War Film: Thank You For Your Service

Thank You For Your Service and The Yellow Birds, two movies released in 2017 about traumatized Iraq veterans, are so much alike that one wonders if they were the result of an Apprentice-style contest in which two film-making teams were assigned the same set of ingredients and tasks and told to do their best. Among the similarities:

Source and title: Well-regarded books about war in Iraq (The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel).
Characters: Male soldiers distressed by survivor’s guilt, and women (moms, wives, and girlfriends) upset by the men’s behavior.
Setting: Rural places and small towns in Red State America (Virginia for The Yellow Birds and Kansas for Thank You For Your Service; both movies were filmed in Georgia).
Cast: Pleasant-looking young up-and-comers in the leading roles, with minor roles featuring big-name female stars (Jennifer Aniston in The Yellow Birds and Amy Schumer in Thank You For Your Service).
Pivotal scenes: Suicide and suicide attempts.
Closing soundtracks:  Plaintive laments by classic-rock elder statesmen (John Mellencamp in The Yellow Birds and Bruce Springsteen in Thank You For Your Service).

All the above might be coincidental, but other shared attributes can’t be denied: both films flopped at the box office and critics didn’t seem to like them too much, either. Why? Grueling portraits of soldier trauma and family disfunction, punctuated by graphic scenes of suicide and attempted suicide, are probably never box-office dynamite, no matter how grippingly they are dramatized. The movies’ lack of success is also certainly linked to public indifference to the ongoing war-on-terror, reflected in the irony of Thank You For Your Service‘s title and in the oft-cited phrase “civil-military divide.” But the real problem is probably more aesthetic than cultural: Thank You For Your Service especially has a heavy-handed feel, as if its makers tried too earnestly to make a significant statement and forgot about making their movie entertaining. Kudos to them for caring-and-sharing, but even I, in a position more than most to like and respect such efforts, can at best give each movie a B, and even then for different reasons. The Yellow Birds, quirkier and more artistic, blends A moments (its cast and pictorial look) with C moments (plot and production values). Thank You For Your Service, on the other hand, is a pretty solid drive down the middle of the fairway. More firmly constructed than The Yellow Birds, it makes no major mistakes, but neither does it excel, excite, or generate the outrage that would seem to be its intent.

It’s been a while since I read Finkel’s book, a non-fiction work about veterans of the Army’s First Infantry Division in the years after they exited the service, so I won’t dwell too much on aspects that did or did not make it into the film version. Directed by Jason Hall, the screenwriter of American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service the movie elaborates on the parts of American Sniper in which supersniper Chris Kyle mopes about his home in Texas after his final deployment. The central figure in Thank You For Your Service the movie is Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann, an infantry squad leader wracked by guilt over the death of his platoon sergeant in Iraq, a bungled effort to rescue one of his men wounded-in-action, and the suicide of another shortly after the unit returns to the States. That’s an awful 1-2-3 punch, and out of the military, Schumann drifts moodily. His deep silences are a source of refuge for him but severely rattle his wife Saskia, with whom he has a daughter he barely knows. Not working and struggling to obtain benefits and help, Schumann bonds with another former soldier, Specialist Solo Aeiti, who is in even worse shape than Schumann due to traumatic brain injury caused by multiple IED blasts. Their friendship is not immediately fruitful, however, as each man slides deep into depression and erratic behavior, their marriages dissolving and the men haunted by flashbacks to battle in Iraq and hallucinations of their now-dead platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Doster. An added torment for Schumann is that he and Saskia have been forced to rent out their beloved home while taking residence in a cheaper, dumpier place. Grating Schumann to no end is that his wife unbeknownst to him has rented the old home to Sergeant Doster’s wife—a move that constantly reminds him of his guilt over Doster’s death, complicates efforts to evict Mrs. Doster, and contributes greatly to friction between Schumann and Saskia.

Miles Teller as Sergeant Schumann and Beulah Kole as Specialist Aeiti try hard, but they are less charismatic actors than the two male leads of The Yellow Birds, Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan. Amy Schumer, as Mrs. Doster, also does not compare favorably with Jennifer Aniston, though credit to Schumer for being brave enough to play a very dowdy, undesirable woman (in The Yellow Birds the chemistry between Ehrenreich and the smoking-hot Aniston is palpable, while in Thank You For Your Service Schumann physically recoils from Mrs. Doster in a way that seems beyond “just acting”). More galvanizing on-screen than Teller and Kole are the minor male characters: Joe Cole as a dopey manchild who kills himself in front of the wife who abandons him while he is overseas; Brad Byer in very brief scenes as Sergeant Doster, Omar Dorsey as a drug-dealer who takes an interest in Aeiti, and, most of all, Scott Haze, who channels his inner-Christian Bale/Heath Ledger to portray a badly-disabled and manically-crazed fellow veteran of Sergeant Doster’s platoon. Also strong are the women who (along with Schumer) play the wives of the soldiers: Erin Darke, Keisha Castle-Hughes, and especially Haley Bennett as Saskia. Frankly, the movie picks up steam when any of the supporting cast joins Teller and Kole on-screen, and it subsides to a well-meaning trudge when it’s just one or both of them on display, which unfortunately is a lot of the movie.

Thank You For Your Service is a serious movie about difficult subjects: suicide, PTSD, TBI, physical disability, family turmoil, an uncaring Army, Department of Veterans Affairs ineptitude, and the plight of struggling veterans. Hall’s intent to treat his subjects with gravity and dignity comes through loud-and-clear, but he overdoes it. The movie is daintier about showing the soldiers’ warts than the book (as I remember it) and the characters’ reserve and docility drains the movie’s energy; Schumann and Aeiti just seem too old and well-behaved, even for “good” soldiers who value order and discipline and desire to do the right things. Several scenes gesture toward the raunchy dishevelment, emotional neediness, and chaotic, often ugly thought-processes of 20-something veterans in full meltdown mode, but for all the anguish and violence it depicts, Thank You For Your Service comes off as chaste, sedate, and tasteful, as if it were afraid of making its protagonists unsympathetic. Sexual infidelity is never an issue, for example, and the characters’ bad behavior flirts with but stops short of actual crime and physical abuse of loved ones–three omnipresent elements in the annals of veteran breakdowns. Well, good, but the only character in Thank You For Your Service who seems truly out-there and dangerous, the Scott Haze character, makes you wish for an entire movie entirely about him. And, go figure, though severely disabled and living in poverty and squalor, he’s still doing better emotionally and psychologically than Schumann and Aeiti.

Finally, the movie Thank You For Your Service concludes by suggesting that both Schumann and Aeiti eventually find the help they need through a private charity. That’s tying a happier bow on things than (once again) I remember from Finkel’s book, which ends with the protagonists’ fates in doubt (The Yellow Birds movie also concludes with a smilier face than Powers’ novel). I suppose the hopeful ending is meant to be an uplifting bone thrown to audiences who have come to love Schumann and Aieti and now want only the best for them and their families. The conclusion feels a little pie-in-the-sky, however, in keeping with the movie’s overall too-mannered dramatization of the titanic fury of soldiers’ lives spinning out of control while in the military and after. As of 2018, the movie that captures that spirit while also capturing an audience still awaits making.


Thank You For Your Service is also the name of a documentary about veterans’ mental healthcare released in 2016.

Two Nights on the Town in NYC: War Lit Readings at The Center for Fiction and Pete’s Candy Store

Two readings in New York City last week—one by novelist Roxana Robinson and reporter David Finkel at the The Center for Fiction, a bookstore and library in midtown Manhattan, and another of new works by three young military veterans at Pete’s Candy Store, a Brooklyn bar—put the subjects, themes, and styles of the contemporary war lit scene on full and somewhat contrasting display.

Sparta CoverThe Center for Fiction event, titled Fact and Fiction, featured Robinson and Finkel reading from their respective recent works Sparta and Thank You for Your Service.  Both Robinson and Finkel are established writers with a number of published works, prizes, and accolades to their names.  Neither are veterans, but their most recent works alike concern themselves with the aftermath of war.  Sparta tracks the downward spiral of a young Marine Corps officer, while Thank You for Your Service documents the tumultuous post-deployment lives of the Army infantry soldiers featured in Finkel’s acclaimed The Good Soldiers. Though Sparta is fiction and Thank You for Your Service non-fiction, they share a similar prose texture.  Robinson eschews flights of lyrical fancy for a plain style that mirrors reportage, and Finkel takes an almost anthropological interest in the daily details of the lives he describes.  The passages each read might well have been extracted from the other’s book, with characters and events of each portraying the war’s ability to inflect or even ruin the most mundane of day-to-day peacetime activities.

Thank You for Your ServiceBoth Robinson and Finkel have measured the psychological and social carnage wrought by the wars on those who fought them.  Not every combat veteran is a tortured soul, but a whole hell of a lot of them are, and Robinson and Finkel are appalled by the extremely uneven efforts of the nation to adequately help them.  The pairing of the two authors by The Center for Fiction makes sense, and would also work well in a college course or for anyone trying to understand post-traumatic stress.  “Stories matter,” said Finkel, and together Robinson’s and Finkel’s narratives carry their fair share of the load and then some (my favorite line from the Ranger Creed) in reminding, alerting, and inspiring an often oblivious nation to help struggling veterans.  Much is made of the “civil-military divide,” as if it’s the civilians who are out-of-touch with things.  But Robinson and Finkel have performed yeoman work trying to understand military culture and then reporting back sympathetically to the American reading public, while also helping the military understand itself.  Those in uniform should thank THEM for their service.

The Brooklyn event was part of Pete’s Candy Store’s Reading Series, which is dedicated to showcasing up-and-coming authors.  Titled Veterans of the Iraq/Afghanistan War, the reading was organized by Fire and Forget editor Roy Scranton, the ex-Army artilleryman and current Princeton graduate student who is fast becoming the Ezra Pound of the war lit world—a talented writer in his own right who also nourishes other writers’ geniuses (just go easy on any late-life hateful politics, please, Roy!).  I don’t think the three authors Scranton presented at Pete’s were full of the rage and confusion described by Robinson and Finkel, but stories definitely mattered to them, as they did to those of us in attendance.  In the tiny, dark performance space, on a night where temperatures outside hovered in the single digits, with most of the audience a pint or two down the hatch, the authors spun webs of words that enveloped their listeners in a dreamy snare of story-telling enchantment.  The picture below, bad as it is, renders something of the ambiance:

2014-01-23 19.53.39
Kristen L. Rouse reads at Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn, NY, 23 January 2014

Kristen L. Rouse, a three-time Afghanistan veteran, read a short story about military operations in Paktya province, the same area of operations in which I served.  Her story brought much of it back—the vehicle movements on IED-filled roads, the god-forsaken outposts, and the chai-drenched meetings with Afghans.  Clap your hands and say yea if you’ve ever been to COP Zormat, it ain’t easy to get to….   Johnson Wiley, a Marine Corps vet now studying at Rutgers, followed with poetry that I found compelling and evocative.  I have asked Wiley to send me a poem or two, and if he does I will post at least one.  Last up was Ravi Venkataramani, a West Point graduate who is now studying for his MFA at Columbia.  Venkataramani read a stunning story about a classmate’s death that portrayed the full measure of guilt and obligation inflicted on West Point grads by the relentless pressure of the military academy’s “duty, honor, country” ethos.

In conversation, Venkataramani reminisced fondly about a West Point English teacher named Major William Hecker.  I knew Hecker only from a few emails, but Venkataramani’s respect resonated with me.  While at West Point, Hecker wrote a well-received critical work in which he traced the origins of a famous essay by Edgar Allan Poe (who briefly attended West Point) called “The Philosophy of Composition” to Poe’s service in the Army as an artilleryman.  According to Hecker, Poe’s theory that all aspects of a work of fiction must contribute to a focused and climactic “literary effect” was garnered from artillery manuals that specified how to make bombs explode exactly on target.  The irony of all this is that a year after publishing this work, which marked him as an Army scholar of enormous potential, Hecker, also an artilleryman, was killed in Iraq by an IED—perhaps a mine and not a buried shell, but still a death freighted with an extra measure of cruelness, in a war already full of it.

RIP Major Bill Hecker, thank you for your service in Iraq and in the classroom.  As the West Point Alma Mater states, “Well done, be thou at peace.”  We’ll also dedicate this post to all the proud artillerymen out there: “Redlegs,” as they call themselves; their motto, “the King of Battle.”

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Gioux in 2013.

David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, published by Macmillan in 2009.

David Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service, published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Gioux, in 2013

Fire and Forget:  Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, published by Da Capo Press in 2013.

Edgar Allan Poe.  Private Perry and Mr. Poe:  The West Point Poems, 1831, edited by William Hecker with an introduction by Daniel Hoffman and an afterword by Gerard McGowan, published by Louisiana State University Press in 2005.

Thank you everybody concerned at The Center for Fiction and Pete’s Candy Store for staging such great events.  Thanks also to Charlie Markley and Sean Case, who accompanied me to Pete’s Candy Store and helped make the night so enjoyable.

%d bloggers like this: