I just wanna go back, baby Back to the way it was I used to get real high, now I But now I’m just gettin’ a buzz
There is a scene in Apocalypse Now where these soldiers are going down a river in a boat in Vietnam, and one of them is listening to a letter from his mother on a small tape recorder. They get attacked and this soldier dies, and the tape of his mother speaking continues to play in the background as his friend holds the dead body in grief.
I always found the scene profoundly disturbing, the way it brings this element of fragile domestic reality into the horror of combat.
The Deer Hunter feels like the feature length version of this juxtaposition, the contrast between two versions of reality, the intense combat experience and the delicate social fabric of domestic life.
In Apocalypse Now and its inspiration Heart of Darkness, the story is about the self exile Marlowe’s retreat into the jungle, and we see versions of this in The Deer Hunter, as Nick gets lost in the underworld of Saigon and Steven exiles himself in the veterans’ hospital. But, The Deer Hunter also brings the horror back home, primarily through Mike’s struggle to return home to his small town, group of friends, and social life there.
One of the things I have heard in conversations with some veterans who have been in combat is that it is not just the haunting memories of the horror of war that make the reintegration difficult.
There is a dullness in the absence of the constant vigilance and heightened perception you must maintain when you’re in combat. Also missing is the total and mutual survival effort shared with your troop, where your life hangs completely on the vigilance and actions of your comrades, just as their life completely depends on yours. It’s an environment of total trust, that doesn’t quite have an equivalent in most domestic relations.
I don’t want to glorify war or diminish the horror and brutality and senselessness of it, but I wonder how much of the post-traumatic struggle is the inability to forget the senseless violence vs how much of it is a recognition of some sort of peak intensity of experience on a different plane of reality that you know you will never feel again. I guess I wonder if there is some sort of weird regret or nostalgia aspect to it.
To try to disentangle this thought a bit… Doctors and nurses are exposed to death everyday, and I’m sure they experience some form of PTSD and numbing to the senselessness of death that most of us are not daily exposed to. But the ER experience differs from combat: although the doctors and nurses are holding patient lives in their hands, the medical staff members are not co-dependent on each other for their own survival.
Contrast this to something like the moon mission. When I watched Apollo 11 recently, I was wondering if the astronauts suffered from something like PTSD, and I ended up learning that Buzz Aldrin had a really hard time reintegrating after the mission. He suffered from depression and alcoholism.
In the space case, the senseless violence is missing, but the heightened sense of danger and total reliance on your team is present, where pretty much every second you understand that you have placed your own survival directly in the hands of the person next to you.
There is a level of submission and co-dependence that cannot be paralleled in the everyday experience of modern civilization.
Trying to imagine the psychological burden of the combat experience is completely overwhelming to me. On the one hand, you have this reminder that much of the most horrible and senseless violence in the world is totally preventable, the result of disagreements between people. And on the other hand, you have this glimpse of total submission to a collective, a vision of what the human experience can be at its most selfless, that is also behind you, irrecoverable, and a constant reminder of the dullness of the rest of existence.
It would be impossible to fully understand this experience without having lived it, and I think one of the most frustrating things about a profound experience is the inability to articulate it to someone you know will never fully understand it. But I suppose what I appreciate about The Deer Hunter is that it makes the effort to communicate some of it, and I feel like it gives me a deeper (if incomplete) understanding of it and compassion for those who have been through it.