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Restored film shows the evils of war

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By Rick Howell

    The late film director John Huston gave us such classic movies as “Key Largo,” “The African Queen,” and “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
    He even did some acting, with a memorable performance in “Chinatown,” the Jack Nicholson classic.
    What most people don’t know, though, is that Huston, during World War II, made three movies for the U.S. Army. Propaganda, to be sure, but he was paid for it, and I suppose he needed the money.
    Two of the films were hailed for their gritty realism, and the army was pleased.
    But one, a documentary called “Let there be Light,” got a very different reception.
    In all our country’s long history of war, World War II is the one we honor the most. Surely, it was one of the few we’ve ever fought that was actually justified. We were attacked by Japanese imperialists in 1941, and our response to that brought us into a justifiable fight against fascism in Europe that truly did threaten the whole world.
    Yet, war being what it is, the most brutal and sinful of man’s actions, that conflict also produced those who survived but were yet wounded emotionally and psychologically.
    In those days it was called “shell shock,” the term for a condition we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This commonly affects many of those who have been brought out of civilian life, taught to kill, and sent off to war to slaughter other human beings.
    The U.S. Army had commissioned Huston to make the documentary that showed how those deemed to have “nervous conditions” from their war experience were treated.
    Then, when it saw what the director produced, the army banned the film from any public viewing. The reason, the army said, was that the movie violated the privacy of the soldiers involved. John Huston never believed that.
    Years later, he wrote: “I think it boils down to the fact that they wanted to maintain the ‘warrior’ myth, which said that our Americans went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience, standing tall and proud for having served their country well.”
    In other words, the same kind of glorification of war and the military that we see now was going on then, especially in World War II. War has always ruined people; then and now. It’s the same evil it always was.
    Today, thanks to the National Archives, and former vice president Walter Mondale, the film has been restored and is available for viewing online.
    Because of Mondale and a supportive secretary of the army, the film was finally made available in 1980. It has recently been restored, with the audio cleaned up, and can be seen on this Web site: www.filmpreservation.org.
    I urge you to watch this 58-minute documentary, and relate it to the stories of the men and women coming home now from cruel and unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    You’ll see men – as the Washington Post put it – “trembling, stuttering, hollow-eyed, and crying.” You’ll also see the how the army, in 1946, dealt with this, often successfully, by psychiatric counseling and even hypnosis.
    It’s relevant today because we now have the highest suicide rate for American soldiers ever, something that conservative militarists don’t want to acknowledge or discuss.
    Watch the film, please. Maybe it will dawn on you (if it hasn’t already) that we need to run from Afghanistan as quickly as possible, and that we must forever renounce “wars of choice.”
    World War II was forced upon us, and we did what we had to do. But even then, many of our returning soldiers were ruined for life. It’s no less true today.
    When will mankind ever learn?

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    Rick Howell, a Bedford native, can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.