Canadian screenwriter, Paul Haggis, produced and directed a 2007 film titled In the Valley of Elah. It is a film based on actual events, although names, locations, and certain details have been changed. The film portrays military veteran and father Hank Deerfield, played by Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones, who searches for his lost son, and in the process, uncovers something no father should have to bear. In The Valley of Elah explores topics involving the war in Iraq, post-traumatic stress disorder (also known as PTSD) following military combat, as well as the effects of the PTSD. This film contains numerous references to the biblical account of the Israelite King David prior to taking the throne, involving the epic battle with Goliath, a giant from Gath. The similarities between the film and the life of King David are copious. There are links between David and the film, including intriguing psychological factors evident in the Biblical account and in the film. An examination of PTSD may reveal that the disorder does not excuse the behavior of the soldiers depicted in the film.
Post-traumatic stress disorder has many symptoms, some of which include “Reliving the event through upsetting thoughts, nightmares or flashbacks, or having very strong mental and physical reactions if something reminds the person of the event” (MedicineNet). However, if symptoms of anxiety, dissociation, as well as others are experienced within a one month period after a traumatic event or experience, such as the severe stress and anxiety experienced by people after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, this is known as acute stress disorder, or ASD. When the aforementioned symptoms last for longer than one month, however, then it becomes known as posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In a 2007 study conducted by M.A. Mills, researchers determined that 38-49% of the evacuees of Hurricane Katrina were still at risk of developing PTSD two years after the disaster (116-123). Treatment of PTSD includes psychotherapy as well as the use of drugs in order to control anxiety. PTSD is common among soldiers enlisted in the military, particularly among those having experienced combat. As a result of the war, the rate at which PTSD has developed among military personnel has tripled since 2001 (Smith et al. 366-371).
In the film, Deerfield discovers that his son, Mike, has returned from Iraq, and is AWOL from his base. It seems as if his son has simply vanished. After a bit of investigation, the son’s body is found, charred and dismembered. According to Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post, Deerfield “links it to the culture of war, to the hardening of young men to death, even of their own kind.” Detective Emily Sanders, portrayed by Charlize Theron, aids Deerfield in his quest to find out what happened to his son. After a series of events, it is revealed that three of Mike’s military friends brutally murdered him. The friends became drunk, and after one got into a fight with Mike and continually stabbed him, his remains were burned and tossed in a field. Deerfield attempts to come to terms with what transpired, trying to rationalize why Mike was needlessly slaughtered. As it turns out, videos taken by Mike in Iraq, along with the testimony of his so-called friends, reveal that he ran over a young child, which changed him drastically. Deerfield recalls that his son had once called him in tears, conveying his wish to return home – to which his father essentially told him to stick it out, without inquiring the reason that he wished to return home. While overseas, Mike was driven further, to the point where some of the people captured by him and his friends were tortured, earning him the nickname “Doc.” The friends reasoned that if they did not end Mike’s life soon, he would have ended theirs.
However, the question we then face is whether or not PTSD can be used as an excuse for murder. Surely, the son became involved with drugs as an attempt to cope with the immense stress and anxiety he faced in Iraq, as well as the continual pain he felt at knowing what he had done, and clearly suffered from PTSD. It also seems evident that the other soldiers he had been friends with also suffered from PTSD, yet their reasoning behind the murder of Mike is unjustified. While it could have turned into a kill-or-be-killed match, at the point in which his friends murdered him, Mike had seemingly not expressed such violent tendencies toward them. A behavior is termed a psychological disorder only when it meets certain criteria, such as unusual behavior (i.e., deeply distressed in the absence of stressful life situations), behavior that is against social norms, if the behavior causes the person discomfort or results in an inability to function, or if the behavior causes the person to become dangerous to themselves or others. If Mike fits two or more of these five criteria, then it is likely that he suffered from a psychological disorder. These are generally accepted psychological criteria for determining whether or not an individual has a disorder. The film itself surely bears witness to “the transformation of honorable young men into numbed and tortured souls” (Puig).
Interestingly, some believe that certain psychological disorders were present in King David as well as King Saul who was king before David. The very title of the film, In The Valley of Elah, comes from a phrase found in 1st Samuel 17:2, a verse in the Bible, which says, “Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines” (emphasis added, TNIV). It is also found in 1st Samuel 17:19 and 21:9. The valley of Elah, meaning “the valley of the oak or terebinth,” was near Sokoh and Azekah (1st Samuel 17:1). At Khirbet Qeiyafa, southwest of Elah and Jerusalem, fortifications have been uncovered which date to around 1050-915 BC, around the reign of Saul and David, and the archaeological discoveries made may or may not lend credence to the reign of David (Govier). The biblical account of the fight between David and Goliath is mentioned and hinted at throughout the film. In one scene, Deerfield conveys the account to Detective Sanders’ young son. It is a bit unclear as to why the director chose to title this film In The Valley of Elah, or why there are numerous references to David and Goliath. It could be that perhaps the suggestion of the “big guy versus the little guy” is intended to come off to the audience, or that there are several parallels between the life of David and those involved in it, and the events of the film.
For example, Deerfield discovers that his son has been brutally murdered and burned, and spends a majority of the film attempting to uncover his killers, until they finally come forward, although by this point one had committed suicide. Deerfield had also lost another son in an accident prior to the events of the film. In the biblical account of David’s life, he lost a child with Bathsheba, as a result of his sins: sending Bathsheba’s husband to his death in battle, committing adultery with her, and in a sense, coveting. Soon after Solomon is conceived, and is born to the two. A more fitting parallel is the death of David’s son Absalom. Absalom had rebelled against his father and attempted to overthrow him. While riding a mule, upon meeting David’s men, Absalom’s hair got caught in a tree. Joab, a captain in David’s army, came upon Absalom and, along with ten of his armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and murdered him. Once word reached David, he mourned for his son, despite the fact that Absalom had intended to end his father’s life. While the circumstances are different, both King David and Deerfield had to deal with the death of a child, something no father should have to endure.
In keeping with the argument, as aforementioned, some believe that psychological disorders were present in both King Saul and King David. King David, if the Psalms attributed to him were truly written by him, they demonstrate that he clearly endured periods of major depression. King Saul is believed to have suffered from several mental illnesses and personality disorders. Though his exact symptoms are difficult to determine due to the fact that we can merely perform a case study and not an actual test on the individual, and while psychologists disagree on what he may have had, it is generally agreed that Saul at least suffered from some form of paranoia. Continuously, Saul tried to attack or kill David, believing him to be a threat to his reign or life. More than once David had the opportunity to kill King Saul, but, believing that he was “the Lord’s anointed” (2nd Samuel 1:14), would not go through with killing Saul. Instead, he demonstrated his loyalty to Saul, who seemingly sincerely changed his mind about David to a positive, yet later it reverted to a negative. Some psychologists attribute this to a case of paranoia.
After David had killed Goliath in the valley of Elah, he returned to King Saul, whom he had previously played his harp for, and Saul apparently did not recognize him – although this is disputed. This is another reason why some believe that Saul suffered from some kind of personality or clinical disorder. Concerning the film, it could be argued that Mike’s “friends” suffered from paranoia, believing that if they did not kill him, then he would soon kill them. While they were correct in the notion that Mike clearly had aggressive tendencies toward those in Iraq, aside from a brief fight with one of his friends, Mike did not, to our knowledge, display aggressive tendencies toward his friends. Clearly, while the soldiers had good reason to fear for their lives, it does not justify the taking of that man’s life. It is simply an excuse used to shake off the guilt and responsibility for his death.
As a result of these things, Deerfield mourns, but in his own way. When the sons of King David died, it is recorded that he also had his own way of coping. When his firstborn to Bathsheba came into the world, and David knew the child would not live for long, as 2nd Samuel 12:16 conveys, “David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground.” On the seventh day, the child died (2nd Samuel 12:18). However, when news reaches King David, it is noted that he got up, put on lotions, changed his clothes, worshiped God, then went into his house and ate. His servants were puzzled at this, and inquired why he was not mourning, to which David replied that he had fasted and wept while the child was alive, in the thought that perhaps the child would live, “But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again?” (2nd Samuel 12:23). In like manner, when Deerfield found out that his son died, he did not weep, but coped in his own way. Unlike David, however, Deerfield does not weep or fast in the hope that his son is alive. Both David and Deerfield expressed belief in God, and studies have shown that religion affects coping in specific ways.
According to the American Cancer Society, “People who have a strong religious faith are often comforted by the idea that a higher power is present in their lives. This faith can help them cope with their loss and suffering. It seems that certain religious beliefs can give way for the individual to find meaning in things that otherwise appear to have no meaning or purpose. One example of this is belief in an afterlife, particularly a belief in Heaven. Both Deerfield and King David held beliefs which allowed them to cope better with the death of their sons. At one point, when Deerfield and Detective Sanders talk briefly about the account of David and Goliath, she mentions that it is merely a story, and that he surely could not believe it, to which he replies, “Of course it’s real. It’s even in the Qur’an” (paraphrased). Indeed, Sura 2:251 in the Qur’an (Koran) mentions David and Goliath. It reads, “By God’s will they routed him. David slew Goliath, and God bestowed on him sovereignty and wisdom and taught him what He pleased” (Dawood 37). The film is religiously and politically loaded, but it contains a message to the audience about the horrors of war. As we send our young men and women off to fight for their country, clearly the conditions can be brutal to the point where some of them become psychotic. Peter Rainer of The Christian Science Monitor rightly noted, “There will always be vets who are rendered psychotic by the hazards of war - any war.”
As a final point, it is apparent that in the film, although there certainly was a risk while Mike was alive, this did not excuse his brutal murder at the hands of his alleged friends. William Golding’s beloved novel, Lord of the Flies, demonstrates that in every man there exists a dark persona. Robert Louise Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also exemplify this dark side of mankind, suggesting a type of light and dark duality. As such, each person has it within themselves the ability to commit such unbelievable atrocities, but this does not excuse the taking of another individual’s life simply because risk exists. Risk itself is existent all around us, yet this does not excuse such reckless and aggressive behavior. Having examined the parallels between the life of King David, including (but not limited to) psychological ties, as well as the psychology involved with post-war anxiety, it has been demonstrated that the choice of the three individuals in Haggis’ film is not one driven by post-traumatic stress disorder or other related factors, but by free choice. Anxiety and stress can be difficult to cope with, but stress does not excuse murder. While it may be argued that these soldiers were simply utilizing a type of defense mechanism, they were not truly provoked, and hence are not excused. The film is a clear example of what can happen to those directly involved in combat, and awakens us to the harsh realities of war.
Dawood, N.J., trans. The Koran. 12th ed. London, England: Penguin Books, 2006. 37. Print.
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The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005. Print.