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The returning GI syndrome

The young men of America who fought in the Second World War had grown up during the 1930s in an America passionately isolationist. Since the First World War, successive Presidents had promised their people that never again would American youth die on the battlefields of Europe. For the early years of the Second World War, the American man in the street supposed that his country would not be involved in this new European war. Then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour propelled the USA into war against Japan and its Axis allies, Germany and Italy, and American troops were sent to fight not only in the Pacific but also in North Africa and Europe. Americans were persuaded by their government that this was absolutely essential for the survival of America itself, and GIs went into battle in foreign lands borne up by the conviction that they were fighting to save the American way of life. This was not the real America which most of them knew, but an idealised version as exemplified in countless Hollywood productions of the 1930s — the America of Andy Hardy, of Mom and apple pie, of small towns with picket fences and verandah swings, where people were gentle and wise and kindly, and good always triumphed over evil.

For this vision many GIs sacrificed their lives, and all sacrificed their youthful innocence. They endured hardships and deprivation, they suffered loneliness and pain, they fought, they killed, and they saw their comrades killed, but in the end they won. They won the war to save America, and they returned home in the hope of putting the dark days behind them and returning to normality.

They returned home to find that the America that they had fought to save, the America that they thought they had saved, was no longer there. Perhaps the reality never had lived up to the dream, but at least it had been better than what they now found — their girlfriends married to draft-dodgers, their jobs taken by 4Fs, money and power in the hands of war profiteers. To make matters worse, they were not welcome. Certainly they got their formal heroes' welcome, their ticker-tape parade, their day in the sun, but it was little more than a day. They soon became aware that once that was over, they were an embarrassment.

Americans who had stayed at home had, for the most part, enjoyed a beneficial war. Mainland USA had never been in any danger of attack, and wartime productivity had created economic prosperity. Moral standards had relaxed and there was more opportunity to enjoy a life of self-indulgence. They did not want to be reminded of the war, and the presence of returning GIs was an obtrusion as welcome as bluebottles on a gateau.

The clear message for returning servicemen was that they represented an outmoded past with attitudes that did not belong in the new America. Well, so be it. If it was to be a dog-eat-dog world, they were equipped to deal with that. Uncle Sam had trained them to fend for themselves, and if the old rules no longer applied, they could make their own rules. It was not what they had hoped for, but they were prepared to do what it took to survive in a world to which they no longer belonged.

Hollywood tackled this subject in different ways. There were a few serious dramas dealing with it in orthodox fashion, notably the multi-Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). This gave a sanitised, politically correct, version of the situation, touching upon the problems, but comforting its audiences with the assurance that fairness and justice would prevail, Andy Hardy fashion.

There were musicals on the theme, both upbeat, such as It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), and downbeat, such as It’s Always Fair Weather (1955).

There was even at least one screwball comedy — The Admiral Was a Lady (1950).

Noir films however gave a more pessimistic treatment to post-war problems. Most of them are imbued with the motif of not belonging, of having to survive in a lawless world. It is not always linked to returning servicemen, although it has been estimated that 75% of noir films feature servicemen or ex-servicemen. The most direct implementation is in The Blue Dahlia (1946), but the theme is discernible in many noir films. The Long Night (1947) and Human Desire (1954) were Hollywood remakes of two French pre-war films, Le Jour se Lève (1939) and La Bête Humaine (1938). In the American versions, the protagonists were represented as returning ex-servicemen, implying a partial explanation of their inner demons.