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Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Let There Be Light: The Documentary The Army Suppressed

At the end of the second World War, filmmaker John Huston got a commission from the US Army to produce a documentary of new treatments for psychiatric casualties of the war. This occurred when experimental treatments such as hypnosis or injections of sodium pentothal were being introduced into psychiatric therapy. The army wanted to produce the film to show off these promising new treatments, rather than to illustrate the psychological trauma of soldiers due to what we now recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Huston titled his film Let There Be Light, and it opened with a statistic that likely would have shocked the American public:

“About 20% of all battle casualties in the American Army during World War II were of a neuropsychiatric nature.”

This statistic is followed by a brief explanation of the film’s intended purpose:

“The special treatment methods shown in this film, such as hypnosis and narco-synthesis, have been particularly successful in acute cases, such as battle neurosis. Equal success is not to be expected when dealing with peacetime neuroses which are usually of a chronic nature.”

Even though the psychiatric profession was still years away from naming PTSD, the idea of “battle neurosis” wasn’t exactly new. In World War I, soldiers called it “shell shock.” In the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the term “gross stress reaction” was defined similarly to what the third edition would refer to, not yet hyphenated, as “posttraumatic stress disorder.” But to the wider public, Huston’s “battle neurosis” did not enjoy the ubiquitous acknowledgement that PTSD receives today.

Thus, even though the film was intended to optimistically showcase the new treatments that had not been available to soldiers of previous wars, the initial viewings proved that the audience takeaway was not so positive. Huston unintentionally followed in the footsteps of Upton Sinclair. In writing The Jungle in 1904, Sinclair described the horrid (and fictionalized) conditions of the Chicago meatpacking industry, hoping to inform the American public about the worker’s plight. Instead, he only generated concern about the meat readers were eating, prompting him to famously say “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Huston’s Let There Be Light similarly missed its mark. Instead of documenting the uplifting trend of new treatments for psychiatric casualties of war, he exposed the horrible reality of psychiatric trauma that war imposed on soldiers.

Huston spent two months filming the documentary in the Mason General Hospital. He used “long takes” to film the documentary, making it clear that the soldiers’ recounted experience was not deceptively edited. The soldiers housed at Mason General were, as the documentary’s narrator describes them,

the casualties of the spirit, the troubled in mind. Men who are damaged emotionally. Born and bred in peace, educated to hate war, they were overnight plunged into sudden and terrible situations. Every man has his breaking point. And these, in the fulfillment of their duties as soldiers were forced beyond the limit of human endurance. . . .

Here are men who tremble, men who cannot sleep. Men with pains that are nonetheless real because they are of mental origin. Men who cannot remember. Paralyzed men whose paralysis is dictated by the mind. However different the symptoms, these things they have in common: unceasing fear and apprehension, a sense of impending disaster, a feeling of hopelessness and utter isolation.


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