It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners
• Albert Camus
You gotta chortle in your beerhead at the maxim “Beer Is Cheaper Than Therapy,” a tongue-in-cheek saying fraught [froth?] with this better-you-than-me ambiguity, pride unraveling by the last syllable as you realize the joke’s on you…
The film Beer Is Cheaper Than Therapy hinges on a cynical version of this saying that’s been wafting about US military bases for some time. It implies a cavalier attitude by staff toward the social, economic and [mental] health issues of its personnel – i.e., fucked-up soldiers with attitude [after they learn they’ve been had by the patriotism sham]. The brass suggests these young soldiers should go drink beer to kill whatever “imaginary” devils, pains and nightmares they may have. The cast-off discharges eventually managed to transform Beer Is Cheaper Than Therapy into their own bonding call in bars where they ironically revel in their shared despair, with one small consolation being that he or she is seldom the worst off among them.
The fact that over 100 soldiers have committed suicide at Fort Hood and in the surrounding Killeen, Texas area since 2004 reveals that, however great beer may be, it is no panacea for ailments that immobilize these young people, infecting their souls with disaffection, disillusionment and worse. The suicides reveal a tragic disconnect between the glory of the recruitment adverts and the destitute reality upon one’s return, often not as heroes but more as annoying casualties measured in terms of health care costs to society. I think of how many walking wounded – people who can’t negotiate basic social situations but can still recite the Pledge of Allegiance by heart – the US prison system and military produce each year.
The fact that this immense military base reportedly only has one social worker to handle some 4000+ military personnel tells you something about the military’s attitude toward its soldiers; they’re no better than cannon fodder. Several of the soldiers interviewed in the film are able to voice this newfound awareness with penetrating clarity: they’re meat, human shields, pawns, proud but betrayed and disillusioned, having served their nation and believing the promises made to them: training, job ops, education, and psychiatric help, they could otherwise never afford. Brecht summed it up in a few lines of “The Cannon Song”:
John is a write-off and Jimmy is dead
And Georgie was shot for looting
And young men’s blood goes on being red
While the Army just goes on ahead recruiting.
I didn’t get to this years great International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam in November [record turnout] although I did have some very lively discussions with docu-maven, Jennifer Merin, About.com’s expert critic and our houseguest for 6 days, about money, politics and the emerging issue of branding in documentaries and how that will undermine the critical independence of docs. Or more accurately, corporate sponsors offer crumbs in exchange for immeasurable prestige by association for a steal. Well, the military is a major brander too; it offers promises of adventure and education and the soldiers pay for this with life, limb and lots of blood and trauma.
To which Merin responded: “Yes, it surely does! Really important point! Two more that are similar in theme: WHERE DO SOLDIERS COME FROM and TO HELL AND BACK … not about suicides, but both about US soldiers’ mental and physical traumas as result of being deployed. And all are still suffering the effects of army marketing!!!!”
I did manage, however, to see the Dutch documentary Beer Is Cheaper Than Therapy, on Dutch TV. Simone de Vries’s film takes a serious look at the many problems these [mostly poor] soldiers face at Fort Hood. “There is no place for doubt, sadness and fear in the American army,” say the film’s makers. “ Still, many soldiers struggle with these feelings. The film portrays what goes on behind the facade of heroism and the ‘John Wayne mentality’.”
De Vries’s style is relaxing, encouraging/empowering the soldiers & mates to gradually unravel their countless tales of woe, some of whom have committed acts of violence in Iraq they now regret and others who’ve gone AWOL, bonkers and more since returning. We meet some of those closest to soldiers who have committed suicide or soldiers who have urges to commit violence they know not what to do with:
I’m 22 years old and I must have killed 30 people. The same thing that you were given badges for, over in Iraq, you would be considered a serial killer over here. That’s a very weird thought to have running around in your head when it’s dark, going to sleep or late at night.
Many of the mostly young, under-educated interviewees are portrayed as pent-up, discarded and discredited, facing official recriminations as losers for being unable to deal with their problems in a dignified manner; they are jettisoned into a mundane, impoverished and hostile environment, where beauty is measured in the effectiveness of the painkillers, the numbers of beers chugged or the extremes of the porn. The landscape echoes their emptiness/loneliness that besets them upon realizing they’ve been sold a pack of lies.
They call it a volunteer army, but almost everyone uses “volunteer” sarcastically: the joke’s on you if you believe the insanely cynical promises that lure desperate, no-future youths to “voluntarily” sign up as their last-ditch attempt to dredge up some semblance of dignity out of the little self they been have left with – yea, right, “volunteer” as in the no-hope-no-prospects-at-home category, culled from a burgeoning underclass, which is best left under-educated to better “prepare” them for future dodgy wars. It’s like patriotism is stuck on the end of a bayonet like in the olden days when the bloody beheaded noggin of a criminal was stuck on the end of a pike to spook the citizenry into submission.
One ex-soldier describes how his mom was committed to a mental institution and when he was totally lost in this lost world at 16, he decided to enlist to escape this awful world – imagine opting for a war zone over your hometown – and they dragged his mom [not legally sane enough to serve as guardian] down to the recruitment offices and got her to sign her son’s life away.
What becomes clear is something that parallels the insights of the OWS movement, that, despite billions of dollars spent on myth-building, PR and sexy recruitment tactics [the banks and the military – remember that quaint old term, “military-industrial complex”?], many of which are so low that you think your dealing with carny barkers selling elixirs and magical nostrums or something, one of the most significant American resistance movements has managed to emerge to voice the many gripes these young experience-enlightened ex-soldiers have with the military establishment in their efforts to gain sympathy, benefits and understanding for their lot. Operation Recovery Campaign, run largely by ex-soldiers, tries to help soldiers cast adrift or those suffering from PTSD, etc. It also agitates to hold the Military top brass responsible for the their abandonment of returning soldiers.
In the transition shots we see the soldiers guzzling bottle after bottle of beer, dancing away the misgivings with pained smiles, dancing away the heartache [that cleave between what one feels and what one is forced to accept]. Many fail at preventing the capsizing of their fragile, wobbly psyches. Beer and amazingly elaborate cocktail mixes of pills leaves them in a chemo-haze, delusional, standing with automatic rifles in shopping plaza parking lots or firing off hundred of rounds in an alleyway because it is only the sound of gunfire that can sooth them – explosive metal mantra, bullet Buddhism – a brilliant metaphor had it been JG Ballard’s.
I did take seriously the statement by some who say it’s easy: You join the Army and they do the rest, they make all the decisions for you just like mom used to make. They’re right, sometimes it’s braver to go against this basic extended paternal/maternal grain. Yes, soldiers are brave but they are also chicken, afraid to say “hell no, I won’t go.”
In 1972, I remember having to pick up my draft card at the post office. I remember standing on the post office steps on a golden autumn day in Richland Center, Wisconsin, staring at it, feeling alien, woozy, a betrayer of mankind and suddenly just tearing it up, throwing it in the garbage can, wanting to be rid of any association with this vilest kind of indentured servitude. I retraced the route to Canada friend Steve and I imagined taking if we were called up – we vowed to take not the main routes but head off into the woods and cross over into Canada under cover of nature. I thought by severing my hand from the paper I would effectively sever all ties between me and the draft board, between me and evil.
I remember my friend, a nice guy, Dan, signing up with the Air Force several weeks prior to last conscription lottery when the US still had a draft in 1972, just prior to the introduction of the all-volunteer army, because he was sure he was going to pull a low number in this lottery and be drafted and sent to perdition in the muddy trenches in Nam. He wanted to avoid this fate at all costs. So he signed up for 4 years and hated it, although eventually his letters seemed to imply he had learned to live with it.
I remember watching this last lottery with Dan and other dorm mates, gathered anxiously, silently around the TV’s weird glow. Each birthdate was assigned a random number and then picked “out of a hat.” His number ended up being even higher – meaning even less likely to be drafted – than mine and mine was something in the mid-200s and I seem to remember they were drafting people whose birthdays came up to 125 or maybe 150. It was like a game show – AND THE WINNER IS – but felt like a rite of passage where even the winners come out losers. We entered the dorm room as boys and left as the anxiety-burdened men we were meant to be.
We all drank beer afterwards. You know, in that quiet way, when you have too much on your mind and as you drink you stare at your hand holding the bottle, afraid to look beyond your hand. We noticed that a few of our dorm mates weren’t there; later we heard they had slithered out during the lottery, made phone calls to their families, disappearing without a word, never to see be seen again in the cafeteria at breakfast, lunch or dinner …
- War Resisters League
- American Veterans Against The War In Iraq [IVAW]
- US Soldier – The Real Terrorist Was Me
- John Michael Turner Throws Away and Quits
- Soldier Refuses To Return To Iraq For Immoral Duty
- Free Bradley Manning
Follow the entire BEER MYSTIC Pub Crawl, the renegade spirit
His military medals unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.
• Albert Einstein