Laurent Bécue-Renard, Of Men and War, 2014. All rights reserved.In the Atlantic earlier this year, Robert H. Scales lamented that America had ‘gun trouble’. The richest country in the world was laming its own soldiers in the field with cheap, rudimentary rifle design, barely improved upon since the 1960s. “It doesn’t have to be this way”, he concludes. “A few dollars invested now will save the legions of brave infantrymen and –women for generations to come.” This is America’s answer to the lacerations inflicted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: enthusiastic investment in armoury development.
What happens when you strip all the jingoism away?
“I remember my vehicle stopping, the figure running towards the tree line. I leveled my weapon, pulled the trigger”. As he turns to face the camera, the veteran’s voice drops to register his self-disgust. “Never found the weapon. Picked him up and a big chunk of brain fell on my boot. And he just kept looking at me. That’s why I don’t sleep.”
Of all the US troops returned from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, 20 percent are now ravaged by Post-Traumatic Stress: it strangles their ability to think properly, torments them in their sleep, and cuts deep into the lives of their families. And these are just the official statistics.
Five years in the making, Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War navigates the ruinous effects of PTSD on those US soldiers returned from Iraq. As a director, he seats himself next to the veterans, and observes silently, adopting a thoroughly non-interventionist position. The camera is left to watch as the men at California’s Pathway Home – run by Fred Gusman, a veteran of Vietnam and leading figure within the PTSD treatment movement – retread deeply traumatic memories, moving across the slow, revealing rhythms of therapy.
“We don’t use ‘killed’”, one man tells us. “We use ‘hosed’, ‘zapped’, fucking ‘blew up’. But we killed someone’s dad.”
There’s shouting, sobbing. A cigarette break.
“In one way shape or form, you feel small – not as strong as you once felt. You feel defective.”
The men are constantly twitching, prone to sudden explosions, fingers furiously scratching their bodies. And although Bécue-Renard removes all traces of himself from the frame, the camera looms ever larger, taking on even more of an activist role within the therapeutic process. “It’s acknowledging and validating from an outsider point of view that something has happened to them”, he says.
“You’ve never learned to forgive yourself”, Gusman says to one veteran. “I think it would be selfish of me to forgive myself” he says back.
We depart the therapy room, deeply shaken, our sense of time thrown out. This is a painstaking approach to documentary, mirroring the trauma and therapy that slowly unfurl in front of the lens. Poring over footage from almost 200 sessions, Bécue-Renard traversed and recut hundreds of hours of recordings into a series of sketches which move from moments of painful silence to devastating revelations.
“It’s a horrible thing to watch your friend disappear within the confines of a body bag.”
These are stories that testify to war’s punishing toll on mental health. But Bécue-Renard’s scrutinizing gaze always turns to what the extremities of war have exacted from the families: wives, girlfriends and children caught in between. After the first nine months of therapy, the director visited the men with their families across a period of four years. He returns repeatedly to these deeper, more intimate settings, to consider the trauma that now ripples across America’s social life.
“I have no clue what it’s like to be a woman, and marry a man twice your size and that’s lethal, in the military, and takes his rage out on you,” one man says. “Someone that’s supposed to love you.”
Of Men and War is the second in a projected trilogy of films that Bécue-Renard calls “the genealogy of wrath”. His last film, De Guerre Lasses was similarly embedded in a post-war therapy group. He hopes to reach an understanding of how all violence spawns another multitude of violences that flow beneath: “wrath is passed on from one generation to the other”.
Soldier suicide is now on the edge of passing the number of those killed in the wars. But the politics of militarism are only viewed from a distance. And the “pantomime of support”, as Joann Wypijewski damningly calls it, carries on calling for more soldiers to be put on the ground, without ever drawing the line back to the now widely publicized cost at home.
“I still have a lot of guilt that I can’t get over. I just can’t stop crying”, one man says to his partner. “I still can’t get used to the way I am.”
Of Men and War has its UK premiere at the Open City Documentary Festival on 17 June 2015.