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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Memorial Day thoughts on war & great war movies (from '13)

Being born with a philosophical bent, I spend a good deal of time wrestling with the great questions of the ages.

“Why are we here?” “What happens to us when we die?” And, “If God created heaven and earth, who created God?”

Those are all topics for another day.

Today, Memorial Day, I think I have an answer to a question that has puzzled great thinkers since it was first posed in 1970. The question?

“War: What is it good for?”

After much soul-searching I’ve come up with an answer. It is as follows:

Without war, there would be no great war movies.

I understand my answer is unlikely to salve the wounds of the veterans and widows for whom today means so much more than a traditional basic cable war movie feast.

I know of very few males, the gender primarily responsible for launching and fighting wars, for whom war movies do not resonate.

I wonder if the two are related.

But I know many men who today will be tuned in to watch, “Patton,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Longest Day,” and other epic films based on man’s inhumanity to man.

I think it’s because most men wonder how we’d react under fire. Would we flee or advance?  Would we respond like our fathers did?

In my case, the answer is probably yes.

Like many descendants of The Greatest Generation, I come from military stock. The declaration seems to be bestow me with reflected glory.

My Dad served. He stood on the bright line that helped save the world from tyranny.

Did he storm the beaches at Normandy? No.

Dad was a U.S. Navy chaplain’s assistant.

The only less hazardous military title I can imagine is Army Pillow Tester.

He had no war stories about heroics. In fact, my favorite war story of his was the one he told about he was waiting to board the U.S Pocono to be shipped off to the Pacific on August 7, 1945, when someone told him we’d dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.

Dad’s question: “What’s an atom bomb?”

Military historians will argue the ethics of the point, but the atom bomb forced a swift Japanese surrender and likely saved the lives of my father and millions of others who would have perished invading an entrenched and motivated Japan.

We naturally tend today to memorialize only of the ones who fought on the front lines, the wounded and dead. In fact, the original intent of Memorial Day was the memorialize those killed in action. It has somehow morphed into an omnibus military appreciation day and I’m cool with that.

I tend to believe heroics are often the result of circumstance.

In that regard, I’m like the protagonist of what to me is the greatest war movie ever made, a war movie that shows not a single gun being fired and the only notable death is unseen, but merely mentioned in a letter read aloud.

It’s “Mister Roberts.”

The 1955 John Ford movie stars Henry Fonda as beleaguered Lt. Doug Roberts, the executive officer aboard the cargo supply ship Reluctant.

Roberts itches for action, but so excels at his mundane duties that his tyrannical captain, played by James Cagney, won’t approve his repeated requests for front line transfer.

In the end, his beloved crew secretly rigs the transfer and Roberts is thrust into combat.

The movie concludes with the bored crew getting two letters from Roberts’s new ship: the first is from Roberts who relates how his destroyer is in the thick of the action near Okinawa. 

In hindsight, he has an epiphany about his old shipmates and that the “unseen enemy of this terrible war is the boredom that eventually becomes a faith and, therefore, a terrible sort of suicide. I know now that the ones who refuse to surrender to it are the strongest of all.”

The second letter is from one of Roberts’s shipmates. It conveys Roberts was killed in a below-decks kamikaze strike. He was drinking coffee and never saw it coming.

Just another example of a sad, useless death in war’s grim ledger.

But, geez, it makes for one hell of a movie.



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