Since I wrote about World War I, there has been a big-budget movie about the subject. Which, um, I still haven’t seen. Still, it is an acknowledgement of a war that really shaped the twentieth century in ways we’re still processing more than a century later. We don’t have a lot of those. Everyone wants to talk about World War II, but World War I comes up a lot less. My theory has always been that it’s the ambiguity; you have a lot harder time making a movie about World War I with distinct Bad Guys, given the nature of the war. And that is probably also why we don’t really get much into the interior lives of actual soldiers in any kind of realistic way.
Just to be clear, here, I’m not an outspoken fan of the military in general or the US military in particular. The first college information packet I got was for West Point, and after I stopped laughing, I called a friend so she could laugh, too. (And that was even before I started thinking about my physical and mental conditions that meant they wouldn’t let me in.) However, my dad was career Air Force, my partner is Army Reserves, and I live in an area where I just kind of end up knowing a lot of military people, because a large base is just up the road from me, so close that their artillery practice bothers me several times a year.
But the fact is, even I know that the way soldiers are portrayed in most media is nothing like the average kind of actual soldier. Yes, Truman’s integration of the military did have the result that a lot of units are the kind of “cross section of Americana” that you’d get, with a Southerner and a guy from the inner city and a cowboy and so forth. Or something along those lines, at least. But the movies never get that much into why those people joined, and that’s worth discussing, too.
Okay, in most war movies, they were probably drafted. Fair enough. Even the officers were usually drafted in World War II movies, because World War II. However, sometimes, that’s not really an answer. Take Good Morning, Vietnam—a lot of those soldiers were drafted, and we know that. In fact, Adrian Cronauer himself enlisted because he was about to be drafted, and by enlisting he was able to choose where he served. It’s a common story. It’s also one that isn’t mentioned much, though Donald Duck did that once.
I don’t know why my dad enlisted. He was career military and ended up as a recruiting officer, during Vietnam no less, but he died before it was a conversation I would have with him. My partner enlisted because he literally did not know what else to do out of high school, then reenlisted because he likes the steady paycheck, especially given our kids, and he gets medical coverage. There are movies like Winter’s Bone, that do establish that there are people who enlist in the military because it seems like the way out of their situation—and honestly, in many cases it is. The military’s not great as far as pay, but it is, as my partner will tell you, steady and better than minimum wage.
Of course, that’s another ambiguity; we venerate the military in this country in a way that frankly makes my partner uncomfortable—please stop thanking him for his service when he’s just trying to, like, buy Hot Pockets—but we don’t talk as much as we should about how it’s basically siphoning the determined and intelligent people out of the inner cities and deeply rural areas and during war disposing of them. Not a lot of them get to be officers, but as Ree Dolly will tell you, better to be a grunt than homeless. I’m sure my partner knows people who dealt with that.
Yes, there are people who join the military out of a sense of patriotism. I know some. And I’ve definitely known at least one person who joined because the weaponry was just that appealing. I’ve even known a few former draftees, although of course there aren’t any of those these days. I don’t know why all the military and former military people I know joined. There are a lot of reasons, and they don’t always feel like sharing. But it might be nice if pop culture were aware of them.