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7 Things Hollywood Got Wrong About Veterans and the Military

Don't believe everything you see in the movies

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Rambo with his Hollywood still-tipped arrow.
Tristar Pictures/Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy
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You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Some military movies have the time and the budget necessary to be realistic. They send the actors to boot camp and have experts on hand to ensure accuracy. They can also afford the right equipment, or at least a pretty close copy of it. Saving Private Ryan and the miniseries Band of Brothers are gold standards for accuracy.

Here are some of the most common things Hollywood gets wrong about the military or veterans.

1. Focusing too much on combat

Nursing, engineering, vehicle maintenance, military police: Military careers include a huge number of specialties. Few people in the military are on the front lines.

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It’s understandable that movies focus on the most dramatic part of military life, but this can create a skewed idea of what the military is all about and do a disservice to the majority of people who serve. It also covers up how joining the military can be a great long-term career move.

We’ve all seen movies in which a veteran uses his combat skills to save the day — Jack Ryan, Dirty Harry and Ethan Hunt of the Mission Impossible movies are all veterans. Wouldn’t it be great if Hollywood made a movie in which a former wheeled vehicle mechanic saves the day by fixing a car?

spinner image tom cruise in mission impossible
Mission Impossible
Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

2. Vets are either unstable ... or war machines

There aren't a lot of stable, happy, everyday veterans on TV.

Jay Pritchett, played by Ed O’Neill in Modern Family, is one exception. He has flaws, but overall he is successful and well-adjusted. He looks back on his time in the Navy fondly and says he benefited from the discipline instilled in him while serving.

spinner image Modern Family
Modern Family
ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection

Unstable vets like the murderous Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, in Taxi Driver, or the heroin-addicted Nick, played by Christopher Walken, in The Deer Hunter, are Hollywood staples. These damaged individuals might make for good action on-screen, but they impact the way Americans view veterans. Stigma around vets and mental illness might make some hiring managers shy away from veterans.

Then you have John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone. His military career prepared him to earn money as an underground fighter, fight off a Mexican drug cartel with booby traps, fly a Soviet helicopter and use explosive-tipped arrows, among other exploits. That's not really a skill set most veterans leave the service with.

3. Saluting gone amok

As anyone who has been in the military knows, a salute is a precise movement used in specific circumstances.

But it’s common for actors to treat a salute more like a wave or a thumbs-up gesture, something you can do in an infinite number of ways. In movies one common mistake is to put the hand over the eye, like it’s shading the sun.

spinner image the movie mars attacks
Mars Attacks
Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

Another common mistake is saluting under the wrong circumstances, like saluting indoors or while under arms. Salutes by Steven Seagal in Under Siege and Jack Black in Mars Attacks have attracted disdain.

4. Muted sounds

Life in the military can be really loud. Hearing loss and tinnitus are familiar to many veterans, especially those who served in combat.

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Movies can’t match the volume of a weapon. During a typical movie, audiences are exposed to peak volumes of about 100 decibels. Given that a firearm often produces more than 150 decibels, there’s simply no way to capture the sound in a movie theater — even if audiences wanted such a lifelike experience.

5. Too many hotheads

It’s a familiar story from all sorts of movies. A rebel bucks the system and ends up the hero. A bunch of military movies has such an arc, from Top Gun to Behind Enemy Lines.

The real military is a place for team players who know their roles and execute their duties. That training is why so many veterans go on to be huge assets in their chosen civilian field.

The Hurt Locker offers one extreme example. Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. 1st Class William James at one point slips out of the base to lead a vigilante raid, among many other breaks with military reality.

6. Endless ammo

The 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge is the inspiring true story of Desmond Doss, who refused to carry a weapon due to his religious beliefs — but who won a Medal of Honor for his service as a combat medic during the Battle of Okinawa.

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It’s also a prime example of the Hollywood invention of endless ammo. The soldiers in the film mostly carry M1 Garands, which have eight rounds. But the soldiers somehow never have to reload. Likewise, Vince Vaughn's character, Sgt. Howell, carries an M3 submachine gun that seems to have endless ammo. In real life, the magazines for this weapon carried 30 rounds, or about enough for four seconds of firing.

7. No reservists

Today's military includes more than a million reservists, including almost 800,000 in the Selected Reserve. That’s a lot of people making a substantial commitment in terms of monthly and yearly training. Many of them were once on active duty, making the reserves a critical part of the military experience for millions of veterans. But good luck finding a movie or TV show in which a main character is in the reserves.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Ben Nussbaum is a writer, editor and publisher based in northern Virginia. He was formerly head of Special Projects at USA Today and has overseen publication of numerous books, from technical manuals to children's stories.

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