Sunday, November 18, 2007

Then and now, a matter of degree: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

I caught the end of The Best Years of our Lives on Channel 13 the other night. It's one of the best coming-home-from-war movies ever made, and I think veterans of the current war would be well-served to watch this movie and compare their experiences with the experience, albeit dramatized, of the "Greatest Generation" veterans.

Before, I'd watched the movie from beginning to end twice. During this viewing, however, two particular scenes caught my attention and got me to thinking. The first scene was the soda shop scene where Fred Derry defends Homer Parrish from an anti-war "Americanist" who argues that the great personal sacrifices of World War 2, including Homer's amputated hands, were a waste, and worse, the result of a vast conspiracy. The second scene is in Fred Derry's apartment where Marie Derry, Fred's unhappy wife, leaves him after telling him off as a loser and proclaiming her own independence.

The two scenes got me thinking about how popular cultural archetypes have changed while the fundamental nature of American society has not. It seems that the anti-war radical was stubbornly vocal even during the patriotic World War 2 era. His successors have barely changed since then, except he was a disreputable fringe radical 60 years ago, but now dominates Ivy League political science departments, politics, and media punditry. The villainous archetype of the anti-war American 60 years ago, barely changed, is now viewed as a wise hero in popular and political culture.

Marie Derry is an ambitious, judgemental, materialistic and vain, proudly independent woman who leaves her husband, an honorable war hero struggling to find his way at home. Apparently, the self-centered feminist isn't a modern creation, either, except back then, she was presented as a selfish creature who betrayed her commitment to her honorable husband. Now, she's become a feminist heroine who owes nothing to anyone else and is right to do whatever is necessary to gain whatever she can get in life, regardless of the effect on her husband.

My conclusion? We wax poetic about halcyon days, but our society's fundamental nature actually hasn't changed that much since the Greatest Generation. We've just allowed our worse nature to get the upper hand. We'll never eliminate our weaknesses, nor should we, but what can we do to reassert our strengths?




Blogger Dan tdaxp said...

A very good movie, and a great post.

Excellent analysis. I agree.

11/21/2007 11:45 AM  
Blogger RonL said...

I often compare the current war to WW2 and find us lacking.
Regarding the "feminist" wife, there will always be self-centered people.

AS for anti-war critics, the anti-war movement in America largely collapsed in June 1941, when Communists reverted to anti-Nazism. Most nationalist anti-war activists picked the correct side after Pearl Harbor. Today the anti-war right lacks honor (see The American Conservative) and the far left never saw a reason to support the war, and others are acting on partisanship.

11/21/2007 10:26 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

Thanks, Dan.

Ron, I agree the anti-war movement has many faces. I think its most damaging contingent is the conservative anti-war group, the "realists" who are closely related to the "Americanists" represented in The Best Years of Our Lives. Realists are often Cold War heroes who are respected and influential members in the heart of our security, political, and academic political science establishments. In my opinion, they are worse than the anti-American contingent because realists pride themselves on rational construction. Therefore, their system is more rigid and tends to axioms. That means their legitimacy is staked on the failure of the anathemic "liberal" mission in Iraq. Our success in Iraq would be a huge blow to the realist school to the point, perhaps, of degrading realism to Cold War obsolescence. I should know: my college degree is in Poli Sci/IR, and SIPA is firmly rooted in the realist school.

The Anti-American crowd is less staked on failure in Iraq in the sense that, unlike the realists, their core beliefs would be unchanged by what happens in Iraq. They simply oppose the US, which gives them great flexibility. They'll ally themselves with any group and adopt any issue, as long as it opposes the US. Their surface issues matter less than their core desire for American failure and reduction in world affairs. Whether it's globalisation, the environment, Israel, Iran, if they can use the issue to help them, the Anti-American contingent will morph in order to maintain pressure and breed local and global opposition to American primacy.

You are correct about the anti-war movement in WW2 in the sense that the centralized CommIntern of that period directed its international membership to oppose the Nazis - the long-term, liberal, American-led enemy of my immediate, fascist German-led enemy is my temporarily expedient friend.

However, the culling of the anti-war movement also cleared the way for the rise of the radical pacifist movement that dogmatically protested and even actively sabotaged American military institutions and activity even in the midst of WW2. They're fanatics. Their movement was born in WW2, reached its peak during the Vietnam War, and they've continued to mature organizationally and entrench into American culture. As an Army veteran, I am deeply offended by the radical pacifists for their counter-recruiter movement.

The diversity of the anti-war movement makes it influential in a populace made vulnerable by its widespread disconnection from the military and the war itself.

11/22/2007 11:25 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

P.S. Hi Ron!

11/24/2007 7:42 AM  

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