Welcome to the Hotel Babylonia: Waltz with Bashir ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 7, 2009)

George Carlin had an absolutely brilliant routine concerning his disdain for the rampant use of euphemisms to sugarcoat hard truths. As an example, he traced the metamorphosis of the term “shell shock” throughout the course of 20th century warfare:

There’s a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum. Can’t take anymore input. The nervous system has either (click) snapped or is about to snap.

In the First World War, that condition was called “shell shock”. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves.

That was seventy years ago. Then a whole generation went by and the Second World War came along and the very same combat condition was called “battle fatigue”. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much.” Fatigue” is a nicer word than “shock”. (Stridently) “Shell shock!” (Subdued) “Battle fatigue”.

Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison Avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called “operational exhaustion”. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.

Then of course, came the war in Viet Nam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called “post-traumatic stress disorder”. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’ll bet you if we’d of still been calling it shell shock, some of those Viet Nam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll bet you. I’ll bet you.

A rose by any other name. Whether you want to call it shellshock, battle fatigue, operational exhaustion or PTSD, there’s one thing for certain: unless you are a complete sociopath and really DO love the smell of napalm in the morning…war will fuck you up.

In a new animated feature called Waltz with Bashir, writer-director Ari Forman mixes the hallucinatory expressionism of Apocalypse Now with personal sense memories of his own experiences as an Israeli soldier serving in the 1982 conflict in Lebanon to paint a searing portrait of the horrors of war and its devastating psychic aftermath. A true visual wonder, the film is comprised of equal parts documentary, war diary and bad acid trip.

The film opens with an unsettling sequence of a terrified young man being relentlessly pursued by a pack of raging, snarling hell-hounds, nipping at his heels as he flees through a war-torn urban landscape. This turns out to be the visualization of a recurring nightmare that haunts one of the director’s fellow war vets. While lending a sympathetic ear to his pal as he props up the bar and continues to recount his psychic trauma, Forman has a sudden and disturbing epiphany: his own recollections of his tour of duty in Lebanon are nowhere near as vivid; in fact they are virtually non-existent.

This leads Forman on a personal journey to unlock the key to this selective amnesia. He confides in a psychiatrist friend, who urges him to seek out and interview as many of his fellow vets as he can. Perhaps, by listening to their personal stories, he will ultimately unblock his own.

The answer may lie in the possibility that he had a ringside seat to the horrific Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres, in which a large number of Palestinian non-combatants (including women and children) were rounded up and summarily executed by members of the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia while Israeli Defense Force troops stood by. What follows is an affecting rumination on repressed memory, circumstantial complicity and collective guilt.

The director generally steers clear of heavy-handed polemics; this is more of a “soldier’s story”, a universal grunt’s-eye view of the confusion and madness of war, in which none are really to blame, yet all remain complicit. This eternal dichotomy, I think, lies at the heart of the matter in trying to understand what it is that snaps inside the mind of the walking wounded (or “shell-shocked”, if you will).

How do we help them? How do we help them help themselves? With the recent distressing news about the ever-escalating suicide rates of our own American Afghanistan/Iraq war veterans, I think these questions are more important than ever, for a whole new generation of psychically damaged young men and women. In the meantime let’s continue to hope for a day when the very concept of war itself has become but a “repressed memory” for the entire planet.

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