The War Lover and the Greatest War

The last war on earth will either be a cause for celebration--or signal the likely extinction of that super race of mammals formerly known as "Man." (Some say the world will end before that happens, on December 21. 2012 to be exact, when the foundations of the physical world will be shaken by an enormous, natural cataclysm) Some predict this Third (and last) World War will occur before then, an unlimited nuke exchange that begins with imperial overreach and religious bellicosity, the last hubristic hurrah of a biped reduced at last to a whimper and a dying sigh. The excellent film "On The Beach" immediately comes to mind.

I received a lot of emails after my recent essay, The Greatest War Movie Ever? Seems we love our war movies. Readers offered me many picks I had either overlooked or neglected. Filmmaker Chuck Knowles listed his top five, hard to find films--(Come and See, The Ascent, Ivan's Childhood, The Mirror, and Westfront 1918). "There are rafts of others, Japanese, German, Canadian, British, etc.," Knowles wrote. "Too many to mention. If you might see only one from this list, choose Come and See. Devastating." The latter film impressed many other readers who wrote.

Quite a few more wondered why I neglected to mention "The Thin Red Line," a thinking-man's antiwar film. Released the same year as the bigger budget, much ballyhooed "Saving Private Ryan," the thin red line of the title probably referred to the poem "Tommy" (a typical Brit soldier) by Rudyard Kipling. Tommy, like most soldiers throughout history, is a soldier, altogether useless and overlooked or despised in peacetime but much lauded by nervous civilians and much more manipulated by politicians during wartime--a "thin red line of heroes."

"One of the things that the movie "The Thin Red Line" does well is to illustrate the terror and chaos of war," wrote James Berardinelli. "The characters here aren't macho guys marching into a hail of bullets for the glory of the moment. They're scared men staring death in the face--a death that waits concealed in the beauty of a grassy hill. You can see the panic in their eyes when violence shatters the serenity of the countryside. One man begins to vomit. Another quickly opens a locket to glance at a picture of his wife. There is valor in 'The Thin Red Line,' but that's not the point of the film, and the characters who perform the great deeds don't feel like heroes. They're doing what's necessary to survive. And, as one character puts it, 'War don't ennoble men. It turns them into dogs. It poisons the soul'."

If ever a poisoned landscape seemed to epitomize war, no God-forsaken place served better than an uninhabited speck of land in the Pacific Ocean, the scene of ferocious fighting 60 years ago. Few people live there now, on the island of Iwo Jima, but tearful, elderly veterans from both sides have gathered there recently to seek some sort of personal closure or understanding before they died. And if world leaders ever bothered to look long at those photographs--scroll all the way down to see what the island looks like today--and read the textual history, or even watched a few war movies, perhaps they could envision a better way if they tried.

Longtime correspondent Bill "Harbo" Heaney politely disagreed: "You and people who think like you must have some ideas about how to achieve peace, but I never see them in print. I never see a workable plan or a series of activities that could bring about global peace."

Heaney, a former USAF veteran and Philadelphia cop added, "Your war movies are great choices . . . but you left two of my favorites off, 'Young Lions,' perhaps the first American movie to depict a sympathetic German--Marlon Brando was great in that role--and 'The Dirty Dozen' . . . Know any good peace movies?"

Good question. Isn't a war movie, if it is honest at all, basically a peace movie? Only the most dishonest or superficial war movie serves as war propaganda.

Many veterans wrote to me, guys like KMD, recommending "Johnny Got His Gun," by formerly blacklisted author Dalton Trumbo.

"I was an aircraft mechanic with the 1st Cav in Viet Nam, in fact I was at Ira Drang but not up on the line. War is a crazy business that brings out the best and worst in everyone. This war we are involved in now is un-winnable and I suspect that it is planned as such. The war will stop when everyone has had enough and will no longer allow it to continue."

Another veteran of the same era, Brad Larsen, wrote me, "I've seen many of the war movies you mention, but one of the more moving and strikingly powerful movies for me was 'We Were Soldiers,' with Mel Gibson. I'm a Vietnam vet. I don't see how you could have overlooked this one."

Tellingly, or not surprisingly, all my respondents were male. Historically, men have always served as soldiers, from the Stone Age to the Atomic Age, so I wasn't really surprised by the responses. The prism of recreated wars'movies we call them'allows men everywhere to ponder how they would, or how they did, react in a given war. Wars are a powerful, addictive drug, mostly because of the toxic side effects'death, dismemberment, complete disintegration--which disproportionately strike soldiers and civilians and taxpayers (who might have abstained from war if given a choice) far more than the sordid profiteers and war planners, bankers and brokers, manufacturers and moguls, media spin merchants and retired rent-a-generals, religious warmongers and knee-jerk-patriots--all of the enablers of war, most of them safe at home. Those outspoken critics of war seldom agree on how best to quarantine the danger, as Bill Heaney mentioned above. Just saying "No" to war just doesn't work very well when the state juggernaut is full blown addicted (instead of a welfare state, we live in a "Warfare-Welfare" state). Humans have a love/hate relationship with war. Indeed, on this forum discussing memorable war movies, one fellow named "Wiseblood" compiled a list of top ten films'and then added 37 more'before bickering broke out immediately afterward and, had each individual been a heavily armed, sovereign nation, a war might well have been declared. Wars have been fought for lesser reasons. "The War Lover," at least dared to suggest that a considerable number of men loved the adrenal rush of war. There is something terribly beautiful about modern warfare, as this photograph of an AC-130, nicknamed "Puff the Magic Dragon," reveal. Probably more than a few warriors have loved the crackle, confusion and chaos of battle (as long as they weren't horribly maimed) and not just armchair generals or high-flying military pilots far removed from the dangers. A friend of mine, a US Marine infantryman who served in Vietnam and was wounded there, admitted as much. But only a warrior who has seen too much warfare'the heartbreaking pain, sorrow, waste, and deprivation, the deaths of friends and family'would utter these words: "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." Nowadays you never hear anyone in power utter words so profound'not aloud anyways'mostly because most modern leaders, unlike Eisenhower for example, never fought, never risked their own neck, never risked the lives of anyone they knew or loved. Maybe destiny holds one last super-war in store for us. No movie will ever record the disaster, where the 'living shall envy the dead,' as that old saying goes. Nukes will be unsheathed like swords in Old Testament battles. Cities not obliterated will slowly wither away, poisoned, the survivors uttering everlasting curses to those wielding power at that exact moment. Nuke war fallout will last 600 years (give or take three centuries) and so much abandoned equipment will dot the poisoned landscape'after all, we're all downwind in a global war--that the remaining few scattered survivors may not have the expertise or ambition to use it. Who knows, even if there were enough creative people left to make a war movie about what happened--in the smoldering aftermath of an ultimate war--so few people might survive that no one would have the stomach to see it. When the last war ever fought on planet earth finally ends, either jubilation or extinction will follow.

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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 136

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman enjoys exploring the occasional ghost town or spooky conspiracy and can be found wandering the back roads of America. Recently Doug finished writing, directing and producing an independent feature film, naturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA.