Wartorn, 1861-2010 is an HBO documentary produced by James Gandolfini that shows what happens when the human spirit and psyche meets the terrifying and morally impossible conditions of modern warfare. The film implies that no one with any feeling for others returns home from the battlefield unscathed. Many veterans – from the Civil War to the present – are so hurt, scarred, and in many cases filled with self-loathing that they commit suicide. The need for constant vigilance engendered in the war zone is, for many, impossible to let go of – leading to violent behavior, self-medication with drugs and/or alcohol, an inability to sleep, and horrible nightmares. For some these symptoms may abate with time, but for many, including a group of veterans of World War II interviewed by the filmmakers, they continue for the rest of the ex-soldier’s life. One World War II vet said he’d been so abusive to his three sons that they haven’t spoken to him for twenty years. Now he has a grandson on his way to Iraq who is in touch with him and for whom he fears.
A mother shows the filmmakers the relics of her twenty-one-year old son’s suicide: photos of himself pierced through the face with a knife, his dog tags shot through with a bullet, the shattered rear view mirror of his truck, his suicide note, and the suicide weapon: a revolver she says is good for nothing but wounding or killing people.
Another mother shown watching her twenty-year-old son being sent to prison for six years for assaulting a Middle Eastern taxi driver says, “They come back in pieces, and it’s up to us to try to put the pieces back together. But, like Humpty Dumpty, you can’t. Some of the pieces are lost. We’ll be all right; we’re strong. But it’ll never be the same.”
One layer of these men and women’s suffering is unaddressed by the film, almost as if it’s unnecessary: the despair of a young soldier discovering that all of the suffering he or she is going through – and inflicting on innocent civilians – serves no purpose, at least not the idealistic ones advertised (defending the country – from what?). Even soldiers involved in the the Civil War or World War II must have wondered if the supposedly righteous cause they were fighting for couldn’t have been served in some other, less horrific way…whether it was worth the pain suffered and inflicted.
Nevertheless, not since “Regret to Inform (1998),” about the suffering of survivors of the Vietnam War and their reaching out from both sides to make peace forever, have I seen such a great anti-war film.
At the present time, at least, you can watch this film for free on YouTube.