Damaged Heroes

In the 2007 film In the Valley of Elah, Vietnam veteran Hank Deerfield is driving to an Army post in New Mexico to look for his son. When he passes a school and notices its American flag is flying upside down, he stops to help an immigrant worker straighten it out and hoist it back up the pole. An upside-down flag is "an international distress signal," explains Deerfield (played by Tommy Lee Jones in an Oscar-nominated role). "It means we're in a whole lot of trouble."

No kidding. Deerfield's son, Mike, has gone absent without leave. Meanwhile, every day across the country, soldiers who have served in the Middle East are fading into the American landscape. Some are resuming their lives, but others -- like Mike Deerfield -- are finding themselves in lousy, even tragic, circumstances. (The film is loosely based on the murder of a soldier, Richard Davis, in 2003.) Valley of Elah is one of several new films that chronicle the challenges of the veteran's homecoming. These films include The Lucky Ones, released in September, Red, about a vet whose dog is killed (released on DVD in October), and Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, which will appear in theaters starting Dec. 17. The latter two may be about Korean War veterans, but all four movies, examined together, reveal the ambivalence that Americans feel about the Iraq War and the men and women who are fighting it.

It is common these days to claim to oppose the war but support the soldiers fighting it. More than 869,000 Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and have since left the armed forces, and civilians are eager to embrace them as ordinary men and women who have sacrificed for their country. Yet the brutal nature of the Iraq War, with the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Haditha killings, and other violent incidents, has raised questions about the actions of individual soldiers and the consequences of the U.S. involvement in Iraq. The new films capture three views of the battle-scarred individual in society -- the Good Veteran, the Damaged Hero, and the War Criminal. The Good Veteran has served honorably in wartime and comes home to a society where he is celebrated, more or less, for his sacrifice. The Damaged Hero has also served honorably, but he is treated disrespectfully back in civilian society, and he goes crazy. The War Criminal, a new post-Iraq archetype, has been turned into a torturer by the brutality of the battlefield, and he faces the consequences when he comes home.

The Lucky Ones is about the first kind of veteran -- the average working stiff -- and it borrows heavily from the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives. In Lucky Ones, three soldiers, Fred Cheever (Tim Robbins), Colee Dunn (Rachel McAdams), and T.K. Poole (Michael Peña), meet for the first time at an airport on their way home from war, just as the characters do in Best Years, and travel across America. Dunn walks with a limp, Cheever has broken vertebrae, and Poole, who was hit in the crotch by shrapnel, is worried about his sex life. They drink, fight, and yell at each other, but things never turn particularly violent. When Cheever locks the keys in the car, for example, Dunn and Poole get mad -- but not all that worked up. Dunn gets in a bar fight, but the damage is contained. They can cope in the "real world," which is dotted with PetSmart stores and Hummer dealerships, backed by a soundtrack of Sarah McLachlan songs and other music you're likely to hear in Starbucks.

Like the strip-mall landscape, these characters seem to have been expunged of authenticity. They embody the popular wish that decent men and women are fighting the war and that they're all still decent when they return home. They may be bruised by the experience, but things turn out OK because the American public supports them 100 percent. During a blackout at a New York airport, for example, a clerk at a rental-car agency says Cheever, Dunn, and Poole can have a car he was saving for his boss, and at a Colorado campsite three sex workers offer to provide discount services. The movie reflects the hope that this country is a place where someone will always reach out to you if you need it -- especially if you're a veteran. Whereas in Best Years the soldiers show psychological scars of war, in Lucky Ones, bitterness is washed away and replaced by a cheerful, hopeful gloss. In other words, it's a fantasy.

The Damaged Heroes in Red and Gran Torino have also served honorably in battle, but they have a harder time adjusting to life in America. In Red, Avery Ludlow (Brian Cox) is a Korean War vet who goes fishing with his beloved dog. Three teenagers approach him, shake him down for money, and shoot the dog. Ludlow tries to hold the teenagers accountable, turning to the law, the media, and finally his own devices. "I'm after whatever justice can come out of this thing," he explains. Eventually, he shows up at the house of the teenager who killed his dog and brandishes a rifle, demanding that the family acknowledge his loss. Things go downhill from there, culminating in the deaths of two people. In a similar vein, Gran Torino features Clint Eastwood as a veteran, Walt Kowalski, who argues with a neighborhood boy who seems intent on stealing his 1972 Ford. Like Ludlow, Kowalski is alienated from society, and he is ready to lash out if he feels he has been wronged.

These films have a cinematic history. The ultimate Damaged Hero is John Rambo, a Green Beret who was turned into a killing machine in Vietnam and cannot seem to shake his demons in First Blood (1982). He comes home and, seven years later, wreaks havoc on the society that created him. This motif also appears in the 1976 film Taxi Driver, featuring cabbie-turned-assassin Travis Bickle, who fought in Vietnam. In these movies, veterans are not the easy-going folks seen in The Lucky Ones. Instead, they are socially isolated and short-tempered. They are also good at building fires and tend to have body odor. ("He smells like an animal," says a cop, describing Rambo.) Above all, they have a keen sense of justice. "In the field we had a code of honor," says Rambo. "Back here there's nothing." These men settle scores in an amoral, postwar society, and the films reflect an understanding that while violence is sanctioned during war, it may have a spillover effect. These acts are the responsibility of not just the individual soldier but also of society as a whole.

Perhaps the hardest genre of veteran films to watch is that which centers on the War Criminal. In Valley of Elah, director Paul Haggis (who won an Oscar for 2004's Crash) stakes out new filmmaking territory in his attempt to address the moral ambiguity of war. The result is a portrait of a decent guy who goes to war and becomes a torturer, then returns to find a society that, right or wrong, forces him to atone for his misdeeds. In one scene, a detective (Charlize Theron) brushes off Hank Deerfield's request for help in finding his son, Mike, who served for 18 months in Iraq. "He deserves better than this," says Hank. Afterward, Hank tries to find his son in the strip clubs, fast-food joints, and diners of a military town -- the opposite of the cheerful, chain-restaurant backdrop in Lucky Ones. The search reveals a series of unpleasant truths as Hank discovers his son was transformed by his experience in Iraq. Mike, having run over an Iraqi child on a road, is consumed with guilt and, later, inflicts pain on wounded detainees. "It became a thing with Mike," a soldier tells his father. "That's how he got the name Doc."

The specter of war crimes has appeared in earlier films such as Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July. But in this 1989 movie, the main character, Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), tries to do the right thing in Vietnam. Kovic is a Damaged Hero -- and certainly not a War Criminal. In Valley of Elah, Mike is an enthusiastic participant in the abuse of detainees. The progression from conscientious soldier to smiling sadist happens quickly and casually, and back home, he is not portrayed as an avenger like Rambo or Gran Torino's Kowalski. He gets his comeuppance.

Taken as a group, the recent films about veterans, ranging from the sunny Lucky Ones to the preternaturally dark Valley of Elah, seem to suffer from a personality disorder. They reflect both a desire to honor the soldiers and revulsion toward the atrocities that have occurred. They are an attempt to address widespread contradictions in the perception of the war and its soldiers. The Lucky Ones falls short in its portrayal of veterans and how they adjust to civilian society, sugarcoating their experience. Red and Gran Torino explore some of the darkness of war, showing how it follows soldiers home from the battlefield, and are most successful at portraying one man's experience after combat. In the Valley of Elah is the most ambitious, taking on the wrenching subject of torture by Americans and attempting to deal with the moral swamp of the current war. In its attempt to address the war's complexity, the film is disturbing and chaotic -- much like America after Iraq.