My experience with war through my childhood and into my early teens was strictly through movies. I watched films like Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Midway (1976), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Battle of the Bulge (1965) and many others with my father and marveled at the ships, tanks, planes, battles, and heroics of the film soldiers. I never felt the emotional impact of war because these films of that era, at least to a young viewer, played out like action movies, with lots of gunfire, explosions, military hardware and a large cast of soldiers who died– usually with a few parting words– as battles raged.
As a result, my wartime playtime with my friends was very similar. We’d storm the imagined beaches or rush a bunker of enemies represented by the neighbor’s front porch. There was a small recess in that same yard and we’d hunker down in it. That was our trench and we’d psych ourselves up to climb out and charge across the battlefield, shouting, firing our plastic guns (without red tips), and when it was clear we were outnumbered and losing too many men, we’d turn tail and haul arse back to the trench.
I was the leader of these games, guiding the action with my words and movements. I played a large cast of characters and when one of these characters would get shot or get hit with artillery, my friend Chris would kneel down beside my prone form with concern in his eyes. “Who was that?” he’d ask. I’d name the character who had been hit and then deliver the soldier’s dying words with gasps and a slow close of my eyes. Then we’d be on our feet again, continuing the assault.
Another one my of specialties was launching myself through the air to simulate death by grenade.
The feeling of exhilaration when watching a war movie was replaced with one of dread and unease for the first time when I saw Platoon (1986). I saw it on home video so I was probably a pre-teen at this time. Others movies that came on the heels of that were Hamburger Hill (1987) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). These were a new type of war movie for me– ones that did not treat war as a heroic adventure.
Then in 1991, the Persian Gulf War invaded the television in our home and my perception of war changed. The coverage of that war on CNN arguably started me on a 23-year (and counting) journey to understand war. Not only why war occurs and the details of conflict but also its cost– the staggering casualty numbers, the physical and psychological cost paid by the individual soldier, and the price paid by society.
Days before Remembrance Day, I hung on the wall four posters of modern films that did an exceptional job of portraying the cost of war: Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers. In my journey, non-fiction books have provided me the most insight (With the Old Breed, Helmet for My Pillow, Generation Kill, Black Hawk Down, On Killing, among others), but one cannot deny the lessons delivered to millions of people who viewed these major studio releases.
Those posters have been replaced by six more posters with war as its subject and setting.
On the south wall are two films featuring two actors not known for roles in serious pieces of work. Casualties of War (1989) stars Michael J. Fox in a harrowing depiction of an event that actually occurred during the Vietnam War in 1966. Also on the wall is Glory (1989), starring Matthew Broderick. This, in my opinion, is the best movie to deal with the American Civil War from a societal and soldier’s perspective. It’s also the movie that turned Denzel Washington into a star. The third poster on the south wall is Rescue Dawn (2006), a lauded but not widely seen movie starring Christian Bale as a real-life fighter pilot shot down over Laos and imprisoned.
On the west wall are three more posters, but there is only one to which I want to draw special attention. George Clooney had received positive reviews for his role in Out of Sight, but it was Three Kings released the following year that drew him even more acclaim. This fictional account of American soldiers in the Persian Gulf War was laced with enough politics and boots-on-the-ground authenticity that it strikes a reality chord despite the shenanigans occurring on the screen.
The first lines of the film set the tone:
Troy: Are we shooting?
Troy: Are we shootin’ people or what?
Soldier: Are we shooting?
Troy: That’s what I’m asking you!
Soldier: What’s the answer?
Troy: I don’t know the answer! That’s what I’m trying to find out!
Watch Three Kings then read the non-fiction book Generation Kill (or watch the equally excellent Generation Kill miniseries from HBO) and you’ll see that some of the laughable horror depicted in Three Kings isn’t too far removed from the reality of modern conflict.
This does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that I find war laughable, deplorable or even unnecessary. It has taken me almost a quarter century to understand war and I am certain my journey is not yet finished.