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A few months ago, I decided to watch some of the best-received war movies that came out of the Vietnam era—The Deer Hunter, The Killing Fields, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and Coming Home, as well as some recent and older ones—The Battle of Algiers, Crimson Tide, Saving Private Ryan, The Enemy Below, and Black Hawk Down.
Although I’m definitely a quality-movie buff, I’m not easily entertained by violence, which explains why I avoided all of these movies when they first came out, despite a deep childhood curiosity about (and fear of) war.
I’m currently writing about the immorality of war, so feel compelled to watch such movies to help fill in my (fortunate) experiential gaps. I also watch them out of respect for their creators’ passion, dedication, and achievements in uniquely sharing their own war experiences.
Despite the fact that my father was a war hero and bird colonel with thirty-three years in the service (Silver Star, Purple Heart, and many more) he always firmly refused to share with us his sad or frightening WWII memories.
So after I left my military-brat life on-post, I dipped my toe into the vast body of quality literature coming out of Vietnam and other wars, admiring and enjoying Fields of Fire (go Jim Webb!), Dispatches, The Things They Carried, as well as War and Peace, Silent Flows the Don, and All Quiet on the Western Front. More recently, I loved Cold Mountain, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Blowback, An American Requiem, and the wonderful Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series.
I found amazing agreement in all these books and movies in their moral conclusions about war, even as each offered me a unique personal perspective and story unlike any other.
Over and over, every work expressed or implied the point of view that “their” particular war had been insane, cruel, hard, sad, misguided, and stupid, and that it had seemed to create far more problems than it resolved. Their actual acts of war—the killing parts—were consistently experienced as pointless, chaotic, numbing, unreasonable, inhumane, confusing, wrong–and often thrilling, in that the pointy end of the sword had actually gone into the other guy.
Each work of art also revealed war’s most appealing reality: war, like any other deeply challenging experience from marriage to sports, offers stirring opportunities for revelation and nobility, compassion and achievement, faith and idealism.
The “highs” of war remembered in these works were based in youth’s vitality, resiliance and resourcefulness, in the belongingness, common cause, and humor of bands of young brothers, and of course, in the bittersweet exhilaration following survival in battles in which, although others died, you didn’t.
Nearly every work used war’s bleak, terrified, often mutilated children to emphasize the meaninglessness and tragedy of war. And they all made the point that fear for oneself and for one’s friends drove them to acts of cruelty and immorality unimaginable during peacetime.
War, in these books and movies, turns out to be not at all what was expected, nor what they were trained or prepared for—although with works of art like these, perhaps the next generation will be better informed.
None of these soldier/artists, with the exception of O’Brian, ever found a way to make killing feel psychologically acceptable, although they all killed as necessary, “doing their duty” and protecting one another; their childhood moral conditioning in human compassion too strongly resisted killing other people. (Jack Aubrey’s disciplined and enthusiastic patriotism and militarism overruled his compassion, as happens sometimes with seasoned soldiers, if less often, with artists, but Maturin’s disgust with war offered a thoughtful foil.)
All authors implied how indelibly their training in the hate and fear which is necessary to kill enemies in cold blood had carved black chasms in their psyches, changing them (and their families) forever in ways they could not express to anyone who hadn’t shared similar experiences—mixed as war memories are with both pride and shame.
When at war, every soldier longed for home, and when finally back home, missed the “highs” mentioned above.
Most celebrated the rare beauty of the foreign lands being fought over, and condemned the environmental and human waste, and the high costs of war.
Another interesting commonality was how universally fascinated all were with how soldiers react to fear, and, most specifically, with how they would perform under fire. (Although I didn't care much for The Red Badge of Courage, it merits attention primarily for this focus.) Much consideration was given in each of these works to the fact that every soldier reacts differently to fear, and to the impossibility of hiding one’s unique sensibilities during war. Like vocation, parenting, friendship, scholarship, accident, disease, death, and every other peacetime human trial, war reveals much too clearly the best and the worst in each person’s character and personality, while offering, as all difficult challenges do, ample opportunities for growth and wisdom.
I feel deeply privileged (and emotionally gutted) to have read and watched these great works, and will continue to see and read more. Some of the war-related books I want to read (and review) next are: Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq; Carroll’s House of War; Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers; and perhaps Keegan’s The Second World War. The movies next on my list are, first, war documentaries: Why We Fight, The Fog of War, The War on Iraq, Hearts and Minds, and Protocols of Zion, followed by Foyle’s War, The War Within, and Casualties of War.
Do you have any other suggestions for quality war movies and books? I’ll gladly share them with my readers.
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