The War Effort

FROM 1991 THROUGH1995, few popular books or films celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of America’s participation in the Second World War. Individual ceremonies marked turning points like Pearl Harbor Day or the Battle of Midway or momentous events like the bombing of Hiroshima, but these attracted nothing deeper than TV coverage.  The consensus in New York and Hollywood was that people weren’t interested in the war. Now, five years later, it’s amazing to see how quickly publishing and the movie business have changed their tune, and nothing illustrates this fact better than the success of Flags of Our Fathers, the new history of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Since the beginning of the Vietnam war, Hollywood has shied away from the war movie, seeing it as too politically charged.  In the climate of the ’60s and ’70s here, there was no way to sugarcoat combat and its effects.  There were no easy heroes, no bright and shining deeds.  The classic John Wayne war movie, full of freckle-faced kids making gung ho charges at Japanese pillboxes, was quietly put to sleep.  In the public eye, war, after the Fall of Saigon (speaking of anniversaries), was a terrible and complicated form of madness. The few films that have dealt seriously with the Vietnam war since then have been made not by the mainstream studios, but by iconoclasts like Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick, all of whom risked massive critical and popular failure to bring thoughtful and complex visions of war to the screen with little or no financial backing.

In the late 70s, Steven Spielberg helped bring about the most recent great change in the American movie business, ushering in an era of apolitical, sentimental blockbusters.  His work seemed to spring from a prepubescent imagination, all slapstick car crashes, big sharks and monsters and nifty technical effects, and satisfied an essentially childish audience, offending no one.  Even sex did not exist in his world, and certainly not war.  Only later, after he’d become the most popular filmmaker in the world, did Spielberg feel the need to prove he could be serious, to earn, it would seem, a critical reputation to go with his success.  In any other arena, this would be laughable, the most insincere and callow attempt at self-aggrandizement.  Not in Hollywood.

The results so far have been mixed at best, but Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan drew such large audiences that, in America at least, Steven Spielberg singlehandedly revived widespread popular interest in the Second World War.  The difficulty, of course, is that Spielberg’s treatment of the war, like his treatment of any other subject, is picturesque and sentimental, shallow and secondhand, and often flat-out flashy and bombastic. After its thrilling and visceral setpiece of an opening (again, typical of Spielberg with its kinetic, gee-whiz technique) Saving Private Ryan is an amalgam of the worst cliches of the old John Wayne flicks, complete with the wise, self-sacrificing platoon leader and the freckle-faced grunts who love him.

But hardly anyone in America cared.  It was a relief, after gnawing on the sour bones of Vietnam so long, and trying to ignore the airbursts and bulldozers that buried the Iraqis in their trenches, to celebrate our proud military history without sticky questions of guilt or a nod to the qualms of realism.  Spielberg delivered enough blood and guts in the first ten minutes to let us know war was a tough business so that we could unashamedly cheer for our boys the rest of the movie.

On the heels of Saving Private Ryan came the first blockbuster book of non-fiction to celebrate that long-goneAmerica, network newscaster Tom Brokaw’s heroically titled The Greatest Generation.  Brokaw posits that the Americans who grew up during the depression of the thirties learned the moral and material lessons necessary to win the Second World War and then, by attending college on the G.I. bill, learned the advanced technological and financial lessons that began the economic boom of the fifties.  The book is unabashedly nostalgic, partly by excising the harder lessons of the 60s, 70s and 80s, but no matter.  It has sold a ridiculous number of copies, mostly to–big surprise–that same generation it celebrates.  Which only proves you can’t go wrong telling people what they want to hear.

Brokaw has since published a follow-up titled The Greatest Generation Speaks, an oral history which includes a fair number of veterans describing their war service.  It has also become a bestseller.  The average age in America has risen steadily across the last decade, and there’s a solid, interested audience, self-congratulatory as that seems.

War books are boy books–that’s the classic line in the New York publishing world.  And men don’t buy books–another line.  But there are rare exceptions, Tom Clancy’s techno-thrillers being one.  Now, with Brokaw’s books selling well to an older, male crowd, and nostalgia for the war at an all-time high (this week’s Time magazine cover story is geared toward Memorial Day, a tearjerking feature on letters from soldiers who never made it home), Bantam Books has released Flags of Our Fathers, a look back at the six men who raised the American flag in the famous photo of Iwo Jima. Industry pundits have been surprised at its success; going into this weekend, it’s number 2 on the bestseller list.

First, there’s no reason to be surprised.  Flags of Our Fathers is solidly in the heroic mode.  Here are six American boys from different ethnic backgrounds, different parts of the country, and through fate they come together in one of the most patriotic, triumphant images of the war.  The author, James Bradley, is the son of one of the men, adding a personal emotional component to the telling:  what was my dad really like, and why didn’t he like to talk about being part of The Photograph?  There’s a ghostwriter along for the ride, a Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist, but he’s never included in the first person narration.  Apparently the book was rejected by 27 different publishers, and the reader suspects that the writer was brought in to clean things up.

Flags of Our Fathers relies on the same frame Saving Private Ryan does: a family gathered near the foreign battlefield to honor a dead soldier.  The story opens up to follow that soldier and his melting pot platoon buddies through a massive and critical battle (in Flags, Iwo Jima; in Saving Private Ryan, Normandy).  First we get capsule backgrounds of the boys, but what Bradley gives us is bland and stereotypical, quick thumbnail sketches of the depression.  There’s an unbridled nostalgia here; the author falls for the popular idea that the past was a simpler, happier time, even to the point of discounting how hard it was for Ira Hayes to grow up an Indian in the depression Southwest–as if he needs to defend an idyllic America for his audience.  Instead of complex human beings, the six come off as average and facetless.  They liked girls and enjoyed a good time.  Their mothers were religious and prayed they would be all right.  Like murder victims, they’re nice guys.

As with any standard battle narrative, Flags follows them through basic training and then across the Pacific.  Old notions such as the savagery of the Japanese and the necessity of the battle are rolled out as if they’re gospel truth.  In fact, throughout, the Japanese are painted as barbarians, evil savages with no regard for human life, including their own.  In a tactic borrowed from old movies, while the Americans are shown to be just good-hearted kids, the Japanese are represented by a faceless horde (who spend much of their time onstage committing atrocities) or by a single officer, General Kuribayashi, and his stiff missives to superiors.  And because the island is so heavily fortified, the Americans are positioned as the scrappy underdogs (as in Private Ryan), though by this point in the war, the Japanese were reeling, low on men and materiel.

The procedural feel of the battle sections is what makes publishers worry that, on the whole, readers won’t be interested in war literature.  Leading someone through a blow-by-blow re-creation of any battle is a daunting process.  The general public, never having actually been in combat, are interested in how it feels–at least the men, according to the publishers’ wisdom–but delivering specific scenes can be a logistical and artistic nightmare for even an experienced author.  Beyond the pitfalls of using too much anecdotal evidence (unreliable, especially years after the fact) or, conversely, using a larger historical overview (dry, sometimes stultifyingly technical), there is the problem of conveying an extreme and chaotic state of being, and often language and formal story structure, being fixed, aren’t up to the job.  It takes a good writer to situate the reader in the middle of a war so it can be seen and felt and heard and tasted, and without overselling the action or understating the horror.  In short, it takes taste.  Too often in Flags of Our Fathers, one runs into chunks of ugly prose like:

A Japanese counterattack slammed into the Marines’ left flank.  Harlon Block found himself in close-up combat, hand to hand and tree to tree.  With knife, gun, and bare hands, the Texas pass-catcher fought in the confusion of English and Japanese screams.  His clear-cut world of right and wrong had dissolved into a brutish fight for survival. The survivors on both sides eventually withdrew to endure another night and fight another day.

Bradley and his ghostwriter are dreadfully heavyhanded.  Throughout the battle sequences they feel the need to overforeshadow and overexplain, to tell the reader what to feel, nailing down every effect with a major chord.  Their highflown rhetoric is the literary equivalent of John Williams’ cheesy score for Saving Private Ryan:

It was the rifleman, sloshing ashore in the teeth of murderous fire. It was the rifleman, surrounded by the screams and the floating corpses of his buddies.  It was the rifleman, scared and exposed and unprotected by armor of any sort, peering through the smoke and confusion for a glimpse of an individual enemy.  It was the rifleman who would determine the outcome of America’s war.

And there’s worse than that, hilariously wooden lines like “Moments of valor proliferated,” and “The predators were advancing on him.”  The authors have made the mistake of resting too comfortably on the solemn nature of the event so that they unconsciously slip into self-parody.  “A dream burned in his heart, even as a hell on earth brewed on the other side of the ocean.”

And still, in the midst of the battle, the reader hears of “peaceable American boys, citizen-soldiers about to engage with a myth-obsessed samurai foe.”  We’re rooting for them, so the sacrifices the Marines make–and the authors clumsily enforce this–are noble and touching, proof of the human spirit, while those made by the Japanese are misguided and insane, the result of fanaticism.  After several hundred pages of this demonizing, it’s easier, one supposes, to stomach our nice boys burning their (our) enemies alive with flamethrowers.

In the end, the casualty figures of the battle are quoted at length to impress us, and the authors indulge in a particularly slippery tactic, citing 26,000 U.S. casualties against 21,000 Japanese dead. Of course, we later understand that only 6800 U.S. Marines died; the rest of the casualties were merely injured. In the same spirit of relative atrocity and the body count, it could be said that the losses at the Somme make Iwo Jima’s look miniscule.

But every hard-fought battle is horrible and strange, from Vietnam’s Hamburger Hill to the retreat at Korea’s Chosin Reservoir, and often the sacrifices soldiers make are for nothing, or nothing tangible.  Here, and in the case of Normandy, the argument can be made that their sacrifices led directly to the end of the war, and for that reason, the authors can more easily portray–in retrospect–their actions as heroic.

The men who lived through the battle also lived to refute that idea. Even the author’s father, the center of the book, shrugs off the mantle of hero, saying that he did what he did because he was there and felt he should lend a hand, that it was just circumstance–coincidence–that made the rest of the world see him and the other five men as icons.  He did his best, and it was hard, and he wants to forget it.

The best sections of Flags of Our Fathers come late in the book, after the battle is over, and after the war bond tours are done with.  Here, finally, the three men who survived become individuals, living their lives under the shadow of The Photograph, haunted and defined by it. Within ten years, Ira Hayes dies an alcoholic.  The author’s father won’t talk about The Photograph, purposely avoids reporters. The other survivor struggles, missing his brief celebrity, ending his days as a janitor.

Here are the stories that don’t fit in Steven Spielberg’s world, and often seem not to fit with the middle sections of the book itself, with its rah-rah patriotism and awestruck father worship.  In the difficulties the survivors face reconnecting with America and reconciling their service with everyday life, the ending sections strikingly resemble post-Vietnam narratives–Joe Klein’s Flashback comes to mind–with the requisite substance abuse, PTSD and willed amnesia.  But, as with Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation books, Flags of Our Fathers is not about Vietnam, and so the soldiers’ sacrifice, like the war itself, can be seen as noble and purposeful.  And who wouldn’t want to buy that?

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