"Thank You For Your Service" Is Apolitical to a Fault

Thank You For Your Service is an odd title for a film about soldiers struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and returning to civilian life after being deployed. For me, telling veterans “Thank you for your service” — especially ones who served in George W. Bush’s fraudulent Iraq war, like the characters in the film — is the same as telling the family of a mass shooting victim that you are sending your “thoughts and prayers”. Not only are both phrases amongst the emptiest of platitudes, they also conveniently ignore the difficult questions we should be asking in light of the sacrifices and suffering we claim to care about so deeply. What is the “service” we are thanking soldiers for performing, and why were they asked to do it? How are “thoughts and prayers” supposed to help shooting victims and their families, whose numbers continue to grow unabated? The idea of sending “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings has become such a cliché that someone turned it into a video game.

Jason Hall, who wrote the screenplay for American Sniper (my review here) and wrote and directed Thank You For Your Service, has said that he hopes this film “may lead to a deeper understanding of the unthinkable sacrifice that all our veterans have made in the service of this country”. But does Thank You For Your Service accomplish this, and does it explain how fighting in a disastrous war of choice served the country? Watch the trailer for Thank You For Your Service here.

Thank You For Your Service is based on real events and follows two soldiers and friends, Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) and Tausolo “Solo” Aeiti (Beulah Koale), as they return from Iraq to their homes and wives in Topeka, Kansas in 2007. While both men are physically intact, both suffer from the kinds of mental wounds that are now understood to be the common and long-lasting hallmarks of warfare. Adam is wracked by survivor’s guilt and regret while Aeiti suffers from the lingering cognitive effects of a concussion, and both have PTSD from seeing their comrades maimed in battle. At the same time, both men must go through the uncomfortable transition from the regimented, mission-driven, teamwork-focused world of the military to finding a job and purpose back home while reacquainting themselves with family who find it difficult to recognize the changed people who have returned from the battlefield. As Adam and Solo realize the severity of their mental wounds and attempt to get help, they must navigate the frustrating, backlogged bureaucracy of the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). Meanwhile, the film slowly reveals the truth behind the fateful incidents at the root of their psychological injuries.

Thank You For Your Service is a sincere, heartfelt film that does an excellent job of illustrating what journalist David Finkel, who wrote the book the film is based on, calls the “after-war”, where more veterans die from suicide while stateside (the disputed estimate is 22 suicides per day) than are killed by enemy fire. The film is a decidedly unromantic look at both warfare, its aftermath, and the process of returning home that extends far beyond a joyful reunion on the tarmac. In fact, I’d recommend that anyone considering joining the military (as well as their loved ones) should watch Thank You For Your Service to have a sense of what military service could entail. Fighting is shown through moments of confusion, fear, and snap decisions that lead to years of guilt and self-doubt, not as a stage for bravado, heroism, and decisive victories. When the fighting is over, returning home is fraught with obstacles that can turn deadly, including strained relationships, isolation, addiction, PTSD, depression, physical/mental disabilities, and loss of purpose. Teller and Koale do a terrific job alternating between toughness, vulnerability, desperation, light-heartedness, and resolve. Their characters’ wives (played by Haley Bennett and Keisha Castle-Hughes respectively) are able to portray these same emotions from a different angle, as they attempt to break through their husbands’ emotional defenses to understand what they are going through.

However, by trying to make Thank You For Your Service as apolitical as possible, Hall has imbued the film with a fatal flaw. The film takes well-deserved shots at the military for not preparing soldiers to return to civilian life post-deployment, as well as the VA for the interminable waits veterans must endure and the hoops they must jump through to receive possibly lifesaving treatment — yet it goes out of its way to avoid addressing the political decisions that are at the heart of the film’s central themes. Viewers are given a vivid, often heartwrenching portrait of the sacrifices both soldiers and their families make during and after wartime, but the film never asks why these sacrifices were made or if they could have been avoided. We shake our heads at the inefficiencies of the VA, but no one mentions the budget cuts to veterans services that led to long waitlists, packed waiting rooms, and denied requests for care.

I understand that the makers of Thank You For Your Service want the film to be for all viewers, regardless of their political leanings. Caring for veterans should not be a partisan issue. However, it’s impossible to claim that we care about veterans and honor their service if we repeatedly deploy them to fight a war based on lies, as the George W. Bush administration did with the Iraq war. We can’t demand that veterans receive top-notch government-funded healthcare, then elect republican politicians who will cut any and all government services to give tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy, as republican senator Sam Brownback did in Kansas where Thank You For Your Service takes place.

But by avoiding politics in Thank You For Your Service, viewers and the veterans and families in the film are left to deal with the aftermath and side effects of war without confronting the political decisions that sent soldiers like Adam and Solo to fight and caused them to receive substandard care upon their return. It’s the same as focusing solely on the victims of a mass shooting without questioning why ordinary citizens should be allowed to buy military-style rifles. Without addressing the root causes of these tragedies and simply waving them away with a “thank you” or pat condolences, we are guaranteeing that they will happen again.

War is inherently a political endeavor, and you can no more remove politics from war than you can remove sports from football. The sad, infuriating truth is that if Adam, Solo, and the other soldiers in Thank You For Your Service had not fought in the Iraq war — one of the biggest debacles in American history — they would not have the physical and psychological wounds they suffer from and may struggle to manage for the rest of their lives. If the VA had better outreach and was better run and funded, Adam and his comrades would receive the kind of care they need to deal with what they experienced.

Iraq war veterans like those in Thank You For Your Service don’t need to be thanked for fighting a war based on lies. They deserve an apology for being sent to fight a bullshit war, and a promise that they and their families will never be asked to make those sacrifices again unless it’s absolutely necessary. And if they are sent to fight, they will receive all of the care and support they need upon their return. That would be a thank you that means something.

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