BY RABBI HERBERT COHEN / AJT //
I have read many times about post-traumatic stress syndrome as it relates to soldiers coming home after serving in combat, and I understand it intellectually, but it is something very far from my personal experience.
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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.
And now, after watching “Brothers” – a powerful drama about the aftermath of military service – I have an even 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.
The film focuses on Sam Cahill, a solid family man and 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 the latter 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 back Stateside that Sam’s helicopter has crashed, killing all of the Marines aboard; in truth, though, Sam and his childhood friend Joe Willis have been taken captive in a remote mountain village. From this point, the film alternates scenes of Sam’s brutal incarceration with scenes of his family back home, who mourn for Sam and at the same time try to reconstruct their lives without him.
Tommy becomes an anchor to Grace and the children, who see in him a hint of their father and husband. The former convict and his friends even redecorate the family kitchen to give Grace an emotional lift, and a bond develops between Grace, her girls and Tommy as they genuinely mourn for Sam while at the same time create isolated moments of happiness to make the present bearable.
Meanwhile, Sam and Joe are tortured brutally, both physically and mentally, and Sam eventually commits an unspeakable act that goes against his very nature. The psychic residue of that act remains with him when he is rescued and returns home, where his adjustment to normality is even further complicated and involves his relationship with many family members who realize that something has changed within him.
Sam 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.
When it comes to such troubling times, Jewish tradition always guides 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 – the bad will not last forever, and the new moon will appear shortly, signaling that happiness and healing can begin.
Thus, the Jewish message is one of hope, that after tragedy will come joy and redemption, while in “Brothers,” the response is not so clear. Still, 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.
Rabbi Cohen, former principal of Yeshiva Atlanta, now resides in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Visit koshermovies.com for more of his Torah-themed film reviews.