It starts by the restaurant’s front door, where any American will instinctively look for a “Please Wait to Be Seated” sign, but the shot moves too quickly to see much of anything. The camera swoops around like it’s dangling on a yo-yo. Two seconds in, we see the stars and stripes behind the cash register. “Give me, like, a minute,” says our camerawoman to her three partners, who flash by in a headless blur. She’s filming on a cell phone or maybe a flipcam, and she obviously isn’t concerned about visual clarity; she has a mission. “OK, so like wait one minute and then come out, OK?” she repeats, as a couple of stray tables float in, then out, of view. And then she goes to the patio.
We know how this is going to end: The video is titled “Soldier coming home from Iraq surprising his family,” and soon we’re seated with our camerawoman at an outside table where two women and a young man are waiting as the seconds tick by. “So our close family friend’s son came home after spending a year in Iraq,” our camerawoman has written in the YouTube description, “his mom thinks that we are at the restaurant to surprise my brother for his birthday, little did she know the surprise was on her!” The mom is clearly the younger of the two women, wearing a green sleeveless dress and looking anxiously toward the door as a teenage waitress delivers a few cocktails and a round of waters in enormous plastic cups. The camera steadies around 0:54, pointed directly at her, and for the next 35 seconds we wait. She’s waiting too, but she doesn’t know what we know. For 35 seconds, nothing much happens at all. Then her eyes erupt, and she screams for joy.
The soldier-return video1 has become a defining folk-art creation of the War on Terror, a kind of distant, internet-era descendant of the small-town parades that greeted WWII veterans. This war’s survivors aren’t often met by marching bands or floats, but in a different, no less poignant way, their returns are celebrated even more fervently: Plenty of these videos have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. Many of them have been viewed by millions.
Uploaded on Sept. 8, 2011, by user srmelancon06, “Soldier coming home” is my favorite of the hundreds of soldier-return videos on YouTube because it incorporates all the essential tropes of the genre. It’s one continuous handheld shot, lasting only two minutes and 10 seconds—longish compared to other soldier-returns, but not a moment is wasted. Its setting is both nondescript and perfectly universal—the untouched bowls of chips and salsa are the only things identifying the restaurant as Mexican, and no one has a recognizable accent or even a regionally specific piece of clothing. These videos almost always take place in generic locations: yards, airports, schools, churches, living rooms, or basements. You can watch them for hours and see nary a brand name or noteworthy public place; they seem to exist on some calmer, more reasonable plane of American culture than mass media ever provides.
Every soldier-return video follows the same narrative, and “Soldier coming home” is a master class in this regard, as well. Each video starts with the photographer setting up the shot by focusing on the unsuspecting civilian while the soldier remains hidden. The best videos drag this anticipation out, waiting until the halfway point or later before the greeting takes place. And then we get the goods: The child or sibling or spouse or friend (or dog—this is the internet after all) suddenly sees the returned serviceman and the scene goes from utter banality to hysterical jubilation. A college graduation turns into an explosive display of sibling affection. An unsuspecting woman goes mute in the airport arrivals area. A boy in a buzzcut and gray hoodie walks into his school’s terrace and collapses to the ground, disbelieving what he sees.
But the truly heart-melting portion of these videos takes place after that initial burst of happiness. Like lit magnesium, the reunion explodes before immediately reducing to a simmer. The serviceman (female ones are hard to find, though here’s a great one of sisters reuniting) and his loved one embrace silently while family or coworkers look on, and after a few beats, someone in the scene, often the soldier himself, eases everything down to a lower emotional gear with a funny quip or a pragmatic comment. The award here must go to the young man who asks his sobbing mother, “Ready to go to IHOP?” Talk about a mission.
On the rear patio of our commonplace Mexican restaurant, Mom bolts upright and shrieks a piercing high note twice before exclaiming, “Oh my God!” at the same pitch. She has her hand on her mouth at first, then it flies off to the side as she tiptoes, apparently in high heels. As she rushes toward her off-screen son, she gives the briefest of glances to our camerawoman, and you can almost see the gears turning: She’s putting it all together, how her close friends colluded to make this moment as powerful as possible and tape it for posterity. Maybe she’s one of the 14,000 YouTube subscribers or 18,000 Facebook likes for Welcome Home Blog, “The #1 Site for Videos of Surprise Military Homecomings.” They post a new video daily, and maybe she’s even considered that she might star in one someday.
Whatever the case, she’s overcome. It takes her four seconds to reach her baby boy, who’s grinning the same pleased-with-himself grin that every soldier wears in these scenes. She pulls him in and grabs him by the back of the head and they turn gently 90 degrees, until his back is fully to the camera. When she pulls away from his chest to look at him, she seems to have aged 10 years since she sat in her chair. She’s gone from shrieking adolescent glee to the most profound maternal devotion imaginable. The family and the other diners all fall silent. For 20 seconds all we hear are our camerawoman’s soft weeping and Mom’s thankful, rhythmic cries. Her eyes are clenched as her right hand explores his back, squeezing his T-shirt at 1:42, and if fingers could talk these would be screaming: Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t leave me.
This is how everyone wants to be loved by their mother, which means that at this moment she could be anyone’s mom, that restaurant could be in anyone’s neighborhood. Near midnight on Dec. 15, the day America’s war in Iraq finally, truly ended, I watched this 130-second clip another dozen or so times, and felt like this nameless mother and son were reuniting right outside my window.
Turns out, however, that they were 1,600 miles away, in San Antonio. Early the next morning I sent srmelancon06 a message over YouTube, asking to learn more about her video. I felt compelled to thank her—”I’ve watched it many times and I feel privileged that you’ve shared the scene”—probably because she’s a proxy for that soldier in my mind, and like a lot of upper-middle-class Americans I’m so conflicted and removed from this war that a flummoxed thank-you is the only thing I can think to offer to its participants.
Her name is Stacey, and she’s a senior-year history major at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Certain of my assumptions proved true: She used a basic hand-held camera, a $100 Kodak Playsport, to film her video; Welcome Home Blog is one of her favorite sites (“I of course cry with every video and by the time I am done watching them, I am a complete mess, but it’s a happy cry so I guess that’s why I continue to watch them,” she wrote me); and the surprise was the soldier’s idea. She’s known him for 15 years; he and his mom are “practically family.” They’d joked about doing a soldier-return video ever since he was deployed on Sept. 11, 2010, and kept in touch over Facebook throughout his deployment. As she wrote to me,
I was actually very surprised to find the email from him stating that he was coming home and he wanted to surprise his mom. We were expecting him home during the weekend in September (I forget the date you’ll have to forgive me) but the Thursday before we were expecting him home, he called me that morning and was like, “I am here, can we surprise her tonight?” so our plans quickly changed and to get her to meet us at the restaurant…
Stacey had feared that worried her friend’s mom might not react so positively: “She wanted to drive up to Fort Hood and watch the little ceremony thing that they do whenever the soldiers come home so surprising her meant that she would miss it.” The video was uploaded the night the reunion happened.
I exchanged several long emails with Stacey, sharing my own fascination with soldier-return videos and asking about her family and hometown. I felt entitled to know everything about her. I’d pored over this intensely personal moment that she’d experienced with her close friends, and on some level now felt that it was in my fact my moment, my personal wartime catharsis. Such is the effect of any home video on YouTube, but I’ve never had this sense of ownership and intimacy with, say, “Laughing Baby Ripping Paper.”
After a few rounds of questions and answers, however, I realized Stacey’s generosity with the facts didn’t increase my understanding of “Soldier coming home” or my appreciation for it. The value of any soldier-return video is its anonymity, and additional information can only distract from its closed, tidy perfection. If this particular enlisted man were, say, a valedictorian and an accomplished jazz pianist, or even if he had struggled with drugs or joined the Army to impress his dad, it wouldn’t make the video any better. It would only make “Soldier coming home” a specific person’s story, rather than a distilled symbol for how we all wish the War on Terror could end.
“Elsie, Mich., is just the sort of Middle American town that used to welcome its boys noisily home from the wars,” writes journalist Karl Fleming in a March 1971 Newsweek article about the return of a Vietnam veteran, “The Homecoming of Chris Mead.” Fleming’s subject is a 21-year-old infantryman who had enlisted while still in high school, and Mead’s first postwar days back in Elsie are marked by isolation, aimlessness, and the creeping realization that there aren’t any jobs or respectable girls waiting for him. Mead “took a lot of gunfire,” writes Fleming. “He saw trucks blown up, kids maimed, women killed, buddies bleeding and dying,” and he is now unambiguously opposed to the war. No parade greets him at the bus station; just his younger brother, Greg, who drives Chris back home to a quiet, awkward dinner with their parents and his old room full of Steppenwolf and Beatles records.
Fleming quotes the official Certificate of Appreciation Mead received from President Nixon: “I extend to you my personal thanks and the sincere appreciation of a grateful nation,” it reads, right above the reproduced executive signature. “You have helped maintain the security of the nation during a critical time in its history.”
An entire generation of pop culture has grown out of the disparity between that painfully overstated letter (its first sentence nearly buckles from gushing adjectives) and the reality that greeted its recipients. Through movies like Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Casualties of War, and books like The Things They Carried and Born on the Fourth of July, the plight of the Vietnam veteran became common knowledge, yet it was never seriously rectified. The sudden appearance and eerie ubiquity of “Support the Troops” paraphernalia after 9/11 almost feels like a mass penance for that Vietnam-era failure.
Soldier-return videos reveal both the extent and the limits of that penance. They might be advertised and conceived as a tribute to the war’s survivors—and they certainly are tributes of a kind—but the queasy truth is that the soldiers themselves are the least important people in them. The men and women in fatigues are always less defined than their surprised relatives, and the grateful shrieks of greeting are proof, however momentary, that we civilians haven’t treated them like we treated Chris Mead.
YouTube’s web presence launched on Valentine’s Day 2005, less than five months after the thousandth American had been killed in Iraq. The tally hit 2,000 by Halloween of that year, and 4,483 by the time the last troops came home. Unlike during the Vietnam War, the American media were prohibited from showing many of the coffins coming home from Iraq. But a lack of photographic record doesn’t erase our need to recognize the dead; it just deprives us of an object for grief.
YouTube might be better known as an ocean of memes and copyright infringement, but through the soldier-return genre it has also evolved into a surprisingly effective outlet for all the sadness and ambivalence that have marked the American people’s relationship to the military over the last 10 years. These airport and driveway scenes play like miniature versions of the hysteria that greeted the “Mission Accomplished” banner or Osama bin Laden’s assassination—cries of relief from a society desperate for good news and gluttonous when it arrives. Below “Soldier coming home from Iraq surprising his family,” commenter Zeezilicious writes, “My god, been watching a million of videos like that for the past 2 hours and I still CRY, seriously?! It’s just… so emotional.”
The video ends right as Mom pulls away from her son a third time and stares directly into his eyes. This is the first moment in the whole sequence when she seems relaxed. At the beginning, when she thought she was only waiting to surprise someone else’s son for his birthday, she had the blank expression of a person anxiously chewing through a disposable moment. When her own son first appeared, she became a conflagration. But now she realizes she doesn’t have to grip him so tightly: He’s here to stay. So she loosens up, and her face glows at the sight of him. We see only the back of his crew cut. She touches his head one last time and her face tilts to the left. Her mouth begins to open—she’s about to say her first real words to this boy who by some miracle has escaped becoming coffin no. 4,484. And then the video stops abruptly, as if to keep us from hearing her voice. It’s the only conceivable ending: In silence she speaks for all of us, saying everything and nothing about this awful, exhausting war.