Archive for category Veterans
In the Director’s commentary following his documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson comments that he made the film as a “non-historian for non-historians.” Jackson is correct in making this assertion as They Shall Not Grow Old is a conventional WWI documentary on the “Common British Soldier.”
Jackson’s main contribution with this production is to restore Imperial War Museum (IWM) film and still footage. He comments in the post-documentary commentary on the techniques that went into making this archival footage watchable for a modern audience. My suspicion is that Jackson’s film also makes some of this footage widely accessible to viewers for the first time as much of this is probably not digitized. Even the venerable IWM can’t possibly have the budget to digitize and restore film for public access on the internet. Jackson also provides useful exposure to the robust sound archive recorded by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in the 1960s and 70s. This archive is largely accessible online and a great listen for anyone interested in the history of WWI.
His claims, however, for why he chose to make a conventional narrative about Tommy Atkins (“average white British soldier”) on the Western Front seem bogus to me. Jackson argues that the scope of the IWM and BBC archives made it hard to create a coherent narrative for the viewer. Ok, I can buy that. The war took part on a number of dispersed fronts that weren’t coordinated into any real Allied strategy. What I don’t understand is how adding a few scenes and audio clips involving Sikhs and Rajputs would have distracted from the conventional war narrative he constructed. He even shows a few scenes with Sikh soldiers in them but makes no effort to weave them into the narrative even though the BBC audio archive contains stories about Indian soldiers who served in the trenches during WWI.
Jackson perpetuates the same stale narratives of war that many other authors and director’s have used. His explanations for why that narrative is not stale but still relevant, essential, and universal wring hollow to me. They remind me a great deal of conversations I’ve had with United States’ Civil War buffs who are more interested in the type of rifles used by Federal and Rebel forces and the uniforms they wore more than the issues that led them to war in the first place. I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me as Jackson shows off in his post film commentary the large collection of WWI material culture he possesses, including a vast stock of uniforms, small arms, and even several artillery pieces.
It’s too bad that the post film commentary didn’t come before the documentary. I would have been more prepared for what followed and less disappointed at the end. He warned me “after” the film that as a military historian, I was not the intended audience.
My suspicion is that the same audience that liked Band of Brother’s and The Greatest Generation will like They Shall Not Grow Old. The conventional narratives still get told for a reason. They sell books and films. People like them. As one of a handful of scholars who bridge the gap between war literature and war history, I understand why they like the conventional narrative, but I feel duty bound to point out that in 2019 that narrative isn’t good enough.
I’ve evolved sufficiently as a white man and a scholar to handle warrior narratives involving non-white soldiers. I can even comprehend that women belong in war narratives. I think, given enough time and effort on the part of authors on page and screen, that others can come around to this point of view as well.
This is a necessity (btw) and not a luxury as Global War on Terror (GWOT) veterans come into their own as producers and consumers of war narratives. I imagine anyone who fought in Afghanistan or Iraq or who served on missions in countries where we aren’t “technically” at war will look at this documentary the same way I did. A quaint throwback that could have been handled much better with the help of a knowledgeable screenwriter.
The documentary has a limited release in theaters. I saw it at AMC River East 21 tonight in 3D. I’d honestly recommend waiting to see it on your home screen. It wasn’t worth the nearly $19.00 plus tax I paid to see it.
If you haven’t yet seen Dunkirk and plan to do so, skip this review for a bit. If you have seen the movie, be forewarned that what you are about to read is a minority opinion. As a scholar of military history and war literature, I found it deeply disappointing. Even more so as this was one of the few non-comic book movies that Hollywood has put out in some time. I was hungering for a good cinematic drama. This wasn’t it.
When I first heard that Chris Nolan was planning a movie about Dunkirk, my thoughts were that this could either be great or horrible. The switch from the Phoney War of late 1939 and early 1940 to the German Blitzkrieg into France that Spring presents a spectacle of epic proportions demanding a Cornelius Ryan to tell the tale. None has really emerged, however, because the allied campaign at this stage was humiliating. To my knowledge, the British Army still has not assigned a campaign ribbon for this series of battles. It was melded into the larger crusade to free Europe from the Nazis.
I knew, however, that I was going to see a movie and wasn’t watching a documentary or reading a campaign history. So I was willing to be forgiving of the film for its historical license. I also knew from the reviews that characterization and narrative would be sparse, favoring a visual storytelling technique. What I was not prepared for, however, was the incoherence of that visual narrative. I was left essentially, to create my own story for the film based on what I already knew or could surmise. That’s why, I suppose, so many reviews of the film are positive. Each person sees what they want to see on the screen.
What I saw was a banal story telling me (yet again) that “war is hell” and that common soldiers are insanely brave (sometimes) even though they are lead by idiots who have no concern for their life. Trapped inside this old saw were the kernels of a better movie trying to get out. Here are three.
First, the scene at the beginning where an unnamed British soldier escapes an ambush in Dunkirk and jumps behind a sandbagged defense held by French troops. They curse at him in French and gesture towards the beach. (Post-Brexit message perhaps?) I would have loved to hear more about these brave soldiers who made the evacuation possible. Most of them ended up dead or in POW camps.
Second, the scene on the fishing boat where a group of Argyll and Southerland Highlanders are hiding in the hull waiting for the tide to rise. German troops have already flanked that part of the beach and shoot the boat to keep it from being used. They set out anyway and the vessel starts to sink. The men assume that if they unload some weight the boat will still float and plan to through the “silent man” overboard. When he finally speaks, and they discover he is Frenchman, wearing a British army uniform, they are all the more eager to throw him into to the sea. Ultimately, the boat sinks and the French man is left to drown as the others swim out of the wreck and are rescued by the civilian skipper of a motor yacht named Moonstone. (Wilkie Collins saves the day again?) Nothing is said about this moment of cowardice, but the men bear it with them on the train when they return home. The civilians cheer their heroism. They skulk and try not to make eye contact with them not because of the retreat but because of the men they abandoned to make their survival possible. Men they were willing to kill directly to get home.
Third, the scene on the motor yacht Moonstone where a soldier rescued from a ship sunk by a u-boat shoves a young boy and kills him trying to force the crew to turn back to England. His shoulder epaulette shows he is a low ranking officer (perhaps a lieutenant?). The civilian crew continues to lie to him about the boy’s death, even as he sees the stretcher with the boy’s body on it removed from the boat when they finally arrive back in England. I guess they want to save him the indignity of knowing he killed a child so he’ll be ready to defend England from Nazi invasion.
These stories are interesting because they belie the mythology that surrounds this event–The Dunkirk Spirit. Churchill, newly appointed Prime Minister, tried to spin this disaster into a triumph, and largely succeeded. The story told about this French port was one of civilian valor as small boats crossed the channel to “bring the boys back home.” We see this civilian valor. As for the soldiers, we see the baser instincts of human nature to preserve itself at the expense of all others (i.e. every man for himself). Of course, we don’t see this long enough for the lesson to register.
What does register is the stunning visual and aural spectacle. And those brief moments of narrative coherence in the air and at the end of the mole, where Kenneth Brannaugh finally manages not to overact, present the usual story of heroism in the face of superior enemy firepower. Stiff upper lip. God Save The King. Wot. Wot. Brannaugh’s character stays behind to try to save the stranded French and one of the unnamed RAF pilots who outflew his gas supply lands on the beach, destroys his plane, and waits for German’s to capture him. The two shadowy Germans pointing their rifles at him are (interestingly) the only actual Germans we see in the entire movie.
Perhaps I was hopelessly naive or out of step with the world I live in (more Call of Duty than Paths of Glory) but I was hoping for an updated version of the narrative technique used in A Bridge Too Far. I’ll never forget the hospital scene at the end as a wounded British paratrooper plays Vivaldi on the flute prior to his capture by the Nazis. The camera pans to show the cost of war.
In Dunkirk we feel the cost of war. I felt the visceral fear and frustration of the men trapped on the beach trying to get home. I wanted to start swimming myself. I also felt the fear of the men in the air and on the sea. But that was it. In a post-Brexit era, an age where attitudes of US isolationism outdo that of Col. McCormick in the 1930s, I’m afraid that isn’t enough. Viewers need and deserve more if we are going to dredge up the ghosts of WWII. This is just another exercise, I’m afraid, in nostalgia.
Greetings from Chicago!
Construction season is in high gear on campus as fall weather finally makes its appearance. In spite of the ongoing budgetary problems in Illinois, UIC has managed to put together enough of a capital projects fund to finish several longstanding plans for improving the campus. One involves repairing the exterior of the building that houses my office (University Hall). Right now the construction workers are jackhammering outside my office window. A friend of mine from work put it best when she said that it sounds and feels like what a tooth must go through when you’re getting a root canal. It’s very hard to focus in my office. I’ll be glad when they’re done.
Bureaucratic report season is also in full swing. I just filled out my annual Report of Non-University Activities (RNUA) form, which always reminds me of Joseph McCarthy’s Senate committee in the 1950s each time I fill it out. All state faculty are now required under existing ethics laws to report sources of income in addition to their campus employment. This has always seemed unfair to me for the lowest paid tier of faculty who often need to have multiple sources of non-university income to survive. Chicago is becoming an increasingly more expensive place to live and income is fast being outpaced by the growing cost in housing, healthcare, and services. Soon to follow the RNUA report is my annual ethics test, which state employees can thank their two former governor’s (one in federal prison, one recently released) for inspiring. And then, of course, there is the new Title IX test that will soon follow due to the ongoing epidemic of campus sexual assault and harassment. Don’t get me wrong, I support ethical and moral behavior. But no one told me when I decided to become a professor that I would have a “workflow” and that it would be a lot like working at Dunder Mifflin. I guess this is what theorists mean when they talk about the new “Corporate University.”
In my last blog post, I promised to talk more about my current research interests. For those of you who have read through my blog posts and writing samples on this site or (perhaps) have read my book (Come on, what are you waiting for? You know you want to.), you know that my research has focused primarily over the years on veterans. I’ve emphasized in particular how civilians in the United States during the Civil War portrayed those who served in the army and how that image conflicted with the ways in which veterans wanted to see themselves. My current research emerges from these interests in an indirect way. It started with the second chapter of my current book where I examine the career options available for Civil War soldiers as they came home from the war. Among the most common career paths followed by these veterans was farming. Winslow Homer’s well-known painting, The Veteran In a New Field, which graces the cover of my book, represents the pastoral ideal that appealed to many soldiers after the war. In this image the viewer sees a man in his shirt sleeves cutting a field of grain. Buried under the pile of wheat on the ground is his former army jacket and canteen. These details are hard to discern without careful scrutiny of the painting, but once found they explain the title of the painting.
Homer’s painting evoked for its nineteenth-century audience a wide variety of associations between war and farming. One would have been the image from Roman history of Cinncinnatus returning to his farm after serving as a general and political leader and the attempts by early Republican authors in the United States to portray George Washington as the New World’s Cinncinnatus. Another would have been the image present in the Bible’s Book of Isaiah, which describes the turning of swords into plows with the end of conflict. In addition, viewers would have probably been aware of the land grant policies for veterans of previous US conflicts, which preceded the generous pension system created during the post Civil War period. Added to these historical associations would have been the politcal rhetoric of free soilers, a major source of inspiration for the Republican Party in the Civil War Era.
All of these images of warriors turned farmers inspired soldiers to return to the farms they had left in order to fight the Civil War but also encouraged many men who had never used a plow to start a life tilling the soil. Of course, the ideal of working the land as a farmer was far removed from the realities of nineteenth-century agriculture. As I mention in my book, Homer’s image is somewhat anacronistic at a time when machinery was a common sight in the agrarian landscape. Moreover, the veteran cutting grain works alone. Harvesting was (and in many cases even today remains) a communal or group activity. Yet, in spite of these inconsistencies, the image of the soldier turned farmer, and all the associations it contains, remains powerful in the national imagination of the United States. One example from our own time in the Farmer Veteran Coalition and attempt to get veterans (primarily from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) back to the land.
Veterans served as the start of my current research project, but they are not the only focus of my new book. As I’ve been reading early Republican discourse on farming in relation to US nataional identity, I have been struck by how strong the association is between citizenship and agriculture. Jefferson and Crevecoeur are just two of the more obvious examples of public figures arguing for the importance of ties to the land in the process of turning immigrants into “Americans.” Farming and soldiering (as a citizen-soldier volunteer) are the two main paths to acceptance in the body politic during the nineteenth century. The latter emphasizes the role of “sacrifice” to belonging and the former the role of “rootedness.” Those who till the soil may not be chosen by God (as Jefferson suggests) but they are far less likely to be constantly on the move and thus disruptive to social stability.
But what takes root and how? What humans thrive by contact with the soil and what humans do not? This is the current set of questions that my research is trying to untangle. When we talk about “weeds” and “cash crops” we are also talking about immigration. Crevecoeur is right (to a certain extent) that people are like plants. Where he errs is in his overly optimistic view of an immigrant’s chances in a new environment as well as his lack of awareness of the social contructedness of what counts as a good plant and what gets labelled a weed.
I’m also increasingly intrigued by the ways in which scholarship on agriculture has been walled off from that on the environment. Agriculture and farmers are often portrayed as the enemy in environmentalist scholarship. (Of course, this is slowly starting to change with the movement towards whole foods and heirloom crops.) William Cronon’s work has been immensely useful to me for this reason. In his first book, Changes In the Land, Cronon counters the concept of “wilderness” as a space untouched by human hands that exists in contrast to “cultivated lands.” He says “The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem” (12).
The next step for me is to learn more about the history of agricultural practices in the US. I will share what I learn with you on this blog. I’m also in the process of learning more about ecology and ecosystems. If my blog’s readers have any works they would recommend that I read, feel free to comment on this post or email me directly.
Thanks for reading what has turned into an uncommonly long piece of writing this month.
Until Next Time….
Greetings from Chicago! If you’ve followed the news, you know that it is not a great time for higher education in Illinois. Hopefully the situation is less chaotic in your state. These are challenging years for scholars in literature and language and we need to organize more than ever to advocate for the importance of what we do. I hope this year’s conference in Hartford, Connecticut will help energize NEMLA members to keep up the good fight.
Last month I promised to provide my readers an sketch of my current research. If you’ve perused my blog or (hopefully) read my book, then you know my current interest in the lives of soldiers after war. In an essay I just completed for a collection on gender, war, and the U.S. military I highlight the semantic distinction between calling someone a “soldier” and calling someone a “veteran.” The former suggests a person still in uniform while the later leads us to assume that military service is a part of their past. Although it is hard to parse the difference sometimes between these words in scholarly discourse let alone in the general public, noticing and maintaining this distinction is an important part of my work. These words serve as a reminder that the legacy of war is not simply measured in treaties and deaths. The legacy of war walks all around us. Calling someone a veteran implies an open-ended commitment to creating meaning. Calling them a soldier places them within a clearly defined frame of reference and distances them and their service from society.
I’m not totally clear on how these insights might apply to naval personnel. One of my students, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, pointed out to me that my work emphasizes ground troops more than sailors. He also reminded me that two of our nation’s longest wars don’t have many recognized battles at sea, the Cold War and the current War on Terror. His observation is a reminder to me that when a scholar is paying attention to one set of connotations it is possible to miss another. It’s also an excellent example of why the term veteran makes a society so uneasy. The story is still be written through conversations between those who served, liked my student, and those who did not, like myself. Guilt sometimes makes us long for myth. It requires less introspection.
My interest in veterans began with a much larger interest in the metaphors we use that take on a mythic status through repeated use. It wasn’t until I was pretty far advanced into my research that I realized what I was doing was classic American Studies work along the lines of Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx. Veterans became my metaphor turned myth, a blank slate upon which society could project its hopes and fears. The next phase of my research will involve examining a myth closely associated with that of the veteran in United States culture, at least up to the Second World War–the Yeoman Farmer.
At this point in the conception of my latest project, I’m focused on analyzing two images. The first is the Winslow Homer painting, The Veteran In a New Field, that graces the cover of my book New Men and also appears in chapter two. Homer’s painting serves as the bridge between my previous research and this new area I’m exploring. In that image we see the soldier casting his uniform jacket down on the earth, rolling up his sleeves, and preparing to reap a seemingly endless field of wheat. The problem with this image, as I mention in my analysis of the painting in New Men, is that the solitary labor imagined in Homer’s image was not the reality for men in the nineteenth-century United States. Machinery had already begun to take on much of the harvesting work once undertaken by human power. Furthermore, in those communities that still relied solely on human labor for harvesting, more than one man would be needed to cut and bundle the grain. Homer’s painting thus evokes for viewers a myth that they know is a myth but still feels powerful. Solitary labor in the earth as part of a simple chain of production, distribution, and consumption. This pre-capitalist world was all but dead in 1865. However, the viewers wanted to believe not simply for the sake of their national values, which depended on the Yeoman Farmer and all he represented, but also because it represented an image of war smoothly turned to peace. The sword changed to plowshare (Isaiah) and the warrior come home to toil in the earth (Cincinnatus).
I wondered looking at that image why so many veterans returned from the war would choose a life of toil on small homesteads, especially those who had no prior connection to the land. My answer seemed to be that it was a healing myth. A way home from the battlefield and a visual assurance to civilians that the war was over.
The second image comes from J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters From An American Farmer. (Note: Here I am citing the Penguin Edition, 1981.) Imagined as a series of letters explaining America to those in Europe, his third letter, “What is An American?,” provides a powerful verbal metaphor. That of people as plants moved from one soil to another:
“In this great American asylum, the poor of Europe have by some means met together…Urged by a variety of motives, here they came. Everything has tended to regenerate them: new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system; here they are become men: in Europe they were as so many useless plants, wanting vegetative mould and refreshing showers; they withered, and were mowed down by want, hunger and war; but now, by the power of transplantation, like all other plants they have taken root and flourished!” (Crevecoeur, 68-69).
Farming provides a healing myth for the returning veteran. It also provides in this instance a way to imagine the connection of immigrants to their new home. “Ubi panis ibi patria” (69). Where your bread is there is your country, Crevecoeur proclaims. How much better that bread when it is made from wheat grown on your own land. Suddenly you feel “rooted” to your surroundings and begin to flourish.
Soldiers toiling for the state. Immigrants tilling the soil. The two are cut from the same cloth. Both are attempts to answer the question that has puzzled decades of U.S. citizens, What is an American? Each of the images (verbal and visual) that I have cited above lay claim to the same answer. Till the soil and then you will understand. Then you will be rooted to the land and will be one of us.
Obviously there are limitations to this metaphor. But I’ve gone on long enough.
That’s all for this post. In my next entry I will give a recap of this year’s NEMLA convention. Hopefully I will see some of you in Hartford.
Until Next Time…
How we represent veterans matters. This is a concept central to my research, which attempts to provide historical perspective on the always complicated relationship between armies and the societies they were created to protect. To understand that relationship at a given place and time, I rely on images and phrases that have moved beyond their original more limited symbolic use to become mythic in nature. Once an image or phrase has shifted into the realm of myth, it contains a ready made story within it that viewers or readers don’t need to decode as much as re-enact. Two such phrases that have been on my mind considerably of late are: “more are dying every day” and “thank you for your service.”
The first of these phrases appeared in a somewhat altered form in an article published by the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, March 15 about seven brothers from the Powell family who had served in the Second World War. In that article, the writer addressed a move by the state of Illinois to name a section of highway in Greene County, Illinois “The Powell Brother’s Memorial Highway.” He suggested that state lawmakers should move fast, saying:
“George Powell is the last survivor among the Powell brothers and the lone surviving sibling of the 13 Powell children. He’s also 99 years old, living in a Traverse City, Mich., rehabilitation center. Meanwhile, the number of World War II vets continues to decline. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 550 veterans from that conflict die every day, and that 1.2 million of the 16 million who served in the war are alive today” (“Bad of Brothers.”).
Numbers don’t lie, according to this writer, and consequently we must hurry to honor the service of veterans such as George Powell, “550 veterans from that conflict die every day.” But the question we don’t ask as we read this article is why this war and why this sense of urgency? The writer assumes we already know.
Perhaps we do. But it is worth remembering that the Second World War is one of the “good wars” in American consciousness. Fought to save the world from Fascism and end the human rights abuses of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. In this respect at least, the Second World War bears a strong similarity to the United States Civil War, which was fought to end slavery and nudge the nation in the direction of improving civil rights for black men. So it should come as no surprise that the words and phrases used to describe these conflicts and their legacy are close in nature. Writing in a Galveston, Texas newspaper on Sunday, May 30, 1897, the writer claimed that:
“Nearly two thirds of those who fought in the Civil War have already passed away. Of the 2,800,000 men called into the service of the nation, only a few more than 1,000,000 remain. By 1940 these will be reduced to a battalion of 340, and, five years later, not one will be alive” (“More Than Half Are Dead.”).
There is something uncanny about the writer of this article in the 1890’s referencing dates that would become associated with the nation’s next “good war.” More important, however, is the logic of urgency that we see repeated in this article. The generation associated with the Civil War is rapidly dying off and soon no one with living memory of the war will remain. Honor the veterans while you may for soon none will walk among you.
In the Civil War era, this logic actually proved untrue. Although there is some dispute over when the last Civil War veteran died, many agree that it was some time in the 1960’s or 70’s. This rate of decline would be comparable to that of other wars as the last veterans of World War I have only recently died and the last veterans of the United States Revolutionary War died in the 1820’s and 30’s.
Belief in the rapid mortality of World War II vets, the last examples of what to the national mind must appear to be a blissfully uncomplicated war, is paired with the concept made visible in the phrase “thank you for your service.” Naming a roadway for George Powell and his brothers is one method of thanks. But now we find many businesses offering discounts to veterans and their families and the presence of a man or woman in uniform elicits spontaneous applause in airports and train stations. One veteran, Dave Duffy, complains in a Washington Post editorial from Thursday, March 19 that this action by U.S. civilians puts soldiers on a pedestal. He says:
I get it that society is grateful for our military service, and reasonably so. I also believe that society’s overboard efforts to recognize military service are directly related to the lasting guilt over how we treated returning Vietnam veterans….Teachers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, scientists, social workers, civil servants, diplomats and, yes, military all do our part to make our society a bit better while taking care of our citizens. All deserve admiration and thanks. (“Stop Putting Our Soldiers On a Pedestal.”).
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Duffy makes an important point that service should be the reason we honor veterans rather than latent guilt. Service to the country is what makes the concept of republican government work in the first place. Without people willing to vote, serve on juries, run for political office, and the many other thankless but necessary tasks that make up life in a participatory society, we do not have a participatory society.
So where does this leave us? How should we represent veterans and interact with them in a meaningful way?
I’ve thought about this question a great deal even as I’ve spent much of my time contextualizing the ways in which symbolic language use got us to the point we are at today. The best answers that I’ve arrived at so far are: Ask veterans how they would like to be remembered. Remember that not all veterans are the same.
Knowledge is the best cure for stereotyping of any person or group. For what is a myth but a form of stereotype? If you don’t know a veteran, make a point of befriending one in a genuine way. If you know a veteran, take the time to speak with them about their service. Also, it is important for all U.S. citizens to learn more about the military system that your tax dollars support. The civilian military gap can’t solely be blamed on soldiers. There is a lot as civilians that we simply don’t want to know. Army life is one of those things.
My research on veterans has been driven by a number of questions. Foremost among them has been how we as a culture choose to represent veterans in the United States. Naturally the answer to this question depends upon the war discussed. Conflicts far distant in our imagination take on a mythic status. Minute Men and the civilian militia dominate our mental portrait of The Revolutionary War while Johnny Reb and Billy Yank still loom large over the United States Civil War. World War Two remains framed by the “Greatest Generation” label associated with it by former news anchor Tom Brokaw. The Vietnam war is only slowly beginning to mythologize as its veterans advance in age and the war fades from living memory.
Part of the reason I chose to write a book on veterans of the Civil War was the challenge associated with attempting to recover the actual lives of veterans who fought in one of our nation’s most mythologized conflicts. Moving beyond the statues of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank that stand in town squares throughout most of the United States, I wanted to know: What had soldiers of the Civil War survived? How did they understand it? How did non-combatants understand them? What I discovered was that the Civil War served as a turning point in the way veterans were understood in American culture. It set in motion ways of understanding former soldiers that remain influential today.
We tend to take for granted that veterans are different from civilians. This assumption was not widely shared until the late nineteenth-century. Military service was a skill or craft and participation in a war one of the many events that took place in a man’s life. The unique nature of the Civil War, which nearly destroyed the country, marked the soldiers who survived this conflict differently from their forebears. In the last years of the war, the pace of combat also changed leaving soldiers psychologically scarred by events they did not have time to process until much later in their lives.
Civilians viewed the growth of the veteran as a distinct social category with apprehension. On the one hand, they were viewed as wounded warriors in need of civilian care and sympathy. On the other, veterans were a potentially destabilizing force to society. For every image of a pathos laden amputee returning to his family in Civil War era newspapers and magazines there was also a tramp, addicted to alcohol and drugs and never quite able to get his life together after the war. In spite of the gender assumptions of the era, it did not seem clear at all that war made men. Instead it seemed to unman them or remake them into something vaguely monstrous.
Time passes and the details change, but the Janus-like figure of the veteran as victim or threat remains. They are two different ways of looking at soldiers and yet they are inextricable from each other. Perhaps the best example in our own times remains the film First Blood (1982). John J. Rambo is a special forces veteran of the Vietnam War. Most viewers of the film will readily remember the action sequences as Rambo unleashes his military training upon a small town in the pacific northwest. What often gets forgotten, however, is the somber way in which the film begins. Rambo is a tramp. We first see him hitchhiking with his battered field jacket and pack. He is looking for fellow survivors from his unit in the war. His travels bring him to the pacific northwest where he discovers that another comrade has died since the war, this one of cancer. Not long after this depressing discovery, Rambo is confronted with a Sheriff who attempts to get him to leave his town. He rebuffs the Sheriff’s attempts to push him back on the road and gets arrested. Rambo is mistreated in prison and memories of the war emerge. Suddenly he sees himself as a P.O.W. in North Vietnamese captivity. Rambo escapes and engages in an epic battle with local law enforcement and the national guard. It is only when his former commander comes to “take him home” that the violence ends and peace is restored to the small town.
One doesn’t often expect to find a parable contained in a popular film, but First Blood is the veteran parable as we’ve inherited it in perfect form. Initially an object of pity, it takes very little effort for Rambo to become a threat. He has brought the war home with him and disrupted the lives of those far removed from it. Only by removing him can peace be restored. A soldier once, he is a soldier forever.
A better film in many respects than First Blood, winning six Oscars, The Hurt Locker (2008) nonetheless helps to perpetuate the “soldier once, soldier forever” theme. Bomb technician Sergeant William James is the protagonist of this film. Far from being a tramp, he is instead presented as a reckless adrenaline junky. James pushes the limits with each mission and in the process risks getting himself and his team blown up by a bomb. When he returns from his combat rotation, James attempts to readjust to civilian life with his family. We see him cleaning the leaves from the gutters of his home, helping his wife chop vegetables for dinner, watching the baby, and helping his wife shop at grocery store. In most of these tasks we see James attempting to feign some interest. We even see him filled with greater terror at the overabundance of the U.S. supermarket than he ever exhibited on the war-torn streets of Iraq. Uncomfortable at home, James re-enlists and the last we see of him he is leaving a troop transport at the airport for his new base.
Surprisingly, few have noted the significance of the name William James being used for the protagonist of this film. Nineteenth-century U.S. psychologist and philosopher William James was a proponent of a “moral equivalent of war.” Like most of his contemporaries, James wanted to believe in the man-making power of military service. At the same time, however, he had seen how the Civil War had scarred his younger brothers Wilky and Bob. James wondered if the uplifting aspects of the soldier’s life could be separated from the ugliness of war. The Hurt Locker has no such interest in war’s moral equivalent. Nevertheless, it does, like James’s research, remind us that war is not the soldier’s problem. It is a shared concern for the society that creates armies and sanctions war. In the end, this is what our current metaphors seek to evade. War is many things, but at its heart it is a social pathology rather than an individual malady.
No image can do justice to the full range of experience in any person’s life. Veterans are people with all their faults and virtues. They are also complex texts for a society to read and interpret. Unlike dead soldiers they talk back. Their stories bend and twist down many roads, assaulting our assumptions about ourselves and our world. That’s one reason why we continue to search for the right metaphor.