Let There Be Light: The Documentary the Army Suppressed
At the end of the second World War, filmmaker John Huston got a commission from the US Army to produce a documentary of new treatments for psychiatric casualties of the war. This occurred when experimental treatments such as hypnosis or injections of sodium pentothal were being introduced into psychiatric therapy. The army wanted to produce the film to show off these promising new treatments, rather than to illustrate the psychological trauma of soldiers due to what we now recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Huston titled his film Let There Be Light, and it opened with a statistic that likely would have shocked the American public: “About 20% of all battle casualties in the American Army during World War II were of a neuropsychiatric nature.” This statistic is followed by a brief explanation of the film’s intended purpose: “The special treatment methods shown in this film, such as hypnosis and narco-synthesis, have been particularly successful in acute cases, such as battle neurosis. Equal success is not to be expected when dealing with peacetime neuroses which are usually of a chronic nature.”
Even though the psychiatric profession was still years away from naming PTSD, the idea of “battle neurosis” wasn’t exactly new. In World War I, soldiers called it “shell shock.” In the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the term “gross stress reaction” was defined similarly to what the third edition would refer to, not yet hyphenated, as “posttraumatic stress disorder.” But to the wider public, Huston’s “battle neurosis” did not enjoy the ubiquitous acknowledgement that PTSD receives today.
Thus, even though the film was intended to optimistically showcase the new treatments that had not been available to soldiers of previous wars, the initial viewings proved that the audience takeaway was not so positive. Huston unintentionally followed in the footsteps of Upton Sinclair. In writing The Jungle in 1904, Sinclair described the horrid (and fictionalized) conditions of the Chicago meatpacking industry, hoping to inform the American public about the worker’s plight. Instead, he only generated concern about the meat readers were eating, prompting him to famously say “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Huston’s Let There Be Light similarly missed its mark. Instead of documenting the uplifting trend of new treatments for psychiatric casualties of war, he exposed the horrible reality of psychiatric trauma that war imposed on soldiers.
Huston spent two months filming the documentary in the Mason General Hospital. He used “long takes” to film the documentary, making it clear that the soldiers’ recounted experience was not deceptively edited. The soldiers housed at Mason General were, as the documentary’s narrator describes them,
the casualties of the spirit, the troubled in mind. Men who are damaged emotionally. Born and bred in peace, educated to hate war, they were overnight plunged into sudden and terrible situations. Every man has his breaking point. And these, in the fulfillment of their duties as soldiers were forced beyond the limit of human endurance. . . .
Here are men who tremble, men who cannot sleep. Men with pains that are nonetheless real because they are of mental origin. Men who cannot remember. Paralyzed men whose paralysis is dictated by the mind. However different the symptoms, these things they have in common: unceasing fear and apprehension, a sense of impending disaster, a feeling of hopelessness and utter isolation.
For many non-combatants who were aware of the physical injuries of war, this was a new kind of suffering.
But the dramatic narration is not what made the documentary so concerning. The first interview shows a mumbling soldier, smoking a cigarette and never making eye-contact, relating his near-death experience. When the psychiatrist asks “where were you when the planes came over,” the soldier answers, “I was in a hole.” Then he looks up, as if at the planes that had been in the sky at the time, prompting the doctor to ask, “Do you know where you are?” Other soldiers cried as they related their experiences. This was not the portrait of the American soldier that the United States government had been advertising to the public.
The first soldier treated in the film was paralyzed, but with no physical injury to explain it. The narrator explains that he is suffering from a “conversion hysteria,” as he is carried in to the room by two orderlies who have each of his arms draped over their shoulders. His paralysis is, the documentary explains, “purely psychological.” The doctor treated the soldier with Pentothal, experimental and new at the time of the film, while a psychiatrist talked to him about his battlefield experience. The treatment worked, and the soldier walked, though the narrator qualifies the scene by saying that “the fact that he can walk now does not mean that his neurosis has been cured.” Instead of providing audiences with good feelings about the new treatment methods, the scene compelled people to ask what horrors, exactly, were young men going through to trigger psychosomatic paralysis in the first place?
Another soldier suffered from amnesia. The narrator explains, “This man does not even remember his own name. A shell burst in Okinawa wiped out his memory. The experience was unendurable to his conscious mind, which rejected it, and along with it, his entire past.” This time, the doctor treated him with hypnosis, another experimental treatment that some psychiatrists had recently started to employ. After putting the soldier into a hypnotic sleep, the doctor prompted him to speak about the experience in Okinawa. The soldier trembled visibly as he related the battlefield horror that triggered the amnesia. When he was pulled out of the hypnosis, the documentary shows that the treatment worked: “Under the guidance of the psychiatrist, he is able to regard his experience in its true perspective as a thing of the past, which no longer threatens his safety. Now he can remember.” Again, instead of viewing this scene as a hopeful demonstration of new treatment, audiences wondered what hell could produce such psychological trauma to begin with.
The third and final treatment demonstrated in the film was given to a patient with a severe stutter. He did not stutter before facing combat in France. Like the paralyzed patient, he was treated with Pentothal, and afterwards he became emotional from the success. “I can talk. I can talk! I can talk! Listen, I can talk! Oh God, listen, I can talk!” he yelled, as the doctor tried to ask questions. When he finally calmed down, he was able to recount his experience facing German artillery, which he came to associate with the “ss” sound, leading to the development of his debilitating stutter.
The soldier’s joy at the successful treatment did not explain, for audiences unfamiliar with such psychological phenomena, how such a problem could manifest. In all three cases of treatment, Huston believed he was showing the world the tremendous breakthroughs of psychiatric medicine, but instead, he showcased the horrors of war, without even having to visit a battlefield. The documentary ends with uplifting scenes from treated soldiers kissing their wives and enjoying a game of baseball, but these were not the images that viewers kept with them. Instead, they remembered the psychosomatically paralyzed soldier being carried into a room, the trembling amnesiac, and the incommunicable stuttering of a psychologically damaged man.
Few people saw the film before the army decided to prohibit Huston from making it available to the public. The justification was that the film was a violation of soldiers’ privacy, but this was a ridiculously flimsy claim. Not only did the army not concern itself with soldier privacy when it commissioned the documentary, but the soldiers themselves were knowingly and consensually filmed. Huston, for his part, never bought the army’s excuse. In his autobiography, An Open Book, he said “I think it boils down to the fact that they wanted to maintain the ‘warrior’ myth, which said that our Americans went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience, standing tall and proud for having served their country well.”
Huston’s film was not the only such source of information that was kept from the public. Roy Spiegel and John Grinker’s breakthrough study Men Under Stress, which also looked at the psychological consequences of war, was allowed to circulate only among military psychiatrists and lawmakers for years, with original copies stamped “Secret” by army archivists, before it was eventually allowed to be published for the public.
PTSD was first given its modern name in 1978. After World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam, the psychological trauma of war had become increasingly visible to the public, and with it, the military was taking heat for allegedly ignoring the problem. In 1980, vice-president Walter Mondale gave the order to allow the public release of Let There Be Light, but with modern advances in filmmaking technology and the expanding knowledge of PTSD, the documentary did not have the powerful effect it had in the 1940s, when it was originally produced. How much of an effect Huston’s documentary would have had on the public support for the wars in Korea and Vietnam remains only a matter of historical conjecture.