A few months ago, on a flight from Atlanta to New York, I found myself in a seat behind a man of about 19 or 20. He was wearing fatigues, the functional, not the fashionable, kind.
Even before we took off, I knew something was up. While the rest of us struggled on our own to squeeze oversized bags into undersized overhead compartments, the flight attendant came over and asked if there was anything he needed. He said there was not. At least, I thought that was what he said. I could hear the stewardess’s words, but the young man spoke quietly. He did, however, shake his head no. A moment later the flight attendant was back clutching something in her hand. I didn’t see what it was—as a novelist, I’m nosy by trade, but as I flier, I know the rules—but she told him not to lose it and to enjoy it. Do they give cameras away in the upper classes of domestic travel? A moment later, she returned a third time with a pencil and paper. She asked the young man his name, rank, and serial number, and wrote them all down. Shortly after takeoff, she returned a fourth time and asked if he would like anything to drink, though this was economy class, and nothing was offered to quench the thirst of any of the rest of us squeezed in cheek-by-jowl. The young man demurred again.
Soon the captain came over the speaker system, welcomed us aboard, and said he wanted to extend a particular greeting to Specialist First Class and gave the young man’s name. The entire plane erupted in applause. If the seatbelt sign were not turned on, the passengers probably would have risen to make it a standing ovation. As the flight wore on, other attendants stopped by to ask if the young man needed anything. Various passengers came over to chat and to thank him.
The incident indicates, I think, how much has changed and how much has not. Forty years ago, few soldiers returning from Vietnam would have been so fussed over and feted by the public. Many would have been reluctant even to go out among their fellow citizens in uniform or fatigues, though apparently the story of a glass of urine being thrown in the face of a returning GI by an irate protester in a bar, which I heard from at least one Vietnam vet, has turned out to be urban legend.
I cannot account for this change of heart toward the military. Though campuses are not erupting in antiwar protests, support for the war in Iraq continues to diminish. Perhaps, thanks to round-the-clock and on-the-scene news coverage, the public finally believes that war really is hell. Perhaps we’re merely guilty that young men and women are dying while we make no sacrifice at all. The altered attitude is even more ironic in view of the fact that the young men fighting in Vietnam were drafted. The men and women in Iraq are volunteers, though certainly some of their extensions of service can be seen as a backdoor draft.
But if public opinion, or at least behavior, has changed, the searing effect of battle on the human psyche remains eternal. The young man on my flight said little in response to all the fuss being made over him. He was polite but obviously uncomfortable. He seemed to want only to be left alone. His behavior took me back to a fictional account of another veteran returning from an earlier American war. In The Best Years of Our Lives, a 1946 gem of a movie about reentry into civilian life, all three GIs find it hard to speak, or to remain silent, about the things they have done and witnessed, but one homecoming scene is almost unbearable to watch. The sailor Homer Parrish, who has lost both his hands, and who was played by Harold Russell, a veteran who really had lost both his hands in the war, sits in the living room of his childhood home with his parents, his girlfriend, and her parents. The group watches him nervously as he struggles with a glass of lemonade, which the movie makes clear he would have had no trouble handling under less scrutiny. Their seemingly solicitous comments range from fatuous to offensive. Unable to bear the pressure of their attention, Homer bursts from the room and flees to his uncle’s bar with a heartfelt cry. “Why can’t they just leave a guy alone?”