We Didn't Do That Did We? Representation of the Veteran Experience

Article excerpt

"I sometimes find myself wondering, in a sudden panic, whether I'm not in the way of developing great numb patches in my sensibility of which I shall never be cured even if I do come through this war...I sometimes see myself in the future transformed into a sort of invalid who has suffered an amputation of all his delicate sentiments, like a man who has lost all his fingers and can only feel things with a couple of stumps. And there will be millions of us like that."

-Jules Romains, Men of Good Will

"I don't feel like me anymore."

-Timmy, Born on the Fourth of July

The theme of this paper is the returning war veteran. It began as a comparison of four films, The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946), The Men (Fred Zinnemann, 1950), Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978), and Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989), each dealing with the experience of returning veterans from one of two conflicts, World War II or the Vietnam War. There was clearly what Dixon Wecter calls a "repetition of pattern" in those experiences, so that it became interesting to compare how far these patterns could be extended and what other mediums apart from film had been used to illustrate the veteran experience. It seemed that some kind of commonalty emerged from the accounts of veterans, their families and the wider society into which they returned, and that the difficulties and problems described in such accounts were universal. But popular culture, and perhaps popular myth also, leaves one with a sense that the experience for the Vietnam veteran was somehow different. Not only was this war more problematic for society but the position of its veterans was also more complicated. This paper seeks to question that sense of difference. Was the Vietnam veteran's experience much changed from that of other veterans and, if so, what reasons can be found for this difference? The paper will compare veteran experiences from a number of other conflicts and, while using the four films cited as a basis for discussion, it will also call upon evidence from literature and history.

In his farsighted book, Veteran Comes Back, written in 1944 as America was considering the fate of the returning World War II veteran, Professor Willard Waller wrote extensively of the problems encountered by previous veteran groups. The issues he raises form a useful baseline for any consideration of the veteran experience. He writes most impressively about anger and isolation, the two traits which seem, at least initially, to define the veteran's state of mind. Waller describes his own encounters with veterans from World War I:

The soldier is glad to be home, but he comes home angry... In the early months of 1919, the writer [Waller] talked with a great many other demobilized soldiers on Chicago streets. Although he had felt something of the service-man's rebellion, he was astonished as any civilian at the intensity of their fury. They were angry about something; it was not clear just what. The writer questioned many of them, but found not one who could put his grievances into understandable form. But there was never any mistaking their temper. They hated somebody for something. (95)2

This anger is most immediately expressed in the actions of soldiers still in the field. Dixon Wecter describes the feelings of the soldier at the end of the American Civil War: "A freeborn American, he could not always comprehend why the red tape of demobilization held him back" (135). Once the conflict ends, soldiers have time to brood over the conditions which, in wartime seemed necessary, but which are now vexing. Wecter records two comments from soldiers awaiting demobilization after World War I:

"I sure am homesick since they quit fighting," wrote an Illinois private to his mother..."While they were fighting, it never entered my mind. But now that is about all I have to think about."

The second [comment] comes from a young schoolteacher draftee from Virginia: "Nobody minded the lice very much until after the Armistice" (272). …