Ancient Greeks knew war intimately, thanks to frequent conflict at the time and norms about military service that existed back then. Despite or maybe because of this intimacy with violence, audiences numbering in the thousands flocked to amphitheaters to watch tragedies like Ajax. The soldiers in the audience experienced the movies as a form of catharsis; the citizens watched out of duty to vicariously experience the wars fought in their name.
Fast-forward two millennia. Our country has been at war for 16 years, but the verities of war remain known only to an American warrior caste: the 3 million men and women who have deployed since 9/11 and their families. In airports, at baseball games, and in shopping malls, Americans express nothing but gratitude and respect for the troops. Indeed, political debates have erupted recently over what expresses respect for the troops more: free speech or patriotic salutes. And yet very few Americans know much about the realities of our wars anymore, nor about the troops who fought them.
The technologies and tactics of war change, but the traumas are timeless: America needs a theater of war for the modern era. And in Thank You for Your Service, a new film from director Jason Hall (American Sniper), we may have such a work. This may not be the movie you want to watch, but it is your duty as a citizen to go see it—to understand the fighting and dying that’s happening in your name.
The movie is based on a book of the same name by Washington Post editor David Finkel, who embedded for several months in Iraq with the Army unit featured in the film. Finkel previously wrote of the combat experience in the dark, gripping book The Good Soldiers. But then, as the soldiers came home, Finkel couldn’t let the story go. He continued to spend time with them at Fort Riley, Kansas, one of the Army’s bleaker installations, and recorded their struggles during what he memorably calls “the afterwar.”
Thank You follows a handful of soldiers from one Army infantry platoon who fought in Iraq during 2007 and saw some of the most intense combat of the war. This is not the story of every service member in Iraq—let alone every veteran when he or she comes home—but it is faithful to the stories of the men who fought in 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry during this chapter of the war.
There’s Staff Sgt. Adam Schumann, the lead character who comes home wrestling with the demons of war. He’s only alive by luck: On one fateful day, his senior sergeant took his place on a patrol, and on another, a taller soldier took a sniper’s bullet that might have otherwise found him. He comes home feeling the weight of survivor’s guilt. Schumann had two deployments before the surge, but this last one was enough. Having had enough of war, Schumann left the Army after this third deployment just a few years short of earning a lifetime pension and status as a retired soldier. In the film, Schumann struggles but finds the meaning in continuing to help his troops, whether by lending one a couch to sleep on, or giving another his spot at a residential treatment center for combat stress.
Schumann is joined primarily on-screen by Spc. Tausolo Aieti, a burly Samoan American who fought alongside Schumann but comes home crippled by traumatic brain injury. Aieti wants to stay in the Army but can’t because his TBI impairs his memory and cognitive function to the point where he can no longer serve. Unfortunately, Aieti’s TBI and post-traumatic stress also make it difficult for him to get help, and cause him to self-medicate in ways that nearly cost him his life. Some of the movie’s most touching scenes show Schumann acting to save Aieti—reflecting the love between battlefield comrades that can, at times, exceed that felt between spouses or parents and children.
The other characters revolving around Schumann have lessons to impart, too. His wife, Saskia, could be Tecmessa from Ajax: She loves Schumann deeply but cannot connect with him after he comes home. One of Schumann’s soldiers returns to an empty house, his fiancée having left him—but only after emptying their apartment and bank accounts. (Nearly every service member fears this happening while he or she is deployed; divorce and family separation are real things for too many.) The unit tries to help, but it’s too late: He commits suicide in a grisly, public way. Another soldier, the sergeant who died in Schumann’s place on patrol, appears sporadically in flashbacks. His widow, played by Amy Schumer, longs to know how he died and to continue playing a role in the lives of his soldiers, too. Yet another soldier, partly paralyzed after being hit in the head by a sniper’s bullet in Baghdad, faces life with a mixture of risk-taking and stoicism. Some of the film’s funniest and most touching scenes come when Schumann seeks him out, hoping to heal himself through reconnecting with a wounded comrade.
Even as Schumann and Aieti struggle and suffer, their government seems oblivious. In one scene, Schumann rages against an indifferent clerk manning the counter at the local Department of Veterans Affairs office until a clinical psychologist says she’ll take an appointment over her lunch hour. In 2007, and even to some extent today, this reflects the reality of the VA: It provides good care, but only after you successfully breach the walls of its massive bureaucracy. While seeking VA benefits in another scene, a colonel confronts Schumann and tells him he shouldn’t be claiming disability because other soldiers might see Schumann’s example and crack too. This also reflects the indifference and ignorance of many military leaders and public officials to the “invisible wounds” of war—a problem which persists to this day.
The movie gets right so many of the little nuances about combat and Army life, from the kit soldiers wear in battle to their language to their affection for each other. I saw the film twice, in screenings attended by large groups of veterans, and the movie evoked laughter at awkward moments—like when two soldiers teased their buddy about his wife’s explicit photos, or when the trio danced drunk in a bar to the amusement and horror of civilian onlookers. It also got right small moments that carried great weight, like the longing looks Aieti shot toward an amputee, whose war wounds were visible and thus more easily appreciated by other veterans and civilians. Thank You offers a window into lives that most Americans never see, providing an almost visceral sense for what it was like to fight in Iraq and then come home to your afterwar.
For this handful of soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, this movie was their war. Most units didn’t see the same intensity of combat, nor do most veterans face the same struggles when they come home. The movie has already provoked some pushback among veterans organizations who worry that it will paint every veteran as damaged by their service. Perhaps. Ignorance about war, and stigmas surrounding combat stress, do hurt veterans as they seek employment after service. But the reality is that every service member who passes through the crucible of combat is affected in some way. Most come home and move on; some struggle and need our support.
Few Americans serve in uniform today, by design. Our all-volunteer force neither wants nor needs more than a couple hundred thousand recruits each year. Most Americans appear to feel comfortable with this relationship, whereby others serve and sacrifice in a well-compensated military so that they may continue to enjoy life uninterrupted. It may feel good to salute the troops at baseball games, or say you love them through other patriotic expressions, but those gestures are insufficient and fleeting. Supporting the troops starts with understanding who they are and what they do. Watching Thank You for Your Service is a good start.