I watched this yesterday and it was really excellent.
The unit depicted was tired, depleted, partially-manned, and w/ a high % of replacements (quite like mine in Iraq), clearly a unit about to fail catastrophically. It was quite deliberately exposed by Higher and left in place as expendable - and the emotions displayed were very, very believable for this circumstance!
You develop complex relationships w/ those among whom you've been thrown, those in your unit - but Kipling, Pyle, and Mauldin described these definitively, and I can add nothing - certainly nothing of comparable quality of insight/turn of phrase.
But one topic left unaddressed by them we now call “toxic leadership.” Under fire for months at a time, we found that well over 1/3rd of our Regular Army (RA) commanders/chiefs of staff (CoS), inexplicably abused subordinates in dramatic, public temper tantrums, degrading and humiliating targeted elements of their staffs, emasculating them in front of our Coalition partners: the Australians, British, Danes, Fijians, Peruvians, and others (there were 26 nations in the Coalition). It was alarmingly sudden and verbally violent, as if a switch had been thrown in their brains. This was shocking, because it was so unexpected in a professional army, and severely damaged morale & unit cohesion. It was so common from this select group that some of us speculated that this abusive behavior was deliberately taught in an RA class for senior Cdrs/CoS before deployment "to get the most out of your soldiers", carte blanche for subordinate debasement. For each such abuser, there was always some weak-willed "Enabler" immediately above, usually a GO (General Officer, in our case a BG (Brigadier)). The Enabler exchanged the Abuser's obsequious fawning (Yanks call this "brown-nosing") for free rein to degrade and abuse subordinates at will.
Commonly, mid-grade officers (over-worked and sleep-deprived Captains/Majors, assigned as staff officers) were their targets, treated no differently than as downtrodden dogs, prevented from responding to the verbal public abuse at risk of an accusation of "insubordination", which would ruin their budding careers, and their families' income/lives. How many later suicides have resulted? Our young officers - particularly - often identify as idealists, and in the intensity of combat, and faced w/ public emasculation by a toxic superior, many will consider suicide as an “honorable” response: "falling on their swords". For whatever psychological reason, these suicides always occurred AFTER - sometimes a year or more after - they rotated CONUS (returned to the Continental U.S). It is reported that more OIF (OP Iraqi Freedom) combat veterans have now died of later suicide than of combat wounds. My experience suggests that many of these subsequent suicides were likely due to the delayed effects of their humiliation under toxic leadership in the combat zone. I speculate that the shame later self-associated w/ having quietly and subserviently tolerated this abuse in the combat zone w/o recourse finally became intolerable during "decompression" CONUS. Understandably, they no longer cared - or were ashamed to - live. These are not men who could be expected to react well to having been bullied and forced into humiliating public submission. Their later suicides do not surprise me. Post-combat suicide is not an inexplicable epidemic, as the Army cluelessly misrepresents it. I suggest that it's the reaction to earlier humiliating public abuse under toxic leadership. How many of their families were thus left ignorant of their reasons, but devastated? Based upon cruel smiles and laughter, this targeting appeared to give the abusers sadistic pleasure. I spent 30 years in the Army (beginning as a young Private right out of Public School) and never before or since Iraq encountered pure sadistic malevolence from a senior field grade officer, apparently psychotic behaviour. And there was NO responsible supervision from Higher, only continued enablement.
We never saw this weakness of character in officers of the rest of the Coalition (the British and others), but we common soldiers could see the surprise/disdain on their faces: all of them came from long-professional armies and behaved properly, w/ dignity and respect. It was difficult for us common soldiers to admit to our U.S. Army's qualitative inferiority in higher-ranking field-grade officers' (commonly Colonels (COLs); always RA) behaviour in the combat zone, and we felt deeply ashamed/humiliated by association. It sullied our uniform. At those times, I was embarrassed to be an American soldier. I saw others in the Coalition - Aussies, Brits, and Danes - turn their faces or bodies away so as not to witness our shame. Character deficiency in our higher-level RA field grades, under what we felt was no more than quite ordinary combat zone stress, was forcing us into unnecessary mission failure, and we had somehow to come to terms w/ this. It is a weakness of our American national character that we expect an A+ success when we work intelligently/industriously - yes, this is naïve, but it's a near-universal trait among us overly-optimistic, excessive-work-ethic Yanks. But here It was dismaying to us subordinate soldiers that we KNEW what failure looked like, and it played out around us inexorably as we watched, helplessly. We felt betrayed, and frustrated, our efforts wasted. A sense of futility, helplessness, and the oncoming inevitability of failure pervaded HQ and seeped downward to the outlying units. And it became the source of sardonic creativity w/in available venues (among messmates, primarily - you only fully trust your chosen messmates, after all) - the only outlet for our frustration.
Service in the combat zone sorts through leaders: the better are those w/ "real world" (civilian) experience, not those who grew up from adolescence knowing nothing but the RA. Common soldiers learn quickly whom to follow when under fire, and this is what toxic leaders fear most: that soldiers whom they targeted for abuse will not follow them reflexively in combat, but instead choose to follow those whom they respect/trust (this is the root cause of "fragging", a Vietnam War phrase). Thus, to our surprise as professionals, we came increasingly to rely upon - and to prefer - Reserve leadership. These officers were older (often a decade or more older than their RA equivalents), far better educated, more experienced in the "real world", more emotionally stable, and thus more capable of problem-solving in stressful, changing circumstances - even commonly displaying a sense of humour (always the mark of maturity/stability). We did not see temper tantrums from them. Our own "toxic wonder" (an RA COL) traveled only w/ a Personal Security Detail (PSD) armed escort, to avoid the personal risk that the rest of us all lived w/ continually. Nothing could earn our contempt as quickly as such personal cowardice in an Army-appointed "leader." He was later awarded the Legion of Merit (LOM) and the Bronze Star for his Iraq tenure; none of us common soldiers accepting the risks of combat conditions received ANYTHING like these prestigious awards - and he stayed in relative comfort and ensured security throughout his Deployment; whereas about a fifth of us became casualties (among them, my two best buddies were killed and I was wounded). (I recommend that you look up "Schofield's Definition of Discipline": just a page long. MG Schofield served gallantly/capably in the American Civil War, and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He understood "toxic leadership", and in this short essay wrote of its effect on soldiers in a Democracy.) At one point, our appointed CoS pointed out those of us whom he considered to be "expendable". It had immense psychological shock to have a belligerent, malevolent superior glare at you eye to eye, and have him declare that you are "expendable", to be considered disposable garbage. I'll never forget that moment, the shock of it. Leadership? We were considered to be untermenschen, and treated accordingly.
Thus began widespread avoidance of "the flagpole": subordinates minimized contact w/ HQ to avoid abuse, or witnessing abuse, not reporting failures to avoid "being shot as the messenger" (the Arabs w/ us seemed to understand - having seen all of this before w/in Saddam's army). This resulted in delusionally-positive HQ "sitrep" assessments to Higher: a topic of sub rosa black humour among us. We common soldiers became increasingly sardonic, and avoided HQ; we came to prefer the greater risk and problematic resupply of being farther from "the flagpole", and presumably closer to combat.
Combat itself is so exhausting that it sucks years of life out of you: you become old, weary-to-stumbling, utterly exhausted - the shell of a man, emotionally and physically. The misery is ineffable - but you DO share continual discussion of it w/in the unit. You even try to joke about it (all jokes fall flat). You do what you HAVE to do, what is expected of you, what you are ordered to do. Food looses all taste; you live on bad coffee: moldy, stale. You think (not talk) about death quite often, "testing the waters"; to come to an acceptance, and gain an unhealthy relationship to RISK, as do those around you (you become inured to it, as to so much). For those of us who have been there, though, - in any war - we vividly relive the smells, the shock waves, and the multitude of long-accumulated discomforts: headaches, hunger, bruises, rashes, cuts, sprains, infections, the unique dumbing effect of months of sleep-deprivation, the constant, long-term exposure to weather that we had no choice but to experience to the full, the often disturbing sights that we've seen, and the emotional numbing that some of us would fight (others not). The surreal life of a combat soldier at the "point of contact" is incredibly, definitively uncomfortable, stressful, and at times bewildering. And we were conscious that we were being deliberately expended by Higher, inexorably drained into exhausted, degraded husks.
You - and those around you - take to staring at the horizon, or the sky. Your eyes are less strained if you focus on things that are at a distance - or it's easier to muse at distant objects? They seem cleaner, more ideal than everything nearby. The filth just has to be experienced. You come to believe that you can never become clean again, and come to suspect that memories of past cleanness were false. Your mind is on things far away, because what's close seems surreal - and you are very, very tired! But it is the only reality that you know now, and you eventually come to accept it (a matter of resignation). Once you accept it, you never recover from this. This is your "new normal." For the rest of your life, you tend to fall into the "thousand-yard stare". It's odd, but you can recognize other combat vets in this, even decades after their own experiences in whatever war was theirs, because you never lose this inclination to gaze long and musingly at the horizon. Exhaustion simply mounts. We were gradually expended. Reactions become purely reflexive, w/o thought. Call it "PTSD", but it is really the normal and healthy acceptance of conditions that had to be endured.
And all of the above describes your state prior to wounding. Once wounded, you experience the predictable waves of pain that thoroughly distract you from your surroundings. You KNOW just when the next wave will begin to roll through you, you tense for it - and those muscles finally exhaust themselves. During a pain-wave, it is the only reality. This experience is completely surreal (I began to associate each wave w/ primary & secondary colors - and began to dread the color orange). I remember being dazed and mentally drifting as an Army nurse swabbed clean a patch of skin on my forearm to insert an IV to rehydrate me and apply the morphine, the syringe puncturing the thick, clear plastic bag elevated above me (morphine really works, by the way: all pain temporarily vanishes!). Medical orderlies: "Prepare to lift!"; "Lift!"; "Prepare to move!", "Move!" To be lifted and carried strapped onto a taut stretcher is a bewildering, disorienting experience. "Prepare to rack!"; "Rack!" The stretcher is locked into a sturdy, aluminum frame, w/ many others. You can now turn your head to one side or the other, only that. "Where are you from? How were you wounded?" You take stock of newly-found buddies (rank insignia cannot be seen; it is "bad form" for wounded to acknowledge rank), and try to let the reality of your disabilities sink in. Are you permanently crippled? You feel helpless, vulnerable, desperate, because your weapons have been taken, and these have not been out of your hands in months: prized possessions. Triaged numerous times at different stops (at one I learned that I then weighed 135 lbs [9 stone, 9 lbs], having lost 36 lbs in combat!), you are medevac'ed progressively "back", handed off from the "A Team"; to the "B Team" as you are gradually de-prioritized. You doze. Only your head is loose, and it rolls side to side as the aircraft rocks in flight.
Immediately after being medevac'ed out of combat, I spent several months billeted among other wounded in what was called a "Warrior Transition Battalion" (WTB), and we were called "wounded warriors" by the excellent, caring Army nursing staff. While there, waiting in queue for my surgery, I believe that I saw the full scope of wounds and also PTSD. We received fine billets. We were clean (!), and were served fine chow. More importantly, we had time to talk to one another, at length, in the Day Room. I still remember many of those impromptu conversations. Rank was forgotten. We solicited the other's stories. We commiserated. We shared a mound of well-thumbed novels - and we discussed them! We were patient w/ one another, always waiting for a long pause before speaking in conversation, never interrupting another. Those more mobile got coffee for those less so. I remember that some of us played chess, and took the time to concentrate on our moves (we had nothing, if not time!). Others gathered to watch, all quite patient. None complained or urged faster play. I remember one languorous day, late morning to dusk, spent in a group that continually varied w/ comings and goings, discussing all aspects of coffee: experiences w/ it, different preparations of it. The Arab/Turkish ibrik was new to all of us before Deployment to SW Asia, but we all had known of the French press, "Mr. Coffee"-style coffee-makers, percolators, and crude "cowboy coffee". All had relative importance in different circumstances in the Service: in garrison DFACs (formerly: "mess halls"), it was hot, brewed, in the ubiquitous pale green composite cups; in field training CONUS, it was warm, from powder, in canteen cups; but in actual combat it was dry coffee powder in the mouth - when it was the only remaining luxury. And all of us remembered these experiences! Eventually, we discussed our future prospects, in many cases altered due to new handicaps (I could no longer walk w/o a cane). We each wanted quiet, calmness, dignity. Ah, to be clean, untroubled, and to sleep between clean, white sheets, under good, thick, wool Army blankets! I recall it wistfully now as a "golden time" interlude after a filthy, degrading, bruising experience....
The truth, for good or ill, is that none of us are the same afterward - and our families (particularly) and acquaintances can't help but notice this. I can't "speak for" those who deployed but did not see combat (perhaps as many as 90% of USF in GWOT [the Global War on Terrorism], by some estimates). But I think that all of those of us who spent our deployment tours in combat, as opposed to being restricted to FOBs ("Fobbits", in our parlance), were adversely effected, perhaps because we 10% were either continually "in" or we kept being sent back in (like me), as "expendables" (we were called that, to our faces, by the RA COL "leader" who sent us out, while he remained in complete safety and relative luxury). Many of us described ourselves using the terms "broken", "NMC" (non-mission-capable), or “on degraded mode” [these are officially terms for partially-inoperable equipment, not personnel, and AMMED (the Army Medical Department) was NOT be pleased at our usage].
The doctrinal concept of "resilience" (an elastic rebounding of the soldier, if withdrawn into safe circumstances) is pernicious, as is any suggestion that only the "delicate" among us are susceptible to PTSD (I personally know a few hundred wounded US veterans, and every one of them has a PTSD diagnosis of some severity, among other diagnoses. Rhetorical question: were all of these soldiers "delicate"?) There IS no recovery. This is permanent. And it is socially crippling (for instance, I can now never hold Public Office, because the social risk of some unforeseen circumstance eliciting tears - a very common, severe PTSD response - and The Public would not understand).
I wish that young boys could understand this. As a kid, I'd watch The Lone Ranger, and if the hero was "hit" in a shootout, at the end of the episode he'd simply be wearing a white bandanna as a sling, and the next episode would commence w/ no trace of any former injury. Reality is different - oh, so different ....
This movie portrayed it all quite well. It's quite brilliant!
(By the way, as a retired soldier, I'm deeply impressed by the "pluck" and steadfastness of the British People in general, but what they'd endured up to this point in WW I had to have been particularly trying. The British were steadfast throughout, and as a soldier this impresses me.)