Moral Certainty


Recently I’ve been watching a lot of World War II movies. My local library has a bunch of classics on DVD and I’ve been picking up just about everything they’ve got. I started with black-and-white films like The Best Years of Our Lives and From Here to Eternity, and moved on to Twelve O’Clock High, Stalag 17, and a couple of John Wayne flicks, The Sands of Iwo Jima and They Were Expendable. I augmented those with movies of more recent vintage: Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, The Sand Pebbles, The Big Red One, A Bridge Too Far, Windtalkers, Pearl Harbor, Enemy at the Gates, Charlotte Gray, The Great Raid. Those viewings are just in the last few months. Over the years I’ve probably seen 75 or more WW II movies, including many of the ones above previously. A few are great, many are good, many are dreck — the point is I’m obsessed.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s fixated on the Vietnam War and Vietnam-era movies. Beginning with (of all things) Magnum P.I. (remember he was a Vietnam vet?) and First Blood (embarrassing!), and moving on to staples like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. As the years passed, I gobbled up more and more: Born on the Fourth of July, Coming Home, Big Wednesday, Good Morning Vietnam, Air America, The Boys in Company C, In Country, Hamburger Hill, Hearts and Minds, 84 Charlie MoPic, Casualties of War, Jacob’s Ladder, Tigerland, even apologist crap like The Green Berets. I gloried in the moral ambiguity of those films.

(I also had a thing for the TV show M*A*S*H and its star, Alan Alda. Even though the show was ostensibly about the Korean War, it was clearly about Vietnam. And I appreciated how the show dealt with the insanity of war not just through drama but also through absurdist humor. Much like Heller’s — and Nichols’ — Catch-22.)

I was a child of the 60s, son of a peace activist. I knew what we (the U.S.) had done in Vietnam was wrong, wrong, wrong. Yet I loved playing soldier — as long as it was make-believe. It was terrifying to think that many of those Vietnam-era draftees had been teenagers, only a few years older than me. Personally, I could never imagine killing someone, let alone being shot at by someone else, but I identified with the angst, the ambivalence, the confusion, the fear. It was a metaphor for my own adolescence.

In college, in fact, I took a class called Vietnam and the Cinema, where we studied the history of the conflict, contrasted with its representation in the movies, and got a chance to write a lot of papers. I took that class with two of my best friends, Jake E. and Jacob Z. We guiltily agreed that for us the movies were visceral experiences, beyond good or bad. We could critique the films forever, but what we got out of them was the adrenaline rush of violence (albeit loaded with historical context).

Tragically, shortly after we graduated, Jacob died — he drowned while swimming off the Mediterranean coast. In my own solipsistic way, I dealt with the grief by comparing his death to losing a buddy in Vietnam. Because we shared an obsession with the war, I could imagine Vietnam was what killed him. I mean, what’s more confusing, more random, than drowning during a vacation on the French Riviera?

As I grew older, I remained fascinated by movies about Vietnam (and corollary stories like those told in The Killing Fields or The Year of Living Dangerously), but not with the same desperate need. Jacob’s death later came to remind me that life — and death — were a little more real, a little more important, than vicariously living through the silver screen.

I became so wary of the subject, in fact, that when Sari and I had a chance to visit Vietnam during our backpacking tour of Southeast Asia, I balked. I told myself it was because of the paperwork and costs involved, but the truth was that I couldn’t handle having to confront my dark fantasies, exposing them to the light of day in the real world. Instead, I sought the jungles of Thailand (ironically where many Vietnam movies were actually filmed), hoping to walk in the footsteps, not of Ron Kovic, but rather of Martin Sheen or Tom Cruise.

* * *

I think what started this WW II kick was the 2001 HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, which is a remarkably well-told tale of an Army Paratrooper company and their mission in Europe from D-Day to the end of the war. What with the horror and aftermath of 9/11, and our subsequent misadventures in Iraq, I was searching for stories of moral certainty. That’s a hard thing to have nowadays: stolen elections, missing WMDs, the dissolution of Iraq, torture in Abu Ghraib, “extraordinary renditions,” Guantanamo detainees, illegal wiretaps, Bush & Co.’s fabrications and distortions… I mean, what does this country stand for anymore? It’s all very reminiscent of… Vietnam.

I retreated. And where I withdrew to was back into movie-land fantasy, where issues of life-and-death were played out on a grand stage, where you knew who was right (us!) and who was wrong. And this is key: even though I know movies are stories (i.e., lies), it counts for something that these World War II films are stories based on truth, on real events, on a time when the world was taking sides and the choices seemed a little more clear.

So. This long-winded recap was supposed to help explain why I volunteered for disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina. Many people have asked me, since I came back, why I did it. I’ve had trouble explaining why, other than just saying I felt “called,” that I knew I had to do something.

I suspect that by watching so many movies about World War II — about sacrifice, about believing in something bigger than yourself, about “service to your fellow man” — I brainwashed myself! In some back part of my mind, I fantasized that I had “signed up,” gone to boot camp, and been shipped out. But instead of going to war after I considered to buy firearms & tactical equipment, I was (as Sari put it) “going to peace.” (Sari got in on the act too, saying there were times she imagined she knew what it was like to have your husband away at war.)

And the experience itself down in Mississippi reinforced the fantasy, what with living on a Navy base, sleeping on army cots, doing grunt labor, griping about the conditions — right down to the ex-military types who made up many of my fellow volunteers. And when it comes to moral certainty, nothing beats feeding hungry people in a disaster zone. For me, the term “disaster relief” had a double-meaning; it also meant relief from the doubt, confusion, and gnawing self-hatred of being an American in today’s world. It meant moral certainty.

Now I’m back and I’m still trying to figure this stuff out. I still watch the WW II movies when I find ‘em, and I’m still involved with the Red Cross. (In fact, they called the other day to find out my “availability” for a mock disaster occurring this coming June in Co-op City.) I’ve asked myself what I’ll do next hurricane season and whether I’d go down there and do it again. I don’t know. There are so many factors, so many difficult decisions to make: time, energy, money, priorities.

See, real life ain’t about moral certainty.

26 thoughts on “Moral Certainty

  1. This is the most pro-active mid-life crisis I’ve ever witnessed. There will be more disasters in need of volunteers. Are you okay with the tour you took or do you think you need to do more? Like Sari said, “You went to peace.” Are you at peace with that? Don’t become a professional hero unless it’s your job.
    Either way, I’m proud of you buddy.

  2. What is it good for?
    Another odd co-incidence this week.
    At the main library yesterday I rented “Stalingrad” by Joseph Vilsmaier.
    I’m not obsessed, I’ve just heard that this is a good flick.
    I had a friend as a kid who was obsessed with war movies,
    but I found them boring. I wanted monsters or sci-fi.

    1. Re: What is it good for?
      See, we all have our needs to escape. I too had a thing for sci-fi and fantasy films, though i never got into “monster” movies. But watching Vietnam movies, it wasn’t like going to a normal movie. It felt “real.” Clearly, I was a troubled kid.
      Let me know what you think of Stalingrad. I’ve never seen it.

  3. The Beach?
    Have you read “The Beach”? It deals with some of the globetrotter’s fascination with Vietnam movies impacted when visiting Southeast Asia. Written by a Brit who got turned into American Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie adaptation (although it wasn’t an unreasonable switch, really).
    I’ll be damned if I can understand how you find the time and $$ to do all this traveling! Amazing!

    1. Re: The Beach?
      I was kinda disappointed by The Beach. It was recommended to me by a friend — also a big backpacker — who’d read it and thought it would resonate with me. I was excited to see someone else dealing with some of the same themes. When I actually read it, however, I was turned off by the main character, and then the book sort of disintegrated into a neo-Lord of the Flies.
      I wish I had more money & time to go traveling. Other than the Mississippi trip (which was paid for by the Red Cross, though they didn’t cover the mortgage & utility expenses ;->), and a vacation to the Yucatan Sari & I did in 2004, I haven’t really gone anywhere since we came back from SE Asia-Prague in 1993. That’s way too long!

        1. Re: The Beach?
          It’s one of those cheery post-nuclear holocaust flicks. Not technically about WW II, but well worth watching, though I don’t think I’d wanna sit through it again.

        2. Re: The Beach?
          I watched On the Beach on some Saturday-afternoon matinee on a UHF channel at a very impressionable age, and when Duck ‘n’ Cover drills were a very recent memory. It definitely fed my nascent resistance to authority.
          Two scenes really stand out in my mind, and still crop up in dreams … but I won’t spoil it for you.
          Looking at the IMDB description, I am relieved that some key points of my memory of the movie are real and not dream-manufactured: that it was indeed black and white, and that Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire were actually in it. I’m tempted to put it on my Netflix queue so I can see whether it still has the very cinematic emotional impact it did (and was as underplayed as I remember) but, like , I’m not really sure I can go through that again.

          1. Re: The Beach?
            I’ve been itching to see ONE THE BEACH ever since my father described the plot and ending. Yes, I have an inkling for the ending [don’t spoil it]. I’m sure it’s dated but I’m fascinated by stories like this.
            Thanks for sharing.

      1. Re: The Beach?
        Well, the main character was obviously a head-case, but it wouldn’t have been the same story without that (the ganga farmers would have killed him right off, if he’d been a nice guy).
        Re: your travels: whoa, ’93? I didn’t realize it was so long ago! Somehow, I had the idea you all had gone to Asia again in the late 90s.

        1. Re: The Beach?
          I wish. In the last coupla years, I’ve applied for this grant which would have set me up in Japan for six months. (David Mazzucchelli won it some time in the early 90s.) But I’ve been rejected two years’ running.

  4. Here is another one you might want to add to your list.
    It’s called THE CAINE MUTINY.
    It’s black and white but I think they remastered in color as well. It has Humphrey Borgart as a ship’s captain who seems to lose mental stability and some of the crew in fear of losing their lives take over command of the ship. It’s a WWII era movie. I really enjoyed it.

    1. Yeah, The Caine Mutiny is a great flick, and an even better book. The author, Herman Wouk, also wrote two great World War II potboilers, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, which I periodically re-read when I’m not watching war movies.

      1. And these?
        You saw “Grand Illusion” right?
        I had to read up on it to ‘GET’ it, but once I did…I GOT it!
        It’s message is for the time period it was made in.
        Good movie.
        An old Japanese movie “Black Rain” is good to.
        Sort of “right after the war” rather than during.
        My guilty, trashy cold war pleasure when it came out, “Hunt for Red October.”
        Cold war movies! That’s another story. More my thing.

        1. Re: And these?
          I have never seen Grand Illusion or Black Rain, though i’ve read about both of them and know they are “classics of the genre.” The thing is when I’m in my usual World War II-movie mindset, I’m usually not looking for social commentary or great filmmaking. I just want a good simple us-vs-them action movie. Definitely the “guilty pleasure” mode.
          And the problem with World War I movies — like Grand Illusion, or Paths of Glory, or All Quiet on the Western Front — is that same aura of moral ambiguity, that “Vietnam effect.”
          I also am a big fan of Red October! It still holds up as a taut suspense thriller. And it’s a charter member of my cool-movies-about-submarines club, along with Das Boot, Run Silent Run Deep, and (honorary member) The Abyss.
          And yes, like you, I too went through a cold-war-movie phase. They basically count as extensions of the World War II movie genre, don’t you think?

          1. Re: And these?
            What about the Longest Day.
            Not too much social commentary there.
            And with Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Peter Lawford, Robert Wagner and Rod Steiger the Germans hardly stand a chance.
            This film is Burt Landcaster short of a rout!

    1. Sari & I saw that flick last year. It looked amazing but was incredibly overwrought and empty of emotion or drama. It bored and annoyed me.
      And what the heck does it have to do with World War II???

      1. Wow. We are so very different. Ergo, our spectacular yet subtle tension.
        Um, HERO is about war. So, I was just adding it to your list about the subject.
        HERO is beauty incarnate via celluloid.

        1. Wow. We are so very different.
          you just figuring that out now, bunky?
          Ergo, our spectacular yet subtle tension.
          Um, HERO is about war. So, I was just adding it to your list about the subject.
          I thought I made it pretty clear my interest in the genre was pretty much limited to WW II and Vietnam?
          HERO is beauty incarnate via celluloid.
          i’m glad you liked it.

  5. For WWII Don’t forget:
    Bridge on the River Kwai
    Mrs. Minever
    30 Seconds Over Tokyo (Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo)
    The Americanization of Emily
    For Vietnam, might I suggest:
    Southern Comfort
    Night of the Living Dead

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