CHAPEL HILL — Frank Capra's 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life" appears every Christmas: George Bailey, the reluctant small-town Savings & Loan manager fends off the ugly side of capitalism (personified in the odious land grabber Potter) by lending money to trustworthy but impecunious townspeople. Often billed as a "little guy against awful corporate fat cat" story, or as an "every single life makes a difference" parable, the film embodies yet another theme: It celebrates the work of Americans who did not go to fight Hitler, or Tojo, in World War II.
This Christmas, as President Barack Obama welcomes home the last American soldiers from Iraq, we should consider how future Frank Capras will represent not only the huge majority of us who have failed to fight for our country in the first decade of the 21st century, but also the sometimes-fraught relationship between fighters and civilians.
Capra's George Bailey, if you recall, played by Jimmy Stewart, cannot join the Army because he damaged his hearing as a child when rescuing his younger brother from a frozen pond. That same brother, now a decorated wartime flying ace, arrives home just in time to celebrate home-front brother's triumph of faith and friendship in support of financial solvency. (You remember, too, that the Bedford Falls S&L doesn't break - but only because all Bailey's customers recognize their debt to his faith in them by chipping in with enough 11th-hour dollars to save it.)
This film gives dignity and national significance to men such as Bailey who did not fight in World War II. It argues that you can be a hero in civilian clothing. Before the film's denouement, the fantasy of a Bedford Falls without the life lived by George Bailey unwinds, courtesy of Clarence the apprentice angel, to show us the impact of Bailey's many other good deeds: preventing death-by-mistaken prescription, manning the family business when the younger brother gets an exciting business opportunity, and, of course - while Europe and Asia burn - keeping afloat the bank that has enabled a hundred American dreams to flourish.
This film is nothing less than an account of World War II seen from middle America. For immediate post-war consumption, it harmonizes with Capra's earlier "unite the country" propaganda movies, by validating the domestic experience of unenlisted men. It allows them to take their place in the pantheon of now-demobilizing warriors. It is a reconciliation film, where small businessman can proudly shake the flying ace's hand in front of the whole of Bedford Falls.
The representation of that interface has always been politically, emotionally and morally sensitive. Poets, playwrights, politicians, clerics and scriptwriters have handled it variously.
The home front can be represented, indeed, with cynicism, bitterness and anger: Not every World War I soldier was singing of his girl in "Tipperary." Siegfried Sassoon's 1917 poem "Glory of Women" tells us the opposite. The soldier-speaker excoriates the women at home, on both sides:
"You make us shells," he charges the women munitions workers, who are also guilty of making the soldiers hollow - nullifying their essential selves - by failing to understand the meaning of their fighting lives, and deaths. "You love us when we're heroes, home on leave, / Or wounded in a mentionable place," he accuses. "You listen with delight, / By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled." But while the fireside "German mother" is knitting socks for her soldier son, the poem concludes, "his face is trodden deeper in the mud."
Our own returning soldiers and their homecomings are topics of complex public and private discussion. And, although the Iraq warriors' return is not Vietnam-style, where stateside protest and anger defined many civilians, today's noncombatant needs to understand that he, or she, will have a place in American cultural memory. Whether George Bailey, Rosie the Riveter, Sassoon's thoughtless knitter by the fire, or some other figure, will occupy that place is not yet clear. Nor is it yet apparent whether the triumphant handshake of the Bailey brothers, which bridged the gulf separating "over there," and "home," will be possible.
Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English at Elon University who teaches, among other subjects, a course on War and Writing.