Nazis on the Backlot

How Hollywood has changed our perception of war

Memorial Day used to be a somber occasion, dedicated to reflection and remembrance of those killed in America’s wars. Today it is instead a celebration of ongoing wars, a long shopping weekend and the unofficial start of summer. Part of the problem with America’s shifting perception of the price to be paid when one goes to war is that it has been shaped by Hollywood and video games, so much so that it has become divorced from the horrible reality of what happens when countries and peoples do their best to kill each other. Protected by two oceans, the continental United States has been largely immune from being on the receiving end of war, not suffered any form of military attack since Pancho Villa rode against Blackjack Pershing in New Mexico in 1916. And apart from some experiments with weather balloons launched by the Japanese in 1942, the country has never been subjected to aerial bombardment.

But even if the homeland was itself untouched by war, American soldiers nevertheless fought and died and did the sorts of things soldiers do. SSgt. John Basilone, one of America’s most decorated Marines, was born in my hometown, which also had a larger percentage of its young men serving in the Second World War than any other town in the U.S. On the main street there is a statue of Basilone cradling a 50 caliber Browning water cooled machine gun and he is celebrated with an annual parade. My father and three uncles served in the South Pacific and Europe in infantry and combat engineer units during World War II. One was at Pearl Harbor. A first cousin was in a regiment that was decimated in the retreat from the Yalu River in Korea in 1950 while another served with the Americal infantry division in Vietnam. Both my brother and I were in the army during Vietnam, though as a Russian speaker I spent my war in Germany.

Such exposure to the military was not atypical in working class families while the draft was still in effect, but after the wars were over everyone was happy to go home and no one ever talked about what they had done and seen. It seemed easier that way but now, in retrospect, I am actually beginning to think it better if my family had opened up a lot more about just how awful some of their experiences had been. I can recall my father making only one serious comment about his war, saying cryptically that “when you are a soldier the difference between being a hero and a monster is being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time.”

And it was certainly easy to forget war back in the United States, prosperous and untouched by the enemy. In Asia and Europe it is different and that is why there is a clear reluctance to follow Washington’s lead as global policeman. The war for many families is still alive. Even though the World War II generation is itself vanishing there remain numerous memorials and cemeteries as well as other powerful physical reminders of the suffering and destruction that war brought in every theater of that conflict.

All of which means that war, unlike for the rest of the world, is itself pretty much an abstraction for the vast majority of Americans who have not themselves been in the military since the draft ended in 1973. “Boots on the ground” is one of the most delicious expressions that one encounters from a media and public that want more fighting. And then there is the descriptor “kinetic” applied to military operations, which is a euphemism for shooting people and dropping bombs. Far too many Americans see war as an endless series of patriotic bumper stickers with the United States invariably wearing the white hat and emerging victorious. Few consider that a kinetic experience can blow your brains out while the boots on the ground are attached to legs that lead up to torsos, heads and arms, all of which are vulnerable to small arms fire and Improvised Explosive Devices.

Note the recent comments by GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who doubles down on his brother George’s disastrous Iraq policy and also tags “W” as his foreign policy adviser. Jeb might well be regarded as the smartest of the Bushes, but he clearly is unable to correct course based on careful analysis of bad outcomes, recalling the Albert Einstein quip that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. If we elect another Bush we will undoubtedly have the same result.

There was nothing good about the Iraq adventure, not even the near mythical surge, apart from the profits accruing to defense contractors. Iraq is still bearing bitter fruit in the form of the anarchy prevailing both in that unhappy land itself and also in neighboring Syria. Jeb apparently also confuses America’s interests with those of his family, okay or even admirable in private life but a bit over the top in one who aspires to be a statesman. Or is it just that Jeb does not hesitate to appeal to the more rabid component of what he perceives to be his potential electorate, a group that knows nothing of war but is again baying for blood?

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