“A soldier dies in a black op mission some place we never admit it, the army calls his death an accident. Why? To protect the next one. Another soldier dies slippin’ into a ditch, we call it a “combat death,” just to give it a meaning… My point is that sometimes the army has to be concerned with something bigger than the truth.”
That is a line from last year’s “The Messenger.” It is delivered by Woody Harrelson’s Capt. Tony Stone, who is tasked with personally informing the next of kin when soldiers are killed. It is a very moving film that almost no one saw- the film took in less than $1.5 million worldwide and cost $6.5 million to make. The fact that it sold few tickets is unfortunate but telling.
America has a very complicated relationship with its soldiers and the military. The failure to win the war in Vietnam ushered in a new era of how we relate to our boys (and girls) in combat. As Harvard Sitikoff said, by the time the troops returned from Vietnam, the American people no longer wanted to be reminded of our longest and costliest war, the only one we had ever lost. Instead of being thanked, the soldiers themselves were shunned or branded murderers and psychos. Virtually nothing was done to help them reintegrate into society. It has been claimed that more men committed suicide after the war than died in it.
A new study found there are 950 veteran suicide attempts every day. Many reports have surfaced of the terrible quality of treatment given war veterans at VA hospitals and the military’s attempts to deny them and/or their families their due benefits.
So what does all this have to do with Capt. Tony Stone’s line? The protagonist of “The Messenger” is Will Montgomery, a young war hero recently returned to the States. The woman he loves is marrying a dorky rich Ivy-Leaguer type. The best scene in the movie comes when Stone and Sgt. Montgomery crash the couple’s swanky engagement party, Montgomery’s wife-beater showing his tattoos. They get drunk and make a scene, to the horror of the other, refined guests. To try and diffuse the situation, the groom curses under his breath, then stands and makes a toast to “our troops.”
The movie is a heartbreaking look inside a horrible, private moment that some families have to go through. But on a broader scale, the movie is about the chickens coming home to roost, so to speak, for all of us. It’s not that we as the viewers get to see what getting that news would be like; it’s that we have to see. We are like the other guests at the party- for us, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are academic. It’s just party talk. We would rather not be confronted with the ugliness of the truth of what is done with our consent, whether by stated declaration or silent passivity.
The Army has been caught lying to us in the past: the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire. The cover-up of torture in Guantanamo Bay. The fabricated war heroics of Jessica Lynch. Each of these stories caused an uproar, which is to say they dominated the headlines for a week or so and then faded from our memory when the next big news story hit.
Of course a low box office turnout for any movie could be because the movie is simply crummy. But so few people saw “The Messenger” it makes one think there might be a deeper reason. Could it be that we the people like having plausible deniability? Do we really want the truth or do we prefer to stay in the dark about the price of war? Our treatment of war veterans seems to imply that we hope that by ignoring them they will go away. But soldiers like Staff Sgt. Montgomery aren’t going anywhere.