Sometimes you just wonder … why bother? People work to change things, and ten years later, twenty years later, a century later, not much is different. Civil War veterans were treated abominably. Things were so bad for WWI vets that they marched on Washington in 1932, camped in a Hooverville, and had their heads busted by Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, and later had their benefits denied by Franklin Roosevelt. Korean War vets … who? What? We’ve worked pretty hard to forget about Korea entirely, and if it hadn’t been for M*A*S*H we probably would have, so I don’t know how those vets were treated. Viet Nam? Unpopular war, unpopular army, My Lai, body counts … you can see here in Coming Home and in Born on the Fourth of July how those guys were treated. It took forever for the bureaucrats to agree that “Gulf War Syndrome” might be something real. Duuuuh! We’ve recognized GWS since at least 1865, and it’s been called by a lot of names, but it’s the same thing: soldier’s heart, nostalgia, shellshock, war neurosis, neurasthenia, battle fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder. All the same thing. So why does the army have such a hard time with it? Well, it’s sort of … cowardly, don’t you think? Real men … Rambo, John Wayne, Bruce Willis, the Terminator … they wouldn’t get it, would they? Although, come to think of it, Rambo was pretty fucked up …
Oh, fuck it. This movie isn’t primarily about PTSD, though it plays a part with all three of the main male characters, two veterans and one serving marine, played wonderfully by Bruce Dern, who does creepy and intense better than almost anybody. It’s about many things, but the thing that impresses the most, if you’re as old as I am and know a little bit of history, is how soldiers, the actual men (and now women) who do the fighting, are tossed aside when their usefulness is over like empty artillery shells. They’re even less useful, because you can recycle the shells for the brass and then they’re gone, but the wounded soldiers … well, there they sit, hollow-eyed, paralyzed, arms and legs blown off, blind, burned, minds cracked open like rotten eggs, and they … well, the whiny little buggers keep asking for stuff. Sometimes demanding things, like the Bonus Marchers of WWI. Imagine! Things like a decent living, respect, good medical care, outrageous shit like that. Where is Doug MacArthur when we need him, huh?
Well, MacArthur is alive and well in the Bush Administration, whose military bureaucrats sometimes classes guys with both legs blown off as 10% disabled. Where Walter Reed was allowed to degenerate into a rat-filled shit hole. Where the most common and disabling injury in the era of Iraqi improvised explosive devices, IEDs, is the head injury, which can hide for a while and pop up later, and thus is being under-diagnosed by 50% or more. Hell, they’re probably just slacking, right? You know soldiers. Well, of course nobody in the Bush Administration really does know soldiers, since none of them ever served in combat, but they know soldiers are not their kind of people, since most of ’em were just a step up from being welfare slackers when they took the King’s shilling as the best of a bad lot of choices. I mean, really! Why else would they join the “all volunteer” army? Patriotism? Shit, I’m a patriot, say Monkey Boy and Cheney, and I didn’t serve! I had other priorities, like getting rich (Cheney), and blowing off my joke National Guard service to party and snort blow (Monkey Boy).
Again, fuck it. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it. It’s not going to change.
So how does the movie hold up? Very well. At this remove it’s hard to recall how shocking it was, to see these actual wounded vets and what they went through, the treatment they received. It probably opened a lot of eyes as to the non-romantic side of being a paraplegic, too, including diapers and ruptured piss bags. And there was also the sexual romantic side, probably never seen before on the big screen, and seldom seen since. (I mean, it’s kind of icky, isn’t it?) Fonda and Voight won Oscars and deserved them; Dern was out-creepied by the only actor who could possibly do that: Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter, which also won Best Picture.
Yes sir, 1978 was a Viet Nam year at the movies. And, it seems, so is 2007, but not at the movies. In real life. In the veterans hospitals.