A fundamental idea of conservatism is that it is easier to destroy than create. This is why Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is a central conservative text. Institutions, families, nations, and traditions cannot be created overnight. They need time and energy to grow, but they can easily be destroyed overnight.
“Mending the Line,” a recent film about a U.S. veteran recovering from PTSD, beautifully demonstrates this principle.
It takes years to build a U.S. Marine. Technically it takes 224 years, because the Marine Corps is bigger than any one Marine, and without the Corps there are no Marines. These men are brothers, part of a familial martial tradition dating back to 1798. But sadly it only takes a few moments of violence to destroy one.
This is exactly what happens to John Colter, played by Sinqua Walls, at the beginning of the film. One moment he and his brothers-in-arms are on a mission in Afghanistan, talking about what they are going to do stateside, and the next they are all dead, except Colter. He is horribly wounded.
The narrative then continues in the mountainous West at a Veterans Affairs clinic. Colter struggles to come to grips with his PTSD. In a group therapy session, he becomes enraged when he finds out the group leader never served in combat. His doctor decides that rather than return to therapy, Colter should learn how to fly fish instead.
This is the essence of the film: the rebuilding of a broken man through fly fishing. The movie’s title comes from a fishing term. When the line is out of whack, it drags the lure unnaturally against the current. Fly fishers want the lure to move with the water so it tricks fish into thinking it is something they want to eat. Mending techniques allow the lure to drift naturally with the flow of the water. For Colter to mend his soul, he needs to focus on something beyond himself, so he can learn how to move with the natural rhythms of life again.
The film is quite powerful. Brian Cox is great as Ike Fletcher, the aging and grumpy Vietnam veteran who is essentially Colter’s fly fishing yoda. Sinqua Walls plays Colter with a reserved passion.
But nothing about any of the performances is flashy. They bring enough to the film to convey what needs to be conveyed without making it about the performance. And while the metaphors and meaning are obvious, they are presented with quiet humility.
Except for scenes recalling Colter’s trauma, the film maintains a sort of meditative calm. And it clearly demonstrates the conservative idea that creation — or in this case recreation or repair — takes time and patience. You cannot simply grab some waders and a rod and learn to fly fish. It is a skill that must be taught.
In The Body Keeps the Score, a revolutionary book by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, he argued that trauma is an all-encompassing phenomenon. It is not only the mind or body that hurts, but the total human has been deeply injured. Medication can help and talking through it can help, but there is no cure-all. Repairing a broken human requires that the soul and body be treated with love in community. It also requires a willingness on the part of the broken one.
Colter views himself as being valuable only because he’s a Marine. While growing up, his home life was unstable, and the Corps was his first real family. This is one of the most attractive things about martial institutions, like the Marines Corps, and also one of the dangers.
Belonging to anything means the potential for loss, and Colter feels like he has lost the Corps by being in recovery. He thinks that if he can get back into service, it will fix everything. But his body and his mind are broken. He needs something else, something outside himself, to tie it all together in order to make progress. He needs something holistic.
Morita therapy is a method for dealing with anxiety, developed in Japan, which focuses on time, patience, and simple work. It forces the individual to slow down and focus on simple tasks. So much of what drives Colter’s pain and frustration is his total focus on getting back to the Corps — on getting his life back. But this only increases frustration, because PTSD takes patience to heal.
Fly fishing acts like Morita therapy in his life, and the film brilliantly pulls the viewer through a sort of Morita therapy as well. Most of contemporary cinema is a distraction, full of CGI, action, and quips. “Mending the Line” is unhurried. It gives the audience space and time to feel what Colter is going through — to empathize with a wounded warrior. By the film’s end, I felt as if it had helped me process some of my own pain. The catharsis is palpable.
Much of our leftist tradition of military cinema denigrates or obliterates the humanity of soldiers in the name of being anti-war. But the best way to be anti-war is to be pro-soldier. If we care for our soldiers, then we should want political leaders who will only engage in necessary combat.
“Mending the Line” does not victimize combat veterans or romanticize them. It allows them to be fully human. It gives a voice to a group in our society that has often been voiceless. And, maybe most importantly, it gives a method for them to heal, for helping them mend the broken lines of their very valuable lives. That method is time, patience, and finding something to do outside oneself — finding something that makes life worth living again, something as simple as fly fishing.