June 9, 2010 by David Gillaspie
War movies work best when they take familiar emotions places they’ve never been. We experience strange feelings and think we can track them back like a story arc with a shared beginning.
Mr. Roberts, a War in the Pacific movie, uses familiar emotions. A capable naval officer feels he’s wasting time on the supply ship he floats on until he finally gets his chance.
I won’t ruin the rest.
When real life mimics the movie emotions it is harder to track back. For instance:
A dashing man in his forties lived near a friend in a fancy neighborhood, houses of wood and brick and cedar roof and three car garage sort of fancy. Keep your garbage cans out of sight fancy.
The neighbor was a cross between Dennis Farina and Robert Mitchum, a guy who might lie to you and kick your ass for questioning him; a movie guy.
At a Fourth of July party he talked to my wife about the war, how hard it was leading men through the jungle, how hard it was writing their mothers and fathers The Letter. He told her how it broke his heart to lose any single man under his command.
And it wasn’t right.
His wife called BS, but that was a year after their divorce and his remarriage to a twenty years younger version of his wife. Bitterness might have contributed. He could have been Chesty Puller and she would have called him a slacker.
The guy was, according to his kids, never in Vietnam. They broke out pictures of Germany.
My wife rode home in shock after learning about the fake-soldier.
“Who would do such a thing? Make that up? What is wrong with him.”
I took one at a time.
“Who would do such a thing first: he might be traumatized to the point of becoming the person he talks about. Or it’s a line to score chicks. Is it made up? Just because his ex-wife says he did? Think what you’d say if I ran off and married a twenty years younger version of you.”
“Why would you do that? You say I look twenty years younger than I am.”
“You do. We both do in the right light.”
We laughed. You can take that joke too far.
“What’s wrong with the guy for telling war stories?” I say. “Maybe he’s got Relayed Stress Syndrome.”
“Do you mean Delayed Stress Syndrome?”
“No, relayed. Someone relayed a story and it became his. Doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s weird, but what the hell do you do, go crazy on him? No.”
“I didn’t like it. He played on my sympathy. He manipulated my emotions by lying.”
“If it made you think about Vietnam Veterans I’m not complaining.”
“It makes me think he’s a big liar.”
“He lied about Vietnam.”
“That’s been going around a long time.”
I met a guy in the sauna last week who looked like he’d been in the one hundred eighty degree air for hours, and he just sat down. The goal in the sauna is keeping the heat in. You do that by opening and closing the door as fast as humanly possible if you have to use it at all.
My goal is staying in longer than the people there before me. This guy came in about the same time. I figured him for ten minutes or less. At fifteen minutes it was just the two of us.
He took a deep breath.
“Not so hot in here today,” he says.
“Same as always,” I tell him.
“I’m back from Iraq. It’s hotter there.”
“Yes it is,” I say. “In more ways than one.”
“You’ve been there?”
“I see it on the news.”
“The news doesn’t tell the story.”
“Nothing ever tells the story.”
“It’s too much.”
“Yes. So tell it.”
“I’ve got PTSD but I’m doing okay. I’m a manager for a company. The treat me alright, you know, respect. A few times guys asked how many people I’ve killed and that sucks, but they don’t know. I’ve been working it through, listening to little noises and thinking they’re just little noises. Every sound doesn’t mean some kind of splatter is on the way.
“They sent little kids up to the roadblocks and we tell them to stop. Before that a kid came up and exploded. Now we tell them to stop. Sometimes they don’t and….”
I jumped in and cut him off. If he needed to say he shot a four-year old, he could say it after I interrupt him.
“Every war ever sold is done through a door they expect you to step through, just like that sauna door. You’re supposed to step from the heat to the cool and make it look easy. The important thing is knowing you’re forgiven on either side of the door if you’re forgiven on one. And you are. You went to war, right war or wrong war or police action or whatever some suit wants to call it, and you did the shit. Isn’t that right? Is that what we’re talking about? Doing the shit? You did the shit?”
“I did the shit.”
“Can you forgive yourself?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re going to change as you get older. You know that, right? Forgiving yourself now helps you turn into the guy you want to be. You’re on this side of the door. You can find forgiveness, or seek it, or have it given to you, but why not skip that particular shit. Forgive yourself. That’s the part all the self-help gurus miss. They skip it on purpose or they wouldn’t have jobs.”
“That’s the heart of the matter.”
“Cool. Thanks, man.”