MIGHTY MOVIES
Nathan Graeser

How Joker fighting the evil within resonates with veterans

U.S. Marine Corps Photo/Andrew Bray

Most people don't think about evil. The force of evil is certainly out there, but it's on a different street, a different city or across the ocean. Evil is something we see as a plot in Hollywood, in movies like Joker. It isn't something most people give much thought to.

But for veterans, it's different.


I sat at a table with a veteran friend of mine, sipping coffee in a local cafe. He looked around as we talked about where we'd been and things we'd done. "They'll never know," he said. "I mean, how could they?" Our fellow patrons were having conversations a million miles away from ours, talking about things like kids, yoga and groceries, not darkness or things that haunt us. "I suppose it's better that way," he added.

Maybe it is, I thought, but maybe not.

The recent depiction of The Joker has become the highest grossing R-rated release in box office history. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is now an Oscar front-runner for his personal dive into villainy. For a society that doesn't understand or talk about evil, The Joker has clearly found an audience. Phoenix's rendition of Arthur is not the villainous story you might guess though, instead, it's a man driven by his quest for love and entertainment; he hardly seems like a villain.

Phoenix said he prepared for this role by identifying with "his struggle to find happiness and to feel connected. To have warmth and love." It's an interesting juxtaposition: how does one end up being evil if all they want is love? This is the question and the genius of Joker. The same question haunts many veterans today. What is the difference between the pursuit of love and evildoing? Seems obvious, right? Maybe not, if evil never seems to be the aim. Yet, somehow people end up there - doing things that destroy the world around them. Even Hitler, a real life villain, once said, "I can fight only for something that I love."

People want to believe that evil is something they can spot, as if it wears an enemy's uniform and is clearly recognizable as "the bad guy." The reality is, evil isn't just lurking in a dark alley, waiting to sneak up on you when you least expect it. For some veterans, evil isn't only external, although it certainly may have started that way. Evil isn't something in a far-off land for us. It's something we've carried home and something with which we have to deal. Carl Jung once said, "Knowing your own darkness is the best method of dealing with the darkness of other people." What most veterans don't know, but soon find out, is that facing evil out there means facing it inside of ourselves, too.

I have witnessed this realization many times in veterans, sitting next to them as they struggle with how the world could be this way. How could it be? Where is the good? As a chaplain and a social worker, I have seen, even been part of, people losing their hold on a world that they can picture themselves living in. The feelings of helplessness and sadness are overwhelming when facing a world with all its deficiencies.

It can be horrifying to think that we have something in common, even sharing the air, with the Jokers of the world. The genius of Phoenix's performance is that most of us can see parts of ourselves in his character. This is what makes coming back from war so difficult; there is no shutting your eyes. Facing the realities of evil post-war is harder in a society that also wants nothing to do with it.

Service in the military shocked my own naiveté, forcing me to grasp with my own encounters with evil around me, even in me. War, more than any other environment, is the great tester. It reveals all of the little cracks and strengths. It is the great kiln of life. Perhaps facing these demons is a reason for the stubborn rising suicide rate and extreme isolation we see in veterans post-war. It also explains why veterans so often take roles in protecting people from it -- serving in law enforcement and security.

For those who haven't served, who has not felt the pain of betrayal, neglect or helplessness at an abuse of power? Allowing ourselves to experience the abyss of evil is "fearless", as one critic said of Phoenix's performance. Who has not found themselves filled with thoughts of revenge? Perhaps a better question then is: Why aren't all of us Jokers? Why don't we all go mad? Maybe we are. Maybe there's a little villain in all of us.

Not all veterans can face their demons. Not facing the villain, outside and in, leads to a space you can't share, a place where you join the Jokers of the world. This would explain why some veterans think of suicide as an honorable thing, saving the world from the Joker they have become. Some just drive faster, drink more, turn up the music and close their eyes when these evils start to appear.

There is good reason to avoid looking - we might not be prepared to fight the evil we see. Heath Ledger's plunge into the character of evil may have led him to places that he could not find his way out from. Encountering true evil and the thin veil that separates us leads most to question our own capacity to overcome it.

Evil hides in omission -- our lack of doing as much as our acts of doing. Stopping evil does not mean that we weaken or blind ourselves. Instead, as many veterans do, they choose to see the enemy, even if it's within, rather than hide. The confrontation is fraught; not just with evil's existence but in the failure to do good when they can. Veterans who find their way back home learn this. Veterans like Chase Millsap who saw local nationals murdered after working with U.S. soldiers and created a way for them to be safe with nooneleft.org. Veterans like Noel Lipana, who couldn't make sense of his actions and has found a way to tell his story and shape others through an art performance piece. They could not omit. They decided that the way back is to do good. To exert agency over their helplessness in the face of evil. Is this not the only way? To do good, in the face of evil.

The last decade has brought new thinking on this as well, rethinking post-traumatic stress disorder toward a term called Moral Injury because it tracks better to veterans' experience of war -- that evil, sometimes our own, shocks our worldview. To see evil and the ugliness of humankind can shake you to your core and leave you with lingering questions. An abbreviated definition of Moral Injury refers to the lasting impacts of actions that violate a service member's core moral values and expectations of self or others. Perhaps another definition is that Moral Injury is the impact of coming face to face with evil, even if it's our own. Facing evil in the world can leave you with more questions than answers. Fortunately, these questions aren't new, they just aren't often talked about. Maybe that's why evil and veil are just letters rearranged differently; both are thinly seen.

The story of the Joker is the story that veterans know all too well. Today's society leaves most willfully blind to the struggles and evils in the world, leaving many veterans grasping for answers to questions that their neighbors are not asking. At first glance, it does seem easier to omit them, but closing our eyes to them will not save us. Perhaps the reason the Joker has garnered so much international attention is because it's telling a story we all know, but don't like to look at. A story that needs to be told.

We don't say things we should. We don't look at injustice if we can avoid it. We avoid confrontation when possible. We choose to close our eyes, rather than see.

The Joker invites all of us, not just veterans, to manage our own shadows by doing the good we know to do. Veterans don't have the market cornered on this, most just signed up for it and are learning how to live with the evil around us.