War films and books: Who can’t handle the truth?

Last fall, I thought a lot about what writing about war really meant.  Two articles this week went at that question kind of sideways:

First, a Week in Review piece by Washington insider Elizabeth Bumiller, about the newest rack of books on the Iraq and Afghan wars, saying that these soldier-writers “explore the futility of war but wars that they for the most part support. I found that slug less than fully supported by the books/writers mentioned therein, even given the weasel-phrase “for the most part.”

Bumiller also states that such pro-war narratives are different from previous wars, though she writes from little knowledge: “I do not believe much soldier writing about the US Civil War, or World War II, for instance, opposed those wars. I think she is implicitly reacting to some of the books about Vietnam,” wrote science writer Jonathan D. Beard on one of my war-history listservs. Beard’s mostly right, although “not much” does not equal “none” and in that gap much of my book resides.

The same day as the Bumiller piece, A.O. Scott discussed what he called  the new breed of “apolitical” war movies:

It may be that movies, at least as they are currently made and consumed, can’t bridge the gulf between the theater of war and the arena of politics. It is also probably true that the soldiers who are the main characters in fictional and nonfictional war movies don’t talk much about the larger context in which they struggle to survive and get the job done. But in previous wars — in older war movies, that is — they could be a bit more forthcoming. Sailors and infantrymen in World War II combat pictures were known to wax eloquent about the pasting they were going to give Hitler and Tojo, while the grunts in the post-Vietnam Vietnam movies often gave voice to the cynicism and alienation that were part of that war’s actual and cinematic legacy.

But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are different. They are being fought, for one thing, largely out of sight of the American public and largely by an army of professionals. And the respect afforded those professionals — an admiration that is the most pervasive and persuasive aspect of “The Hurt Locker” — extends across the political spectrum. At the same time, though, the political contention about the wars themselves has been vociferous and endless, even as it has involved a measure of ambivalence and, as the wars have gone on, a lot of position-changing and second guessing.

Perhaps the decision to stay out of these debates is a way of acknowledging this ambivalence. Or perhaps filmmakers, aware of the volatility of popular opinion, are leery of turning off potential ticket buyers on one side or another. Or maybe, in the end, the gap between beliefs about war and its reality is too wide for any single movie to capture.

Scott comes close to getting at the core of the issue in one way, though he never addresses the central paradox of writing about war at all. Some of us — yes, I mean you Wilfred Owen, Oliver Stone, Tim O’Brien, let alone us civilian amateurs — instinctively feel that to provide actual, gory details about war is in itself an antiwar act. But I’ll never forget Anthony Swofford’s observation in Jarhead about Gulf War troops getting psyched for battle in 1991:

For three days we sit in our rec room and drink all of the beer and watch all of those damn movies, and we yell Semper fi and we head-butt and beat the crap out of each other and we get off on the various visions of carnage and violence and deceit, the raping and killing and pillaging. We concentrate on the Vietnam films because it’s the most recent war, and the successes and failures of that war helped write our training manuals. We rewind and review famous scenes, such as Robert Duvall and his helicopter gunships during Apocalypse Now, and in the same film Martin Sheen floating up the fake Vietnamese Congo; we watch Willem Dafoe get shot by a friendly and left on the battlefield in Platoon… the rape scenes when American soldiers return from the bush after killing many VC to sip cool beers in a thatch bar while whores sit on their laps for a song or two (a song from the fifties when America was still sweet) before they retire to rooms and fuck the whores sweetly. The American boys, brutal, young farm boys or tough city boys, sweetly fuck the whores. Yes, somehow the films convince us that these boys are sweet, even though we know we are much like these boys and that we are no longer sweet.

Then is it  the rest of the writing that tells you the politics? If it’s determinedly free of any clues, is that also political? And where does this all fit into my zig-zag definitions of dissent? Those are the questions roiling around in my head right now; I’d love some suggestion from any of you, especially the warrior-writers Bumilller largely ignored.

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