“I don’t know what he looked like before I shot him.’
— Steve, Iraq war veteran
“His eye was open, but you know that he wasn’t really looking at you.” A counselor’s voice offers logic and perspective. The Iraq war veteran who’s telling his story, Steve, wears a jacket labeled “Army” and a Guinness cap, the brim pulled low over his brow. “Sure seemed like he was looking at me,” Steve says, the white wall behind him freshly painted. “So that’s why I don’t sleep.”
Steve is sitting in a small room at a table with other vets and a counselor. As he speaks, the camera in Of Men and War cuts from close-ups on his agonized face to longer shots, pans across the table to find his listeners, one looking away, out a window, another with his head in his hands, his face turned to the table, and two others wearing dark sunglasses. Even with their faces averted or obscured, every one of the men’s responses is plain. They know Steve’s story. They can’t sleep, either.
The scene comes early in Laurent Bécue-Renard’s remarkable study of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars trying to make peace with their memories, their PTSD, and their families. Premiering on PBS’ POV series on Memorial Day, the documentary observes and makes sense of this profound and profoundly hard work, in scenes that are intimate, difficult, and also respectful of experiences that can hardly be put into words.
Any understanding is hard to come by, as the veterans and their loved ones are reminded regularly by Dr. Fred Gusman, the Vietnam war veteran who founded the Pathway Home in Yountville, California. A facility for veterans contending with PTSD, the facility provides Of Men and War with a location and an emotional foundation, as well as a direction, with its mission to “reintegrate” military personnel into lives beyond war, lives with loved ones, including their children. Gusman presses, gently, that war — so different for every man, and yet also part of a grueling pattern — is now and forever in them, and will shape their lives going forward. “These are real live memories, that is part of who you are,” he observes during one group meeting. “It will take time for you to give them new meaning.”
The documentary is the second entry in director Laurent Bécue-Renard’s three-part “Genealogy of Wrath” (the first was War Wearied, focused on three widows after the war in Bosnia). This notion of “wrath” is a mostly unspoken backdrop for Of Men and War, which focuses on recovery efforts, but acknowledges the upset lingering after war, laced through long minutes of the day. “Moving on” after trauma is never so simple as it might sound, and for the veterans and their families, too often their trauma isn’t left behind on the battlefields or medical units. Even if the diagnosis is post-traumatic stress disorder, the experience you see here is not nearly “post”, as nightmares or sounds or situations can re-trigger traumas all over again.
“I hate school,” says one young man, “but I have to do it. I still have a lot of guilt that I can’t get over.” He rocks back and forth in a close shot, his voice and shoulders quaking, his sunglasses obscuring his eyes. “Like, I’m thinking about it right now and I can’t stop crying.” His wife stands just to his left in the background, not quite in focus. But the slight blur almost makes clearer her distress as she watches her husband, carefully. As you watch her watch, her eyes reflect what you might feel too, some helplessness, more compassion. He laments, “I still can’t get used to the way I am.”
For all the individual horrors it documents, Of Men and War, shot over six years, is organized as a collective experience, following multiple, mostly unnamed veterans as they share in group or in pairs, expressing rage and fear, frustration, and small pleasures. That they come to trust one another as well as their life partners is something of a miracle, and yet it makes sense too, for as more than one of the men says more than once, their traumas are similar, no matter the particulars of who was damaged or who died or who witnessed what.
“The group’s purpose is to bear witness to your sharing of yourself,” the doctor says. One of the group members rubs his thighs, rubs the table in front of him, tries not to look at the men around him. “What we have is embarrassing as shit, because you feel small,” he begins to explain, “You don’t feel as strong as you used to be, you feel defective. Like this anxiety stuff fucking sucks, I fucking hate it.” He takes a breath. “I’m glad I’m talking about this shit because we all have pretty much the same story.” Asked if they’re ready for a break, everyone nods and files out for smokes and California air.
Part ritual, part salvation, such release from the room is never quite release. The outdoors is surely therapeutic, as are yoga sessions and visits with children or partners. But still, such respite can be tentative, temporary, tense. Not every exchange goes so well. Sometimes they take after each other, the threat one might pose, not by his capacity for upset, which they all have, but for what his upset might unravel for others. Brooks is “too fucking intense”, observes one guy. “All of us are uneasy around you because when are you going to blow up again?” The room, the space, the connections among them, it’s all fragile. The doctor encourages them to be “courageous” like they were in Iraq, not to be afraid of what’s inside them. “Nobody ever feels like they’re ready to do this stuff,” he assures one guy. “Nobody dies from this. The worst thing that can happen is somebody gets upset and has to walk out of the group and then come back.”
It might sound simple, this therapy formula, to share and hear upset spoken out loud, to recognize you’re not alone. But knowing isn’t always the breakthrough. Most of these men have been working on themselves for years, on their marriages or their relationships with their parents or their kids. “I really just don’t feel like I fit in anywhere at all,” offers one, following a description of nights spent “raking his nine”. And that, the doctor concludes is why he needs therapy.
Another couple of men go out on their own one morning, into the mountains, absorbing and absorbed by the sunrise and the brilliantly green trees. One man says he’s asked his 16-year-old sons if they’ve seen “‘a difference between what I was and the way I am,’ and they said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Do you forgive me for what I did?’ They said, and it was interesting, we haven’t yet.’ Well, that’s an honest answer.” That he can have such conversation with his kids is a function of their teenage-ness, their generosity, and his time at the Pathway Home. It’s a conversation all the men might have, someday, as they come also to forgive themselves.
Brooks’ young daughter rides in the back seat of his car, chanting, making sounds, not quite speaking. He listens, he looks out his windshield, he tries. “I don’t understand you,” he tells her, to which she responds with a phrase full of weight and hope, both too much and too little context. “You’re daddy,” she says. “Yes,” he nods, “I’m daddy, but use your words.” In another context, she’s just another kid, restless in her car seat, distracted from what’s in front of her. Here, it’s one more hurdle for Brooks on the way back, another effort to make sense of nonsense, to communicate. Like so many scenes in this beautiful film, this one doesn’t serve as cause or effect, but rather, as another step, another possibility for contemplation.
Brooks’ wife reminds him later, during another scene with their daughter in full-on sprint and shriek mode, playing with her mom and unable reach her dad, yet. He says what he should, that he appreciates her help, her sticking by him. She stops him, helps him use his words. “I’m not here for you, it’s for us” she rephrases, “I have always seen you.” Even when her friends or family tell her not to stay through it, she does. “I know that they don’t see, what I see.”
It’s this seeing, this use of words, this trust and above all, this heartbreak, that allows lives to go on. “You have all the makings of having a great life and being loved and cared for, being respected. You’ll be the best parent around,” the doctor tells one veteran, barely holding the emotions on his face together. “Despite all the stuff that happened to you in your life, you have that inside of you.” He can see it, with help.