The Best Years of Our Lives

A couple of months ago I was listening to an episode of the Angry Planet podcast that featured a conversation with Gregory Daddis about his book Pulp Vietnam (now on my reading list). The conversation meandered towards depictions of the American war experience, the military and ‘homecoming’ in film. For the most part, we’ve reached a place where these depictions have become mostly cartoonish or simply exploitative (10 second “surprise homecoming” videos on the nightly news). There are exceptions, of course, but it is rare that the true essence of “what it’s like” is captured in media.

Anyway, Daddis mentioned the film “The Best Years of Our Lives” as one of the best in this category (homecoming). I had never heard of it, and I am endlessly fascinated with the subject, so I made a note to check it out.

Produced at the end of World War II, the film follows the story of three veterans who return home at the war’s conclusion to the same Midwestern hometown – a grizzled infantry NCO who is actually a wealthy banker with a family, a dashing officer and bombardier who comes from a poor family and lived in a shack, and a young sailor who lost both his hands in an accident during the war. The film follows the three through their homecoming experience over time. The elation of being home and free, the dissatisfcation with “regular life,” depression and flirtations with alcoholism, and the frustration of trying to get things going.

The film was a commerical and critical success – winning seven Academy Awards while also selling out theaters during its release.

Given its contemporary popularity and critical success, how could I have not have heard of it?

It’s not a war movie. It’s not about combat. It’s about people and family – the veterans and the folks around them – and the real struggle that they all face when veterans return home.

It’s odd to me that perhaps the best film to capture “what it’s like” – even now – came out right as the big war ended nearly 80 years ago. It kind of makes sense though. It was still so raw and new, there wasn’t time to mythologize the war as it would be shortly thereafter. Things were still too fresh and the only way to tell the story was the way it was being experienced. Anything else would have been a fantasy.

It’s 2021 now. We’re twenty years removed from the start of the Global War on Terrorism. So many men and women have run through that gauntlet (and still do today). Personally, I’ve been so wrapped up in the machinations of that grind that it’s easy to forget what’s going on.

The movie holds up. I found that the characters are more relateable today than most of the archetypes depicted in other media – film, games, literature, whatever.

For a much better synopsis of the film, here is a 2007 review by Roger Ebert.

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Last night’s Budweiser ad “A Hero’s Welcome” was exploitative and offensive

I’m just going to get right into it. I am not a fan of this ad. It makes me angry. I’ve written previously about the recent growth of exploitative, “homecoming” images used as entertainment. This is worse, because it’s not entertainment. It’s an advertisement. Fitting for Budweiser, the “King of Beers” to go bigger than the rest.

An empty airport, two separated souls embracing, an outpouring of joy. Stirring music accompaniment to bring you along if the images weren’t enough. Smiling faces and old people saluting.

This is not how homecomings happen. It is an anomaly. A staged event. A charade.

Mind you, this advertisement appeared in the midst of the biggest football game of the year. A sport whose identity has been interwoven with the military through the spectacle of pre-game military flyovers, salutes to troops, moments of silence, and images of soldiers watching from overseas. To watch American football is to support the military.

Also interwoven, but often brushed aside, is the tragic story of Pat Tillman, the player who left the NFL to enlist in the Army and tragically died when he was shot by members of his own unit. And the strange way that both NFL players and soldiers face traumatic brain injuries from their time spent on the gridiron or the battlefield, and then struggle to readjust to life outside and find good medical care.

Undoubtedly, as the commercial began, the room you were in got quiet and somber as you watched. If it wasn’t quiet, someone aggressively shouted down the room to pay attention – this was important. You watched. When it ended, someone quietly commented how nice that was of Budweiser.

Then the game came back on and no one gave it a second thought. If you happened to be drinking Budweiser, you felt good for doing your part to “support the troops.”

“Everybody supports the troops,” Dime woofs, “support the troops, support the troops, hell yeah we’re so fucking PROUD of our troops, but when it comes to actual money? Like somebody might have to come out of pocket for the troops? Then all the sudden we’re on everybody’s tight-ass budget. Talk is cheap, I got that, but gimme a break. Talk is cheap but money screams, this is our country, guys. And I fear for it. I think we should all fear for it.” – Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Don’t be fooled. What you saw last night was a beer advertisement. The ultimate aim was to sell more beer. The last thing you saw, after all, was a bright red screen with the Budweiser logo. The hope is that you link “supporting the troops,” a vague, meaningless statement, to drinking Budweiser beer.

Yes, the images we saw were nice. The homecoming that young 1LT Chuck Nadd received undoubtedly felt special to him and his family. And Budweiser and its parent company, Anheuser Busch, have donated millions of dollars to military charities. That is commendable.

That said, this homecoming wasn’t coordinated with pure altruism in mind. If it was, we wouldn’t know about it. It wouldn’t have been filmed and edited. And Budweiser certainly wouldn’t have bought some of the most expensive ad space known to man to showcase it for millions of beer drinking Americans.

What then, was the goal of running that ad last night? Was it to demonstrate how Budweiser beer cares about the military? Can a corporation care at all? Was it to increase awareness of the service and sacrifice of soldiers and their families? Or was the whole thing designed to sell more beer? There was no call to action in the ad, after all. Just a pithy hashtag to “#Salute a Hero.”

Thanks.

Maybe if I was younger or not so involved in this world I would be more forgiving and just accept what I saw as a nice way to honor our troops. As someone pointed out to me, at least it is better than the homecoming many Vietnam veterans received when they came home. Maybe I should lighten up, some might say. It was a nice gesture.

The problem is, it’s not about the homecoming or the images I saw on the screen. It’s about the way those images are being used. I’ve been seeing this same thing over and over since 2001. The image of US service members used for others’ gain. Packaged, edited, and put to music to make you “feel” something. Then the logo for whatever product is being sold.

And you’re not supposed to challenge it because to challenge it is to challenge the “troops.”

I’m not challenging the troops. I’m not challenging 1LT Nadd.

Welcome home, LT.

I’m challenging the way we simply accept anything linked to the troops as gospel. We must support whatever it is that we see on the screen because it was linked to the troops.

This is exploitation at its worse because so few will see it as so. I understand that my sentiment, though shared by many others who serve and have served, is in the extreme minority.

I’d be much more pleased if Budweiser left the military alone and stuck to “WAZZUP” and frogs. If you want to do something for the military, do it quietly, without plastering your logo on the end of it.

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