Many times I have read in the newspapers about post-traumatic stress syndrome as it relates to soldiers coming home after serving in combat. I understand it intellectually, but it is something very far from my personal experience. In conversations with my son-in-law, one of the few Orthodox Jews who served in the Marines, he gave me some idea of what soldiers face in the battle. Although stationed in Kuwait and not in an active battle theater, he described the training he received for combat which focused on learning how to kill efficiently.
After watching Brothers, a powerful drama about the aftermath of military service, I have a better understanding of the daily stress of those who serve in battle and how service in the thick of combat can change lives for many years afterward.
Sam Cahill, a solid family man, is a Marine captain about to leave on his fourth tour of duty. Married to his high school sweetheart, Grace, and the father of two beautiful daughters, his parting is fraught with a quiet anxiety as family members take leave of one another.
Sam was a star high school athlete and student who never quit or backed away from a tough assignment. His brother, Tommy, in contrast, avoided responsibility at all costs. We first meet him as he leaves jail after serving time for armed robbery, and he arrives just in time to bid farewell to Sam as he embarks for Afghanistan in October of 2007.
News soon arrives that Sam’s helicopter has crashed, killing all of the Marines aboard. But in truth, Sam and his childhood friend, Joe Willis, have been taken captive in a remote mountain village. The film alternates scenes of Sam’s brutal incarceration with scenes of his family back home, who mourn for Sam and who at the same time try to reconstruct their lives without him. His brother Tommy becomes an anchor to Grace and the children who see in him a hint of their father and husband. Tommy and his friends even redecorate the family kitchen to give Grace an emotional lift.
A bond develops between Grace, her girls, and Tommy, in which they genuinely mourn for Sam while at the same time create isolated moments of happiness to make the present bearable. All this transpires as Sam and Joe are tortured brutally, both physically and mentally. Eventually, Sam does an unspeakable act which goes against his very nature, and the psychic residue of that act remains with him when he eventually is rescued and returns home. His adjustment to normality is complicated and involves his relationship with many family members who realize that something has changed within him. He is no longer the person he once was and may be unstable psychologically. The film approaches his adjustment in a complex way and we observe how a friend’s minor gesture can evoke major emotional reactions in Sam.
In the darkest of hours, Jewish tradition always tells us to focus on the light. Our Sages tell us the cycle of the moon reminds us that when all is dark, light will come. Bad times are not forever. The new moon will appear shortly, signaling that happiness and healing can begin. It is a message of hope that after tragedy will come joy and redemption. In Brothers, the response is not so clear, but it is evident that love between husband and wife can be the bedrock of a new beginning. Moreover, when Sam, in a moment of lucidity, says that in spite of what he has gone through, he should be so happy that he is alive, we realize that he is on a road to recovery. Appreciating the gifts we have in the present allows us to have a healthy future.