How is the media portraying combat — and is it affecting veteran suicide?

Elizabeth Howe
July 10, 2019 - 8:38 pm

Photo courtesy of Taylor Mickal Photography

In recent decades, books, movies, and news media have made significant strides in accurately portraying veteran issues like PTS and combat — but is its portrayal still impacting veteran suicide? 

This question was discussed during the Hillvets CAPCON panel titled “The Combat Myth: A Deeper Look at the Veteran Suicide Crisis.”

“The first acknowledgments of PTSD — though it was not called that in the 1950s — were founded on the idea that people came back and repressed something they'd done, something they'd seen, something that had been done to them,” said David Edelstein, chief film critic for New York Magazine and CBS Sunday Morning. 

“And gradually, because of the acting out in all sorts of ways, there was an explosion...And at the end of it the person cries and he — it was always a he — was held by a loving woman. That was where the fade out came and it was the end. We have come a long way since then.”

And, according to independent news-media strategist J. Ford Huffman, literature has similarly evolved. 

“The literature over the last 18 years when it comes to the military, I think, has evolved from being the kind of ‘What I Did on This Combat Patrol’ book to people writing fiction that symbolizes all that.”

And Huffman should now — he’s read and reviewed 400 military books from the last 18 years.

But, according to the four-person panel, more work needs to be done to achieve an accurate portrayal of PTS and combat in the media — and it should be done quickly because, yes, this portrayal could be having a significant impact on veteran suicide. 

“I'm concerned about the desire to conflate [veteran suicide] into a broader societal issue,” said Bob Carey, chief advocacy officer for The Independence Fund. “Yes, suicide in this country overall has increased by about 20 percent from 2005 to 2016. But veteran suicide has increased about 35 to 40 percent during that same period of time. And amongst the 18 to 34-year-olds — predominately ones that have seen combat — that suicide rate has gone up about 85%.”

If combat correlates so strongly with veteran suicide, members of the panel argued, it's that much more important that the combat narrative is portrayed accurately in the media. 

But how?

By continuing to research and expand our knowledge of PTS and veteran issues — including how we communicate about them, Edelstein said.

“We are lacking certain vocabulary in order to address, in popular entertainment, the whole combat experience,” Edelstein said. “We have not seen PTSD handled very well in movies and in plays and TV shows because we don't have the vocabulary for it. Dialectical behavioral therapy is not great drama. There are all sorts of neurochemical strides being made and all sorts of techniques and its possible that some of them will make great fodder for war movies but I don't see it right now.”

In the meantime, Huffman argued that we as consumers be proactive and speak out when we believe the combat narrative is being inaccurately or unfairly portrayed. 

“We do need to shift our narrative and we need to look at our sources,” Huffman said. “When the Veterans Affairs Department said that 22 veterans commit suicide each day, killed themselves each day, everybody accepted that figure because it was the Veterans Affairs Department. Two years later, we look at the figures again and what they meant to say was veterans and active duty service members were included in that number.” 

“We have to question those sources. We have to build our narratives so that we are demanding of news publications, books, movies two things: fairness and accuracy,” Huffman explained. “And if we don't see that we're getting fair reports and accurate reports, then it's our duty as citizens as part of the First Amendment process to notify people.”

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