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September 6-12, 2006

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'The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends'

By Richard von Busack

Freedom isn't free, it has to be paid for—that's what heated-up neo-patriots will tell you, having misread the Declaration of Independence's claim that freedom is an "unalienable right," neither to be given nor sold. Patricia Foulkrod's documentary The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends sources more than a dozen Operation Iraqi Freedom vets and eight veterans' organizations that claim that we have yet to account for the the real cost of the war.

Foulkrod begins at the swearing in of Marines at the Venice Beach boardwalk in 2005. It's a beachside party with balloons and music. Recruiters allow children to play with their bazookas. Various interviewees—especially former Lt. Col. David Grossman, author of On Killing—describe the boot camp process that comes afterward.

Grossman claims the training is meant to override what he nicknames "the software"—the part of the normal person's midbrain that makes one refuse to kill. Breaking a recruit down is one matter. Putting him back together is another one. "A good soldier is a bad citizen," says nurse Mary Nguyen, meaning that the conditioned reflexes that make a man survive on the battlefield can be deadly in situations of ordinary stress back at home.

How fair and balanced is The Ground Truth? Foulkrod didn't find vets who believed they had done the right thing by sacrificing their limbs or their peace of mind. Iraqi Freedom vet Adrian Delgado claims that polls show that three-fourths of the troops stationed in Iraq want to come home within a year. Hard to believe, since so many of the troops voted for Bush.

Still, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times reported this poll in February 2006; it also claims that 85 percent of those American soldiers surveyed believed that Saddam was responsible for Sept. 11. Some onscreen documentation of the poll would make Foulkrod less liable to the usual accusations of treason. She also doesn't differentiate between the vets complaining about the misery the VA put them through, as opposed to the ones who are genuinely against the war.

The Ground Truth's charges against the VA need to be answered. Waiting periods and time limits keep these walking wounded from getting the help they need. Former Staff Sgt. Jimmy J. Massey claims he was called "a conscientious objector" for trying to get counseling for his own trauma. According to ex–Army Ranger Steve Robinson and others, the new military policy for post-traumatic stress disorder is to treat soldiers while they're enlisted—which means that the burnt-out cases have to make a choice between going home and being treated. The Ground Truth argues that America is facing an enormous post-traumatic stress disorder problem even after these soldiers heal.

Needing something to cut to, Foulkrod chose photo montages and musical breaks ("Live Wire Snap" by Mos Def; "Day After Tomorrow" by Tom Waits). The photos are unanswerable—maimed or burnt children hinting at what these soldiers have witnessed ... or done. By contrast, the music has a doleful, mourning quality that goes against the grain of an angry movie. Mere questions of documentary aesthetics get put aside during a national emergency. The Ground Truth's Delgado's sums up: "If America actually listened to the veterans they claim to honor, things would change."

Movie Times The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends (Unrated; 72 min.), a documentary by Patricia Foulkrod, opens Sept. 15 at the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

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