Dealing With Moral Trauma By Doing The Impossible

Moral Trauma is a new term for an old phenomena. A good definition of the term (from the VA) is:

In the context of war, moral injuries may stem from direct participation in acts of combat, such as killing or harming others, or indirect acts, such as witnessing death or dying, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving or receiving orders that are perceived as gross moral violations

Moral Trauma is mitigated by victory. Victorious warriors have no problem understanding the purpose behind their sacrifices in combat; everybody understands what they were asked to do when they are on the winning side. Yet only a few can comprehend what was asked of warriors who have failed. The moral insult increases by orders of magnitude when the loss was inflicted not on the battlefield but by the gross incompetence of the ruling class in Washington DC.

American military men should be used to this by now as we have won every battle yet lost every war (except Grenada but that was a minor police action) for the last 72 years. Winners never react well to losing and the American military man is no exception. Some turn to the bottle or drugs, some become physical training fanatics pushing themselves to the limit in search of a good nights sleep, and some turn that disappointment into a drive to do the impossible.

Can one man, a military vet with zero movie biz experience, write, direct, star in and produce a movie that is actually worth your time to sit and watch? No, that’s impossible. Many have tried and all have failed. Until now.

I got an advanced copy of my friend Kerry Patton’s new film Dark of Light and was happy to review it because he’s a good friend and a poster boy for post traumatic growth. Actually with his work on the TV show Outsiders he’s now a straight up poster boy.

Kerry Patton in his role as Shane on the Outsiders. What did I tell you? Poster Boy material.

I wasn’t looking forward to doing this because I didn’t see how Kerry could, by himself, come up with a movie that was … you know…good. Love him like a brother mind you and I’d put lip stick on his pig in heartbeat but I don’t have to because Kerry done good. His movie spoke to me and like the last movie reviewed here; A War, I saw a message directed at those who served as well as their loved ones.

The movie is about a widower home from the wars and tending to his young daughter who is raising as a single parent after losing his wife to cancer. His daughter is raped and murdered which we are spared from watching on screen (vets of Afghanistan and Iraq are sensitive to the violation of children having seen too much of it). A quote by Kerry’s character that is featured in the movie trailer (and caught the attention of my Facebook friends) is; “what’s that mean Maggie…Justice”? That is a question as old as Western Civilization and one that any Afghan male would have no problem answering.

The main character in the movie is a former interrogator/translator who is carrying heavy weight from his time overseas and the subsequent loss of his wife and child.  How does he handle it? Alone, like we all do, because few know and fewer care about what happened to us or what we did in the war. As T.R. Fehrenbach observed: in the book This Kind of War (the best book ever about Korea as far as I’m concerned).

Americans, even when they are proud of them, do not like their legions.

This is something we vets know well which is why most of us never talk about our time in the wars. Kerry’s character doesn’t talk about it either as he seems to understand nobody really cares much and that he will have to deal with his demons alone. The lead character, when we meet him in the film, seems to be doing as well as one can expect. He has a young daughter at home and thus is in the enviable position of living with somebody whose  happiness and well being is more important than his own. That’s a good situation to be in as it prevents being visited by the demons of self pity.

He’s got a farm with ducks and chickens which is cool but requires a trigger warning. The protagonist keeps his chickens housed in an elaborate chicken FOB. This blog is named in honor of my chickens who staged a jail break (while I was overseas) from the chicken FOB I had built and migrated to the barn. I liked them better then – chickens should free range.  And for the record in real life Kerry lets the chickens free range during the day so he’s off my chicken free range shit list. Shoot I’m off track again…apologies.

Kerry and I last year in DC where we were attending the funeral of an old friend

Kerry’s character seems to be coping well, but he’s not really and you can see that when he goes out to do farming chores. He stares off into the distance with a haunted expression that many of us know too well. But that happens and the healthy man or woman who has served knows that time is the only thing that will dull this sense of unease at being in a place where we are safe. We don’t do safe, we are born to battle and many of us only feel safe when facing the dangers of war. Think about that; as weird as it sounds it’s true.

Then the ultimate moral transgression is visited upon our character with the loss of his daughter and he crumbles, turning to the bottle and allowing the demon of self pity to drain him of his vitality, health, peace of mind and personal honor. What is the balm for a man’s soul when this much tragedy has visited him in such a short span of time?  Badal.

Badal, which means both “revenge” and “exchange,” is the primary mechanism for settling grievances in Pashtun society, and as with almost everything, it is first and foremost a process for restoring honor.

Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan University of Chicago Press.

When the law fails to deliver justice then doing it yourself is a staple of American movies. Taken comes immediately to mind but those big budget movies, although entertaining, are so far from reality that they should be classified as science fiction. Kerry Patton didn’t have the money or desire to do over the top special effects scenes; he has a good story. More importantly Kerry doesn’t need the ego pumping spectacle of beating 20 bad guys to a pulp using found objects and fists. Unlike a man who pretends to be other men for a living Kerry doesn’t have to prove he’s a bad ass to anyone. He’s telling a story and it’s interesting and it’s not about him or being a ninja freak who runs up triple digit body counts while tossing off cleaver one liners.

Our tribe can fight harder and better than any other tribe on earth. We can be implacable foes and many of us have killed and killed often in the course of our duties. But we’re not killers.

We also know what we don’t know and what Kerry’s character doesn’t know (after grabbing the man police think responsible) is if he has grabbed the right guy. As pissed as he is he’s not comfortable with what he is doing to his captive and what he’s doing isn’t nice. We all have brought a little of Afghanistan home with us but not so much that we think extra-judicial killing is acceptable after returning home. If forced to do it then stand by; we know what were doing but we’d rather live the American dream as productive citizens. In the end our protagonist knows what he’s doing and it is a beautiful thing to see.

Veterans (and those who support them) need to watch this movie to let the stoicism of Kerry’s character remind you that you have choice on how you shoulder the weight you are carrying. You can reach inside for what sustained you in battle to see you through until father time takes away your pain or you can fold up your tent, surrender to despair and spend the rest of your life feeling sorry for yourself. There are no other alternatives. For us life is now a counter ambush drill – assault through and live; assault through and die but assault through….there are no other acceptable options. We go forward or we perish.

And if you reach inside far enough you’ll discover you are capable of the impossible. Kerry Patton has done the impossible and the product is a good, solid, interesting, movie that is accessible to the public (because it’s good) and a message to fellow vets. Dig deep, do not give into despair and remember the virtues you leaned in America’s Legions. Virtues gained in war can translate into success at home. Let Kerry Patton drive that message home to support you as you support him. He’s a true warrior who in real life is also a good man with a large heart and I love him despite his chicken jail and all hair gel I’ve been told he now uses.

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