New film exposes all wars' savagery

August 06, 1998|By Michael Olesker

YOU WALK OUT of "Saving Private Ryan" cursing every previous World War II movie ever made for hiding the truth. You leave the theater vilifying Hollywood for all the years it cheapened the slaughter of human beings, for giving us John Wayne types who turned fear into cardboard heroics, and for all the postwar movies that sent a generation of boys into their back yards to fire toy machine guns at each other without connecting it to the horror faced by their fathers' generation.

And then, as if doing penance for years of unconsciously shortchanging the truth, you visit Maryland's new World War II Memorial. It's easy to find: Go to Annapolis and keep driving across the Naval Academy bridge until you reach August 1945.

That's when the organized killing stopped, but not the war movies created out of equal parts dramatic license and barely adulterated propaganda. America needed malleable bodies, so Hollywood became a branch office of military recruiting. But nobody's rushing off to sign up after seeing "Saving Private Ryan."

You sit there in a tunnel of amazement: So this is what it was like on D-Day. It was men dying without dignity, men crying for their mothers with their last breath, or just lying there with looks of utter stupefaction. It was grotesquerie on the grand scale: entrails on the beach, and scattered limbs, and kids barely out of high school whose lifeless bodies shared the sand with dead fish washed ashore.

And maybe you remember "The Longest Day," that empty 1962 D-Day epic where Robert Mitchum stood himself straight into the air on Omaha Beach, ignoring all concern for enemy fire, and bellowing orders that could be heard all the way to Paris. It was thrilling to behold, if you didn't understand how it cheated the truth.

Paul Fussell, author of "Wartime," wrote about such cheapening years ago: "It was not just the danger and fear, the boredom and uncertainty and loneliness and deprivation. It was the conviction that optimistic publicity and euphemism had rendered the experience so falsely that it would never be readily communicable.

"[There] was this public innocence about the bizarre damage suffered by the human body in modern war. You would expect frontline soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt, sometimes killed, by being struck by parts of their friends' bodies violently detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or Marine what hit him, you'd hardly be ready for the answer, 'My buddy's head,' or the West Point ring on his captain's severed hand."

That's the kind of war reflected in "Saving Private Ryan." There's been no previous American war movie like it, and it leaves you embarrassed for believing all previous war movies, and shocked at 50 years of willful national gullibility.

When you reach the new World War II Memorial in Annapolis, dedicated two weeks ago, there's another shock: sheer numbers. There were 287,000 from little Maryland who went off to that war - 14 percent of the state's population, an inscription says. And there, carved into granite pillars, are the names of 6,454 killed in action.

"With their lives before them," a plaque reads, "they left everything - their families, their loved ones, the serenity and security of their homes - to fight for a just cause. They departed on a journey to places they had never heard of to confront dangers they could not imagine."

Among the first elements landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day was the 29th Infantry Division, with guys from Maryland and Washington, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Those who survived the initial fighting went from Normandy to the heart of Germany. They received two Medals of Honor, 41 Distinguished Service Crosses, 816 Silver Stars, 5,151 Bronze Stars. Also, along the way, 19,814 of them were killed, wounded, injured or lost in action.

Inevitably, you stand in front of the memorial's granite pillars, and scan the list of names, and realize there's something else staring back: your own reflection. And each visitor spared from fighting must wonder: Could I have measured up? Could I have been the man my father was?

The movies, until "Saving Private Ryan," have never given us a vision to measure against. In wartime, the nation needed fresh bodies, so Hollywood offered itself as a willful recruiter. In the postwar years, the nation wished to see the shattering war experience in palatable terms. It had been through too much to relive the events too brutally.

It's taken half a century to admit certain truths to ourselves at the movies. But here's the irony: Just as movies begin to approach the truth, journalism moves away from it. Remember the last American war? Remember General Schwarzkopf's lighthearted briefings? Remember "surgical" bombs? Remember reporters being kept from the war zones until the fighting was done, and all of us reduced to taking the military brass' word for things - and nobody ever saw a missing limb, a terrified face, a life freshly ended?

On the 50-year journey to "Saving Private Ryan," we hid the ugliest facts of our newest wars.

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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