The Best Years Of Their Lives

There is nothing I can tell you about 9/11, and what it did for and to this nation, that you haven’t heard a million times from people much smarter than me.

But a while ago, I saw The Best Years Of Our LIves, the 1946 William Wyler classic that won the Academy Award winner for best picture.  It was the story of three servicemen coming home from World War II; a former bank loan officer who’d spent the war as an infantry platoon sergeant; a soda jerk who’d won a Distinguished Flying Cross as a bombardier in a B-17, and a sailor who’d lost both hands when his ship was sunk (played respectively by Fredric March, whose turn as the ex-NCE won the Best Actor Oscar, as well as Dana Andrews as the bombardier and Harold Russell, who had actually lost both hands to an accidental training explosion while serving as a paratrooper, and who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role).  The movie was about the difficulties the veterans of the day had in re-adjusting to life at home – and shows that the topic didn’t first occur after Vietnam.  If you’ve never watched it, don’t watch another movie until you see it.

It won seven Oscars – and generations of admiration from an America that got it; it told the story that so many veterans couldn’t, and for decades didn’t, tell.

And World War II was different – and almost incomprehensible to people today.  12 million Americans served, out of a population of 160 million; that’s one out of thirteen.  And around 400,000 Americans died of all causes and on all fronts during the war – one out of every thirty that served, one American out of four hundred.  Every family had a servicemember; virtually everyone knew a family that lost someone.

In World War II, just about everyone was close to the war, one way or another.

The War on Terror that switched into its “hot” phase for most of us eleven years ago today has been very different.  While most Americans of all stripes make noises about supporting the troops – and most truly do, in their own way – it’s a whole different world than in the forties.  It’s a detached thing for most Americans.  Less than one percent of Americans serve.  For most Americans, service in the war on terror is something someone else, someone else’s family, does.

In terms of loss?  We’ve suffered around 6,000 military dead in the past 11 years; an incalculable loss of some of our nation’s best people, of course, but about the same death toll as three weeks on Iwo Jima (where the oldest brother of my father’s childhood friends was killed), or two months in the waters off Okinawa (where my ex-father-in-law served).  Most Americans can name someone who died in the service of this country – but for most of America, it involves someone else’s family, someone else’s husband or son or father, frequently from some far corner of their family or social circle.

I was never that someone else.  I came close to joining the service a few times – talked with an Army recruiter in high school and again after college, and with the Navy Reserve when I was in my mid-twenties – but like 99% of Americans, I took a different path.  On 9/11 I was a 38 year old guy with a couple kids and a job in a dotcom that was already failing, with a bad knee.  Not exactly military material.

And so for me, like most of you, this war has been something fought by someone else.  It’s someone else’s family dreading deployments and watching their family climbing onto buses and planes and dreading reports of violence on the news and counting the hours until their loved ones come home, in many cases to start the cycle over again.

And so today I’ll just send my prayers and hopes and best wishes and deepest thanks to all of the “someone elses” out there; all of you who did spend the best years of your lives overseas fighting a war that most of your countrymen barely acknowledge, much less understand.

I’m hoping someone, someday tells your story in the way you deserve it to be told.

8 thoughts on “The Best Years Of Their Lives

  1. I’m not sure the real story of my generation of warriors is ready to be told, not yet anyways. The things we have done are still to fresh, too real to be told in a way that will be appealing to the average American.

    If you think about it, none of the best WWII war movies were made until the 60’s, and Vietnam was too raw to touch until the mid 80’s, but even those were mostly protest movies disguised as entertainment.

    And no, I wasn’t skipping other forms of media in terms of telling the story of the GWOT generation. But I think we all can agree that the current generation, those who the story will be marketed towards, are increasingly reliant on video rather than print for their character defining information on world events.

  2. Dave,

    While a lot of great WW2 movies were made from the sixties through the nineties, there were some great movies made in the forties; “12 O’Clock High”, “The Story of GI Joe”, “Mrs. Miniver”, “, and of course “The Best Years Of Our Lives”.

    But that’s just nit-picking.

    And you’re right – this war is more complicated. And it’s probably too early.

    And thank you for the time you spent serving this country overseas.

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