January 11, 2007 § Leave a Comment
By simply having veterans of the current Iraq War sit down and talk about their experiences before, during and after their tour of duty, and matching these candid words with astounding footage of the reality of war, Patricia Foulkrod’s documentary “The Ground Truth” stands its ground as an anti-recruiting film. If you’re young and you want to join the military or National Guard as a way to better your life, this is the side of the story that the recruiters won’t tell you.
As one man points out, there is no surgeon general’s warning on military recruitment, though there probably ought to be. Judging from the pitches of the quota-hungry recruiters and the advertisements bought by the military to swell its ranks, the hard sell is toward the exotic excitement and the opportunity doing your service will offer you. As many point out, never once was it mentioned to them that killing — and possibly being killed or, at least, maimed — was their primary purpose in recruiting. They knew it intellectually but, then again, you know intellectually driving without a seat belt on can kill you, too and yet so many do that.
The film follows from the sales pitch to the training, with cameras capturing the sort of behavior that would never be deemed acceptable if it were an ordinary school or, worse, a religion. With a god thrown into the mix, the military would easily come off as a brainwashing cult, where you strip yourself of your life and individuality to devote yourself to a larger body. To convince you of your mission, your body is exhausted, weakened, your spirit follows, your mind is verbally abused as all functions are torn down.
As you train for the greater good of your country, the interviewees tell us, you talk a lot about “killing the ragheads” and do your daily marches to chants with words like “Bomb the village, kill the people” in them, which is a celebration of showing up at a church on a Sunday and slaughtering everyone in it. In fact, much of the singing, chanting, yelling is obsessed with killing — this is a practice of military training since World War II, an effort to make killing a reflex action of the soldier by making the rhetoric of violence and death just part of the backdrop, an ordinary everyday sound.
Far from teaching cool efficiency and the understanding that you are doing an ugly job that needs doing, the training focuses in on the rage of soldiers, teaching them to focus anger on the enemy. This is not the behavior of honorable warriors, if such a thing ever existed, and perhaps it is mandatory for the survival of what these people are being dropped into. Every soldier has a gruesome story that haunts them, a tale of an innocent woman being killed — some of them pregnant — never-ending streams of wounded or dead children, running kids over in military vehicles because they were ordered to, the routine abuse and humiliation of detainees, children being whipped, innocents being lynched and disfigured.
After living through such circumstances, hardly any soldier returns whole. Sometimes, it’s a limb missing, though other times it’s less obvious, it’s an intangible part of themselves. Many have decried the military response to this, treating enlisted men like so much cannon fodder that should be happy if they get home alive — hunks of meat that have served their purpose. After all, if training attempts to rob your of your individuality, then why should the military acknowledge there is an individual in there to treat?
Suicide, the film shows, is not well acknowledged by the military as being its problem, nor the result of war experience. Heroes don’t hang themselves, I suppose. The interviewees have plenty of tales of the mental health scam that goes on. If you admit that you might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder while in Iraq, they will treat you there and then send you back out to fight. When you are eventually sent back home, immediately off the plane they will give you a psychological quiz — if you answer it in such a way that you seem to be in need of help, you will be kept on base for treatment, even as your wife, family, children wait for you on the other side of the queue. Once you get back to normal society, if you have troubles, flashbacks, depression, and you seek help, you will get diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder or be tagged as bipolar.
In other words, you will be pronounced as having a pre-existing condition that the military is not responsible for treating and that its war did not cause — and you will be sent back out to fend for yourself and expect your family to deal with it.
“Americans want to honor veterans in a very cursory way,” says one angry G.I. who wants no yellow ribbons or parades. “They don’t want to help by listening to them.”
The words “abandoned” and “betrayed” come up a lot. Some may not want to admit it, but the way we look at war has changed and we have retroactively adjusted it to past conflicts. The heroic King Richard and his brave knights in the Crusades are no longer that to the young students of history — they have been revealed as barbaric rapists and murderers and the dominoes have continued to fall through the eras. In the modern age, if it seems that some our soldiers have become monsters who do ugly, it is not because they chose to be, it is because they were taught be and had their very future held as the stakes by which they had to strip themselves of humanity. But once you have sold your soul, you cannot buy it back again with great ease and that is want haunts many of the people in this film. They did horrible things for reasons they don’t understand and they see this as their role in a larger phenomenon.
These soldiers feel that they acted without honor because their country is acting without honor. You often hear a soldier say they are prepared to die for their country, but the majority of soldiers don’t die. The real question is whether they are prepared to be maimed for their country, disfigured for their country, disturbed for their country, are the willing to sacrifice their sanity for their country, are they willing to sacrifice their family’s well-being for their country? These are the terrors that veterans more commonly face and need preparation and support for.
It is all too easy to fetishize the role of the soldier in this day and age, to hush up honest and harsh conversation about the military and the people who populate it. It does them no good whatsoever to treat them with kid gloves — they are not children on a high school football team who need cheerleaders to pump them up toward glory.
They are people living their lives, doing their jobs and, as “The Ground Truth” illustrates, they are employees. We owe them something more than death and glory. We owe them life.