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.
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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, 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.