War Vet as Freak Show

by Lewis Manalo

I took part in combat missions for Operation Enduring Freedom 1, 2, & 3.  Translated, that means I spent some time in Afghanistan before “Dear John” letters got sent via text message.

I don’t usually tell people when I first meet them that I’m a war vet.  The minute a person knows it, everything about me is seen in that context.  They immediately think of those cinematic images of soldiers running or marching in formation, and “Have you ever killed anybody?” is always the first idiotic question to come out of some jackass’ mouth.  In a reflex conditioned by our media, most people assume I’m one of those traumatized war vets of the silver screen like Tobey Maguire in Brothers.

This awful movie revels in propagating the stereotype of the war veteran as a brainwashed, traumatized paranoid who is constantly on the verge of committing acts of violence.  These filmmakers could’ve chosen to make a movie about a cheap Jew or a lazy Mexican – or even an obese and abused black teen who needs to be rescued from the slums.  But they decided to stereotype the men and women fighting our country’s wars.  To me this is more offensive than simple, irrational racism, because this stereotype begins with a twisted, compassionate thought.  Kind of like how some people will treat people who don’t know English like they’re mentally retarded.  So on this anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, put that notion on the scale of every war veteran who’s still alive today from any and every war and police action that this country has been involved in.

As the veteran of Brothers, Tobey Maguire is supposed to be the loving father in the stilted opening scenes, and his patriotic family calls him a hero before he deploys.  Some Afghans capture Tobey and one of his Marines, and after a completely unbelievable Traumatic Event, Tobey comes home.  He immediately suspects that his ex-con brother Jake Gyllenhaal is schtupping his wife, Natalie Portman.

While Tobey was a POW starving in the hands of stock bad guys, ex-con Jake was rehabilitating himself in the familial paradise of Natalie Portman and her two daughters.  Even his hard-ass retired Jarhead father, Sam Shepard comes to forgive his bad son’s shortcomings.  Hell, Jake fixed up Natalie’s kitchen, so now he’s a handy, domesticated guy.  He’s managed to become what a man at home is supposed to be.

As for Jake’s brother, now that  he’s home from war, he’s not as good to have around the house as Jake.  Tobey’s not so playful anymore?  That jerk.  He yells at his little girls when they misbehave?  Horrendous!  Repugnant!  He asks his Major, Clifton Collins, Jr. (a cardboard character who never salutes) if he can deploy back to Afghanistan?  Unheard of!  What Marine in his right mind would want to go to war?  Tobey must be traumatized.

In 1998’s Freaks Talk Back:  Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, Joshua Gamson says that there’s a tendency in talk shows like Jerry Springer’s to “display the radically different mostly in ways that reaffirm the normality of watchers.”  Armond White makes a similar point in his recent critique of Precious, saying that the condescending film of the black striver “indicates a culture-wide willingness to accept particular ethnic stereotypes as a way of maintaining status quo film values.”  Gamson was writing about sexual orientation, White was writing about race, and the film Brothers asks for the same relationship between its viewers and war veterans.

Brothers really turns into a daytime television freak show when everybody starts asking Tobey to talk it out.  Jake Gyllenhaal asks Tobey to talk.  Natalie Portman asks him to talk.  Even Sam Shepard tells the boy he can talk it out.  I’ll be damned if I ever meet a salty vet of the Vietnam War who wants to talk about his feelings.

In the original Dutch version of the film, the Tobey character is sent to prison after pulling a pistol on some cops.  In the Sheridan/Benioff version, Tobey goes to a VA hospital for therapy.  He’s not a criminal responsible for his own actions.  He’s ill.  And in the end Tobey does talk, and he tells Natalie all about the Traumatic Event he went through in the ‘Stan.  He cries.  She cries.  All the scene needed was Dr. Phil to make the catharsis complete.  “This is going to be a changing day in your life!”

In our culture’s talk show school of psychotherapy, the war vet is the freak who does not fit in.  He comes from a world of violence, and he does not belong in civilization, let alone domestic bliss.  He needs to be healed before he can be allowed back in the home.  In other words, he needs to be domesticated.

America gives a lot of lip service to her servicemen and women, but she doesn’t leave much room for them at home.  Some yahoo captain shoots up Fort Hood, and two minutes later you’ve got pundits searching for how war traumatized him.  Soldiers murder their wives at Fort Bragg, and it had to be because they were soldiers.  There’s no way it was because they were men who discovered their wives were unfaithful.  They made bad choices, but choices unique to soldiers, right?

Back in the 1980’s the war vet of the silver screen might’ve been a man with a dark secret, even brooding, but at least he was still a man and not a pitiful stereotype.  Rambo, veteran of the Special Forces, was a man of action.  Mr. Miyagi, a veteran of Hawaii’s 442nd Infantry, was a man of wisdom and compassion.  With very few exceptions (like David Mamet’s The Unit), contemporary onscreen war veterans are just supposed to come home and whine about their experiences to some therapist.

Early in Brothers, Tobey removes his wedding band and gives it to Natalie to keep for him while he’s deployed.  Not in the Dutch version, this scene says a lot about how our values – reflected in our stereotypes – have shifted in the last seventy years.  Men didn’t wear wedding bands until World War Two.  The men deploying overseas would wear their rings to remind them of the wives they’d left back home.  That Tobey would leave his ring at home emphasizes the film’s intention to reaffirm a schism in what our culture thinks a man should be.  There is the domestic man who plays with his kids and loves his wife and who stays at home, and there is the soldier who kills and who is supposed to stay overseas.  These two men will never be reconciled in contemporary American culture.  Not in the land of milk and Oprah.

Or maybe, just maybe, in some distant future, they can be reconciled.  With the help of Dr. Phil.

It's easier to diagnose a war vet than to understand him, ain't it?

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4 responses to “War Vet as Freak Show

  1. Gotta love an angry Lewis. Terrific article buddy.

  2. I was waiting for your section on the war films of the late 70s and 80s (controversial in their own right), but you made only a brief mention of hollywood’s treatment of vietnam vets, appearing to be in favor of their depiction on the grounds that they were portrayed as “men of action” (albeit with a “dark secret”), not sniveling whiners, in need of therapy. if i had seen more consistency in your objection to stereotypical depictions of “troubled” vets, I might have bought into your argument more. But it seems like you are merely objecting to them not being “stoic” or “manly” enough. Doesn’t that perpetuate a different kind of stereotype?
    In all though, I can’t defend this film, as I haven’t seen it, and have more interest in your reaction to it as a vet than I do in the actual film.

    • Thanks for your comments. The broad topic needs a larger examination than can be posted in a blog. My intent with this piece was simply to illustrate how this particular film affirms today’s dominant stereotype. Furthermore, I note that the stereotype is “stoic” and “manly” (your quotes). The film depicts those characteristics as problematic. I do not.

  3. Pingback: DVD: Superheroes « split edit

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