Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Purpose of a War Story

Set the wayback machine to the 2002-2003 school year. I was 17 years old, suffering with senioritis and itching to go of to college. It was in this year that I would be confronted with a book that would stick with me, probably to my dying day. My teacher, Mrs. Coughlin, introduced The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien to my class, and to this day it is one of the best books I have ever read.

One particular story really sunk into my mind called "How to Tell a True War Story". In the vignette, O'Brien tells a series of stories, either factual, fictional, or somewhere in between. The point was to illustrate that the veracity of war stories is not dictated by fact or fiction, but based on whether or not it "feels right" like a gut instinct. This story would war with the rational processes of my mind as I studied history for 8 years of undergrad and grad school. The contrary point is this: "History is the interpretation of past by the present, based on primary and secondary sources" - as drummed into me by Professor Magliari. These two different ideas are ever present in my mind when I watch historic or war films. Now I always wonder why they are told, and what the story means.

Returning to the present; as I browsed my Facebook feed, I came across a post linked by an acquaintance concerning comments made by Noam Chomsky disdaining Clint Eastwood's current film American Sniper. This was not the first article I had seen, rather it was something in a culmination of articles. It seemed that the articles ran the full spectrum of opinions ranging from the actual film, to what people thought about Chris Kyle and his opinions, to pieces from other soldiers agreeing with or decrying Kyle's opinions. My own family members posted some of the articles that I ended up reading.

Having not seen the film or read the book when I started this article, I was perplexed by all the furor created by Clint Eastwood's film. I did see previous comments made against the film Fury, and I wasn't exactly surprised. Yet, I failed to understand why people were getting bent out of shape over a war story. To me, a war story (be it fact or historical fiction) is a portal into an aspect of life that I will never understand, as I have never served in the military.

I have studied history and I understand the supposed reasons why wars are fought. I also get that people are entitled to hold their own opinions, but there are times I wonder whether or not it is worth judging a person without having stood in his shoes - especially a soldier's. Yet, this begs the question as to why people enjoy war stories in the first place. Is it because we are inherently violent, or do non-soldiers seek an understanding of what a soldier experiences? 

There are records of the time during the Napoleonic wars that document the plays that were made of famous English victories. Romans would reenact famous battles in the arena in Rome. Throughout history, we've dramatized our wars as a way of understanding them. So lets look at three modern titles: American Sniper, Band of Brothers/The Pacific, and Apocalypse Now and see what can be interpreted from them.
Let's start with American Sniper, as it is the most recent film and the cause of controversy. Some have hailed this movie as another one of Clint Eastwood's masterpieces following in the vein of Gran Torino, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Letters from Iwo Jima, while other critics claim that American Sniper, much like Fury, is nothing more than mindless violence that is also backwards and intolerant, painting all Muslims as "savages." That opinion (his enemies being "savages") was expressed by Chris Kyle (as portrayed by Bradley Cooper) on several occasions during the film. Now that I have seen the film myself, I see where the controversy comes from. I also see the justification that Chris Kyle and others have used - that dehumanizing his enemies makes it easier to do unthinkable things. Whether you believe that's justification enough is up to you. What I watched could not be considered high art, but it was a good movie. Moreover, it was film which portrayed the life of a Navy Seal sniper both in and out of combat and highlights the struggles faced by many soldiers.

The film covered different points in Kyle's youth: training, 4 combat tours, and his leaves in between tours. What Kyle faced was not the confusing war of shots fired from close range (though he does eventually). Instead, Kyle waged the personal war that all snipers face - intimately knowing who you killed. This kind of fighting is described in an autobiography called A Rifleman Went to War, written by H.W. McBride, who served in both the Canadian armed forces (as a volunteer) and the American army when they joined the fight in World War I. This book remains mandatory reading for Marine Corps soldiers attending sniper school.

As a sniper, Chris Kyle was tasked with "overwatch" (guard duty) over patrols in Fallujah, watching ahead of patrols and removing threats before they could reach the men on the ground. Viewers are exposed to the personal world of the sniper, where he has to make judgements on whether or not a person is a threat, and then how to deal with the threat. This is no easy task, as the film shows Kyle killing a child (and later, his mother) after a woman (presumably the child's mother) passes the young boy a grenade and tells him to run towards the soldiers. The mother then picks up the grenade and is also deemed a threat and killed, after which the grenade explodes. The audience hears a narrative of Kyle's observations and his verbal description of what he sees before taking the shots.

As the film goes on, one notices how the war and its responsibilities weigh on Kyle and change him. On his return after his fourth tour, Kyle is inspired to volunteer with wounded and returning veterans by a doctor he is speaking to in the VA. If anything, one might think of Chris Kyle as a servant/guardian. This is based on a scene from his childhood where his father breaks down a very simple view of society. This breakdown is that of three roles: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. CPO (Chief Petty Officer) Kyle is seemingly the archetypal sheepdog in his work as a sniper, and his finding balance in helping other soldiers who are having trouble adjusting to non combat life.

In watching this film, I found a better understanding of the modern sniper's role in combat as well as some slight insight to what soldiers face coming home. In no way do I say that all snipers are like Kyle, but the film provides insight as to what a sniper faces and the kind of changes that kind of personal war inflicts on a psyche. My honest read of Kyle as he was portrayed in the film was that of a family man who chose to serve his country and had trouble balancing his need to serve and "protect the flock" against the needs of his family. Freedom of speech being what it is, Kyle is entitled to his opinion and it is not the role of the director to change a character's opinion to fit sociopolitical niceties - especially in a war film.

(Editor's Note: Now, of course, a lot of this is colored by what we know of Chris Kyle as the man, not the person portrayed in the film. Kyle has been accused repeatedly of making up many of the stories seen in his book, and has been proven to have made up at least one of them - a fight with Jesse Ventura. However, the purpose of this article isn't to discuss the veracity of his sometimes outlandish claims, but to consider why we tell these war stories at all. Let's continue.)

Moving on to fiction based in history, Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola is a Vietnam War based retelling of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The basic premise is this: Captain Willard is tasked by Military Assistance Command Vietnam and the CIA to go up river and to kill a rogue special operative name Colonel Kurtz with the help of a PBR (patrol boat river) and its crew, as well as a bomber code named "Almighty". Willard (played by Martin Sheen) is plagued by the horrors of war he has seen in his service but can't seem to get away.

Within the first five minutes of the film he states, "When I was here, I wanted to be there (home); when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle." This is a war story that focuses on the madness and insanity of war with the jungle being the cause of the insanity, in the same way the jungle in Conrad's original tale drives all who enter into it mad. As Willard and his crew travel upriver towards Cambodia and ultimately Kurtz, they begin to witness stranger and stranger occurrences, showing how the war and the jungle (the representative dark heart of man) are destroying the souls of men. That, coupled with the availability of narcotics, alcohol, and other stimulants made Vietnam a veritable hell on earth for the men that served there.

The hardest part of this film is the acceptance of brutal behavior, and the growth of violence as Willard travels towards his target. Kurtz, rather than resisting the madness, embraced it. In doing so, he became an object of fear to his enemies. Frustrated with rules set by MACV, Kurtz takes off with his spec ops team and lives with the Montagnards (locals) he trained, ultimately becoming a god to these people. His people take trophies from their dead, never leave a corpse, and fight the same way the Viet Cong fight, driving fear into them. With Willard representing the "sanity of civilization" and Kurtz cast as the "law of the jungle," only one idea can win.

Those familiar with the book or the film know that Willard comes out on top. Yet what does this mean, or as Tim O'Brien stated "what is the moral of the story"? For our purpose, the "moral" of this war story is the madness of fighting and what does to people. In the end, Willard becomes like Kurtz in order to kill him. If anything, it is a cautionary tale and a warning to do one's best to defend their minds while in combat and to do their best to maintain the completeness of their soul.

Our final selections are the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Both take place in WWII on opposite sides of the globe. Instead of breaking down each series episode by episode let’s look at one episode from each. From Brothers we'll examine part nine, "Why We Fight" and for Pacific, "Part 9." Both are episodes that relate in content with American Sniper.

In the ninth part of The Pacific we find Eugene Sledge, aka Sledgehammer, and the rest of his unit marching through the mud of Okinawa heading towards the Shuri line. As usual, at this point in the war the Marines are marching into heavily fortified emplacements. The veterans are strung out and burned out with tempers running high. While on the march to the line, the Marines pass a few Japanese prisoners held by the Army (Marines were not taking prisoners). The soldiers are spit on, and by denigrating the prisoners they provoke a reaction that leads to officers becoming involved. This and other events lead to the culmination of Sledge's war, as well as pushing him to the near breaking point of his own limits.

Yet Sledge finds redemption in a single act. While clearing the defenses at the Shuri line, a boy steps out from a bunker. Sledge pulls his Thompson to his shoulder but does not fire. When a different Marine (a replacement) kills the boy, Sledge challenges him with rage and indignation, yelling "Do you feel good now that you killed your first Jap?" The return of this indignation is a sign of his returning humanity and a small sense of decency.

“Why We Fight” from Band of Brothers is the second to last episode in the series. The war in Europe is coming to a close. Easy Company of the 506th Division of the 101st Airborne is pushing deeper and deeper in to Germany. Again, battle fatigue is running high but some soldiers are enjoying themselves with the local ladies and gathering loot from unoccupied houses. Captain Nixon is on the raggedy edge after a fourth combat jump and begins to drink more and is eventually demoted. Everyone is walking on eggshells trying to stay alive and not get hurt. 

On their way to another town, PFC. Janovic is reading an article in Stars & Stripes when he is interrupted by Sargent Luz. The article in question is explaining why the Allies are at war with the Nazis, to which the answer Janovic paraphrases is “Well... it seems that the Germans are bad. Very bad.” After entering the town, a patrol is sent out to reconnoiter the perimeter areas around the town. The squad found a concentration camp that had been locked up and abandoned. The men of Easy Company are at first confused, then angered by what they find. They end up conscripting the nearby town’s inhabitants into burying the large numbers of dead bodies as the soldiers tended to the emaciated prisoners.

While gathering food, David Webster confronts a baker who is upset with Americans appropriating all his stock without paying. Outraged by what he saw at the camp Webster draws his sidearm and threatens the shop keeper asking him whether or not he knew about the camp. These men had fought through the hell of Bastogne to find that the Nazis had been capable of evil that at that time was unimaginable. But what they found answers the question Luz posed to Janovic better than any words could.

They fought to combat a regime so vile that it would selectively destroy people that it found inferior. This was something foreign to Americans at the time, having no reference point for this kind of systematic brutality other than slavery. Those images had begun to fade in spite of Jim Crow laws (they were also not as educated on the elimination of Native Americans, but that was not nearly as systematic). At least now, the question that faced those soldiers was answered; they finally knew why they fought.

So here is the real question: are these films true war stories? Each of them feels like a true war story. They all hit you in the gut in their own way, bringing a sense of reality. All of them are true, or based on parts of history as in the case of Apocalypse Now. However that does not answer the question of what the purpose of a war story is. The reason we tell war stories and what we glean from them varies from person to person. The goal of the tale teller is to impart some small sense of what the soldier faces in combat so that the listener might gain some measure of understanding. It is the role of the listener to pay attention and to think critically about the story being told, so that they in turn gain an idea of the sacrifices made.

While we are entitled to develop our own opinions and express them, I feel that there are times where we as civilians should hold our collective tongues while offering respect and thanks. As civilians we cannot understand what service men and women face, what that life is like, and what that life does to their minds and souls. Not everyone comes back damaged but everyone comes back with stories. The least that we can do is listen, learn, and give thanks to those who sacrificed so that we don’t have to. This doesn't mean that we can't think critically about the wars, or the reasons our young men and women were sent off to fight and possibly die. It just means that we need to show compassion to the men and women who fought in our names - no matter whether we believe they should have been there or not.

Addendum: If you're interested read these sources for more material on the subject: Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell, Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose, Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie, With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge, A Rifleman Went to War by H.W. McBride

David is a local historian, techie, home brewer, stage hand, and geek. He loves Star Wars and Shakespeare with equal passions and is prone to quoting it at random!

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