War Movies and Veteran Memory


Films about wars have been part of the cinema since DW Griffith put scenes of the Civil War in Birth of a Nation (1915). There were thousands of veterans of that conflict still alive then and I’ll bet many of them didn’t like what they saw. Recently, veterans of the Iraq War have spoken out against The Hurt Locker, claiming it contained inaccuracies and distortions. Some even found it insulting.

I’ve never set foot in Iraq but I did my time in a previous war and have some idea why soldiers feel that way. I couldn’t stand movies about my war. Shows like China Beach and Tour of Duty? Couldn’t watch ‘em. Many World War Two vets report the same thing. William Manchester says that while visiting a hospital John Wayne was roundly booed by wounded soldiers. It takes years to acquire the emotional distance to see war movies for what they are – consumer products, with an occasional fine effort.

Why the rancor? Wars are personal experiences. Soldiers are caught up in immense, impersonal events, yet the experiences are deeply personal – more personal than almost anything else in life. A bright flash in the distance followed by a powerful report and concussive blast, and the knowledge that a friend was there. Soldiers are changed, suddenly and irreversibly. Vivid, incomprehensible, and overwhelming events come at them and replay in their minds forever, whether they want them to or not. Putting them onto the screen is trespassing.

Imagine someone made a movie, with or without your permission, about your personal life and put together scenes of your upbringing, married life, and things about your children. For any number of reasons, the film would not get it right and that would irk you. Trespassing.

Movies convince many of those who remained a-bed that recognizing jargon and division patches means they know war. Big screens and elaborate sound systems further the delusion. They think they can converse empathetically and intelligently with veterans. Maybe empathetically but rarely intelligently, and the chasm widens.

Good filmmakers make honest efforts to get through to the real experience, and that should be appreciated. Others make no such effort and seek only to entertain one group or another, and that should be ignored. Whether the message is pro-war or anti-war is simply a marketing decision. Each archetype can be a cheap morality play and not especially helpful in understanding authentic experience.

Hollywood isn’t the worst offender. Politicians, most of whom remained a-bed or lost touch with authentic experience, surround war with so much nostalgia, myth, oratory, and cant that the whole thing becomes unrecognizable, except to those Vonnegut lampooned as “combat fans” and of course to legions of young people, ardent for some desperate glory.

It’s all part of the process whereby people try to understand war. In so doing, authentic experience is lost, replaced by trivial understandings and longstanding archetypes that re-assimilate new events from old ones. Little wonder that veteran-civilian conversations on war tend to trail off, if they ever get started.

War cannot be fully understood by outsiders, most of whom prefer and find comfort in cultural re-creations – as well they might. Authentic experiences remain inside veterans, haunting them, detaching them, but in time perhaps elevating them – giving them the perspective to recognize the myths and machinery of war upon which nations are built. And that’s a gift.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: brianmdowning@gmail.com 




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