James Gandolfini, who cracked plenty of skulls as Tony Soprano, visits the troubled minds of soldiers in HBO’s “Wartorn: 1861-2010,” a powerful documentary about post-traumatic stress disorder.
In “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq,” broadcast on HBO in 2007, Gandolfini interviewed hideously wounded veterans, reminding Americans of the terrible cost of combat. In “Wartorn,” which airs Thursday (Veterans Day) at 9 p.m. New York time, he traces a condition that has long raged behind a cloak of silence.
The program opens with the case of Angelo Crapsey, a Civil War infantryman from Pennsylvania who chronicled his descent into madness -- known then as hysteria or melancholia -- in a series of letters.
Crapsey was a gung-ho soldier in 1861 when he enlisted in the Union Army at the age of 18. He disparaged a sergeant who committed suicide and called deserters “cowards.” By the fall of 1863, he wrote that “I am clear off the hooks” and was discharged.
Crapsey’s sister noted he “looked wild” after his return home and had to be tied down to his bed. He committed suicide in 1864. After the Civil War, according to the show, more than half the patients in mental wards were veterans.
Gandolfini, sporting a beard and a powerful girth, enjoyed good access for this project, including a sit-down in Baghdad with General Raymond Odierno, who recently left his post as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Odierno says the military is much more aware of stress-related problems than it was during earlier wars.
“I think society changes over the years,” says Odierno, adding that almost 30 percent of soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress after combat.
One of the saddest stories is that of Noah Pierce, who did two tours in Iraq, came home and committed suicide by shooting himself through dog tags that he held next to his head.
His mother reads part of the 23-year-old’s suicide note: “Mom, I am so sorry .... I have done bad things. I have taken lives. Now it is time to take mine.”
Gandolfini recounts the 1943 incident where General George Patton slapped a soldier suffering from “combat fatigue,” called him a “yellow son of a bitch” and ordered him back to the battlefield.
His views were common at the time, as reflected in a wartime film in which a clearly disturbed soldier is berated for admitting “I can’t stand seeing people killed.”
Several World War II veterans tell of personal and family dissolution they blame on post-traumatic stress. Al Maher, a former Army Air Corps lieutenant, became an abusive drunk and hasn’t spoken to his sons in 25 years. Watching these old men cry is heart-rending.
While progress is being made, the old viewpoint hasn’t completely disappeared. Army Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli says it’s difficult to change long-held attitudes toward post-traumatic stress and suicide.
“You’re fighting a culture that really doesn’t believe in these things,” Chiarelli says. He adds that you’re not a “weaker person because you see something that no human being should ever have to see” and then develop emotional problems.
Gandolfini does good work here. Perhaps someday he could turn his attention to the numskulls who start the wars.
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(Dave Shiflett is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions are his own.)