Timothy Noah

PTSD And The Good War

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The National Film Preservation Foundation recently restored Let There Be Light, a 1946 documentary by John Huston (narrated by his father, the actor Walter Huston) about psychologically damaged veterans of World War II being treated at an Army hospital in Long Island. The film was suppressed for 34 years, ostensibly for the same sort of privacy concerns cited in the 25-year suppression of Frederick Wiseman's 1967 documentary Titicut Follies, about a Massachusetts state prison for the criminally insane. Two important differences are that the veterans in Let There Be Light are ordinary people suffering from being exposed to physical combat, and that Huston's portrayal of the treatment his mental patients receive is considerably more favorable than Wiseman's (in some instances to the point of credulity, as was common in that psychiatry-besotted era). In both instances, there are reasons to suspect that the true cause for suppression was to avoid bringing grief to government agencies. The commonwealth of Massachusetts surely didn't want to air evidence of the grim conditions to which its inmates were subjected, and the federal government surely didn't want to disrupt Army recruitment and (until 1973) the functioning of the military draft.

Think about setting aside 58 minutes today to watch Huston's extraordinary film. The GIs' accounts of their troubles are a heart-rending reminder that even morally justified wars create incalculable human damage that society is often slow to acknowledge. Perhaps because American culture hadn't yet learned to mediate mental suffering with psychological jargon, Huston's World War II veterans speak about their pain in a simpler and more direct way than we're accustomed to hearing. The World War II veteran Paul Fussell, who died this week, wrote eloquently about the horrors of World War II combat in this magazine and elsewhere. "[I was] very emotionally unhinged, maybe for five years after the war. And at parties I would break into tears," he told Tom "Greatest Generation" Brokaw in an interview. "Has he been drinking too much? It would be a conjecture."

Click here to watch Let There Be Light.

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