MacNair is a psychologist from Kansas City who has developed a volatile theory about how war affects the soldiers who fight it.
Nearly a year before her trip to Hollywood, MacNair had watched on television as the president stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended.
In the months preceding the president's announcement, MacNair had paid attention to other news, too, such as when four soldiers (three of whom had served in a Special Forces unit in Afghanistan) had returned to their base in North Carolina and butchered their wives; two of the men then killed themselves. Other stateside suicides followed -- a 28-year-old specialist poisoned himself in a Kentucky hotel, a 36-year-old chief warrant officer shot himself in his family's Colorado home. Earlier this year, the Pentagon had sent Combat Stress Control teams to Iraq because soldiers there were killing themselves at an alarming rate.
This past July, MacNair was quoted discussing her theory in The New Yorker. A few weeks later, the Los Angeles Times referred to her as an expert on veteran psychology. And director David O. Russell wanted MacNair to be a pundit in his Iraq War documentary, Soldiers Pay. The filmmaker's 1999 movie Three Kings, a dark comedy about the first Gulf War, had earned critical praise; now Russell was spending $207,000 to make a 35-minute film with commentary from soldiers, a retired general, a Republican congresswoman and psychologists in an effort to provide a behind-the-scenes look at each cog in the American war machine.
MacNair sat in a Holiday Inn room facing a camera and one of the movie's co-directors. She wore a goldenrod-colored jacket she'd recently bought at a Goodwill thrift store. She'd sent ahead color-coded charts, but she didn't need to reference them. Speaking carefully, she parsed her research into sound bites.
It's common knowledge that some soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a chronic disease characterized by nightmares, skittish behavior, concentration problems, depression and violent outbursts. Experts say it is caused by the interplay of two things: exposure to traumatic events in which there are serious threats of injury or death to oneself or others; and, as the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders puts it, associated feelings of "intense fear, helplessness or horror" -- one must not only be exposed to a traumatic situation but also have an emotional response to it.
MacNair's research took commonly held beliefs about PTSD a step further. She argued that in war, the major stressor that causes PTSD isn't watching a buddy die or coming under heavy fire from enemies.
Instead, she believes, the key factor in PTSD is killing someone else. She calls her version of the malady "Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress," or PITS.
Russell had cut a deal with Warner Bros. and planned to piggyback the documentary as an extra feature on a new Three Kings DVD. But in mid-August, Russell told The New York Times that he thought the film had a shot at influencing the November election. Warner Bros. subsequently branded it too political and dumped it. Russell and his co-directors scrambled for another sponsor, and in late September the film was picked up by the small, independent Cinema Libre Studios, which paired it with Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The War in Iraq and released the package to indie theaters in places such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, New York and, for one day, the Rag Tag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri.