The crowd of top military brass and soldiers' families that recently filled a Pentagon movie theater watched a project that may have been the opposite of a recruitment ad.
In one scene, a mother, lamenting her son's suicide after returning from two tours of duty in Iraq, concludes, "The U.S. Army trained my son as a killer. They forgot to un-train him."
The project was HBO's documentary "Wartorn: 1861-2010," debuting today, which chronicles the toll and stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder on soldiers throughout history -- and the rather feeble efforts by the military to do anything about it. It's not an antiwar film, but it certainly gets the point across that the military, from the Civil War to very recently, has struggled or simply ignored the psychological toll on soldiers returning from the hell of the battlefield. Steely legends of the past, lionized by Hollywood, come across as brutally ignorant. During World War II, Gen. George S. Patton's response to a soldier hospitalized for nervous exhaustion was to slap him and tell him to get back into the field.
What was a surprise to the filmmakers and HBO is that instead of running away from the project, the military embraced it. Douglas Wilson, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, called it an "honest portrayal of a difficult problem."
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, introduced the movie, calling it "powerful and tough," and even recounted meeting a homeless veteran of Iraq who "looked me in the eye and said, 'I gave my country 100% and that is all I am asking for in return.' "
In other words, with two protracted wars going on, the problems of PTSD are not going away, and better to use even criticism to show what the military is doing about it.
At the event, Gen. George Casey, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, called post-traumatic stress "the defining military health issue of our era," and spoke of a "comprehensive soldier fitness" survey, kind of an audit to monitor signs of post-traumatic stress.
"We have started a program to get on the front end of this, to actually build resiliance into the soldiers, family members and civilians so they don't get into the dark place to begin with," he said.
But he and other speakers on a post-screening panel said it was far from enough in a culture that historically has seen psychological help as a sign of weakness.
The military has long had a sense of what "Wartorn" is about, given that executive producer James Gandolfini appears in the project visiting military leaders in Washington and Iraq. Moreover, HBO has won praise in the Pentagon for past projects like "Taking Chance." D.C. media entrepreneur Tammy Haddad helped arrange the more unusual spectacle of actually having the premiere in the corridors of the Pentagon, believed to be a first.
"If America is going to be at war, in this protracted, long-term way, then the military has to and is wise to take ownership of some of the consequences of war and the costs of war," says Ellen Goosenberg Kent, who produced along with Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill.
Mingling among the mix of government officials and execs like HBO's Richard Plepler and Sheila Nevins was a father whose son killed himself in Iraq, even after giving plenty of warning signs, only to have a military psychologist tell him to "just be a man" and go back to his unit. At the event, he got to talk to Casey face-to-face.
"When I see (Casey) do that, it tells me they are not bullshitting," said Alpert, who with Kent also directed the project. "They are saying, 'This frog has warts, but it is our frog.'
"The fact that they are showing this film at the Pentagon is something that I don't think would have happened 10 years ago, or even two years ago," he added. "This is a day that surprises me and encourages me, because it is the first time in the history of the military that they are talking about what war does to you."