According to conventional wisdom, America didn't acknowledge the existence of post-traumatic stress disorder until the Vietnam War. But that isn't really quite true. Long before 1978's "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter" premiered, the nation was aware of what war could do to a person: Ulysses, Macbeth, the poet Wilfred Owen, J.D. Salinger's sleepless narrator in "For Esmé — With Love and Squalor" all suffered psychologically from exposure to battle. (More recently, Pat Barker's award-winning "Regeneration" trilogy revolved around the treatment of shell-shock victims after World War I.)
So the question is not why didn't we know about PTSD, but why haven't we done more to prevent or treat it?
That question is never asked explicitly during HBO's "Wartorn: 1861-2010," James Gandolfini's haunting exploration of those soldiers psychologically maimed by war, because it is not always necessary to ask the obvious. The filmmakers do not beat a political drum, they do not use an impassioned script or a soundtrack comprising brass and strings; they do not attempt to incite anger or outrage, sorrow or resolve in any way. Instead, they present the facts, simply and gracefully, and the result is devastating.
Opening with a quote from "The Odyssey" — "Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever?" — "Wartorn" chronicles the American history of PTSD. We follow the fall of an eager young Union soldier who joins the army to fight for flag and country and winds up a victim of what was then known as hysteria or melancholia or just insanity.
We hear from World War II veterans about the nightmares and anxiety that drove them to drink and violence, the shame they felt over being diagnosed with combat fatigue, the isolation. We see the Vietnam War through the eyes of a young Marine sketch artist who still feels the urge to do what he was trained to do so many years ago. And we meet many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan plagued with depression, rage, fear, paranoia, loss of control — a terrifying host of symptoms that have changed, ruined and in several cases ended their lives.
"Wartorn" was made as a call to attention and clarion does not begin to describe it. Although some are working within the Army to treat PTSD, on the frontlines and at home, as a battle injury rather than a weakness or personal psychological problem, rising suicide rates among soldiers indicate that change is not occurring fast enough. One of the film's most affecting narratives is that of Jason Scheuerman. While serving in Iraq, he sought psychiatric help only to be told, after a 10-minute examination, that he was faking it. He was ordered back to his barracks, where he killed himself.
As in his previous HBO documentary, "Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq," Gandolfini's presence is minimal — he conducts many of the interviews, but the camera is trained on the soldiers and their families, on the faces lined with pain and loss, the bewildered eyes, the sudden tears, the attempts to explain what should not have to be explained: that the sights and sounds and actions of war rip and rend with as much ruthless force as shrapnel.
Here is another truth that is self-evident, a truth we have known for centuries — war wreaks havoc with hearts and minds. And yet, even as we've developed weapons of awe-inspiring sophistication and technology, as we've learned how to mend and, in some cases, to rebuild, the bodies of the physically wounded in ways a Civil War surgeon could not have dreamt, still we are sending soldiers home full of melancholia and hysteria, shell shock and combat fatigue.
The only thing that appears to have changed is the name.