Jacob’s Ladder: A Proxy War
By Kristin Grady
Jacob’s Ladder (1990) very accurately portrayed the long lasting psychological consequences suffered by many Vietnam veterans and the military’s clandestine drug experiments on our own soldiers. The film stands out amongst Vietnam movies by setting the timeline over a decade later, showing former soldiers either in deep denial or spiraling out under the effects of severe PTSD, caused by the violence and the weapons grade hallucinogens. Vietnam was the first war of the 20th century where color footage revealed its shocking reality and many returning troops were conflicted about their own participation in the war. The film appears to hold the government accountable for the lasting harm done to those who served in a war where we “failed to achieve our objectives”… or, lost.
Flashbacks to Vietnam
The opening scene gives a glimpse of the soldiers prior to the attack: laughing, eating, smoking pot, and not yet traumatized. This establishes a normal baseline comparison for their later erratic behavior. It’s always sad to see someone’s light go out. Their uniforms are augmented with personal necklaces and helmet decorations, presenting their individual identities even when assimilated into the military, as was common in the Vietnam war. Jake’s glasses and “Professor” nickname cast him as a bit of an outsider, an elite, educated type that didn’t get drafted. His camaraderie with the platoon shows they’ve all been brought to the same level on the battlefield.
This chaotic battle foreshadows the unravelling of Jake’s later life. The Vietnam timeline continues throughout the entire film, the truth slowly revealed in bits and pieces as it comes back to Jake. In the modern timeline, we’re never sure if it’s really happening or the entire thing is a fabrication of Jake’s dying brain as he bleeds out from the stab wound. The Vietnam scenes are the only ones we know aren’t happening in his head.
A Hell of a Party
Flooded by memories of the war, and possibly brain damaged by the “ladder”, Jake starts to hallucinate while caught on the dance floor. The not-quite-human demons writhe around him, dancing ecstatically as he sinks into a dissociative panic. Some returning soldiers thrown into the wild hedonism of the counterculture generation experienced similar anxiety. Our collective memory states that Vietnam veterans suffered such abuse as being spat on and called “baby killers”, even though those occurrences have been contested by veterans themselves. Jake was welcomed to the party, encouraged to dance, and the chaos of war followed him.
Reality starts to warp as Jez’s dance partner turns into a shadowy, Lovecraftian monster. We only see parts of the creature in the strobe light: its tail, its teeth, a claw scratching her thigh, as Jez wildly grinds against it in either pain or pleasure, maybe both. It’s almost impossible to tell. Biblical Jezebel was considered a false prophet and associated with promiscuity, seducing the followers of Yaweh to worship false gods.
Movie Jezebel exhibits these qualities by pressuring Jake to join the dance (ecstatic dance is part of a lot of pagan rituals), then gyrating provocatively against someone else while Jake slinks away. Same as the demons who surround him, Jake’s panicking mind is distorting reality, exaggerating her sexual behavior. Does he see himself in her? Jake seems disturbed because he also danced with a monster, Vietnam. He left his grieving family for a dark mistress long before moving in with Jez.
The chaos of the first Vietnam scene is recreated at the party, as it is in Jake’s mind, and his persistent mental anguish comes to a head. It’s clear his life has become unmanageable due to the consuming memories of war debilitating his cognitive and emotional functions.
The Ice Bath
A lot of veterans don’t deal with PTSD until the psychological symptoms manifest as physical. Both sufferers of trauma and their loved ones are guilty of this dangerous denial and the military makes it extremely difficult for veterans to come forward seeking help. After the party, Jez berates Jake for “embarrassing” her with his uncontrollable panic attack, as he shivers in bed, running an alarming fever. Jez’s mood turns the instant she reads his 106 temperature, suddenly concerned for his condition.
Having those two emotions back to back is very telling of the stigma against mental illness, especially in the military, and maybe more so in Vietnam than any other US war. The US government treated afflicted soldiers this way, only acknowledging/providing restitution for the Agent Orange scandal when they were hit with a class action suit. The soldiers permanently damaged by that harmful chemical were not compensated for the trauma caused to their minds.
Jake screams and convulses as if he’s possessed, making the scene similar to an exorcism. Before the rise of modern psychology, most mental illnesses were treated as demon possessions. In the middle ages, exorcisms often caused more harm than good, and in extreme cases, eventually killed them. Artistic depictions of hell throughout history have been both freezing and burning, a metaphor for how Jake is already under eternal torment. Fitting into the Vietnam timeline where Jake is slowly bleeding out from a stab wound, the shock from blood loss can make someone feel cold. But, it’s also possible to feel chilly when running a fever, if you want to consider the modern timeline real.
Ice baths were also a “treatment” in early modern asylums, which like exorcisms, were thinly veiled punishments for erratic behavior and often made the problem much worse. Powerful entities such as religious institutions and the early mental healthcare industry are akin to how the US government handles the psychological conditions of combat veterans, either denying the real problem entirely or victim blaming. It often results in more harm done to an already vulnerable population.
Jake sinks into a deep, dissociated depression after this scene. He may never have acknowledged the demons plaguing his mind without this experience, yet he feels powerless and alone in his problems. Due to the stigma (especially coming from Jez) Jake doesn’t feel comfortable expressing his debilitating thoughts, which have left him empty. It takes the bravery of his fellow soldier reaching out for help to embolden Jake in seeking answers.
Assembling a Broken Reality
Paul, a fellow member of Jake’s platoon, covertly reaches out with a problem. Hyper-vigilant to the point of exploding, Paul expresses his terrifying experiences of being stalked by demons. A sobering feeling for Jake, as it correlates with his own situation, and makes him realize he’s not the only one. It’s not his fault. Stating “The Army did something to us” gives a voice to their shared struggle. Sadly, right after his courageous confession, Paul’s car mysteriously explodes, ending his suffering and leaving Jake with more questions.
Gathering for Paul’s funeral, the rest of the platoon admits to similar demonic harassment, out of survivor’s guilt and shared desperation. They agree to contact a lawyer, who seems more interested in money than they are, but reluctantly obliged to “look into it”. Hope revives Jake’s spirit. In the next scene, he’s showering and shaving, a sign of decreasing depression. When Jez tells him the lawyer called and refuses to take his case, Jake immediately runs out to confront him, while wearing his green army jacket, displaying a need to retain his veteran identity.
Descending a grand stairway in the New York Supreme Court building, Jake confronts Geary, the lawyer, who appears uncomfortable being pursued by a desperate man. At first, Geary almost seems afraid of Jake, as if his life has been threatened into dropping the case. After further provocation, Geary expresses anger and distrust, revealing to Jake the records he “looked into” said he was never in Vietnam.
Jake’s expression is pure childlike disillusionment, as if he just found out Santa Claus isn’t real. He realizes his reality, his past, his very identity is in the hands of powerful people who will take everything from him to cover their own asses. Jake put his life on the line to serve his country, so he expected unconditional support and never dreamed of his trusted commanders committing such a malicious attack on his very existence. Everything he ever thought was true is a lie.
In the last shot of the film, Jake’s corpse is laid out on a stretcher in a dim field hospital while a soldier types out his death certificate. That man has no emotional connection to Jake. He has no idea Jake enlisted as a subconscious way to commit suicide by war because he was lost to grief over his dead son. The typist is just doing his job. The United States fought in Vietnam as a proxy war with the USSR and China, at the expense of many American and Vietnamese lives. Jake fought a proxy war with his desire to “not think anymore”, which according to Descartes, means he desired non-existence.
The typist may not be an evil man. When it’s your job to fill out paperwork for dead soldiers, you have to get desensitized, or you’ll end up with mental health problems too. You never know. Maybe, internally, every single page just poked another hole in his heart and that typist will be one of the most unfortunate veteran statistics. The heartbreaking climax of the film gives an entirely new perspective on the psychology of combat veterans. The ending title card referencing the real-life incident that inspired the “Ladder” drug in the film… Should give every American chills. It makes you question reality on this side of the screen.
Induction Statistics | Selective Service System : Selective Service System (government info)
Coming Home: Vietnam Veterans in American Society | Encyclopedia.com (unbiased?)
Vietnam: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Military Service History Pocketcard (VA stats)
BZ Story (Drug the Ladder is based on)
Stereotypes of African Americans – Wikipedia (*didn’t make it into the article, but interesting)
The Marvelettes – “Please Mr. Postman” – Classic Motown (*)
Please Mr. Postman by The Marvelettes – Songfacts (*)
https://youtu.be/8K7Fc1uFCNk Raw, Uncut vietnam footage
Why troops in Vietnam could write on their helmets (funny)
Changes From Vietnam to Now | Selective Service System
Demonic possessions and mental illness: discussion of selected cases in late medieval hagiographical literature – National Library of Medicine
How to help someone who has been stabbed or is seriously bleeding
The 10 Worst Mental Health Treatments in History
Crisis & Suicidal Signs – Veterans Crisis Line
Opinion | The Myth of the Spitting Antiwar Protester (Published 2017)
Shoggoth | Monster Wiki | Fandom Lovecraft amorphis amoeba monster, kinda like Jez’s tentacle monster, also a little like The Thing
Vietnam War | Facts, Summary, Years, Timeline, Casualties, Combatants, & Facts
How Common is PTSD in Veterans? – PTSD: National Center for PTSD
American veterans regret for their deeds during Vietnam war | Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the United States
The Vietnam War – CCEA – GCSE History Revision – CCEA Proxy War
Estimating the number of suicides among Vietnam veterans
Kristin Grady is a freelance writer, video editor, and graphic designer in Hollywood. Check out more content on imaginationforsale.blog!
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See also: Anatomy of a First Time Director: A Dark Song
The Exorcist: The Crucifix Scene
Ring Vs. Ringu: The Culture Cycle