The Incredible Story of a Marine and his Opera
I received one of the assignments of my career in 2012. 20 years in freelancing. Hundreds and hundreds of published pieces in great magazines. And I finally got my first commission from Harpers.
That was a big deal to me. And the story was big too. It was about a Marine vet named Christian Ellis. This guy had fought both battles of Fallujah and come home with PTSD. But through crazy good fortune, he’d been paired up with a composer and a librettist and had written an opera about his experience.
I pitched Harpers. They took it. And off I went on the most curious, captivating, challenging and ultimately frustrating assignments of my career to that point.
I left it all on the field writing that one, let me tell you. Hours and hours spent with Ellis on the phone, as well as visiting with him in Los Angeles and DC. A couple dozen other interviews with VA doctors, veterans activists and opera people. I read up on PTSD and asymmetrical combat zones, looked at battle diagrams from Fallujah. And by the end of all that, I’d learned two enormous truths.
First, writing your very best stuff as a freelancer doesn’t all pan out to publication. Harpers spiked the piece after editing my second draft. Reason: a regular Harpers contributor had a PTSD piece spiked at at a different magazine. And they were stepping in to cover for him and letting my piece go.
That hurt after a year’s work. But it didn’t hurt like what followed. I shopped the story everywhere after that: the New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic. No dice. And a similar thing was said by most of the editors to whom I spoke about it. Great writing, they said. But there’s just too much PTSD coverage out there. The story is played.
What killed me about that particular response has nothing to do with writing pride. It has everything to do with the second truth I’d uncovered: that PTSD was in fact the wrong diagnosis in a vast number of cases. There was very different problems at play with these many wounded warriors. And that very different problem stemmed both from what had happen to veterans in combat and what happened to them when they got home.
If you’re saying PTSD is a played story, in other words, you’re part of Ellis’s problem, part of the burning dark heart of the opera that his life had inspired.
Here’s that whole story, as it was told to me by a man I was honored to meet. Thank you sincerely, Christian. And thank you for your service.
By Timothy Taylor
For only a single, very brief moment in the new opera Fallujah, two characters hold precisely the same note while singing subtly different words. It wouldn’t be much of an innovation, musically speaking—unity and difference at play—were it not for the characters and the story involved. That two-bar high-G in Fallujah is held between two mothers whose sons met during the bloody fighting that took place in that city during the Iraq War. Colleen is American and Shatha is Iraqi. And in their fleeting moment of unison, the women shape a telling juxtaposition. Colleen sits in agony outside a VA hospital room, where her son Philip, a PTSD-diagnosed Marine veteran convalescing after a suicide attempt, refuses to see her. Shatha, still in Iraq and still in the terrible moment that brought about Philip’s psychiatric injury, grieves her own son Wissam who died at the marine’s own hand.
“It hurt him to be mine,” Shatha sings. “It hurts him to be mine,” Colleen sings.
Here the opera – an unusual item itself for being the first about the Iraq War – captures in a single note the deeply troubling legacy of contemporary wars in which technology and improvisational combat theaters combine in an ever more volatile ways to provide for the death of innocents, and which seem as a result ever more likely to psychiatrically injure combatants such that they may wish they had not survived. Half a million psychiatric injuries are estimated to exist now among the 2.4 million who’ve served since 9/11. There’s the frightening number you’ll hear from veterans’ advocacy groups. But Fallujah would have us realize that these injuries are not just a concern to service people, nor are they understood well enough to be treated reliably at all. In the ringing aftermath of war, Fallujah illustrates that we all wait anxiously outside the door of the treatment room, affected and infected, grieving and confused.
The drama in Fallujah lives, then, at the fraught intersection of a veteran’s horrifying experience and the perplexed culture to which he returns. And it was no surprise when I met the man who inspired the opera, and crucially the character Philip, to learn that he knew this territory excruciatingly well. Christian Ellis, now 29 years old, was a Marine machine gunner, a sergeant who fought in both 2004 battles in Fallujah and came home tormented by what he’d seen and done. Before the opera took shape, he’d fallen far. He’d been diagnosed with PTSD. He’d attempted suicide and been estranged from his parents. He’d had a run-in with the law after breaking the arm of a grocery store clerk who approached him from behind with his change. At a critical low point, he’d lost his most important relationship after almost strangling his boyfriend to death in a nightmare-fueled sleep-walking rage. Ellis was down to last chances when he signed up for a fly-fishing retreat in Idaho sponsored by Explore.org, the charitable foundation of billionaire philanthropist Charles Annenberg Weingarten. There, sitting on the bank of a stream on the last day of the retreat talking about what they’d all dreamed of doing as kids, Weingarten turned to Ellis for an answer. The young veteran said without hesitation that he’d always wanted to sing opera.
Billionaires have billionaire ways. Weingarten didn’t know anything about opera. But he liked the young man sitting next to him there. And the idea flowered in the moment.
“They all called me the Dude, like Lebowski,” Weingarten says, remembering the moment and sounding quite a lot like the Coen brothers character as he speaks from his office off the Santa Monica boardwalk. “And I’m like: Dude has an idea. This is going to sound crazy but… let’s do an opera on the war in Iraq! Modern day war, foreign soil, machine gunners, everyone dying. My god it was Opera 101!”
Weingarten would go on to fund the making of Fallujah to the tune of around $350K, drawing in composer Tobin Stokes, Iraqi/American playwright Heather Raffo, and City Opera Vancouver to carry the commission. In Los Angeles, where we meet for the first time, Ellis impresses me as the kind of person who could inspire in this way. But our conversation also convinces me that what unfolds onstage during the opera – that turbulent 90 minute storm of orchestra and voice that evokes an opening vortex around the perilous rim of which the audience understands itself to be spinning – originated in some intrinsic way in the experience of a single man, the steps he took, the days he lived, the deepening and darkening events of which he was both author and subject.
“Christian?” I lean into the window of the black model Grand Am, scuffed and worn, conspicuous in valet parking at the glam Beverly Hilton where it’s Jag after Bentley after Porsche.
“Yeah man,” he says. “Get in.”
We’ve spoken on the phone several times at this point, I know the voice: musical, yes. Sensitive, delicate even. They called him “pretty boy” in the Corps not because he was gay, but knowing he was gay and not caring, protecting their own. Plus, “pretty boy” contrasted well with the professional Ellis: machine gunner in a Combined Anti-Armor (CAAT) platoon on react duty in the most dangerous city in Iraq, the job code and coordinates of an undisputed badass.
Welterweight, I think. Good looking, ripped. Torn jeans and a sleeveless black t-shirt with flames and illegible script, some font where the letters look like blades. He has tribal tattoos from his shoulders to his forearms and a ball cap with a frayed brim pulled low. He looks at me a certain way I’ll get to know, smiling but so wary his eyes are almost closed. I climb in and shake the hand of the man who served three tours, then came home wracked by grief and guilt, sitting with his back to walls in restaurants when he had the energy to go out at all, scanning for hostiles and avenues of egress, objects that might be used as weapons.
We drive to Tavern restaurant on San Vincente Boulevard, across the freeway in toney Brentwood. The menu sports artisanal cheese and halibut with white-corn succotash. Ellis orders a burger, Jack and Coke. We talk about the 50 cal, how to traverse and sight one off the back of a moving Humvee, the most important qualities a machine gunner can have: knowing the terrain, dialing the area topo-map into your head so you can site any spot on it from a thousand yards and unload in a hurry.
“I look around me,” he says, when we get to veteran life. “I see how they look at me. The tattoos, the jeans… And nobody here would imagine that I could sing opera.”
From an early age, too. He sang beautifully in the shower, his adoptive mother remembers though the demons were dark and plentiful. Born to a drug-addicted prostitute in Philadelphia, Ellis spent time in thirteen different foster homes during his early childhood, over the long course of which he says he was “raped, molested, homeless, starved…” Michelle Ellis rescued him out of an orphanage and adopted him when he was eight. A Christian, morally rigorous family, the Ellises cared for their adopted son until he left home at nineteen, messed up in complex and individual ways: a meth-dabbling rebel with a secret taste for men, enrolled at Liberty University where no number of Friday addresses by Jerry Falwell were going to change what was going on inside.
“Why don’t you enlist?”
Sometimes a question posed by your mother comes preloaded with an answer. Ellis had graduated with a degree in forensic psychology and voice performance, but no job prospects. He was living with his grandparents in a Phoenix seniors community. He considered his mother’s question and decided if you’re going to serve, then do the hardest service imaginable.
Of course he made mistakes and got screamed at like any other boot. But he was just like any boot in other ways too, disappearing out of himself and into that bigger collective thing: The Corps. “When we suffered together, we got tighter.” And nobody cared if you were black or white or blue or gay, Republican or Democrat. “None of us cared. Nobody gave a shit, pardon my language, but we didn’t. We experienced joy together and we suffered together, and we also knew we had to work together.”
Which is an inner truth of service, right there: all in-unit belonging was motivated by that holy work, which lived beyond any individual pride or ambition and which was girded with an iron sense of righteousness too. Good guys and bad guys. That was the language used. Ellis responded to the hardened sense of common calling. Discipline is the instant willing obedience to all orders, respect for authority and teamwork. You don’t join the Marine Corps, you convert. And Ellis was inwardly and outwardly transformed, something he illustrates by saying: “We were trained to enjoy going into danger. We were trained that if there was an explosion, you didn’t run away, you went directly towards it. That’s what marines do.”
And when his religious adoptive father saw Ellis parading behind the Brigadier General on graduation, the color bearer for his training regiment, all disagreement was suspended and the father smiled on the son. Six months later, Ellis senior, suffering from a rare brain cancer, would tell Ellis on his deployment to Iraq: “Don’t come home if I die. Your mother will be taken care of and your comrades need you.” And the young Ellis felt a connection with this man that he’d never felt prior, a handshake sealing a shared ethos between them, the possibility of higher purpose.
Our Tavern lunch arrives, burgers, another Jack and Coke. The waiter hovers, tending to Ellis who smiles and says thanks and betrays a gentleness of which he may be unaware. “He can be very charming,” Heather Raffo, Fallujah’s librettist has told me, not intending this as a caution, but betraying that the charm lies over deeper chasms, hidden agonies. Ellis eats and sighs appreciatively. “This is great.”
He became a “Professional” just after Labour Day 2003. Second battalion, First Marines, Pendleton, California. Part of “The Old Breed”: Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa, Inchon, Choisin Reservoir, Vietnam, OEF, OIF. The 2/1 Professionals have been active in sixty-four of the past ninety years, including almost twenty continuous years since September 1994. Ellis, who had proven his marksmanship with the M16 and his moxie by correcting a weaponry instructor on the correct range of the 50-calibre machine gun, was assigned to Weapons Company, CAAT platoon. Six months later he was standing on the choking white desert of Kuwait, staggered by the heat, by the engine of military industry churning around him. They were outside of the city of Fallujah in a week.
2/1’s CAAT platoon was tasked with running recon missions to find the hotspots. Ellis recalls the moment it got real, the thin whine of a bullet passing his ear as he sat in the 50 cal turret. “I remember thinking: someone just tried to kill me.” From that moment onward, between recon mission and react calls to support infantry units, mortar attacks and the ongoing danger of IEDs and suicide bombers, Ellis says his head was constantly “on the swivel”, his vigilance level permanently raised. Fear taught the body, and it was a good thing too if you planned on living.
Recon. React. Mount up became the dreaded words. “We’d be in our hooches after a fifteen-hour patrol, just thrown off our sweaty clothes and heavy gear. We’re in our skivvies and laying down… The two most horrible words any CAAT marine can hear.” Mount up! On your feet. Get dressed. Clean and load the weapons, gas the vehicles, gear check. Then go out and have someone fire RPGs at you, a hissing sound Ellis winces remembering.
And then, on March 31, 2004 four contractors working for Blackwater took a shortcut through the Fallujah. They were ambushed, killed, burned and dismembered, the four bodies hung from “Brooklyn Bridge” just south of 2/1’s position off the Jolan District of Fallujah. The Jolan Graveyard, as it was sometimes known. Mount up! Ellis and the CAAT platoon responded to the call, but by the time they were rolling the four men were dead and on television already.
In the opera the soldiers sing: Burnt, like charcoal! Dragged through the street! And the one named Rocks adds in a deathly undertone: This place makes me hate more every day.
Ellis sits silently remembering the blackened bodies of dead Americans, the jeering crowds. “Rage,” he says. “I remember thinking: there’s the enemy. And man, woman and child, they will die.”
Of course, revenge is never as cathartic as rage allows us to anticipate. Just before the first invasion of Fallujah in April 2004, Ellis was brought to the first of his own war’s deadly pivot points. Checkpoint 77, north of the city. A country road with livestock and greenery and eerily no one around. They hit the ambush without ever seeing the shooters. They took casualties and called in the F-18s. Trapped, they set up a perimeter and road blocks. It didn’t take 30 minutes for a car to appear, an ordinary sedan coming on through the chicanes and razor wire, ignoring the hand gestures, the orders to stop shouted in Arabic. Into the kill zone and Sgt. Ellis did as the health of the unit demanded. He emptied an M16 clip through the windshield.
Remembering doesn’t get easier despite remembering every day, every morning, every night, every hour. “We did the dead check,” he says, voice faint. “And what I saw when I looked into the car destroyed my life, literally on a daily basis it’s fucked up my world.”
A father and a mother. Two little boys, five or six years old.
We don’t talk for a while. Ellis needs air. We take a break and drive back to the hotel. Ellis sits in the lobby, looking away from me. But I can see he wants to finish for me to appreciate the arc of the story downwards toward despair. After the first aborted invasion, Ellis recalls a tense intermission in Fallujah during which 2/1 did recon and patrolled the perimeter of the city. At camp he befriended a local boy named Wissam, fourteen years old, who sold the marines DVDs. He introduced himself to Ellis one day by writing his name on Ellis’s palm. In the opera, after doing the same, Wissam inquires of the character Philip what his name might mean, saying: Your mother named you to mean something.
“A good kid. The kind of kid who would have been popular in high school.” Ellis recalls this now but not with a smile because only a few weeks later the boy was killed, his throat slit by the Mujahadeen for fraternizing with Marines.
Spiralling, descending. Ellis and his friends listened to Drowning Pool’s album Let the Bodies Hit the Floor. They listened to themselves laughing hysterically in a PsyOps recording intended to be played at eardrum-cracking volumes through speakers aimed at the enemy. His best friend stepped on a mine outside an Iraqi Coalition Defense Force station as Ellis looked on. “Nothing but pink mist and a memory,” Ellis says, who registered in the ringing aftermath that pieces of his friend’s brain were in his own mouth. And no respite or catharsis following the event, either. Hardly time for a deep breath. Days later, twenty marines from Fox Company died when a vehicle borne IED was detonated next to their seven ton. Ellis breaks down remembering after hours of stoic retelling. “I remember seeing torsos, dismembered heads, arms, legs…. images I never thought I’d have to see. The smell was horrendous, burning bomb chemicals, gasoline, human flesh.” Ellis remembers picking up the half-torso of a dead Marine. “Unimaginable,” he whispers, but we both know he can only wish that were so.
And with these events, Ellis says, the hate was resealed in them. He re-upped to 3/1 (the “Thundering Third”) for the second invasion in November 2004 because he already knew the Jolan territory they’d been tasked with. He had a fractured vertebrae but refused to stay in the hospital. The marines punched into the city from the north, combat bulldozers levelling houses as they went. 1,200 to 1,500 insurgents were killed according to official estimates. Rules of engagement? Ellis says dryly: “unload and show clear”, short hand for empty every clip until there are no more. But if Ellis’s Iraq proved anything it’s that we never reach this point in war anymore. There are always more clips, always three more bullets to fire as you’ve been relentlessly trained: two to the body, one to the head.
Ellis put his final trio of bullets—not his last certainly, but the last he seems to remember—into the body of a nine-year-old boy who walked toward their checkpoint in Jolan with his hands held in front of him and his eyes serenely closed.
Philip sings: He’s got something. He’s cupping his hands. What’s he got in his hands? His hands!!
“Could you kill a child?” Ellis asks me.
We stare at one another awhile here, but we both know the complicated truth. He was over there while I was at home. And yet people like me make up the home to which everyone in Ellis’s position is asked to return. “Could you kill a child,” he says again, less a question than a statement addressed to the Beverly Hilton lobby: plush cream carpets, hanging lights, the glint of chrome and steel, gold and marble.
The boy crossed into the kill zone, ignoring calls to stop. Ellis could see that he appeared to be holding something. “I had the best line of sight so I took the shot. I didn’t hesitate.” Two to the body, one to the head. Probably the Muj making videos to feed Al Jazeera and prove Marines were baby killers. But did their reasons matter now?
The dead check revealed the boy had nothing on him.
After you learn all Ellis has been through, it’s tempting to see his encounter with Weingarten as something in the order of miraculous. And that moment on the bank of the stream in Idaho certainly turned things radically around for Ellis. One day he’s a PTSD-diagnosed veteran whose life is crumbling around him and the next, almost literally, he’s signed up for singing lessons with award-winning counter-tenor Brian Asawa and an opera is being written and composed based on his life. And for the world of opera, Fallujah moved incredibly fast, something for which Weingarten’s financing provided. Ellis travelled to New York to spend time with Raffo as she prepared the libretto. He consulted with Stokes as he prepared the score, sharing his Iraq playlists (yes, including Drowning Pool). Annenberg’s budget even included financing for the making of a documentary about the process for screening online by Vancouver filmmaker John Bolton.
“It was beyond anything I’ve seen in my professional life,” Charles Barber, director of City Opera Vancouver tells me, who’s been making operas for 25 years.
And yet by the time I meet Ellis in Los Angeles, he still has no meaningful work. He’s isolated, living alone in Van Nuys. No friends, he says, a situation hard to rectify since he rarely goes out. “You wouldn’t believe the energy it took me just to come down here to talk to you,” he tells me, eyes narrowed almost to the point of closing, hat brim pulled down low. He’s depressed, he says. He’s taking mirtazapine which exhausts him but which he needs to get out of the house.
Part of this behaviour is the PTSD, but talking to Ellis you quickly sense that there’s more. Clinically defined, PTSD is the produce of danger-driven trauma. Combat puts your head “on the swivel”, as Ellis has put it, and your agitated neurons eventually rewire to speed up fight-or-flight responses. Dr. Jonathan Shay, a retired VA psychiatrist who worked for 20 years with veterans suffering from a range of stress related injuries, describes PTSD as a “battlefield adaptation” that creates problems when they can’t be turned off. But when total numbers are discussed – over half a million people suffering from stress injuries among the 2.4 million who’ve served since 9/11 – a crucial take-away is that clinical PTSD cannot explain all these cases or symptoms because so many veterans cannot trace the onset of their problems—with jobs and relationships, with depression—to traumatic experiences that stemmed from danger. Ellis himself, in the harrowing experiences he describes to me and in those attributed to the character in Fallujah that he inspired, seems hardly to rate danger even though it’s an obvious part of the job sitting in a machine gun turret in a live-fire zone. What Ellis returns to again and again instead are situations of when combat pushes combatants into betraying their values.
“I personally believe that it’s against human nature to kill,” Ellis told me in our very first conversation. But when you’re trained to react immediately and protect your buddies in volatile situations, you do what you need to survive. “Unfortunately, when you’re taken out of that environment, it’s hard to come to terms with.”
Dr. Shay is so convinced of the capacity for injury beyond PTSD that he coined the term “moral injury” to describe what Ellis and so many others seem to be suffering. It’s a term now used by a growing body of researchers and one that resonates with veterans I interview as well. Zachary Iscol was Ellis’s Executive Officer in 3/1 Weapons Company during the second invasion of Fallujah, a time during which an elderly man who merely had “bad eyes and bad brakes” drove at their barricade and was shot dead.
“Nobody signs up to be the person who takes the life of someone’s father at a checkpoint,” Iscol tells me. But it happened. And the result wasn’t hyper-vigilance. “Shame and guilt about the decisions made,” he says instead. “And grief. Traumatic amounts of grief.”
Dr. William Nash, who served as a psychiatrist with the Marines in Fallujah at the same time as Iscol and Ellis, tells me that marine after marine told him similar stories during his tour. Whether they’d done something or failed to do something, “the common theme was the feeling that they failed to live up to their own ethos.”
If this is hell for soldiers and Marines – like Ellis, who twists in his chair recounting these events – it’s starting to suggest another kind of impending hell for treatment professionals, who understand that moral injury is a much thornier and longer term problem than PTSD, which at least has established therapies to desensitize the impact of particular triggers: loud noises, open spaces, people approaching them from behind. The person who has breached their own moral code—as Ellis feels he has done in those checkpoint killings as well as in failing to save his buddy who stepped on the mine – experiences what Shay describes as “betrayal” which contributes to a destruction of the capacity for trust.
“And that is a catastrophe,” Shay says. “The destruction of trust is like cancer of the soul because what replaces trust is not a vacuum but the expectation of harm, exploitation and humiliation from other people and institutions.” People in this position are isolated, which adds to despair. And here we drive through to the darker side of the discussion, where the life of so many veterans are actually lived in the balance. Ellis had survived four suicide attempts before finding himself sitting on the bank of a stream chatting with Weingarten about opera. But a staggering number of service members and veterans do not survive their suicide attempts. The VA estimates that since 9/11 approximately 22 veterans a day have killed themselves. Among active service members, Philip Carter at the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) tells me that 3,600 troops have suicide over the same period, roughly the same number as have been lost to IEDs. Concern at senior levels of the military is unprecedented, Carter says, both due to worries about military readiness and the ethos that no service member be left behind. “Generals I know take this very seriously,” Carter tells me. “A military suicide is a personal loss, a defeat.”
The possibility that this problem might be structural, then, is deeply troubling. But both Ellis’s experience and mounting research make it hard not to reach that conclusion. In a policy brief called Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide, CNAS researchers explain how three protective factors typically prevent people from suiciding in moments of despair: belonging, usefulness, and the fear of death. But as Ellis’s own experience chillingly illustrates, military service amplifies the first two while silencing the third. Trained to run towards explosions, to defend buddies as if their injuries would be his own, Ellis felt intense belonging and usefulness while in uniform. He re-upped to 3/1 because he knew the Jolan terrain and, despite having a broken back, knew that his contribution would be invaluable to the new unit.
Civilian life in the consumerist west is famously less affirming and Ellis is living this drama too. His collaboration with Raffo and Stokes gave him purpose and a profound sense of usefulness. He was flying to New York. He was being interviewed by the press and filmed for the documentary. The process was extraordinary by any standards.
“Nobody makes a film about a workshop, I can tell you that,” Heather Raffo says. “And nobody films a workshop and then puts the film on the internet and then has their press guys out there to get massive amounts of press.”
Fallujah and Ellis got massive press. And by the time the workshop had its filmed performance in Vancouver in May 2012, the house jammed with invited guests and military friends and visitors, it was to Ellis like a dream come true. He wept. And then it was over and the longer and slower part of the process began, contacting prospective opera houses, further fine-tuning and workshopping, a process that in opera can take literally years. Ellis no longer had a role.
“For a while this opera was the most amazing thing in my life,” Ellis tells me. “And then the contract for my employment ended and… I’ve been the worst in my life that I’ve ever been in terms of depression.”
300 resumes. That’s what the job application count is at. One call back. No job offer. Ellis hit a low point when he didn’t get a call back on a job posting for a janitor. He hit an even lower point when a prospective room-mate cheated him out of his half of a damage deposit which left him broke and living in his car, something he did for a month.
Belonging? Usefulness? Ellis found these operatically compromised, you could say. And with his fear of death long trained out of him, he was completely exposed, stripped free of protective layering just as despair came calling in the form of dreams and day-mares about a family of four, the body of an unarmed nine year old in the street of Jolan.
This understanding of Ellis situation is crucial in that it situates his struggle at the intersection of service and society. Moral injury isn’t a military problem but a cultural one. The affected service member or veteran is suspended in the chasm between military and civilian values, and there’s strong evidence to suggest that chasm is widening as both combat and western cultures evolve.
Combat, simply put, is getting harder on people. Of course no veteran will ever describe their own combat experience as more difficult than anybody else’s in history. But Marine Lt Colonel Dave Grossman, in his book On Combat, argues that the constancy, ubiquity and intensity of combat violence has radically increased over history. “Fighting all day and all night for months on end is a twentieth century phenomenon,” he notes, going on to estimate that if combat in a contemporary theater were to be continuous for sixty days, 98 percent of service members involved will become psychiatric casualties of one kind or another.
Worsening the situation is a factor Nash refers to as the “dimensionality” of contemporary combat, stemming from the reality of counter-insurgency, where the hand of friendship must be extended despite the enemy being indistinguishable from friends and civilians (and all three categories in Iraq proving fluid). Ellis himself remembers General James Mattis instructing them before the first invasion of Fallujah: “Suspect everyone is a terrorist but don’t treat them like one.” This is humane guidance, assuredly, measured against Abbot Amalric’s pep-talk to his retinue before 1209 Sack of Bezier at the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade: “Kill them all, God will know his own.” But the more victim-sensitive approach of our era is being applied on a confused and uncertain battlefield where in virtually any moment of engagement there is an elevated likelihood that a soldier or marine will kill a civilian, breaching the quasi-religious sanction that military culture holds against this practice and exposing the service member to potentially life-changing after-effects.
Problematically, it isn’t necessarily possible to mitigate the rising potential for moral injury with training or leadership. In fact, the reverse may be paradoxically true. The more effectively a unit is fused, the more embedded the individual identities are in the collective meaning and purpose, the more grievous will be the trauma experienced at the loss of one of its members. Fallujah’s preoccupation with mothers is telling here as it reflects Raffo’s dawning awareness in her own research of the true bond between combat comrades.
“They don’t brother each other,” she says to me. “They mother each other.”
And the grief they feel on the loss of comrades, Nash says, is commensurate. “It’s something I’d really only previously seen in parents who’d lost children. It’s an impossible grief.”
As for the risk of killing a civilian, effective leadership can lend its expertise to avoiding this outcome. But it can’t help contributing to it simultaneously. Grossman’s analysis of effective leadership and training characterizes them as “psychological weapons”, used to elicit combat behaviours that contribute to victory. In a famous example, “fire rates”—the percentage of shooting opportunities resulting in a shot being taken—are reported by some studies to have risen due to leadership and training techniques from as low as 20 percent during World War Two to over 90 percent today. What is mission critical to combat, however, doesn’t necessarily cater to mental health post-combat. Ellis now lives with the after-effects of having had these psychological weapons applied in his own training. He was a better marine for their application. He was better able to do what society demands a marine to do. But on his return to that same civilian society, Ellis found himself in possession of a self-knowledge that is a significant part of his torment.
“Whether you’re family or friend,” he tells me on the topic of following orders, pulling the trigger, and defending his unit even at the risk of mistakes and moral injury, “I’ll take you out. In the moment, I would do what I had to do. And knowing that has become more of a curse than a blessing.”
The blessing is the degree to which that mental conditioning allowed him to serve the unit’s common good. The curse is that civilian society is less able than ever to synchronize with those values and less able to reabsorb veterans as a result. Society is the context in which service is undertaken. And if combat has more likely to psychiatrically injure, society has changed too in ways that make it an ever more difficult site of recovery and healing. The Abbot Almaric’s directions now seem perverse, but nobody under his command would have been able to express misgivings in terms of the potential for moral injury because the loosening of social hierarchies and power structures in the West such that individual dignity and enfranchisement would have real meaning was hundreds of years in the future. And it would only be in recent times that social conditions would provide for ongoing, widespread and public disagreement about the prosecution of the nation’s wars, a situation now so established in the United States—no war of the past half century having been truly “popular”—that it should be considered healthy and normal.
To be curious, to question, and to disagree are modern civilian capacities. Immediate and willing obedience remains the requirement of military service. Between them grows a gap and its relative recency is a defining feature of it.
“The social context has evolved greatly,” Philip Carter tells me, speaking of what he refers to as the civil-military divide. Part of that is the result of participation rates, which have fallen to less than one percent of the population. The bigger part is mindset, to the point that Carter will tell me: “There’s now little connective tissue remaining between those who serve and the society they serve.”
The ultimate evidence of that loss of connective tissue, Carter says, is a dichotomy that has emerged in the national conversation about military service. “That dichotomy paints all troops as victims or all troops as heroes,” he says. “Neither is true and both are harmful in different ways.”
Carter’s framing of the divide is powerful, and should be troubling for those concerned with veterans’ health and the efficacy of the service-society partnership, because it cuts to the fundamental discontinuity of values that has grown over time between those two broad entities. Troops dislike the word hero and they hate the word victim. These are quintessentially modern civilian concepts, dependent on a politics of individual recognition and individual rights, and therefore hostile respectively to the indispensable military values of duty and sacrifice. To be a good service member means embracing a self-conception that the society you serve has steadily eradicated in its laudable pursuit of rights and freedoms, while at the same time being tasked with protecting a civilian self-conception that your own service will demand you to put aside. That is the wide and disorienting space in which the potential for moral injury becomes radically magnified. It’s also the paradox to which every stress-injured veteran returns.
The remedy isn’t obvious to anyone I speak to about it. But healing is almost always characterized as a process that must involve both service members and civilians. That one percent who serve do so on behalf of the ninety-nine who don’t, however insulated, estranged and distracted the ninety-nine may have become. “The miasma, the moral stain of war used to be something that the whole population felt the responsibility for cleansing,” Nash says. “It isn’t like that here, nor anywhere else in the West as far as I know.”
“Every society known to anthropology and history had rituals for returning soldiers,” Shay says, noting these always involved civilians. “In my view we all need to clean ourselves up after war.”
Perhaps Fallujah can contribute to such a process. For Ellis, it did at least provide for a temporary atonement. He wept at the staged workshop in Vancouver “not only because of how it sounded, but because these were characters I knew, singing back to me.”
Characters restored to life, in other words: Wissam, a best friend, a boy at a checkpoint and a family of four. Christian Ellis too, alive again and redeemed. And for as long as it took the stunned applause in the theater to fade and for the cameras to stop rolling, Ellis might have claimed a kind of healing. But the applause did fade and the cameras did stop rolling. And service and society continued their silent drift ever further out of mutual reach, Ellis in the chasm between and falling fast.
“I’m an actress,” says Raffo, who has watched Ellis buffeted by the ebb and flow of attention swirling around Fallujah. “And for a really grounded person who’s used to dealing with it every day… it’s still hard. You put someone in the middle of the fire for whom am-I-worthy is their crux issue…”
Her voice trails off but we both know where the sentence is going. We’ve both heard Ellis at highs and lows: one month talking about producing Fallujah for LA Opera with the help of a friend, the next month withdrawing from the opera entirely. At one point I get an email from him indicating that the opera has ruined his life. He loses his car eventually. He loses his apartment. He announces plans to re-recruit with the Marines but his cause for release prevents it despite his stellar ratings. Our last conversation in Los Angeles is in a Mexican restaurant in the Sherman Oaks gallery, we eat carne asada. Ellis sips a Jack and Coke. The afternoon shadows lengthen and Ellis tells me something I’ve sensed lingering in the unsaid.
“I created it, but it’s not my project,” he says. “I’m trying. I’m not giving up. I don’t give up. But there are days I feel like I want to and that’s when I’ve tried suicide.”
So we arrive at the point where Ellis’s bid for recovery has brought him, despite his progress all the way from the horror of Fallujah to the wavering beauty and truth of Fallujah. He remembers swallowing a handful of pills and laying on the bed. He remembers drowsiness, things shutting down. He remembers his dog jumping up next to him, putting a paw on his chest and starting to whimper. Just enough to pull him back. Ellis phoned for an ambulance and had himself committed. He stayed in hospital for two weeks.
He sits back in the chair at the restaurant telling me this. The galleria is swarming with shoppers behind him. He’s looking at me from under the brim of that hat with the frayed brim. His eyes are open wider than before, but only very slightly.
In Fallujah, The Mothers’ Duet poignantly captures the interwoven tragedies of traumatic loss and moral injury and shows them to bridge the difference between friend and enemy. But after that moment, unison does not return. There is instead, in the narrative and musical unfolding of the opera, a darkening, a sense of ongoing crisis. Philip sings to the transformations of war, the remaking of the civilian as a marine, and then the terrible moral remaking of combat. I thought I would make something of myself, but this war made something out of me.
Ellis too had no control over what war would do to him. He had no way to predict it. “An emotionally devoid shell,” he says. “Happiness destroyed. Sadness, depression, heartache, rage.”
We meet a final time in Washington, DC. Bolton’s film The Making of Fallujah is being screened at the GI Film Festival. On “International Warrior Night” we watch movies about PTSD at the Canadian Embassy, including one by Danish rapper Martin Milo who deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. Say what you want, just don’t call me a hero. Milo who sings from out of the chasm, intensely proud of his service, missing his comrades both because of and despite the hell they endured. Ready to die, with my brothers by my side. Then the chorus: Promise me, we won’t return to war. A few minutes later Ellis has to leave the theater when one film depicts a little girl brutally murdered in Baghdad by the Mujahadeen for socializing with English soldiers. What Ellis has been through, he has not been through alone.
The Making of Fallujah screens the last day of the festival in Arlington. Ellis is nervous and begs off talking to sit alone in the back row. Then, just before it starts, he comes down the theater and slips into a seat beside me. Up there on screen he’s affable, easy going. He interviews well and does not seem tormented. But I feel him twisting in the chair next to me.
Philip, nearing the very end of the opera sings: It’s not what I did, it’s what’s possible. What I could do. What I can do.
Philip’s mother Colleen sings a final time in the opera, after the mother’s duet. She’s been waiting outside the VA hospital room throughout the story. Her son’s back is still turned to her. But she’s had time to reflect on her prior ignorance, and to realize what understanding will bring. It comes minutes before the end. But in that moment Colleen suddenly see herself accurately in place.
How can I sleep seeing what you see? This war has made a monster of me.
Here we understand Colleen to have seen herself emblematic: the culpable civilian, the context of her son’s service, the necessary partner to any possible absolution, forgiveness and healing. She could have said “any war now and going forward”. She could have said “made a monster out of us”. But it’s Colleen’s moment of epiphany. And the rest of us—waiting as we are outside Christian Ellis’s recovery room and that of all other injured veterans whether we realize it or not—now need urgently to reach that moment of epiphany in our own ways.