FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

War Movies and Veteran Memory

by BRIAN M. DOWNING

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

 

WORDS THAT STICK

Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

More articles by:
June 30, 2016
Richard Moser
Clinton and Trump, Fear and Fascism
Pepe Escobar
The Three Harpies are Back!
Ramzy Baroud
Searching for a ‘Responsible Adult’: ‘Is Brexit Good for Israel?’
Dave Lindorff
What is Bernie Up To?
Thomas Barker
Saving Labour From Blairism: the Dangers of Confining the Debate to Existing Members
Jan Oberg
Why is NATO So Irrational Today?
John Stauber
The Debate We Need: Gary Johnson vs Jill Stein
Steve Horn
Obama Administration Approved Over 1,500 Offshore Fracking Permits
Rob Hager
Supreme Court Legalizes Influence Peddling: McDonnell v. United States
Norman Pollack
Economic Nationalism vs. Globalization: Janus-Faced Monopoly Capital
Binoy Kampmark
Railroaded by the Supreme Court: the US Problem with Immigration
Howard Lisnoff
Of Kiddie Crusades and Disregarding the First Amendment in a Public Space
Vijay Prashad
Economic Liberalization Ignores India’s Rural Misery
Caroline Hurley
We Are All Syrians
June 29, 2016
Diana Johnstone
European Unification Divides Europeans: How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart
Andrew Smolski
To My Less-Evilism Haters: A Rejoinder to Halle and Chomsky
Jeffrey St. Clair
Noam Chomsky, John Halle and a Confederacy of Lampreys: a Note on Lesser Evil Voting
David Rosen
Birth-Control Wars: Two Centuries of Struggle
Sheldon Richman
Brexit: What Kind of Dependence Now?
Yves Engler
“Canadian” Corporate Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
Return to the Gilded Age: Paul Ryan’s Deregulated Dystopia
Priti Gulati Cox
All That Glitters is Feardom: Whatever Happens, Don’t Blame Jill Stein
Franklin Lamb
About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra
Binoy Kampmark
Texas, Abortion and the US Supreme Court
Anhvinh Doanvo
Justice Thomas’s Abortion Dissent Tolerates Discrimination
Victor Grossman
Brexit Pro and Con: the View From Germany
Manuel E. Yepe
Brazil: the Southern Giant Will Have to Fight
Rivera Sun
The Nonviolent History of American Independence
Adjoa Agyeiwaa
Is Western Aid Destroying Nigeria’s Future?
Jesse Jackson
What Clinton Should Learn From Brexit
Mel Gurtov
Is Brexit the End of the World?
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Alabama Democratic Primary Proves New York Times’ Nate Cohn Wrong about Exit Polling
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail