First of all, let me explain my bias: I am a peace-loving, anti-war-nick. I would be the last person to join the armed forces. I protested the Iraq war in an unlikely, Los Angeles rainstorm four years ago before the war started. To be specific, I am anti-war-of-aggression. This war for oil qualifies as such. But I am not against peace-keeping missions. I understand the necessity of the armed forces and appreciate the immense sacrifices soldiers make on behalf of a country we all love. Soldiers do what we all collectively as a society ask them to do.
I watched The Ground Truth with a close friend who has worked closely with the Veterans Administration and who thoroughly understands the VA claims process. He has special knowledge of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) conditions and I asked him to bring his experiences to bear on the points of this movie. However, I want to be clear that this person is not a spokesperson for the VA.
It took us four hours to watch and talk about this film. The running time is only 1 hour,18 minutes. But we talked about until 1 a.m.
The Best Parts
A large chunk of the film is about soldiers struggling with PTSD. My friend is personally tied to this issue as he had a family member struggle with this disorder and the situation had a life-altering impact on his family. These PTSD stories are ultimately the most moving portion of the film.
The film also reminds us the war vets are all around us and we often fail to notice. One soldier said, “You don’t see us because we don’t talk about it.”
There’s a chilling poem about PTSD in the movie: "live wire snap" by mos def and a moving song by Tom Waits, “The Day After Tomorrow.” Ironically my Dad sent me this song from The Daily Show web page the same day I discovered it in the movie.
The Architecture of the Film
I’ve seen many documentaries; so it’s hard not to comment on how they handle their subjects. I never knew what this documentary wanted to be. And I really couldn’t see any organizing principle. The movie touched on so many topics related to the soldier experience; but nothing was ever handled in depth and I was never sure what the take-home message was for each issue.
We started with recruiting and the idealist soldier falling for the false advertising by recruiters. I was disappointed we only received sound-bites about aggressive recruiting tactics, hearsay from the soldiers. What makes a Michael Moore movie so effective is that he shows the villain caught in the act. In his documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, we see military recruiters doing the dirty deeds and it’s so much more powerful.
The movie then discusses soldier training/brainwashing and 'The Killing Indoctrination' which shows how the ancient War Cry is used to fortify troop resolve. David Grossman discusses the psychological issues of learning to kill. See his book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Killing In War and Society”. The psychological and biological angle of killing and learning to dominate others were fascinating, but there was frustratingly little of this.
I did come to see that the real courage of soldiering isn’t the actual killing. Courage comes into play when a soldier needs to reacclimate himself to civilian life and process his war-time experience after coming home.
But it’s not news that war is a sinister job, and one that requires the Devil’s tactics. Can I really say I watched this segment and was surprised by the barbarity of war? No.
The film then speaks about the 'crisis of purpose' soldiers feel in Iraq after a traumatic event. “What are we doing here?” They must know the military-shtick: we’re there to restore order and/or to preserve our access to oil, yada yada yada. You have to think this must be a spiritual questioning occuring. But is this a crisis-questioning derived from PTSD or were these soldiers truly all conscientious objectors who find the blood for oil mission essentially unsavory? Either answer is okay; but the film is too vague about this point…until the end when you realize the bulk of the participants are soldiers actively protesting the war.
Soldiers talk at length about civilian casualties, which leads directly into their issues of PTSD. At this point I thought the exploration of PTSD was the point of the film. It definitely could have been. My friend thought this segment was a good representation of PTSD symptoms and experiences. One vet claimed to have been denied help from a psychologist who labeled him a conscientious objector. My friend said he had never experienced or heard of any claims specialist who would respond this way to a Vet; but my friend did say that every organization, business, or social program has their share of bad eggs who respond inappropriately.
The movie leaves PTSD and quickly covers issues regarding the return home and the bureaucracy of the benefits process. We end with a segment called 'Hope' showing the documentary’s Vet at peace rallies.
The veterans groups who supported this movie as listed in the credits were all groups against the war or vets with a peace agenda. There’s no problem with this; but the documentary poses as one without any agenda. The quotes and the stories featured however show a clear subliminal anti-war agenda. Why be so demure?
This war is different than Vietnam in that there is no draft. Men and women volunteer to join. They are ultimately responsible for their free choices. Some, not all Vets, have regrets about their choice to join the service. This film choses to show only vets who felt betrayed and bamboozled. The documentary does not show opposing arguments, which are crucial for any truly balanced “non-agenda” piece and are also highly useful in any pro-agenda argument: show the opposing view and then break off its leg. Ultimately, giving the opposition no say often gives them an unspoken power. If this film is trying to say the military is a bad choice for all men and women, just say it. Instead we get half-told and hearsay stories like “my comrades made these war slurs,” and “the VA counselor told me this.” It’s a basic rule of arguments and storytelling: show don’t tell. Show the evidence. Like Michael Moore, show the villains and let them hang themselves.
Most film-makers have some kind of subconscious agenda anyway. You really have to work hard to prove you don’t, bend over backwards by showing all sides.
The film ends with Camilo Mejia, who served in prison for his objections to the war, asking soldiers to risk jail time and conscientiously object by dissenting given orders. These are the final words of the film.
The End Tragedy
Personally, I respect what Camilo did. But to place this as the take-home message of the entire film was chilling. Asking soldiers to bulk all that training/brainwashing they’ve gone through (which is necessary for their very survival) and then object? Why put the final burden on the soldier to dissent? Why add more stress on him? Why put this on their souls as well?
Why not lay the responsibility where it truly deserves to be placed: with us. It is ultimately our responsibility as citizens to a) prevent these kinds of wars of aggression from happening and b) to get them resolved quickly when they start. Congress, Congress, Congress: we elect them, we pressure them, we protest their policies. We educate ourselves on the issues. Start with experts in the Middle East crisis. I’d like to take this opportunity to plug the books on Iraq by a professor at my alma matter, Sarah Lawrence, Fawaz A. Gerges.
I can see why the military wouldn’t want to distribute this film, beyond being legally prevented from doing so. It’s like asking General Motors to distribute a message to their employees about quitting and going to work for Toyota. Wrong or not, why expect them to self-sabotage? But also, the final take home message just isn’t fair. It victimizes the soldier all over again by making it his problem to stop the war. Indirectly, we can then blame him all over again when he can’t object and the war continues.
Claims About VA Claims
The real reason I wanted my friend to watch this film in the first place was to evaluate the claims about the VA. My friend works 6 days a week for vets and knows the VA process. Many claims processors are vets themselves who care about the Vet's claims and are committed to getting money out to them.
The VA problem is two fold: the system is swamped with claims and the U.S. Congress sets the laws on vet disabilities which the VA is bound to follow. When a new kind of ailment arises, my friend admits the delay in benefits sucks; but regulations are set by Congress and it takes them sometimes years to approve new benefits. Add to this the fact that laws are sometimes complicated. It’s easy for a vet to hear something and get confused.
This is where The Ground Truth is at its weakest. Presenting Vet's hearsay on the claims process just spreads misinformation and exacerbates the suffering. False facts also weaken the validity of the film. Michael Moore would have secured the impossible interview and talked to a representative at the VA.
My friend weighs in on these pieces of misinformation:
-It’s not true that vets must claim all their problems within in 2 years. They can file at any time. It may take years for their ailments to surface.
-It’s not true that the VA diagnoses Vets as bi-polar to avoid making awards for PTSD. The VA can’t deny a claim unless every means has been made to identify the PTSD cause as service related. Some Vets were angry having been diagnosed as bi-polar or with behavioral disorders. You can still have PTSD and get compensation, even if you are diagnosed as bi-polar. One diagnosis doesn’t officially negate the other.
-It’s not true that the VA holds up claims waiting for vets to go back into battle or die first. However, it is true that the VA is swamped and inefficient. And adjusters suffer their own internal frustrations with the bureaucracy.
My friend and I agreed a more useful documentary would show the VA claims experience from all sides, explore why it takes so freakin long to get claims resolved so Congress will let the VA hire more adjusters.
The film did a disservice to vets by reinforcing myths about the VA. These factual errors also raise questions about the film’s thoroughness. When you choose to showcase certain comments which the film makes no attempt to verify, it looks not only like an agenda-film but a lazy one.
As for PTSD, my friend says it’s only been in last five years that soldiers are being treated for this disorder at all. Clearly there’s more to do, but the strides have been immense. Much more information is now available to help Vets and their families recognize the symptoms.
If this film makes you appreciate PTSD issues more, it’s worth watching. If the intent of the film was simply that, we could have gone deeper and ended on a more helpful action item. One solder did gave one piece of practical advice: “I’d rather hear Welcome Home than Thank You.”
That said, a really balanced piece about the whole Vet experience would have shown more sides and more soldiers speaking on all issues raised. The film hand-picked soldiers with PTSD and soldiers with lingering anti-war feelings – a small and absolute sample slanted to an anti-war agenda. Time Magazine calls the film implicitly anti-war – which is fine. So why pretend otherwise?
This is not to take anything away from those who are supporting the movie. These are just my opinions. I find the film important in some areas, but essentially an imperfect thing. I do feel strongly that the final take-aways should be these:
To Soldiers: apply for benefits at any time. Mistakes happen. You may get a bad claims specialist. You may have to appeal a ruling. It’s worth trying. It will take a long time; but there are many people at the VA who will exhaust every avenue to get you money. There are also veteran’s outreach groups out there who will help you navigate the VA process so you don’t have to do it alone.
To Non-Soldiers: Are you willing to pay more taxes to get claims processed faster? You should vote that way. Call your congressmen. Ask them to evaluate the claims process. Get active. Protest the war or offer solutions. All hands on deck.
More Poems About the War Experience
Here, Bullet Poems by Brian Turner