Movie Tropes and Military PTSD – Hollywood Needs to Start Getting This Right

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for veterans of war isn’t a real disease. It’s a profitable movie trope.

Vets

This is going to be a very serious post. To be clear, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a disease that affects many veterans who have taken part in combat and even non-combat operations in warfare, as well as many civilians who have experienced fatal car accidents, work in emergency medicine, and many other people who have experiences which put them in stressful situations beyond the expectations of what a normal person should expect in their lifetime. The disease can affect the way people live their lives, resulting in follow-on social dysfunctional disorders, depression, and for some, result in suicide.

That said, to not dilute the level of frustration other veterans and myself feel, Hollywood is not treating this disease as a problem which deserves understanding and respect. They’ve turned it into a plot device to add drama and communicate a story they wish to tell, depicting their own biases towards the military, the wars they fight, or the politicians that sent them to this unfortunate fate, with the “innocent veteran victim” now serving as the medium for their message. Masked in a story about “the real heroes and the struggles they face” these narrative mechanics boil down to little more than money making engines and good publicity for film creators by exploiting people who want to identify with veterans and their needs, but can’t. We aren’t part of that world. So their best opportunity years after they decided not to serve, and now maybe don’t feel so good about that, is a two hour war movie which is billed as coming from their point of view.

Movies like the Hurt Locker and Brothers are the worst of these. They tell the story of how warfare will always leave people broken, charred remnants of what used to be happy and productive human beings. Please understand that most of us are just normal people. We went to war. Then we came home and did other things. We enjoy going to our jobs where we add valuable experience and promote cultures of work ethic. We enjoy running on the track with our dogs, and we enjoy spending evenings with our families watching How to Train Your Dragon 2 and playing Mario Kart or Skyrim. However, when I see people who have done the things I have done in movies, and see the way they are depicted as I live today, it really breaks my heart. I’ve experienced prejudice, fear, and even been denied opportunities because I was a veteran of Iraq. What’s more, millions more like me have suffered far worse. Many have faced social ostracism, been denied jobs, and accosted publically for their role in an unpopular war. I just want people to understand, if that sort of treatment happens to you, it would mess you up in the head. People need to feel appreciated, loved, or at least not hated for doing something which they did for all the right reasons. Forget that the war even happened to these people. If you were to be treated as many returning vets were and are still today, you would not come out of it psychologically for the better.

This isn’t just something that sucks. It has been shown to affect how often veterans are hired in civilian positions after leaving the military. Did you know that veterans are discriminated against in hiring decisions because of the assumption that veterans have PTSD and may bring violence to the workplace? It has actually been measured that because of the negative bias created by these types of media, military veterans suffer unfair stereotyping and bias in hiring practices. This phenomena began making headlines when USA Today put out an article calling attention to it. Often, managers will look at a resume and say that, “He went to Iraq? He probably has PTSD. He might one day snap and shoot up the office.” The veteran is not hired because of an unfair stereotype no more accurate or just than not hiring an African American or Latino man because he was probably at one time part of a gang. Recent studies have shown that while only 5-20% of combat vets have justified PTSD (about the same as civilians who have experienced car accidents or personal tragedy) it is assumed by many people that most veterans have the ailment. It is called PTSD bias and is most damaging among middle managers who don’t understand the disease.

Researchers from the Center for New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, interviewed executives of 69 leading corporations, including Bank of America, Target, Wal-Mart, Procter and Gamble, and Raytheon. All said hiring veterans can be good for business, but more than half acknowledged harboring a negative image of veterans because of how popular media — from news coverage to films — portray PTSD. [1]

About one in three employers consider post-traumatic stress disorder to be an impediment to hiring a veteran, according to a survey report by the Society for Human Resource Management. [2]
This in spite of the fact that military veterans are less prone to violence than all the other population groups when matched with their own age cohorts [3] and that the presence of non-active duty veterans alone has prevented dozens of criminal acts including bank robberies, muggings, and even acts of terrorism [4]. Still though, veterans are considered potential risk factors by employers when work places say they won’t hire “our kind [5]” and continue to experience higher unemployment rates in spite of more training and more experience than other potential candidates [6].

Hopefully, this example will show that there is a link between the incorrect assumptions formed by media and actual real world civilian perceptions which are affecting veterans’ lives. Perhaps it isn’t that, though. Maybe all vets really do just suck. Well, maybe, but all anyone really has to do is watch the climactic ending to Brothers to understand that Hollywood is pushing an image of veterans that frightens people. Even if you’ve seen the movie, please watch this scene again to really get a feel for how frighteningly people like me are portrayed.

Look, movies have power. The words they say have power. The words said in movies echo over and over and over in the minds of people who see it. The specifics of a guy put into an impossible situation, (literally the premise of Brothers was beyond plausible) are lost as the audience over time forgets the details. Eventually they start to generalize, “it’s a movie about a guy who comes back from the war and is now crazy. As I said, it isn’t just “some guy who came back from the war.”  The “do you know what I did to come back to you?” reference in the clip was of a Marine Corps Captain captured and forced to murder another Marine by his terrorist captors  to buy himself more time in detention before he could be rescued. Anyone would be psychologically damaged from that, however it is a work of complete fiction. There are no stories like that of any actual people who came back from Iraq or Afghanistan. It is complete fiction for the point of adding drama, but that fact is lost. A few months later, people who watched the film only remember, “it’s a movie about a guy who comes back from the war and is now crazy.” When they see a vet a month after that, and find out he was in the war, what framework are they working under? Do you think they are aware that the only reference they had was a movie that wasn’t even possible, which also sort of aligns with vague news reports they weren’t really listening to about veterans and mental illness, and that they already have an incredibly loaded bias behind this person they are now talking to? As I said, it isn’t just, “some guy who came back from the war.” Brothers is a work of fiction, and no one should have to prove themselves against it, but now we do.

Even movies which got a lot right made this unnecessary tangent into depicting veterans as war ravaged husks. Consider the “unfortunate dog scene” from American Sniper.

That was unfortunate because, according to the book, nothing like that was ever mentioned. There was a situation where Kyle killed a dog, but not like the movie. In fact, not even in the United States. In the book American Sniper, on a night before one of Kyle’s overwatch missions, one where he considered his role to be providing security and ensuring the lives of Marines and fellow SEALs under him, there was a dog barking outside his tent. He warned the owner to shut up the dog. The dog kept barking. Deprived of sleep and needing to rest for his responsibilities the next day, he warned the owner again. The dog kept barking. Kyle shot the dog. Given that context, is that anything like what was depicted in the movie? Given the true context of being literally in the middle of a war, doesn’t that kind of sound like something a responsible person might do? Asking another question, what possible reason existed for adding the numerous hints that Chris Kyle had developed PTSD over his numerous tours in Iraq, all the while in spite of no real world evidence existing that the actual person depicted in the film ever had come under the hold of the disease? Was his life not good enough without the extra drama?

In a couple of  interviews [7][8], Clint Eastwood said that the film was meant to be “anti-war”.

“I just wonder . . . does this ever stop? And no, it doesn’t. So each time we get in these conflicts, it deserves a lot of thought before we go wading in or wading out. Going in or coming out. It needs a better thought process, I think.”

While the point is valid, the medium he used was to display a falsified narrative about Kyle, and by extension, all others like him who deployed to the war.

“the biggest antiwar statement any film” can make is to show “the fact of what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did.”
While I agree in practice, I have a problem with Eastwood’s decision to use mental destabilization and broken families as the “facts” that “family and the people who have to go back into civilian life” go through. That sort of experience isn’t universal and it isn’t even common, despite what they say in the movies.

I’m sure from a perspective of cinematography these movies probably pushed the industry forward somehow, but as far as communicating one of the most important social issues of our time, not to mention an ongoing conflict at the time, they have failed miserably. Many have set veterans’ issues back ten years. If we look at how much actually is known about PTSD, much of it discovered through studying and counseling done for combatants of the Vietnam war, and the mysterious black hole of mystery surrounding it now, one might question if the narrative of “a disease we still know so little about,” has set us back even further.

I want people to look at it this way. We have seen LGBT rights and issues get a lot of press and people are now trying very hard to see things from their perspective. It’s not acceptable anymore to portray them as the wildly stereotypical, flamboyant clowns circa the era of Robin Williams’ The Birdcage. No matter your beliefs, (I actually think The Birdcage was meant to help them, somehow…) we all agree that they’re people who deserve respect and to be portrayed in a realistic manner. However, the veteran population is allowed to be portrayed in any manner in which the world pleases to fulfill their narrative, and ironically, is considered a violation of 1st Amendment privileges to argue the practice, where a modern release of The Birdcage might be considered something between criminally insensitive or even a hate crime. These veteran depictions vary from bloodthirsty murderers (Battle for Haditha), psychologically scarred societal dangers (Brothers), impossible killing machines, but incapable husbands while in (American Sniper) unstable love interests, addicted to pills (Parenthood), and everything about the Hurt Locker. In fact, the Hurt Locker was so hurtful to the soldier it was beyond a reasonable doubt depicting, that he sued the filmmakers for his portrayal. Even consider the movie Max, about a dog who goes to Iraq and develops Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even a freaking dog who goes to war will come back mentally damaged. Where does it end? What is the overriding theme that Hollywood movies and television are trying to present? Basically, once a person goes to war, he is from then on, on the cusp of losing control and murdering everyone around him if the door slams too loudly. That’s what people seem to think is happening. Now, why is it that I brought the LGBT stance into this? Because, frankly, veterans outnumber the estimated homosexual population in the United States by at least 2:1. Why is it that one group of so many people is allowed to be so egregiously stereotyped, when the others aren’t? Furthermore, being gay isn’t a choice, but serving is. Whether you agree with their mentality, or what they did or didn’t do, they chose to serve their nation, which includes many reading this, in the best way they knew how. They deserve more respect than to become plot devices to the profit of people who neither cared about them, nor bothered getting to know and understand them.

I’ll leave you with this, Hollywood has power. It has the substantial power to mold the way that the average person identifies with experiences they have never had. Unfortunately, we live in an age where fewer and fewer people serve in the military. This is true as a percentage of the population and in real terms. We have fewer members of the military today than we did prior to World War II, and when the United States itself is twice as large. For that reason, for many, the movies are the only place they will experience the military, its veterans, or the struggles they face. When movies collectively paint only on the lines of a particular damaging movie narrative, it has a drastic impact on the lives of those it is thoughtlessly depicting. And it isn’t just the Hurt Lockers and the Brothers responsible for this. It echoes in the “artwork” of people who know even less, but who use these same devices in a downward spiral of our depiction. Below is an excerpt from an “incredibly powerful” short film by a college student for Project Greenlight entitled The Present Trauma.

This hurts me to see, not for the message it is trying to tell, but for the abuse on the character of those same individuals. It’s images like this which make a friend of mine tell me that when her husband finally came from Iraq, her friends asked her, “Do you feel safe?” It’s a childish attempt to do some good, more for creators than for the subjects, through the obvious manipulation, veterans as victims clickbait, but actually slapping the face of the plain old vet sitting at home, wondering why no one will hire him. Of course, the echo shows up in darker forms, where we are nothing more than, to use the words of Muse, “Fucking Psychos”.
I can’t help but agree with the rage of one anonymous writer in his visceral reaction to the propaganda layden depiction of veterans in Muse’s Psycho. It’s disgusting, and against no other minority would this sort of ignorance, callousness, and blind hatred be acceptable. But to the military, it is. It hurts us. We feel the sting of words, and this hurts us. Of course, I doubt this filth would have ever seen the light of day if not for a particular idea being so prevalent in our culture … that veterans are fucking psychos, something Hollywood is, in my opinion, doing the most harm in causing and the least good fixing.

Wow… all of a sudden I understand why 22 veterans kill themselves every day. It had nothing to do with Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s coming home to a place that treats them like this.


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2 thoughts on “Movie Tropes and Military PTSD – Hollywood Needs to Start Getting This Right

  1. I wanted to thank you for this piece. You have tapped into the right vein. Myself a Marine (73-76) was in Okinawa March of 75 on MCAS Futenma. 2 weeks after arriving, the Squadrons left to evacuate Siagon. I was part of Camp Butler, but serving on the air station. I watched as they disembarked loaded for the float. My friends came back, but not the same and neither was I. In the late 90’s something happened. I was at the Milwaukee VA with my wife and daughter trying to get a VA loan to purchase my house. I stopped and looked across the fields of stone. That was when it first hit me. Something felt like my throat was being ripped from me, I couldn’t speak and my eye’s welled up. That was not the last time. It’s hard to describe, but it still continues today. I could go on and relate other veteran issues about my self and family, but that’s for another day.
    Just wanted to say, thank you & Semper Fi!

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