Understanding War, Via Books, Movies, and TV Shows



By the time you read this, Memorial Day will have come and gone. The summer season officially has been launched. But with upward of 200,000 Americans serving in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and countless thousands having either returned or preparing to deploy, this year's Memorial Day deserves more than the placing of wreaths in a late spring interregnum. American attitudes toward the soldiers who wage our wars have undergone a profound change since the days of Vietnam, when GIs who served faced widespread public antipathy. In today's atmosphere, the political ramifications of the conflicts scrupulously are set aside when the issue is the valor and sacrifice of the men and women sent to battle. Today's wars do not have the scale of World War II, or even of Korea or Vietnam. In Afghanistan, the 1,000th death recently was recorded, nearly nine years after the United States troops moved in to oust the Taliban and chase al Qaeda. In Iraq, the number killed in action is about 4,500. This is war, one death at a time.

Earlier this year, in the column "Images of War and Warriors," I wrote about the success of The Hurt Locker, which went on to dominate the Oscars and set a benchmark for the best of today's war movies, where violence isn't meant to be gratuitous entertainment, but rather a depiction of the harrowing and too often pointless smaller battles for a street corner or hillock that bears little on policies and politics. The faceless suicide bomber slaughtering civilians has emerged as a dominant symbol of these latter-day wars. And yet, there is in each combat soldier's experience a powerful tale of the impact on a young life of seeing mayhem and feeling the terror of being under attack. Recently, NPR did a powerful five-part series on the problems faced by returning veterans. According to the report, "the number of outstanding claims at the Veterans Administration for service-related disabilities--amputations, injured limbs, PTSD, brain trauma--hovers around 500,000. Nearly 40 percent of those have been waiting on a decision for more than four months. And to make matters worse, another 100,000 claims are waiting for a decision at the Board of Veterans Appeals."

The magnitude of war's indelible effects on single soldiers in the midst of wide scale combat was at the core of HBO's recently concluded ten-part series, The Pacific, which is still available on demand and will certainly soon be released as a DVD. It was the work of the Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks production team that in 2001 made Band of Brothers, which portrayed the better-known European war theater. Each of the Pacific episodes opened with terse commentary on the indescribable hardships of the battles at Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Cape Gloucester, and Okinawa by surviving Marine veterans, sturdy men in their eighties who, decades later, see no glory in what they endured. What made the series so memorable was the relentless misery in each conquest. By focusing on three enlisted men, two of whom wrote memoirs that drive the narrative, this epic, massively expensive television event still managed to make a point that is central to a true sense of war: every soldier is in a struggle of their own, one that doesn't end for most when they return home, even when bodies are intact, the soul is bent.

Soldiers' stories are also the focus of important new books. A surprise bestseller this spring has been Matterhorn, a novel by Karl Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam veteran who spent thirty years refining his meticulous account of a single combat unit operating near the Demilitarized Zone in 1969. Galleys were widely shared with booksellers whose literary comparisons were to early Norman Mailer and James Jones.

Two recent nonfiction works about soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are being widely hailed for their accounts of soldiers in today's wars. The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter, tracked a battalion of 800 U.S. Army soldiers from Fort Riley Kansas for eight months of service in the "surge" phase of the Iraq war. The reviews have been brilliant and assure it a long shelf life. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times called it "heart-stopping." She compares the writing to Tim O'Brien's Vietnam classic, The Things They Carried.  Other reviewers and prize judges have made the same comparison. As Doug Stanton wrote in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, "Finkel's central organizing idea is this: War is hell, decent men are often called to fight it and their story is intrinsically worth telling. . . . often lost in the debate over war is the war within the men themselves who fight it."

The other book is Sebastian Junger's War, which follows a unit of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan. The Washington Post's review was by Philip Caputo, whose Rumor of War about his own GI experience in Vietnam was a superb nonfiction beginning to Caputo's stellar career as a novelist. "What elevates War," Caputo writes "are the author's meditations on the minds and emotions of the soldiers with whom he has shared hardships." Caputo says Junger's is the best writing on the subject since a 1959 work by J. Glenn Gray, called: The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle."

America is at war this Memorial Day because our leaders have determined the nation's strategic interests demand protection. At least the soldiers who fight these wars are getting the eloquent and moving tributes in books and films they so richly deserve.