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Dunkirk

 

The war film is a dying genre. I do not intend a pun, and I didn’t want to dislike Dunkirk, the latest effort to memorialize a famous World War II battle. But unfortunately, I didn’t like Dunkirk, or rather, I didn’t love Dunkirk which, given my expectations going into the theater, was tantamount to hating it.

War films have a special place in my life. In theory, this is because James Daniels, my grandfather, was a veteran of World War II, and more specifically, a veteran of the Dunkirk evacuation that rescued around 340,000 British soldiers in May 1940 and thus girded Britain’s survival through the early years of the war. You might think I’d have heard the odd tale or two from my grandfather about the brave efforts that brought him home. I’m afraid not. Granddad said little, if anything that I recall about the battle or its aftermath. Occasionally, he’d utter tongue-in-cheek comments, barely chuckling as I asked if he’d “killed any Germans”; instead replying that he was too busy running away. As I conjure the memory of his dignified medals, sitting within a framed, sepia certificate of recognition, and hanging on a wall in his home in North Wales, I don’t recall hearing of the shame supposedly anticipated by escaping soldiers, as the film suggests happened. After his passing, I learned that James’ experience must have been more horrific than I’d ever imagined. He couldn’t swim, and according to my father, retreated from gunfire into the English channel, not so much escaping as choosing how to die. James was spared because a daring sergeant grabbed him by the scruff and pulled him into a boat. James spent his later war years in places like Iceland, the Orkney islands, waiting upon further assignments, and meeting a nurse that would be my grandmother. He fought at the D-day landing in 44′. He didn’t talk much about that. Iceland, he complained, smelled of fish.

To hear what I thought were proper, exciting war stories, I had to watch movies when I was a kid. From the fifties through the seventies, the best war films featured largely British casts fronted by American stars: The Bridge On The River Kwai, with William Holden (though Alec Guinness, later Obi Wan, won a best actor oscar); The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen stealing scenes with a motorbike; and The Dirty Dozen, with Lee Marvin kicking ass and being cool and snarky. Even the obviously bad films were guilty pleasures: The Longest Day depicted the D-day landing with a technical prowess that was admirable in 1962, but despite an all-star cast, the acting scenes were embarrassingly awful, and the anecdotal tidbits between battle sequences seemed hopelessly contrived. A Bridge Too Far (1977) followed a similar formula, was similarly bad, yet was also oddly enjoyable (like The LD, BTF was based upon a Cornelius Ryan novel). And it, too, relied upon an American star—Robert Redford—to front a largely British cast and thus cameo the film to financial success.

After that, for a while anyway, the most important war flicks were all about Vietnam: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket. Stars featured in the first two, not so much Platoon. In FMJ, the man behind the camera—Stanley Kubrick—was the star. In 1998, WWII made a comeback in the form of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which was nothing less than an assaultive viewing experience—the most traumatizing of all war films. That same year, Terrance Malick revived the war-time poetry of James Jones with The Thin Red Line, perhaps my favorite war film ever, and the only film amongst these to achieve a coherent story and theme with an all-star cast. By the way, I think of Schindler’s List differently: a holocaust story, not a war film in the traditional sense. The Hurt Locker is perhaps the best film from the desert war era. What it has to say about PTSD is incomparable.

The closest thing Dunkirk has to Robert Redford is a guy from a boy-band called One Direction. Otherwise, it has Kenneth Branagh, best known as Hamlet, playing a commander who spends the evacuation stuck on a pier, staring out to sea and making decisions. Then there’s Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar last year for Bridge of Spies, playing a civilian rescuing soldiers on a private boat (apparently one of many at Dunkirk). Star-power isn’t the selling point of Dunkirk. I’d imagined or hoped that it might rival Saving Private Ryan for spectacle, or maybe The Thin Red Line as an artful effort. But it matches neither standard, unfortunately. Behind-the-scenes stuff is regrettably eschewed. The true story of Churchill’s demand that boats return to collect the French is omitted, as is Hitler’s famous halt order to his troops, which allowed British, Belgian, and Dutch soldiers to collect on beaches and climb atop boats.

Instead, a series of Luftwaffe attacks that sunk ships and doused British morale are depicted prior to a triumphant finale. Meanwhile, the story follows three young soldiers who jump queues (lines), stowaway on doomed escape boats, bicker over a French interloper, but eventually make it home to Dover. The biggest hero is a pilot of a Spitfire who seems to take on the Luftwaffe all by himself while running out of fuel. His singular heroics redeem a British air force that is otherwise absent, and his surrendering glide over Dunkirk’s beaches is an eloquent tribute to the operation. These mini-plots all contain their share of suspense and thrills, and are indeed moving. But somehow, the finished product underwhelms. What I’d expected was an expansion of the experience I’d had reading Atonement, Ian McEwan’s war-time novel (later a good film, also), which features harrowing descriptions of the Dunkirk evacuation as a subplot. Watching Dunkirk, I was waiting upon a coup de grace, a war film to end them all. I was ready for a cathartic event, one that would bring me to tears as I thought of my grandfather, James.

I’m not gonna find this in movies.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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Living Without Blood

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When I think of trauma, I think of heuristic notions that I’ve fashioned in my mind in recent years and then spoken in sound-bites to clients and peers. My favorite—largely because it seemed catchy when I first thought of it—is one in which I address the saying, “time heals all wounds” by saying, “no it doesn’t. It is consciousness followed by honesty that heals wounds”. This was partly a reflection of reading (though I cannot cite the sources), partly a result of clinical observation, and largely a result of private experience. I’d simply known people (including myself) for whom thought, behavior, and feeling seemed frozen in time; memory fossilized as opposed to preserved—inflexible, and more importantly, not open to discussion.

            In recent years I’ve tended to think of trauma more in terms of feeling, of affect, rather than thought, memory, or behavior: listening to drug addicts “war story”; that is, recount the details of their drug use and the accompanying problems with flatness in their voices, or sardonic inflections as they spoke of the “crazy” aspects of their lifestyles. I reflect on my grandfather, a veteran of WWII, and more specifically, of the famous British evacuation of Dunkirk in 1941. As a kid I once innocently asked him to tell me about “fighting” the Germans (I didn’t realize it was more about the defeated—and likely shameful—running away from Germans). Granddad, as he was called, was curiously reticent about “fighting”, and was even more curiously without anger, excitement or sadness when speaking of his memories. Most curious was the specific memory that stood out for him: his anxiety about losing his weapon on the beach, mostly because that would have annoyed his officious sergeant. Years later my father explained that Granddad’s anxiety was compounded by the fact that he couldn’t swim. He had a dilemma on the day of the evacuation: attempt to swim and likely drown, or stay on the beach and get shot. His life was saved by that officious sergeant pulling him to a boat.

            Through reading and discussion, I learn that trauma manifests chronically with problems of hyperarousal and dissociation, and while symptoms of hyperarousal (such as panic attacks, nightmares, or startle response) may draw clinical attention more commonly, our attention should also be drawn to flat affect, inattention, so-called “shutting down” responses such as the dissociated client’s “I don’t know” or “I’ve gone blank” statements. From our reading of attachment research, we learn that the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenocortical Axis is a significant barometer of an individual’s response to stress: that when activated, a process follows wherein the Autonomic Nervous System is activated, and from that, a dissociation pattern which disengages the individual from stressful stimuli, rendering them “safe”, if maladaptive.

            If clinicians are to address these problems and help people, then psychiatrists and therapists must either interrupt the consolidation of memories, or else provide the safe context for the symbolic (as in verbal) expression of feelings. In terms of psychiatric intervention, we learn that pharmacology may have a role in the reduction of PTSD symptoms, which may in turn pertain to the consolidation of memories, the “freezing” of memories in tandem with emotional states. In terms of therapy, I recall Jude Cassidy’s 2001 article, “Truth, Lies, and Intimacy”, and her speculations upon trauma as a phenomenon that is exacerbated by the distortions that caregivers impose on memories, what I have fancifully termed “Hamlet syndrome” (It’s not just the murder of his father that is traumatic. It’s that no one’s speaking truthfully about it). This is bolstered by attachment research suggesting that those whose past traumatic episodes have been acknowledged truthfully (such as Holocaust victims) are more inclined towards secure attachments.

            In the Masterson model, we hear the broad suggestion that a clinician focus on deficits of the disordered self prior to working directly with trauma: meaning, the containing of acting out behaviors through the establishment of a therapeutic frame, the containing of transference acting out in the therapy, as well as destructive behaviors outside of therapy; the creation of a therapeutic alliance (TA).            What else do I want to know? Not sure, but the following quote from the Barbara Short chapter in Masterson (2005, P. 102) stirs my thoughts: “During times of strong affective arousal or dissociation, the therapist can reestablish contact with the patient best by not calling attention to the projective aspect of her experience. That has to come later, when the patient is in a more differentiated mental state.” This statement would appear to have significant implications for a model distinguished by attention drawn to defense, albeit in a sequence that proceeds from an empathic opening.

 

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