The only lottery I ever won occurred in 1972. I didn’t win millions of dollars, but I could have won my life. It was the selective service’s lottery to determine who would be drafted to fight in Vietnam (and you thought this post was going to be on gambling). The government would draft young men based on their birthday, as each day of the year was randomly selected. All young men born on the first day selected would be drafted first. All young men born on the second day selected would be drafted next, and so on through the 365th day selected. The first draft lottery was held in 1969 and applied to young men born from 1944 through 1950. The men born on the first 195 birthdays selected ended up being drafted that first year. When my year came, my lottery number came up 308. No draft had gone that high so I felt like I was in the clear. It turned out it didn’t matter anyway, as the Vietnam War was winding down by that point, and no new draft orders were issued for men born in 1953 (my birth year).
I have thought a lot about war since that lottery and whether I would have been willing to fight. I doubt I would have had the courage to flee to Canada, like so many did during the Vietnam War. While no official records were kept of the numbers immigrating to Canada to avoid the draft, informed sources estimate the number to be between 30,000 and 40,000. I suspect I would have ultimately enlisted in a service that would hopefully keep me far from the front lines of Vietnam. I thought the Coast Guard would be a logical choice. But many, primarily those from poor or lower middle class families, did not have (or did not know how to take advantage of) those options.
We had three holidays here in America that reminded me once again of the sacrifices so many men and women have made for our country in times of war: Memorial Day, Flag Day and Independence Day. Plus, the anniversary of D-Day occurred on June 6. These men and women, as Abraham Lincoln described it, “gave the last full measure of devotion” so that our way of life would “not perish from the earth.”
Having never been in the military, I have learned much of what I know (or at least what I think I know) about war from watching movies. I realize that movies are not always a true depiction of what war is really like, but many are realistic enough for me to understand, as General Sherman said during the civil war, that “war is hell.” I like Edwin Starr’s description in his 1970 anti-war hit: “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” But we learn a lot, sometimes, by having to go through “hell.” Here are four truths about war I have learned from movies (I could have listed many more):
1. Generals and other military planners are very willing to knowingly sacrifice the men and women on the front lines for what they see as the larger cause.
U.S. planners in 1943 were predicting that 13 percent of U.S. troops on D-Day would be drowned, 25 percent would become casualties in the initial fighting on the beaches, and thereafter, 3 percent of U.S. troops would become casualties in Normandy.[i]
This scene from Saving Private Ryan[ii] is hard to watch, but it illustrates the fear of soldiers going into battle for the first time, many of whom were killed before they even got out of their landing craft.
I am no military strategist, but it seems like there must have been a better way.
Two summers ago I had the privilege of visiting the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. I felt a reverence there as I saw depictions of the Normandy battlefield and learned of the many heroic events that took place on D-Day. Bedford, Virginia, was chosen as the place for the memorial because the small town of Bedford lost more soldiers in the D-Day invasion than any other town or city in America. Their sacrifice has been immortalized in Bedford: The Town They Left Behind.[iii] Yes, “some gave all,” as the country song goes. And for Bedford, Virginia, most gave all, as 19 of the 34 young men from Bedford were killed on D-Day. Four more were killed on subsequent days.
2. The perils of war often bring out the best or the worst in soldiers.
Hacksaw Ridge[iv] is the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who served as medic during WWII. At the outbreak of the war, Doss worked in a shipyard, and could have been deferred from military service because of that, but he enlisted anyway, even though he refused to carry a weapon into combat because of his personal beliefs and religious training as a Seventh Day Adventist. He was repeatedly persecuted and branded a coward by his fellow soldiers, but, unbelievably, during the battle of Okinawa, he saved 75 wounded men atop Hacksaw Ridge. Here is one of my favorite scenes from the movie:
Doss was wounded four times in Okinawa, and was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. How many of us are courageous enough to put our lives on the line, to save “one more,” whether physically, spiritually or otherwise?
3, On the battlefield, soldiers fight more for each other than for love of country.
I believe most soldiers love their country, and are willing to make great sacrifices for it, but in the heat of the battle, they fight for each other. Anyone who has been part of a successful team – a true team – whether in sports, business or the military, realizes how important a teammate becomes. That bonding is often precipitated by the rigorous training the team undergos together. Lone Survivor,[v] is the true story of a Navy Seals team on a mission to capture or kill a notorious Taliban leader. The opening scene gives us a glimpse of the training required to be a Navy Seal. Most don’t make it. I know I wouldn’t.
Did you catch the words said near the end of the clip? “I like having my buddies that I can depend on, and I would like for them to be able to depend on me. You guys are our band of brothers” I also love this scene from American Sniper[vi] where Chris Kyle shares his regret to his therapist, and how that motivated him to continue fighting for his comrades even after they returned from deployment.
4. Sadly, we don’t fully understand and appreciate what our volunteer military is truly sacrificing for us.
One vet described it this way: “The American people as a whole don’t care about soldiers or veterans beyond face value to make them feel good about themselves.” And so we applaud them at sporting events, we let them board first onto airplanes, we give them a discount on admission to amusement parks. Those types of things are nice and appropriate, but they pale in comparison to how combat changes a soldier, even the toughest ones. Obviously, many return disfigured or crippled. But the emotional toll can be far worse. Studies show that about one-fifth of veterans suffer from PTSD. One-fourth suffer from depression. Many vets drink and smoke excessively, even if they did neither before deployment, and report problems dealing with conflicts with others. Little wonder. One study showed, of the Marines serving in Iraq, 94 percent saw dead bodies, 97 percent were shot at, 95 percent were attacked or ambushed, 92 percent received rocket or mortar fire, and 87 percent know someone killed or seriously wounded. Another study found that 22 veterans commit suicide on average each day. A different study found the suicide rate among veterans to be only seven per day. But even seven suicides a day among our veterans (or any group for that matter) is seven too many.
One of the most uncomfortable movies for me to watch was Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.[vii] Few people saw it, but every American should. It realistically showed some of the internal turmoil our soldiers go through after returning home from a deployment – even those who are hailed as heroes. After a video of Billy saving his sergeant’s life goes viral, Lynn and his squad are invited to return to the U.S. for a promotional tour, including a halftime celebration at a Dallas Cowboys’ football game. The movie juxtaposes fireworks from the halftime celebration with battle scenes from Iraq, as if these soldiers haven’t experienced enough explosions. The halftime celebration experience and events leading up to it only alienate Billy from the rest of society (you and me) – a society that doesn’t truly understand or appreciate the sacrifices of our soldiers. Here is just one scene that shows the difference between the public face the military must show and what they are really thinking, and how even being a perceived hero is much more complicated than it appears:
Billy finally decides to go back to Iraq, largely because he doesn’t know what else to do. He is treated as a hero, but doesn’t feel like one, as he was just doing what he had been trained to do. He ultimately realizes that war has become his home and his squad has become his family. Only they fully appreciate what goes on in war. Here is the closing scene:
So what can we do to truly support our veterans? I did a quick Google search and there are a number of articles on this subject. Here is a link to the article I thought was best. It will give you some simple ideas.
Henry Emerson Fosdick said, “The tragedy of war is that it uses man’s best to do man’s worst.” Let’s support our best – those who have the courage to risk their lives to protect our way of life – even if it is only a one-on-one, heartfelt thank you. But most of us can (and should) do much more than that.
[i] George Henry Bennett’s Destination Normandy: Three American Regiments on D-Day.
[ii] Saving Private Ryan
- Production Company: Dreamworks, Paramount Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
- Director: Stephen Spielberg
- Screenwriter: Robert Rodat
- Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore
- Release date: July 24, 1998
[iii] Bedford: The Town They Left Behind
- Production Company: The Johnson Group
- Directors: Elliot Berlin, Joe Fab
- Screenwriter: Joe Fab
- Starring: Rich Parkerson
- Release date: January 11, 2009
[iv] Hacksaw Ridge
- Production Company: Cross Creek Pictures, Demarest Films, Pandemonium
- Director: Mel Gibson
- Screenwriter: Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight
- Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey
- Release date: November 4, 2016
[v] Lone Survivor
- Production Company: Film 44, EFO Films, and Spiklings Entertainment
- Director: Peter Berg
- Screenwriter: Peter Berg (based on the book by Marcus Luttrell)
- Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster
- Release date: January 10, 2014
[vi] American Sniper
- Production Company: Warner Bros, Village Roadshow Pictures and RatPac-Dune Entertainment
- Director: Clint Eastwood
- Screenwriter: Jason Hall (based on the book by Chris Kyle)
- Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller and Kyle Gallner
- Release date: January 16, 2015
[vii] Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
- Production Company: Bona Film Group, Film4, Ink Factory
- Director: Ang Lee
- Screenwriter: Ben Fountain and Jean-Christophe Castelli
- Starring: Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Arturo Castro, Kristin Stewart and Vin Diesel
- Release date: November 18, 2016