For people of my generation (Baby Boomers), we all know plenty of veterans: almost all of us had our dads and uncles serve in World War II or Korea, and many of my generation served in Vietnam. With the end of the draft and the professionalization of the military, Americans are less and less likely to personally know a military veteran, wartime or not. Organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are seeing dramatic declines in membership.
November 11, 1918, was Armistice Day, the day the War To End All Wars was settled. Armistice Day was an official holiday in the US until 1954 when it became Veterans Day. It turned out that The War to End All Wars wasn’t actually, so the US government decided to use Armistice Day as a day to honor all veterans of military service instead. And rightly so.
As the percentage of our population involved in military service declines—and as older veterans pass away—we are beginning to forget what armed service is all about.
All of which is why I recommend you do a couple of things this Veteran’s Day. First of all, find a Veteran’s Day commemoration program in your town and go to it. I’ve done this for years. They never last more than 15 minutes or so. Speeches are short. They raise the flag. They play “Taps.” Then sometime during the day, watch a movie about war that is realistic and unflinching. Here are five we recommend.
This is not a perfect movie. Far from it. The story framing director Steven Spielberg uses of a grandfather visiting the cemetery of Normandy is ineffective and almost trite. And the general premise of the story—a group of soldiers sent to retrieve another soldier whose three brothers have all been killed—is what they call in the business “too premise-y.” (In other words, too much of the story relies on the somewhat implausible premise of the story). But that opening 20 minutes depicting the invasion of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on D-Day is pure cinematic brilliance. This is what war is like, Spielberg says. It’s violent, terrifying, unfair, sickening, and grim.
There’s no battle scenes in this movie. This is, instead, an intimate and heart-wrenching portrayal of the terrible toll war takes on the men who serve and their families and loved ones. Many movie fans actively refuse to watch this movie because of the politics of the film’s two leads: Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, both of whom won Academy Awards for their performances here. My advice? Set those issues aside and give this Hal Ashby-directed movie a chance. It was one of the first movies to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and its devastating impact on vets and their families. Bruce Dern is brilliant, as well. This one is well worth your time.
At one point in his career, Oliver Stone made great movies. At one point. This movie, however, is one of his best. Based on the true story of Ron Kovic (who co-wrote the screenplay with Stone, a Vietnam vet himself), this movie tells the story of a patriotic young American from Long Island who goes off to war, comes home wounded, and whose wounds get deeper once he gets back home. The war never really ends for Ron Kovic, who is wonderfully portrayed by Tom Cruise.
Clint Eastwood retells the story of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima during that horrific battle near the end of World War II. This movie goes into the real story of the men in that famous photograph (which later became a statue) and the battle that is its setting. Iwo Jima was one of the biggest and most violent battles in World War II, resulting in more than 23,000 killed on both sides. And Eastwood does tell both sides. The companion movie (which I also highly recommend) is Letters from Iwo Jima, and is the story of the same battle from the Japanese point of view.
Mark Wahlberg stars in this Peter Berg-directed movie about a failed Navy SEALs mission in Afghanistan in 2007. The war in Afghanistan is now the longest war the U.S. has ever fought in, and there appears to be no particular end in sight. Based on a true story, four Navy SEALs are on a secret mission to kill a Taliban leader when they are found out and pursued. Only one member of the team survives. The terrors and absurdities of the war in Afghanistan are fully examined here. The movie leaves you wondering what, exactly, it is that we expect from our troops there and what the end of this war will look like.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.