06 June 2004

The Dangerous Myth of the Good War

Today being the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day, I got to pondering how we commemorate these big events in fiction.

Saving Private Ryan is without a doubt this generation's The Longest Day, and its opening twenty minutes are indeed astonishing, following in the footsteps of Seven Samurai, The Wild Bunch, and Ran, to give us what is almost certainly the most convincing battle scene in cinematic history.

The rest of the film is standard 'Men on a Mission' stuff, exciting and enjoyable enough, but ultimately rather silly. Its absurdity renders the film bereft of any integrity whatsoever, betraying the horror of the opening scene at Omaha Beach.

I still can't figure out whether Spielberg wanted to film a horrific battle scene, and merely tagged a silly story on to it, or whether he wanted to film a silly story and decided to lend it a veneer of reality by preceding it with a sequence of pure carnage. And I'm not sure which would be worse.

I've often thought you'd be better off watching the first twenty minutes and then walking out rather than sitting through the whole thing. Or you could come in after twenty minutes, free to watch a wartime fantasy. If you like it you should check out Where Eagles Dare. It's wayyyy better.

Fantasy? Yeah, I know it seems harsh, but the film bears hardly any relation to reality. Leaving aside the idea of a handful of men being able to find a single American needle in a Norman haystack the size of County Kildare* - because the drop zone was enormous, and heavy cloud cover meant some troops were dropped 40 kilometres off target - it seems oblivious to the fact that the Americans weren't the only allied troops in the Normandy Landings. In fact, the Brits and Canadians made up the bulk of the manpower in Normandy for the first month after the landings.

The film's sole nod towards there being anybody fighting against the Nazis bar the Americans is a snide comment about Montgomery being an overrated general. Insufferably arrogant he may have been, but the success of the D-Day landings was largely down to his command of detail.

Just think about that. The British are merely noted with a sneer, while the Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, and God alone knows how many troops from elsewhere in the British Empire are completely ignored, as are the Free French and Free Poles. (Eddie Izzard has made this point too, far more amusingly.)

Lest we think the war was called a World War for nothing, the film alludes to American actions elsewhere in the world - Tunisia, Italy, and New Guinea, I think. I guess it's really about how America saved the world. That's presumably why it opens and closes with shots of the American flag.

Is it bad taste to point out that the vast bulk of the Wehrmacht was pinned down on the Eastern Front, trying to hold back the Red Army? Yep, them. And it wasn't a cakewalk for the Russians either. 26 million or more Soviets were killed by the Germans in the war, yet you'd think that nothing was happening outside Normandy.

Well, so what? After all, the film's about American soldiers. Surely it should reflect their view of the world. They wouldn't have necessarily been aware of how their top brass had turned down numerous offers of British specialist armour for the landings, or how the American planes that were meant to have softened up the German defences at Omaha completely missed their target. And anyway, it's just a film.

What would Gilbert say?
Earlier today I was glancing through As I was Saying, a collection of essays by the great GKC, published in 1936, the year of his death. One, entitled 'About the Films' seemed strikingly apt in the light of what I'd been thinking. If I may quote the man:
'...one need not be Puritanical to insist on a somewhat stricter responsibility in all sorts of play-acting than in the looser and less graphic matter of literature. If a man is repelled by one book, he can shut it and open another; but he cannot shut up a theatre in which he finds a show repulsive, nor instantly order one of a thousand other theatres to suit his taste. There are a limited number of theatres; and even to cinemas there is some limit. Hence there is a real danger of historical falsehood being popularized through the film, because there is not the normal chance of one film being corrected by another film. When a book appears displaying a doubtful portrait of Queen Elizabeth, it will generally be found that about six other historical students are moved to publish about six other versions of Queen Elizabeth at the same moment. We can buy Mr. Belloc's book on Cromwell, and then Mr. Buchan's book on Cromwell; and pay our money and take our choice. But few of us are in a position to pay the money required to stage a complete and elaborately presented alternative film-version of Disraeli. The fiction on the film, the partisan version in the movie-play, will go uncontradicted and even uncriticized, in a way in which few provocative books can really go uncontradicted and uncriticized. There will be no opportunity of meeting it on its own large battlefield of expansive scenario and multitudinous repitition. And most of those who are affected by it will know or care very little about its being brought to book by other critics and critical methods. The very phrase I have casually used, 'brought to book', illustrates the point. A false film might be refuted in a hundred books, without affecting the million dupes who had never read the books but only seen the film. The protest is worth making, because provincial prejudice of this kind is frightfully dangerous in the present international problem of the hour. It is perfectly natural for nations to have a patriotic art, and even within reason a patriotic education. It naturally teaches people, especially young people, to be proud of the great heroes of their great history; and to conceive their own past in a sort of poetic way like legends. But this is exactly where we may test the difference between a legend and a lie. The outlines of a real hero, like Nelson and Sarsfield, are not altered when the figure is filled up, in maturer stages of knowledge, by the facts about failure or weakness or limitation. The hero remains a hero; though the child, being now grown up, knows that a hero is a man. But the figure of the fictitious Beaconsfield will not support the intrusion of the real Disraeli. It would be destroyed by all that was most interesting in Disraeli; even by all that was most genuine in Disraeli. A dummy of that sort does no good to national credit or glory; all foreigners laugh at it, knowing more about it than we do; and we ourselves can only preserve our solemnity by not going near enough to laugh.'
A bit wordy perhaps, and annoyingly lacking in paragraph breaks, but valid nonetheless, and timely too. Peculiar to read Chesterton expressing these kind of concerns almost seventy years ago. Mind you, he was definitely a man not merely of his time, but of all times.

Yes, but so what?
Chesterton's concern was that films make such a big impression, that through telling stories based on half-truths they can foster dangerous national myths. I could babble here about how U-571 told a sort-of true story, though by replacing the British as heroes with Americans, it insulted those British soldiers by denying them the respect they'd earned; but I guess it's sufficient to just point at Saving Private Ryan and its TV sibling Band of Brothers to show how constantly harping on about America's 'greatest generation' has left people totally unprepared to deal with recent events in Iraq.

Iraq? But what's that got to do with this? Weren't the abuses at Abu Ghraib anomalies, the work of a few bad apples?

Well, no, because first of all, do some trawling online and see not how the prisoners were treated in Abu Ghraib, but how they wound up there in the first place. And remember how British officers had expressed concerns ages ago about American soldiers treating the Iraqis as untermenschen.

So it looks like the problem is much more widespread than a handful of scumbags in Abu Ghraib. Big deal. What's that got to do with what we hear about the 'greatest generation'? Well, did you ever wonder why some French have long harboured mixed feelings about the allied landings? Kevin Myers is forthcoming on this point:
'Nor were casualties in any way confined to military personnel. At least 20,000 Norman civilians were killed and over 100,000 injured by Allied bombing. Thousands died in the course of a single night raid by the RAF on Le Havre, and thousands more in a comparable attack by the USAAF on St Lo during market day. About 120,000 buildings in Normandy, including vast numbers of precious medieval structures, were totally destroyed during the invasion, and many towns and villages rendered uninhabitable for years. War caused a vast army of refugees to flee across France, and when they returned, their homes were gone. Moreover, rape by Allied soldiers was rather more common than is comfortable to admit. Young men at war can be dangerous creatures, no matter how honourable their cause. So Normandy did not savour liberation so much as pay an almost unbearable price for it, one that left the region deeply traumatised for decades to come.'
That point about rape being common is pretty chilling, isn't it? That's something I'd never heard of until recently. Sure, we've all heard about mass rapes by Japanese troops and Russians, but America's greatest generation? Surely not?

I've recently read a couple of articles by Joanna Bourke, author of the excellent An Intimate History of Killing, one in the Guardian, and one in The Tablet. She makes some chilling observations on military rape during the Second World War.
'...British and American soldires also have a history of sexual abuse in wartime. After the Allied forces landed in Normandy, French women found themselves at risk of being raped. According to the official history of the Office of the Judge Advocate General for the European Theatre of Operations, "the number of violent sex crimes enormously increased with the arrival of our troops in France... the use of firearms was common in perpetuating the offence."

The extent of the problem was made clear in April 1945 when the Judge Advocate revealed that he had to deal with around 500 rape cases involving American soldiers each week. In the words of one American intelligence officer who witnessed the occupation of the German city of Krefeld, "the behaviour of our troops, I regret to say, was nothing to brag about, particularly after they came upon cases of cognac and barrels of wine... there is a tendency among the naive or the malicious to think that only Russians loot and rape." He continued, observing that "the warriors of Democracy were no more virtous than the troops of Communism were reported to be."'
None of this should take away from the honour due to those who fought honourably to liberate France, but we put that whole generation, and indeed their modern descendants, on a fragile pedestal when we see them as infallible. War requires men to behave as demons, slaughtering each other, and it can be hard to banish those demons. Perhaps if we had recognised that, we'd have realised that the abuse of prisoners by 'civilised' soldiers at Abu Ghraib was to be expected.

Would people have been so dismissive of the need for America to sign up to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court had they not believed in the infallibility of America's armed forces? Would they have been so trusting that their troops would behave impeccably if they conquered Iraq?

What's that about battling not with monsters lest you become a monster?
*Though not as big as County Wexford, where the film was shot. Yep, those are Irish soldiers in the film. I've a funny story about that, but I'll leave it for now. Today's was a serious post.

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