It is evident that the U.S. has a serious divide. I am not referring to Republican or Democrat divisions, but the divide between military service members and the general civilian public. About 1% of the U.S. population are currently serving in the armed forces and about 7% are veterans. Increasingly, military service has become a generational occupation, geographically centered in areas surrounding military installations. Due to the smaller pool of American serving and their geographic concentration, fewer Americans know someone who serves or has served in the military, let alone the challenges they and their families face in support of our freedom.
I do believe it behooves people to forge relationships with veterans so they can empathize with their struggles, their burdens, and their call to service. I have been blessed to know quite a few veterans simply because of my geographic proximity to large military communities. However, I do not expect everyone to able to forge these relationships so conveniently as I did.
Precisely because of the inconvenience and limited contact, the typical American’s relationship with the military is mediated through movies and televisions. There are definite downsides to this limited engagement, but as a starting point I wanted to provide some recommendations on various forms of art that can act as an entry into a soldier’s struggles. I encourage you to set aside some time over this extended weekend to delve into these books and film pieces as a jumping off point for getting to know our veterans better.
1. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
A collection of short stories detailing the difficulties and dehumanizing effects of the Vietnam War. It does not delve so much into the political controversy of the war, but rather narrows it focus onto the lives of an American platoon. Switching from the home front to the battlefield, the short stories create a rich tapestry of the loss of innocence in combat, the alienation from family and friends upon return, and the sheer fear of combat.
2. The Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell
A detailed, first-hand account of Operation Red Wing, a Navy Seal led mission in Afghanistan that goes awry. Reading Luttrell’s account of dodging death from Taliban fighters is gripping and exhilarating, giving you a feel for the physical pain, distress, and adrenaline of combat. However, the tragic backdrop to Luttrell’s ordeal sobers one to the cost of that thrill when not everyone makes it home.
3. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
I should put at least on WWI-related book considering Veterans Day lands on, and stems from, Armistice Day. Remarque’s text is a highly critical assessment of war and its costs. This pessimistic outlook is earned though considering his account pertains to one of the costliest, bleakest, and most pointless conflicts in world history. Read it for the enrapturing, penetrating prose about the hellish trenches along the Western Front and the critique of blind nationalism, which can be used to commit men to demonize their opponents.
Arguably, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, portrayals of World War II close combat. Based on the best-selling book by Stephen Ambrose, this HBO series dives into the training and missions of an American parachute company. From the D-Day landing to the Battle of the Bulge, the series captures the deep bonds forged between men in combat.
The modern update to Band of Brothers, this follows the exploits of a Marine Reconnaissance Unit as it leads the invasion into Iraq during the Second Gulf War. Searingly honest about the difficulties and bureaucratic frustrations of executing military operations at a tactical level, viewers get a feel for (1) the hardcore nature and ethos of the U.S. Marine Corps and (2) the need to adapt to fluid battle conditions on the ground.
Twelve O’ Clock High is about an aerial bombing unit during WWII. A new Brigadier General played by the ever compelling Gregory Peck, is tasked with bringing beleaguered bomber unit up to snuff. Containing one of the most candid speeches on combat, this compelling film examines what it takes to complete one’s military mission even in the face of near-imminent death. Furthermore, it highlights the balancing act commanders must undertake as they have to sometimes override their affectionate feeling towards their troops in order to instill the necessary discipline to survive.
This is not a combat film, but rather depicts the various homecomings of veterans returning from World War II. It has one of the most sympathetic portraits of a disabled veteran in cinematic history and is superbly acted. Other films have shown the awkward and, sometimes traumatic experiences soldiers confront when adjusting to life after war, but none that I have seen with the depth and generational diversity as this classic.
I encourage people to see both these documentary films by Sebastian Junger. Junger embedded himself with an American platoon in a forward operating post in Afghanistan. Raw and candid, Restrepo portrays the drudgery of war punctuated by firefighting. Korengal is Junger’s efforts to follow up with the men who he documented in Restrepo and see how they are adjusting to civilian life. Watching both these films creates a holistic portrait of what combat does to someone both on and off the battlefield.
Watching or reading even one of these pieces is a good step in understanding some of what the veteran experience is like. However, I still encourage everyone to reach out to a veteran you know, family or otherwise, and give them the opportunity to share their experience (as long as they are willing and want to). To all those who have served and continue to serve, thank you for your service to this nation.