HRAFF Film Review – Beer is Cheaper than Therapy

By Erin Handley

The film opens with scenic, sparse dessert hills and cuts to a haunting image of an Afghan solider looking downcast. Alongside him is a slow-motion image of a young Afghan boy running and spinning his arms, carefree. But in the entire film, these are the only images we see from a warzone. The film instantly cuts to an image of brightly coloured cars, lined up and waiting to drag.

There were 19 confirmed suicides by soldiers assigned to Fort Hood in 2010 … with a total of 55 suicides from 2003 to 2009.

Beer is Cheaper than Therapy doesn’t take the usual path of human rights discussion surrounding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It doesn’t focus on the inhabitants of these countries, but on the American soldiers who invade them. These young men, too, are denied human rights by US military and by the horrors of war. Director Simone de Vries has recognised another, more subtle warzone – Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas.

Thousands of soldiers are trained and then deployed from Fort Hood to either Afghanistan or Iraq. There were 19 confirmed suicides by soldiers assigned to Fort Hood in 2010. This marks the peak of a steady rise in suicides at the military post – with a total of 55 suicides from 2003 to 2009.

A young man addresses the inhabitants of Fort Hood beginning his speech with statistics – over 7000 Fort Hood soldiers are on antidepressants or antipsychotic medication, and counsellors are overwhelmed with more than 4000 patients a month. His words are partially drowned out by the whipping blades of a helicopter.

“In war, there are no unwounded soldiers”.

Beer is Cheaper than Therapy is a documentary-style film that doesn’t use an authorial voiceover to convey a view. Instead, the entire dialogue of the film is made up of interviews with soldiers, their wives or ex-wives, their mothers, as well as Fort Hood locals. The meaning is conveyed all the more effectively – we’re given the view of optimistic soldiers who said they wanted “to jump outta aeroplanes” and “shoot cool guns”, which is repeatedly undercut by jaded returnees from war who are battling depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and alcoholism. Some soldiers now have “nothing good to say about the military”.

One scene depicts dancing, partying and drinking at a bar. The sound is faded out and one soldier’s voiceover says: “I’m 22 years old and I must have killed 30 people. The same thing that you were given badges for over in Iraq would have you considered a serial killer over here, and that’s a very weird thought to have running around in your head.”

One woman interviewed in the film runs an anti-war coffee shop in Killeen that houses soldiers who feel they can’t go home, or who do not want to burden their families. She is the ex-wife of a soldier and has experienced first-hand the strain of war on her family. She felt that after each deployment, her ex-husband returned changed. Her favourite quote is “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers”.

The prevalence of the John Wayne mentality is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of individual soldiers.

This is clear in the example of one man who, although he is extremely proud of going to war, admitted to suffering from chronic PTSD. At the time of his interview, he had just been released from a mental institution. “All the people in that place with me, they were all military”, he said. “Everybody else there except me had tried to kill themselves. I was getting ready to go kill other people.”

Beer is Cheaper than Therapy highlights a major flaw in the treatment of military soldiers. The prevalence of the John Wayne mentality is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of individual soldiers. They are discouraged from showing emotion and are not supposed to admit to feeling upset or sad because “it’s not manly”.

A mother of a soldier who committed suicide in a Subway bathroom says that her son refrained from telling the army that he was having problems because soldiers who admitted this to their superiors were considered “meek and worthless”. When he did tell of his problems, the army “told him he was worthless and that he would never amount to anything”.

In Beer is Cheaper than Therapy, a close-up of a sewing machine sounds like gunfire; the metallic clang of scrap steel being thrown out sounds like isolated gunshots.

Soldiers frequently struggle to readjust to life in America because their wartime experience has left them feeling removed from reality. Many of the soldiers interviewed in Beer is Cheaper than Therapy are on numerous prescription drugs and need to hear gunfire, to shoot bullets, in order to relieve stress.

In Beer is Cheaper than Therapy, a close-up of a sewing machine sounds like gunfire; the metallic clang of scrap steel being thrown out sounds like isolated gunshots. Even the click of keys on a laptop can sound like bullets being fired. In the film, like in Fort Hood, everything is tinged by the military.

“Everybody in the army wants to join the army. Or at least, doesn’t have any other options.”

“If the military post was to shut down, this whole city would die”, one interviewee said. The businesses in Fort Hood are economically dependent on the military and the population of this town views American soldiers as heroes. Fort Hood is decked out in red, write and blue streamers, with signs proclaiming: “Welcome home our heroes” and “We salute our troops”. Many soldiers are kept in economic dependency by the army, too. For many, it’s a job that helps them keep food on the table for their families.

Beer is Cheaper than Therapy does not only focus on the diminished mental state of soldiers during and after their service in a war zone – it also captures the sense of entrapment that is felt by many individuals.

“Our military forces here are the strongest anywhere, because it’s a volunteer army”, one soldier says. “Everybody in the army wants to join the army. Or at least, doesn’t have any other options.”

Some protesters in the film hang a large stenciled sheet, depicting a broken heart. It reads: “Soldiers have the right to heal”.

One soldier tells of his crisis of conscience while serving overseas. “Halfway through my tour I told my unit that I wasn’t willing to kill any human beings. The Sergeant-Major said ‘Ask him this one question: Are you willing to do your job?’” He knew that if he said “no”, he would be considered insubordinate and thrown in jail.

“I came to the conclusion: they’re basically enslaving me here. I have to say yes.”

Some protesters in the film hang a large stenciled sheet, depicting a broken heart. It reads: “Soldiers have the right to heal”. It’s clear from Beer is Cheaper than Therapy that the military are denying their soldiers that right. The image of decrepit American flags fluttering in golden light; the reverberation of isolated guitar notes; the spiralling, tinny sound of a banjo – all this adds to the atmosphere of alienation and dehumanisation that the soldiers face.

This sense of alienation is certainly reflected by one soldier, who was sent home after steel shrapnel from a homemade bomb lodged in his spine. “Once you are wounded, and you’re of no further use to the army, they get rid of you”, he says. The most frustrating thing for him was that his Brigade Commander made his soldiers vulnerable to attack, by insisting that they remove their body armour and weapons, lest they should scratch the Iraqis’ furniture.

“We’re a product”, he says. “They literally use that word in official documents – product. I’m not a cheeseburger. I’m not a pack of cigarettes.”

Beer is Cheaper than Therapy is screening on Tuesday 22 May 2012 at 6:30pm, at Melbourne’s ACMI Cinemas. To purchase tickets, click here.

For more on our coverage of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, click here.

To visit the HRAFF website, click here.

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