The way it worked when I was growing up was that boys had to be soldiers and girls had to have babies. (It was the Forties. And it was in the Bible: the punishment for being thrown out of Eden.) If you couldn’t do either, you didn’t matter. You were expendable, an adjunct person. So my brothers went off to be Marines, which paid for their college, four years each but no combat and no callbacks. I went to college, partly on scholarship and partly thanks to my mother returning to teaching. My brothers thought I really got off easy, especially since I never had a baby. I’ve felt a little guilty about that, so I pay close attention to war. What if I’d been a boy?
Anyway, if you grew up in the Forties, war was the whole focus of virtue. I dearly loved Audie Murphy and wrote to him. He sent me a signed photo, or so it seemed. My family didn’t believe in shielding kids from war so we went to the newsreels, which were milder than the evening news on television now. But we understood what was going on. In my neighborhood we played less “cowboys and Indians” than just “guns.” Boys against the girls, crawling around houses, stairways, hedges. “You’re dead -- I got you.” “You did NOT!”
I watched the heart-breaking Russian war movies in about 1959. “Ballad of a Soldier,” “The Cranes Are Flying.” “Apocalypse Now” I saw one Sunday morning in Chicago while I was attending seminary. There was Reserve training that day, soldiers in the theatre and helicopters in the sky. Uncomfortable. “Platoon” I saw in Saskatoon while being interviewed for the Unitarian pulpit. A row of probably Ukrainian country boys sat behind me and every time the actors said, “fuck!” so did the boys. I have CDs of “Blackhawk Down,” “Jarhead,” and so on. I keep thinking I’ll have some major insight if I watch carefully.
Clint Eastwood’s big new movie is being reviewed now and compared to “Saving Private Ryan,” which I’ve just seen. A cheap video showed up at the local big box store. They say Eastwood’s “take the beach” scene is “better” than the one in “Private Ryan.” The reviewers are talking about special effects like the vistas of ships on the sea and the body parts. I suspect that one of the major insights is simply how confused and stunning such violence really is. Temporary deafness, temporary blindness, the inability to process what the senses are telling a person. The characters who die now don’t always do dramatic sudden drops of the head, much less give dramatic cries and twirl on one toe the way we used to do when we played “guns.” Their lights just go out. No one in there anymore. And nature is destroyed alongside the soldiers -- all those dead fish on the beach. The dead cow in “Saving Private Ryan,” the pariah dogs in “Blackhawk Down,” the horse in “Jarhead.”
What I liked best about “Saving Private Ryan” was that the hero was a high school English teacher. If anyone knows how to handle a bunch of young men preoccupied with sex, death and the meaning of existence, it’s bound to be a really good high school English teacher. Well, in the Forties the teacher was like that. Now they won’t let you teach real life.
A new phenomenon no one expected but is enough to make an English teacher’s day. Doonesbury is sponsoring a blog for soldiers:
I just spent an hour reading this stuff: terse, real, vivid, enlightening, and funny. Of course, it breaks your heart but you expect that. You don’t expect cranky old men who build bookshelves the RIGHT way so the thousands of books floating around can be sorted. You don’t expect several kinds of guilt, from the young man who survived Iraq and luckily has a Vietnam vet dad who also survived to be there for him. Or the female soldier who has a $100 bill pressed on her by a well-heeled businessman who knows his life is made possible by hers. As they say, the thought of impending death focusses the mind wonderfully.
No one can exactly predict what will happen in this country when these soldiers come back. Some of it will be pretty dark, the same as it was for the Vietnam vets living on the streets or in warehouses for crips or in prison for uncontrollable violence. And some of it might be a needed dose of reality. It’s not easy to figure out how to provide what these people are going to need. In the meantime the least we can do is read what they write. I hope some of them turn out to be high school English teachers who are allowed to teach real life.
Words are still more powerful than movies.