Seventy years ago, Americans celebrated their first peacetime summer since Pearl Harbor by heading to the beaches and mountains in record numbers. With gas (just 21 cents a gallon) no longer rationed, families could again take car trips.
But for returning GIs, 1946 was filled with apprehension. The competition for good jobs was fierce, and finding affordable housing, even with access to a low-interest GI loan, was tough going. That year, no film captured the uncertainties vets faced more graphically than William Wyler’s Academy Award-winning The Best Years of Our Lives.
How much has changed? According to Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, a new book gaining widespread attention, not much.
Junger is preoccupied with explaining why becoming a civilian is so unsettling for so many vets, and like Wyler, he refuses to accept what he sees as the easy answer—the vets are victims of the trauma of war.
For Junger, a much-admired war correspondent and the director of Restrepo and Korengal, two haunting films about American troops in Afghanistan, the primary source of our vets’ postwar difficulties is not the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that we have asked them to fight, misguided as the wars may be. The vets’ biggest problem, in his eyes, is American society. Junger does not romance war in Tribe, but on the basis of what he has seen, he believes the stress of combat draws men together rather than divides them.
Junger’s thinking—radical, but not ideological, in its critique of American life—dovetails with recent Army data that shows for soldiers who have had multiple combat assignments, the suicide rate drops when they are deployed but rises when they return home.
Our vets come back from battlefields in which they have put aside differences in race, politics, and religion, in order to deal with a common enemy, and what they discover, Junger writes, is a country that “regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary.”
“Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it,” Junger maintains. A similar view lies at the heart of The Best Years of Our Lives and its depiction of a home front that is far more destructive of the vets’ sense of themselves than the Second World War ever was.
At the core of The Best Years of Our Lives is the belief that during the Second World War, American GIs acquired values that made them more caring and more introspective than they were prior to the war. It was, the film implicitly argued, up to American society to live up to the GIs’ newfound expectations, not the other way around.
The Best Years of Our Lives follows three vets, Homer Parrish, a seaman, Al Stephenson, an Army sergeant, and Fred Derry, an Air Force bombardier, as they struggle with a peacetime America that in big and small ways lets them down. We first meet the three men as they fly back to their home town, the fictional Boone City.
Homer Parrish (played by Harold Russell, an actual vet, not a professional actor) is the GI with the most to overcome. He has lost both his hands in an explosion, and he must use metal hooks instead of his fingers. Homer fears that Wilma, the girl he is engaged to marry, will be repelled by his hooks. Their most intimate moment in the film comes when Homer explains to Wilma that when he goes to bed and removes his hooks, he is utterly helpless. Wilma never turns away from Homer, but their future remains clouded. Homer rejects the advice of Wilma’s father that he go into the insurance business in order to take advantage of the sympathy vets like him arouse, but his alternative—rely on the disability pay the government provides him—leaves him in a position in which he is going to have to live with his or Wilma’s parents for the foreseeable future.
Al Stephenson (Frederic March), the oldest of the vets, is also the best off. He has left behind a bank job, a wife, and two children, and he returns to a stable situation. At the bank Al is put in charge of GI loans, but when he makes a loan to a vet whose character he admires but who has little credit, he is admonished not to do it again. At a dinner honoring him for his wartime service, Al speaks of the bank playing a new role in postwar America, but he knows that it is never going to fulfill that role. As he sardonically puts it, “Last year it was kill Japs. This year it’s make money.”
The third returning vet, Air Force Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), is the one who achieved the highest rank in the military, but he is also the one who falls the hardest when he comes home. As Al remarks, “It isn’t easy for those Air Force glamor boys when they get grounded.” Fred finds that his wife no longer loves him and that his former job as a soda jerk is the only one he can get. Fred is in love with Al’s daughter Peggy, but he won’t ask her to marry him when he can’t support her.
At the end of the movie, Fred finally lands a job with a company that makes houses from scrap metal salvaged from old planes, but the job can only last as long as there are unused planes. Fred has no illusions about his future. When he proposes to Peggy at Homer’s and Wilma’s wedding, he tells her, “It may take us years to get anywhere. We’ll have no money, no decent place to live. We’ll have to work . . . get kicked around.”
Fred’s words sound as if they might be dialogue from John Steinbeck’s Great Depression novel The Grapes of Wrath, and sum up The Best Years of our Lives. It’s clear that like Homer and Al, Fred has a tough life ahead of him.
The changes required take to make all three vets’ lives better are never spelled out by Wyler, nor does he deal with the added difficulties black and Hispanic vets faced in 1946 as they went from a segregated Army to an America in which housing and job discrimination was the norm.
Junger, by contrast, is explicit about saying what today’s vets need, and acknowledging the gaps between rich and poor, black and white. He ends his book by telling the story of Martin Bauman, a vet and the head of a job placement firm, who in difficult times asked his employees to take a 10 percent reduction in their salaries so that he wouldn’t have to fire anybody. Bauman then gave up his own salary entirely until his company was back on safe ground.
That sense of solidarity—being a member of a tribe, as Junger puts it—is what he believes our vets need these days in order to experience a true welcome home. Exactly how we might as a matter of policy achieve this sense of solidarity and what role the government should play in bringing it about, Junger does not say in his short, 168-page book. Tribe is first and last a plea, not a blueprint, for our developing a “culture of compassion” at a time when bitter divisions rule American politics.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial.