First, a small list of a few numbers:
Lithuania, 1655- 4,000,000
Africa, 1816- 2,000,000
Jerusalem, 1095- 3,000,000
Mexico, 1911- 2,000,000
Poland, 1655- 4,000,000
Korea, 1950- 3,500,000
Sudan, 1983- 2,000,000
France, 1562- 4,000,000
Vietnam, 1955- 6,000,000
Europe, 1618- 11,500,000
Russia, 1917- 9,000,000
Asia, 1369- 20,000,000
China, 1616 – 25,000,000
China, 1340- 30,000,000
China, 755- 36,000,000
Europe, Asia, 1207- 60,000,000
World War I, 1914- 65,000,000
World War II, 1939- 72,000,000
China, 1851- 100,000,000
I do not know much about war, for which I am exceedingly thankful. I have never been shot at and I have never seen the person next to me take a bullet in the face or the stomach. I have never felt the overwhelming torque of triumph and horror and shame at having taken the life out of an enemy. I’ve never felt the cold panic before a battle, never seen a pile of limbs, never seen some one lit on fire, never watched a weeping man bleed to death in my arms.
What I know about war is this:
The Department of Defense has identified 2,032 American service members who have died as a part of the Afghan war and related operations. It confirmed the deaths of the following Americans recently:
ASHLEY, Joshua R., 23, Cpl., Marines; Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; Second Law Enforcement Battalion.
FITTS, Krystal M., 26, Specialist, Army; Houston; 82nd Airborne Division.
REYES, Jose J., 24, Sgt., Army; San Lorenzo, P.R.; 10th Mountain Division.
RODRIGUEZ, Daniel A., 28, Sgt., Army; Baltimore; 10th Mountain Division.
LAST, First MI., Age, Rank, Branch, Hometown, Division. That’s it. One might as well be reading baseball cards or a stock ticker or the ingredient list on the back of a cereal box. All that stands out is the ages. They’re all so young.
It would be better, I think, if they simply listed their names and included a link to a video of their loved ones receiving the news. Or maybe they could include their favorite color or favorite song or favorite food. Or, perhaps this:
The night before the burial of her husband, 2nd Lt. James Cathey of the US Marine Corps, killed in Iraq, his wife Katherine refused to leave his casket, asking to sleep next to his body one last time. The Marines made up a bed for her. Look hard at the photo again and use your imagination.
No, mostly what I know about war is from books and TV and videogames. Man, I love me a good shoot ‘em videogame where you try to kill as many dudes as possible. I try not to think about how creepy it is. And most of the war movies are from the classical protagonist vs. antagonist perspective. When our boys get killed, it’s bad. When German boys die, it’s good. So you get “The Longest Day” and “The Dirty Dozen” and “Rambo” and “Back to Batan” and “Braveheart” and “The Patriot.” John Wayne says a witty line and starts popping off rounds.
I thought Saving Private Ryan was a pretty amazing film. I’ve never seen anything as brutal as the D-Day landing scenes. It made me feel sick to my stomach so it was probably fairly accurate. I heard a number of WWII Veterans had to receive counseling after watching it. And there are moments when the German soldiers seem like real humans. One has to dig his own grave. But in the end, the Germans are the bad guys and the Americans, particularly Tom Hanks, are the good guys. It’s still, mostly, a dehumanizing story.
Another movie I particularly liked, Patton (1970), summed it all up pretty nicely. The film is about the triumphant psychosis of a man born for war. In the opening, George C. Scott, playing General Patton, walks out on stage in front of an enormous flag to address his troops…
Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans, traditionally, love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle.
When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. Now, I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.
Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating.
Now, we have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world. You know, by God, I actually pity those poor bastards we’re going up against. By God, I do. We’re not just going to shoot the bastards. We’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun bastards by the bushel.
Now, some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you’ll chicken-out under fire. Don’t worry about it. I can assure you that you will all do your duty. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Shoot them in the belly. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend’s face, you’ll know what to do.
Now there’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We’re not holding anything. Let the Hun do that. We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding onto anything — except the enemy. We’re going to hold onto him by the nose, and we’re gonna kick him in the ass. We’re gonna kick the hell out of him all the time, and we’re gonna go through him like crap through a goose!
Now, there’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home, and you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee, and he asks you, “What did you do in the great World War II?” — you won’t have to say, “Well, I shoveled shit in Louisiana.”
Alright now you sons-of-bitches, you know how I feel.
Oh, I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle anytime, anywhere.
It’s almost enough to make you forget about the vastness of horror and pain and death. I should mention that my Grandpa Floyd Merrill was in Patton’s army.
I prefer Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut’s surreal look at the horrific firebombing of Dresden by the “good guys.” Clint Eastwood, himself a war movie star and a total badass, gets it. He made one film from the perspective of the Americans on Iwo Jima (Flags of Our Fathers) and another film from the perspective of the Japanese on Iwo Jima (Letters From Iwo Jima). Eastwood’s was a very sad and humanizing project.
But my favorite war movie is The Thin Red Line, directed by Terrence Malick and based on the book by James Jones. In my opinion, Malick is our greatest filmmaker, right up there with Hitchcock and Welles. His films are less about story and instead serve as guided meditations. Maybe they’re too slow for some folk but his war film is so full of poetry, looks the horror right in the eye and asks where war came from.
While living in a gorgeous island paradise amongst an untroubled village, Private Witt says, I remember my mother when she was dyin’, looked all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn’t find nothin’ beautiful or uplifting about her goin’ back to God. I heard of people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it.
I wondered how it’d be like when I died, what it’d be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same… calm. ‘Cause that’s where it’s hidden- the immortality I hadn’t seen.
In one scene, a the army has overrun a Japanese position and the carnage of the aftermath is gruesome and overwhelming. Soldiers shoot Japanese men that have already surrendered. A private tells a Japanese man that he’s going to eat his liver, points to the birds that will eat him raw. He says, What are you to me? Nothin’. Then he goes back to pulling out gold teeth with a pair of pliers from the mouths of the dead.
Private Witt wonders, What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power but two?
What is this great evil? How did it steal into the world? From what seed, what root did it spring? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of light and life. Mocking us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?
We were a family. How’d it break up and come apart, so that now we’re turned against each other? Each standing in the other’s light. How’d we lose that good that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered it, careless. What’s keepin’ us from reaching out, touching the glory?
A Japanese soldier lays lifeless on the ground, his face unmoving, and asks Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?
Eventually Private Witt finds himself surrounded by Japanese troops but he is not afraid and accepts his last moments with calm. He has said, Your death that captures all. You too are the source of all that’s going to be born. He raises his rifle and is shot through the heart.
As the ship is taking the American soldiers away from Guadalcanal, Private Train narrates the last lines of the film.
Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.
Once, years ago, after an all night shift at work, I was at the bus stop, waiting to go home. Also at the bus stop was a little old man and a little old woman in a wheelchair and a respirator. The old man was wearing a Marines hat with a terrifying screaming eagle and an American flag on it. Realizing it was Veteran’s Day, I asked if he had been in the war.
“I fought in double U double U two and Korea.”
“Well, sir, thank you for your service. Happy Veteran’s Day.”
“Oh yeah. I was a machine-gunner. I did all sorts a machine gunnin’. I’d pop the lid off them Kraut tanks and machine gun em right in face. They’d be all screamin’ and whatnot. Blood everywhere! Sometimes maybe we’d throw a grendade down in there for good measure and-”
He stopped and looked upward. There was a squirrel running along a powerline.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Hey you there! Mr. Bright Eyes! Get along home Mr. Bright Eyes!”
“Uh,” I didn’t even know what to say. “Do… you know that squirrel?”
“Oh yeah. That’s Mr. Bright Eyes. He’s one of mine.”
“You mean you have squirrels as pets?”
“That’s right!” said the old man. “They bite into them lines and fall to the ground. They neighborhood children think they’re dead and bring ’em by the house but they aint dead.”
“Do they… do the the squirrels live in your house?”
“Yup. We got maybe six or seven with us in the house.”
“Really? What do you feed them?”
The little old lady in the respirator, who I had assumed was senile, piped up. “Oh, peanut butter sandwiches mostly.”
“And they scratch somethin’ fierce,” said the man. He removed his hat to show me the squirrel scratches on his bald head. “Other day, Funny Nose jumped off the roof and landed right on my head.”
“I… that’s amazing!”
Then the bus came.