful situation: a car idles at the railcrossing as the train keeps going past, effectively endless.

This is a documentary about a particularly cruel consequence of military service in war zones. Apart from a few snippets of video and snapshots the scene is entirely in Killeen, Texas, the town attached to Fort Hood an army base set up during the second world war. The fort and town have been a strange concatenation of military and civilian life ever since. Almost every shot of a local business includes an unmissable notice of support for the soldiers. The effect of this is odd, more like a town of collaborators professing loyalty to an occupying force than somewhere that's had over half a century to get used to the idea that most of it is made up of soldiers. It's eerie.

That eeriness never quite leaves the proceedings here as we hear the testimony of a number of soldiers who, whether active or retired from service, are still in this place like ghosts wandering in an earthly limbo. The accounts are not from their deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan but their experiences back home, or rather, in Killeen. We are confronted with a series of often marrow-freezing accounts of how these men have coped with life beyond the unimaginable stress of their short careers. One NCO owns that he has just come out of a mental hospital where he was surrounded by other ex-soldiers on suicide watch. He says he was the only one there who didn't want to kill himself but others, anyone he found who looked happy. He recalls this with an unblinking plainness that is both a tribute to his training and an accusation of it. And there's the rub...

It's not an elephant in the room because its presence neither surprises nor upsets but the central nerve winding through this film is masculinity. Not the military idea of masculinity but MASCULINITY pure and simple. It is there in the first sequence following the opening titles wherein a group of young men are showing off their big lowrider cars and souped-up utes which constantly growl like the spirit of manhood made animal. Many of them have their bonnets open which stand at rigid slants like a parade of hard ons. One young soldier in his civvies talks of his imminent deployment to Afghanistan with an infectious joy. It's easy to forget he's about to go to a situation that might squeeze out his staring living ghost within months. Another thread throughout depicts teenage soldiers at a tattoo parlour giggling about their choices of design. All of these are violent and challenging and the youths sumbit to the needle often squeezing a rubber hotdog shaped prop to cope with the pain that is stretching their acne-tightened faces into costant winces.

But don't get me or this film wrong. It is ultimately about one strand of masculinity pursued to its very end point but at no time does it invite us to judge these men with their haunted eyes and burden of life-sucking shock. It is as futile to blame the military or masculinity itself as it is to imagine the world without warfare or the readiness for it. It is, however, important to acknowledge its effects and to know that its victims include those who return from it victorious and rewarded. What might be wrong is the rigidity of the machine to cope with changing circumstances and allow its units (at one stage identified officially as "products" by one ex-soldier) the same care after their damage as was given in the preparation for it. The final sequence of the film offers some promise as a group of ex soldiers stage a protest about the continued deployment of exhausted men. The scene of newly animated sufferers of PTSD running through the morning traffic with the energy of schoolkids, handing out fliers to uniformed men in cars on their way to duty.

A few more shots of the town and then some more of those low riders and for once, to me, the sight of a classic American gas guzzler modified to lift and fall and even allow a single wheel to rise from the ground like a quizzical eyebrow does not strike me as ridiculous. The out of uniform soldier at the wheel is delighting his kids with the antics. A boy in the back seat, his mouth wide open with joy, takes in the thrill of being in all that hardware doing all that cool stuff.

1 comment:

  1. Screening note:
    The film was accompanied by an address by and Q&A with Jim Wain, an Australian Vietnam Vet and sufferer of PTSD. His address sounded like a series of platitudes until I realised he was speaking from experience. I mentally told myself to shut up.

    The questions from the audience were poignant and he responded with a gentle firmness that bore real information. The silences between each phrase thick with memory and knowledge.