by Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D.
My Honors students and I recently watched the 1946 Oscar-winning film, The Best Years of Our Lives, which follows three World War II veterans as they return home and struggle to settle back into civilian life. Homer Parrish (portrayed by an actual wounded World War II veteran) lost both hands while serving with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. Fred Derry, an Army Air Forces captain, suffered from nightmares of his time at war. Sgt. Al Stephenson took to the bottle to smooth the jarring reentry into his roles as husband, father, and banker. There were no ticker tape parades, no triumphant landing of victorious soldiers into the arms of a jubilant public. The three veterans arrived at an airport alone, and in trying to find a flight to their hometown, learned that they were all going to the same place. No one met them when they landed. They shared a taxi, which dropped them off at their respective homes on an ordinary day. They hugged their families, and everyone expected things to get back to normal. But the vets only felt “normal” when they were in each other’s company, sharing drinks and stories at the local bar.
Change the fashion, the cars, and the soundtrack, and The Best Years of Our Lives could have been about Vietnam veterans. The lonely return home, the struggle to cope with war wounds and terrifying flashbacks, and the difficulty reconnecting with family and civilian friends are all hallmarks of the American public memory of the Vietnam veteran. What’s more, we have created an image of the Vietnam veteran as a man whose wartime experience was distinct, especially when compared to the vets of his father’s generation. The Vietnam veteran was ignored, if not abused. The Vietnam War was uniquely traumatic, and all Vietnam veterans served in combat units or were otherwise in the line of fire. America was on the winning side of World War II, so that made it easier for veterans to process the pain. Not so, according to The Best Years of Our Lives.
The comparison between the World War II and Vietnam veteran experiences struck me because I was watching Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War at the same time that my students and I watched The Best Years of Our Lives. Burns enforces the image of the distinctly damaged Vietnam veteran by prioritizing the voices of infantrymen and Marines. The archival footage of Americans shows men in violent battle, and the veterans interviewed describe the horrors of combat. The anecdotes are dramatic, and the documentary’s use of them suggests that combat was the primary American experience in Vietnam. Karl Marlantes, Tim O’Brien, and W.D. Ehrhart no doubt conveyed the feelings and experiences of many Americans who served in Vietnam. Yet historian Meredith Lair has argued with convincing archival evidence that, depending on the year, most American troops served in the rear echelon, where the greatest risk to soldiers and the military’s mission was boredom.
Burns does not tell that story. His is a fairly one-dimensional view of the U.S. soldier’s experience in Vietnam, just as the long-established image of World War II troops gleefully returning home to a hero’s welcome is simplistic. Americans—the public, filmmakers, writers, and historians—seem to be unwilling or unable to complicate the popular portrayals of World War II and Vietnam veterans. Why not acknowledge that some veterans of “the good war” spent their entire lives battling their wartime demons? Why not incorporate into our national narrative stories of Vietnam vets like Joel Blackwell, whose time in-country was an adventure, “a lark,” as he wrote recently in the New York Times?
Why are Americans so invested in the story of the traumatized Vietnam veteran? If American male soldiers appear as victims in our collective memory, does that help us stomach the bad policies and decisions Americans made regarding Vietnam? If Vietnam vets were uniquely traumatized by their war experiences compared to veterans of other wars, does that allow Americans to argue that the Vietnam War was an anomaly rather than a typical example of what the U.S. does in the world? I often wonder what World War II veterans might have told us if they had come out of war into a culture of consciousness raising and protest. Had Ken Burns interviewed American veterans who had no gruesome tales to tell, it would have been more difficult for him to produce a documentary that portrays Americans as victims of the Vietnam War, rather than perpetrators or bystanders.
Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is the Gen. Buford “Buff” Blount Professor in Military History and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. She is co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) and author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011).