30 July 2005 - Saturday

Representing war

In the 30 July issue of the evangelical publication World, Gene Edward Veith sharply criticizes the new FX series Over There. Unfortunately, his analysis of the rhetoric of the show, which includes some good points, is marred by a faulty perspective on history and storytelling.

The series follows the lives of fictional soldiers in Iraq, with the goal, it seems, of avoiding larger political questions. The conflict is used merely as the setting for grim drama, following the lead of some contemporary law enforcement shows (co-creator Steven Bochco is known for his work on Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and L.A. Law).

However, Veith rejects the view that the show is apolitical:

But to portray a war without any of its ideals is to portray that war as meaningless. If the reasons for the war are just "politics," if war is nothing more than a struggle for survival, who could support it?

Michael Medved has pointed out the change in war movies. The movies about World War II made five decades ago did not necessarily glamorize war or shrink from how terrible it is. But they presented the GIs as fighting for a cause that gave meaning and value to their sacrifices. The old war movies -- think The Longest Day -- were on the side of the Americans and of America. The soldiers were heroes because the war was worth fighting.

But with the Vietnam War, Mr. Medved observes, that all changed. With the anti-war sentiments of the cultural elite, Hollywood began portraying war -- even "good wars" such as World War II -- as meaningless and absurd. The soldier was portrayed as an existential hero, struggling -- and often failing -- to keep his humanity in a world of senseless violence. (Think Catch-22 for World War II; M*A*S*H for the Korean War; Apocalypse Now for Vietnam.) In the more recent war movies, patriotism is a joke, leaders are corrupt, and idealism is a foolish illusion.

In the new mindset, even pacifism changes. The old pacifism was based precisely on moral ideals. The new pacifism is grounded in cynicism. Ideals and moral values do not exist, so there is nothing worth fighting and dying for.

I have not seen any of Over There, and probably never will. The graphic violence aside, most reviewers seem to agree that the series is not very realistic. The few snatches of dialogue I have heard or read suggest that the script is very weak and that the soliders are caricatures. And I have a sneaky feeling that the show will be pure soap opera before long.

Furthermore, I sympathize with some of Veith's analysis. It is entirely likely that the weakness of the show results largely from the political perspective of the show's creators.

However, I do not like Veith's analysis either of politico-cinematic history or of the motivation for contemporary anti-war activism.

It is an oversimplification to ascribe the evolution in war films solely to political beliefs. The change is part of a larger shift in audience expectations. For example, Americans watching police shows today would object to the idealized portrayals of law enforcement agents in J. Edgar Hoover's America (remember, kids, crime and communism don't pay ... which reminds me to mention that the genres' target demographics have also changed). That does not mean the makers of today's shows dislike the police. Likewise, viewers today, no matter how proud they are of the American role in the Second World War, would find some of the films produced during that era ridiculous. The threshold for the suspension of disbelief has shifted a bit.

Well before Vietnam became a cultural crisis, audiences wanted more subtle treatments. The Longest Day (1962), which Veith lauds for its patriotism, actually presents a fairly sympathetic picture of individuals within the German military. The film does presuppose a noble purpose in the Allied invasion, yet Richard Burton's most memorable line is, "He [a German]'s dead. I'm crippled. You're lost. Do you suppose it's always like that?" Even right after the war ended, some films were patriotically ambiguous. Films like Twelve O'Clock High (1949) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), both starring Gregory Peck, depict the recent conflict as bewildering and dehumanizing. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) won seven Oscars for showing the tragic aftermath of the war in everyday America. And the magnificently absurdist Bridge on the River Kwai was released in 1957. These darker postwar movies came well before the breakdown in national consensus that developed during Vietnam. None gives much indication of the wider purposes of World War II. True, it is unlikely that any of them would have been made during the war itself, but they are all compatible with the belief that the war was just.

In a few cases, cynicism made it into circulation even during World War II. For a good example of this, we can look to the print media. During the Second World War, the brilliant cartoons of Bill Mauldin were full of gallows humor -- and were adored by soldiers and civilians alike. These cartoons mock the cheerful face put on the war by American propaganda, from the perspective of someone who saw the war up close. They show little awareness of any larger meaning. Mauldin himself wrote, "I haven't tried to picture this war in a big, broad-minded way. I'm not old enough to understand what it's all about. My reactions are those of a young guy who has been exposed to some of it, and I try to put those reactions in my drawings." Veith's commentary on Over There suggests that this attitude is mischievous: "In the more recent war movies, patriotism is a joke, leaders are corrupt, and idealism is a foolish illusion." That could almost describe Mauldin's take on World War II at the time. Were his cartoons improper?

What I find especially interesting is that part of Veith's complaint is similar to the opinion of a reviewer for The New Yorker. Nancy Franklin writes: "To judge by the first three episodes, 'Over There' seems to be saying only, or mainly, that war is hell. There's an overall pointlessness to the show thatís rather shocking, ..." That sounds very much like Veith's pro-war take. But the review continues: "... considering the outrageous lies and arrogance that got us into the war. But pointlessness may be inevitable in a country where, at the moment, to risk telling the truth -- beyond the truth that soldiers die in war and things are tough on the home front, too -- is to be condemned as unpatriotic."

Such an analysis shows how clueless Veith is to assert that current anti-war opinion is grounded in the belief that "ideals and moral values do not exist, so there is nothing worth fighting and dying for." That is nonsense, and insulting nonsense too. One need only note the moral-absolutist complaints made by the Left about torture or the legal basis for invasion (and the moral-relativist defenses made by a few on the Right) to recognize this as cultivated blindness.

Franklin's column also illustrates my objection to the "support the troops" rhetoric of the Right. Because we are at war and the troops face such horrible circumstances, the logic goes, we should not engage in debate over the larger political wisdom of going to war in the first place. Yet it seems many on the Right believe that to portray those horrible circumstances without putting the war in its political context is also a disservice to the troops. (Besides Veith's commentary here, witness what happened when Nightline broadcast the names of all of the troops killed in Iraq.) So there are only two permissible ways to talk about the war at all: either to show the hellishness and praise the policy, or not to show the hellishness and still to praise the policy. Either way, there is to be no challenge to the view that the war is wise policy.

Veith is correct, of course, to note that this show has biases. Every narrative has biases. But sometimes a narrative has conflicting biases. Veith notes that "even anti-war war stories exploit the action and excitement of war." I think this thrill makes many war movies pro-war by default. If the only policy we see is that of the battlefield, where American soldiers are getting shot, we obviously want the Americans to shoot back until they win. In the absence of any other information about the policy context of the conflict, a war movie makes most of us want the Americans to fight, period. I do not know whether this is true of Over There, but it is true far too often even in the real-life media. Remember the excitement of seeing B-52s batter Baghdad a couple of years ago? It was very hard to see those fireworks on TV and not be happy about the bloodshed.

[This post has been edited slightly for clarity and precision since I posted it this afternoon.]

| Posted by Wilson at 15:21 Central | TrackBack
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