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Commentary: An unvarnished look at wars' toll on soldiers

Whether by tacit consent or official coercion, U.S. news organizations did not publish pictures of American World War II dead until a LIFE magazine spread in 1943 showed fallen Marines on the wet sands of a Pacific island beach. Such images were considered too painful, too stark, too graphic, too hazardous to home front morale and national resolve.

Georgia Public Television has been rebroadcasting filmmaker Ken Burns' 2007 documentary series "The War." It is a historical overview of World War II from before Pearl Harbor to after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with a special focus on how the war affected four American communities -- Mobile, Ala., Sacramento, Calif., Waterbury, Conn., and Luverne, Minn. "The War" is a fitting and timely prologue to Memorial Day.

So is this: The National Archives announced last week that a documentary about the emotional and psychological wounds of World War II soldiers, long withheld by the Army, is being made available on the Internet.

Toward the end of the war, the Army commissioned legendary director John Huston, whose ample body of work includes such classics as "The African Queen" and "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," to film real American soldiers just home from war as they struggled with what was then euphemistically called "shell shock" or "battle fatigue." We know it now as post-traumatic stress; by whatever name, it is a human reaction to the inhuman horror that is the core reality of war.

The idea at the time was to prepare families for the psychological toll war had exacted on their loved ones -- and, it was hoped, to reassure them that the condition was treatable.

The result was a documentary called "Let There Be Light," an unvarnished depiction of combat veterans shaking, crying, staring blankly into space. The film's narration describes the men as "human salvage" and "casualties of the spirit." And once Army officials got a look, it was promptly deep-sixed on the ostensible grounds that it invaded soldiers' privacy.

Huston, who died in 1987 -- only a few years after the Army officially released "Let There Be Light" -- never believed the privacy rationale. He opined in his autobiography that the Army "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."

The Pentagon had the film remade with actors. (All the speaking parts went to whites.) And although the original was officially released to the public in 1980, the crude condition of the images and sound made it almost useless. It has now been restored with computer imaging and digital sound technology.

In this media culture, separation between war myth and war reality can never again be what it was in the early 1940s. One of the most stunning sequences in the "The War" shows families in a theater cheering John Wayne as he shoots down Japanese fighters -- a sanitized, sentimentalized, almost sterilized version of war.

It is soon followed by actual footage of the Marine and Army battle for Peleliu (now Palau). The images are harrowing and horrible, even filtered through faded film and a TV screen; to the men who lived it, and many did not live through it, it can only have been unspeakable.

Maybe it's just the mentality of a Vietnam-era upbringing, but prettying up war has never seemed, to this son of a World War II vet, to do anything but trivialize the courage of those who have endured it on our behalf.

If we claim to truly honor the sacrifices demanded by war, we are obliged to face the ugly realities of what those sacrifices look and sound like. Let there be light.