Memorial Day used to be a somber occasion, dedicated to reflection and remembrance of those killed in America’s wars. Today it is instead a celebration of ongoing wars, a long shopping weekend and the unofficial start of summer. Part of the problem with America’s shifting perception of the price to be paid when one goes to war is that it has been shaped by Hollywood and video games, so much so that it has become divorced from the horrible reality of what happens when countries and peoples do their best to kill each other. Protected by two oceans, the continental United States has been largely immune from being on the receiving end of war, not suffered any form of military attack since Pancho Villa rode against Blackjack Pershing in New Mexico in 1916. And apart from some experiments with weather balloons launched by the Japanese in 1942, the country has never been subjected to aerial bombardment.
But even if the homeland was itself untouched by war, American soldiers nevertheless fought and died and did the sorts of things soldiers do. SSgt. John Basilone, one of America’s most decorated Marines, was born in my hometown, which also had a larger percentage of its young men serving in the Second World War than any other town in the U.S. On the main street there is a statue of Basilone cradling a 50 caliber Browning water cooled machine gun and he is celebrated with an annual parade. My father and three uncles served in the South Pacific and Europe in infantry and combat engineer units during World War II. One was at Pearl Harbor. A first cousin was in a regiment that was decimated in the retreat from the Yalu River in Korea in 1950 while another served with the Americal infantry division in Vietnam. Both my brother and I were in the army during Vietnam, though as a Russian speaker I spent my war in Germany.
Such exposure to the military was not atypical in working class families while the draft was still in effect, but after the wars were over everyone was happy to go home and no one ever talked about what they had done and seen. It seemed easier that way but now, in retrospect, I am actually beginning to think it better if my family had opened up a lot more about just how awful some of their experiences had been. I can recall my father making only one serious comment about his war, saying cryptically that “when you are a soldier the difference between being a hero and a monster is being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time.”
And it was certainly easy to forget war back in the United States, prosperous and untouched by the enemy. In Asia and Europe it is different and that is why there is a clear reluctance to follow Washington’s lead as global policeman. The war for many families is still alive. Even though the World War II generation is itself vanishing there remain numerous memorials and cemeteries as well as other powerful physical reminders of the suffering and destruction that war brought in every theater of that conflict.
All of which means that war, unlike for the rest of the world, is itself pretty much an abstraction for the vast majority of Americans who have not themselves been in the military since the draft ended in 1973. “Boots on the ground” is one of the most delicious expressions that one encounters from a media and public that want more fighting. And then there is the descriptor “kinetic” applied to military operations, which is a euphemism for shooting people and dropping bombs. Far too many Americans see war as an endless series of patriotic bumper stickers with the United States invariably wearing the white hat and emerging victorious. Few consider that a kinetic experience can blow your brains out while the boots on the ground are attached to legs that lead up to torsos, heads and arms, all of which are vulnerable to small arms fire and Improvised Explosive Devices.
Note the recent comments by GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who doubles down on his brother George’s disastrous Iraq policy and also tags “W” as his foreign policy adviser. Jeb might well be regarded as the smartest of the Bushes, but he clearly is unable to correct course based on careful analysis of bad outcomes, recalling the Albert Einstein quip that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. If we elect another Bush we will undoubtedly have the same result.
There was nothing good about the Iraq adventure, not even the near mythical surge, apart from the profits accruing to defense contractors. Iraq is still bearing bitter fruit in the form of the anarchy prevailing both in that unhappy land itself and also in neighboring Syria. Jeb apparently also confuses America’s interests with those of his family, okay or even admirable in private life but a bit over the top in one who aspires to be a statesman. Or is it just that Jeb does not hesitate to appeal to the more rabid component of what he perceives to be his potential electorate, a group that knows nothing of war but is again baying for blood?
The point is that Americans who want to show the rest of the world how serious we are would best begin by being serious themselves about the downside of all that intervention. Real people, including thousands of Americans, die and there is no way to avoid a government like ours having to declare insolvency when the credit card comes due, as it eventually will.
The message of the bubble that most Americans exist in regarding the U.S.’s place in the world came home to me over Memorial Day weekend when I had the misfortune to watch two war movies. Both were set in the Second World War, which is always a favorite because there were nasty Nazis and diabolical Japanese all over the place, convenient foils for American down home virtues. Somewhat confusingly the Commies were actually on our side in that war but Hollywood is well able to handle that potential embarrassment by never showing the Russians at all. Most Americans born post 1945 are probably not even aware that it was an allied Red Army that actually defeated Hitler with John Wayne nowhere in sight.
The first jarring feature that one notices about contemporary war movies coming out of Hollywood is that a serious effort is always made to have diversity. That means that any army unit will look just like Barack Obama’s vision of America, even if such a depiction is completely ahistorical. Each infantry platoon is supposed to look like it came out of a Marvel comic line-up.
Second, since guys from Hollywood don’t exactly enlist in droves in the United States Army there is an underlying assumption that the folks who do the scriptwriting don’t know what the hell they are writing about. That means the storyline will be extremely stupid, unrealistic with a stark depiction of good guys and bad guys. But even if everyone dies heroically at the end, American values will triumph and the audience will be able to leave the theater feeling good about itself.
The first movie I saw was Fury starring Brad Pitt. Reveling in the nickname “Wardaddy,” Brad was the crusty “old man” commander of his Sherman tank near the end of the fighting in Germany. The crew included the usual odd guy newcomer and a bunch of disillusioned veterans. The lads are not all very nice and they get into some friskiness with a Fraulein that Brad eventually protects before she gets killed by an alleged howitzer round fired by the Germans directed against their own fellow citizens, meaning that war can be both nasty and unpredictable, the moral message that must accompany every war film before one goes on to the blood spurting out in slow motion.
Brad and his gang go off unaccompanied by infantry support with four other Shermans to forestall an impending Kraut attack but they have the misfortune of running into a German Tiger tank, far superior to their own armor. The German tank is hull down, which means its heaviest turret armor is up front and it presents no good target. It manages to destroy three of the Shermans before it uncharacteristically emerges to engage on even terms, a very gallant thing to do in tank warfare. It kills a fourth Sherman before Brad manages to maneuver behind it and destroy it. Brad’s tank is hit in the side in the exchange but survives the 88mm Tiger round, which in reality would have easily penetrated the relatively lightly armored Sherman before bouncing around inside, turning the crew into minced meat before the tank itself would blow up. This combat sequence was, incidentally, the most interesting part of the film as the Tiger and Sherman were both real tanks, not Hollywood mock-ups, and it was the reason why I watched the movie.
Anyway, Brad is not finished yet. His tank eventually breaks down on a road that must be held against an approaching battalion of the feared Waffen SS. The men could abandon their tank and disappear into the woods, but no, they decide to fight it out, even the bookish new guy. So it’s five against eight hundred, but this is Hollywood we’re talking about. The Krauts obligingly attack frontally lined up as if they were on parade in Potsdam. The Pitts crew cuts them down wave after wave with automatic weapon and tank fire, every round hitting its target while the Germans play at being The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight, but, alas, the Americans eventually get picked off one by one until it is all over. The last scene shows the surviving Germans marching by the huge heaps of their own dead. Oh, and the new guy somehow survives to tell the tale. Finis.
Understand that the Waffen SS were the most lethal soldiers in the European war. By 1945 they had been fighting for nearly six years and they surely understood that when coming upon a disabled tank all one had to do was either go around it and ignore it or flank it and destroy it from its lightly armored rear. Game over. Somehow they didn’t figure that out and paid the price. But the audience did get the message, i.e. that American exceptionalism means you never give up when confronted by a bad guy. The only poor reviews of the film came from folks like me who expected something serious about tank warfare and the many critics who maintained that American soldiers would never do things like abuse civilians, commit rape and shoot enemy soldiers who were surrendering. Nah.
The second film I saw was called Sahara and it featured James Belushi playing the Brad Pitt role. I don’t even want to write about it as I have already lost considerable sleep revisiting the horrific acting and plot. It too featured a tank – a Grant instead of a Sherman – and the cast was excitingly diverse, a virtual United Nations on tracks. The German actors, clearly having been coached by the same guy who staged the battle scenes in “Fury,” advanced in straight lines down the sand dunes to be mowed down in their hundreds by Belushi and his team. The good guys never even had to reload and were able to exchange black humor bon mots during the intervals between slaughtering Krauts.
But if you actually want to see how awful war can be cinematically speaking, I would recommend something quite different, the Italian post-war Vittorio de Sica movie Two Women, filmed in 1960 in a country that was still devastated. Sophia Loren won an Oscar for her performance. When the movie first came out on VHS the blurb on the box said that mother and daughter were raped by the Germans. It had to be the Germans of course on a Hollywood-marketed product, but the Italians who made the film and who had actually lived through the events depicted knew otherwise. It was Moroccan soldiers from the Free French Army who were notorious for raping and looting their way from Sicily to Milan. In fact, the German soldiers were highly disciplined. Not so the Brits, Americans and French.
My point is that when Americans think of war they think of something heroic and relatively painless unless you are somehow electrocuted by your PlayStation. There are no bad consequences arising from stomping on Afghans from a control center in Nevada. And if you screw up and kill a wedding party, so what? I am not advocating a salutary invasion of the United States to create an awareness of just how terrible war is, but a little more creative candor from the media, Hollywood and the political class might just help make the public think twice before it goes into that voting booth to pull the handle for Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush. Or Hillary.