What Does War Cost?
(Spoiler alert: In this post, I describe important plot lines of the movie In the Valley of Elah as well as some grisly details of a homicide.)
Recently, I saw the film In the Valley of Elah. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, the film tells the story of a retired Vietnam veteran named Hank (Jones) who is informed that his son Mike is absent without leave (AWOL) having just returned from a deployment to Iraq. Finding this to be out of character for his son, Hank quickly heads from his home in Tennessee to his son’s base in New Mexico to investigate. Because he was a military police officer, Hank spots a number of holes in the stories he is told about his son who has apparently vanished.
When police find Mike’s body dismembered and burned in a field, there is the usual silence and stonewalling from various military officials . How did this happen? Who would have done such a thing? Was Mike a drug dealer? What might Mike have been involved with that might explain his death? What happened to him in Iraq? Hank finds Mike’s cell phone and with the help of a technician is able to look at some of the video on the phone. The videos on the phone are jarring to say the least but they provide a lens by which Hank—and movie goers—see some of the grim reality that Mike experienced before his death.
Hank realizes that Mike’s buddies in his military unit are lying about their last night together, but Hank knows that this does not suggest their guilt because soldiers do not kill each other. Or do they? The truth is that Mike’s comrades murdered him and then lied about that night, the night after they all returned from Iraq.
Initially, I was surprised to learn that this film was based on the real life murder of Army veteran Specialist Richard T. Davis in 2003. As in the movie, Davis was reported AWOL to his retired veteran father who then investigated his son’s disappearance. One night after returning from Iraq, Davis and some other soldiers went out; they drank and fought and one of the soldiers stabbed Davis (Alberto Martinez) at least 33 times. The soldiers then bought lighter fluid, returned to the crime scene, lit Davis’ body on fire and then buried it in the woods.
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How is this possible? Why would soldiers “on the same team” commit such a heinous act on one of their own? Martinez’s defense lawyer says the solider was delusional at the time of the killing. Another is said to have been experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during this time. Recent research on the issue indicates that 37% of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have sought care at VA medical centers were diagnosed with mental health problems—primarily PTSD and depression and another 10% have alcohol and drug use disorders. A RAND study of veterans found that 14 percent screened positive for PTSD and the same number screened positive for depression, rates higher than found in the general U.S. population (3.5% and 7.0% respectively). Further, RAND extrapolates that if these rates hold for all military deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan , 300,000 people are experiencing depression and PTSD.
As alarming are the numbers of suicides by U.S. soldiers which have skyrocketed since the start of the Iraq war to more than 2,100 attempts in 2007 compared to 350 in 2002, the year before the war began. The New York Daily News headline “More soldiers committed suicide in January than killed by Al Qaeda” highlights the fact that the suicide rate in the Army is the highest it has been in 30 years—143 in 2008. The other leading concerns discussed—PTSD, depression, and drug use—might both be related to these suicides as returning soldiers find their relationships unraveling as they struggle with untreated, maybe undiagnosed mental health problems. They turn to drugs and alcohol for comfort and some finally commit suicide. (Thirty-one year old veteran Josh Barber’s suicide illustrates some of these complex relationships among these factors.)
You may recall that I was initially surprised to learn that In the Valley of Elah was based on a real homicide. Although I found the answer to the “whodunit” in the movie shocking and continue to be distressed by the crime, as a mental health professional and sociologist I have often worried and wondered about the impact of war on soldiers. (This is distinct from issues related to the impact of war on civilians in war-torn countries.) How do soldiers train for and act on that training to destroy others but reintegrate into a peaceful society? What do we owe veterans as they grapple with these experiences? Are these questions related to ideology? In other words, are those “for” either war more or less concerned with these questions than those “against” them?
Surely you’ve heard various dollar figure costs of the war in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan. But what about the psychological toll experienced by soldiers? How do we measure those costs? What other psychological and sociological costs do you think wars create?