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Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall plays with kittens.
Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall is a Vietnam veteran who rides motorcycles and runs an RV park in rural southern Missouri. He’s easy on his tenants and understands when they can’t make payments. His granddaughter is having a child; she works two minimum-wage jobs and can barely make ends meet. This bewilders Stray Dog. He fought in Vietnam to make his country better, and his granddaughter, has it worse than he did when he was picking cotton in the 1950s.
These are the elements of Stray Dog, a documentary film by Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik.
It’s a timely movie. Last month researchers with the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study released new findings on Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. More than a quarter-million Vietnam vets still suffer from PTSD symptoms, and one-third of them battle major depression. For a number of reasons – declining health, but also absence of proper medical treatment in the immediate years following Vietnam – many of these veterans will likely experience increased PTSD symptoms over time.
Granik does an excellent job of adding dimension to Ronnie’s trauma. Instead of obsessing over his guilt, she examines his awareness of the injustices that were done to him and that he did to others. “Somebody got money and wanted to make more money,” he tells his wife, Alicia. “Old men start wars; young men who don’t have money go fight the war.” In a deeply emotional scene with his therapist, he links his individualized trauma to the nation’s imperial ambitions: “What happened to these people [the Vietnamese] that I was even a part of – I don’t have a right to just say that was OK and I’ll just let it go.”
The veterans at the center of the story – Stray Dog and his biker friends – are equally accessible. They ride around the rural Ozarks visiting veterans’ funerals and families, helping out where they can. They are open-minded and selfless. They trade Viagra tablets like M&M’s while belittling their own war medals. They break down crying in parks and parking lots, and rebound with jokes and acts of kindness.
There is almost a scripted feeling to this documentary, and, perhaps because of the beards and the occasional Confederate flag, I was at times reminded of the popular TV show Duck Dynasty. But the story here is human and complex; whereas Duck Dynasty exists in a vacuum of self-referential conservative memes and jingoistic rural fantasies, Stray Dog asks honest questions about exploitation, stereotypes, and national identity. When Alicia moves her two teenage sons from Mexico to Ronnie’s house in rural Missouri, the teenagers are bombarded with inane questions about freedom and opportunity. Alicia thinks it will be easier for them to find work here, but they’re not so convinced. Their bewildered confusion with America mirrors Ronnie’s. He is constantly questioning who and what he fought for.
Americans can’t comprehend PTSD because we can’t comprehend the Vietnam War, because the history of that event has been radically altered in the four decades since it ended. The Vietnam War was a catastrophic event in America’s class struggle; about 80% of soldiers came from blue-collar backgrounds, and many of them were from rural and farming communities. The majority of them were forced into the war through the draft. The children of the elite did not fight in this war.
And maybe that’s why so much of the healing that goes on in this film takes place in the most remote, unsuspecting places. It’s a testament to how mentally and emotionally resilient Stray Dog and his friends are that their systems of support are grassroots efforts. There is virtually no government presence here, and that is strange in a film about veterans, but it makes sense when you acknowledge that a greater percentage of veterans settle in rural areas than urban.
Perhaps Stray Dog’s bravest and most intelligent departure from rural showcases like Duck Dynasty is its refusal to valorize its subjects. Stray Dog and the men he fought with are portrayed as equals to Stray Dog’s own struggling granddaughter. There is no hierarchy in bravery here; they’re all fighting the same hard battles. And this is a crucial message to convey in an age in which troops can be trotted out to justify future wars. Duck Dynasty is what we get when we can’t acknowledge and properly treat the misery we bring on both ourselves and other societies. We get empty symbols that skip the inconveniences of accountability and celebrate our worst qualities. Films like Stray Dog are a reminder of what that looks like, 40 years after the fact.