THERE HAS NEVER been an age without war, not ever. Mass violence is a continual aspect of the human condition. Peace, like good weather, is always local and temporary -- and what is peace anyway but the result of past victories in war and the effective threat of future war against would-be aggressors?
We play with our children, read books, go to work and enjoy recreations only because people with guns stand ready, willing and able to kill other people with guns who would kill us if they could.
It’s sweet to forget this and therefore difficult to keep it in mind. “It is hard for those who live near a Police Station to believe in the triumph of violence,” as T.S. Eliot wrote. That’s us -- we Americans, protected by a mighty military that by and large obeys the rules of our republic -- safe enough, and keeping much of the world safe enough, so that we find it hard to believe in what would happen if that protection failed.
But these fighters do keep us safe. And because keeping us safe is harsh, dangerous work, we should glorify them, exalt them in story and song by way of appreciation.
“United 93" -- the film celebrating the heroic civilian attempt to retake a hijacked plane on 9/11 -- opened last week. That’s great. Well done and about time. But now, let’s have some war movies.
We need some films celebrating the war against Islamo-fascism in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and in Iran as well, if and when that becomes necessary. We need films like those that were made during World War II, films such as 1943’s “Sahara” and “Action in the North Atlantic,” or “The Fighting Seabees” and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” which were released in 1944.
Not all of these were great films, or even good ones, but their patriotic tributes to our fighting forces inspired the nation.
More than that, they reminded the country what exactly it was that those forces were fighting to defend. Though many of these pictures now seem almost hilariously free with racist tirades against “sauerkrauts,” and “eyeties” and “Tojo and his bug-eyed monkeys,” they were also carefully constructed to display American life at its open-minded and inclusive best.
Every roll call of Hollywood’s U.S. troops seems to include a Ragazzi and a Donovan, a Hellenopolis, a Novasky, and a wisecracking Roth. “Sahara” even throws in the black “Mohammedan” Tabul, a Sudanese ally. This may have been corny, but it was also more or less realistic, and it depicted the war as a conflict between our lovably mongrel melting pot and the despicable Axis ideal of racial purity.
For all their epithets and stereotypes, then, these pictures sent the distinctly American message that it’s not bloodlines but national creeds that make a people, and that while even so great a creed as ours can’t guarantee the decency of individuals, evil creeds surely sweep them up into destructive madness and therefore must be opposed.
Today we face an enemy in the grip of a belief system just as evil, just as destructive in its intent, as the system we fought back then. We were attacked at home in this war as we were in World War II. The outcome of the struggle is just as much in doubt. Worse, because Islamic fundamentalism supersedes nationhood, the danger it poses is more protean and diffuse. It’s easier to pretend it isn’t there, more tempting for the war-weary and the fatally foolish to waver and sound retreat.
In short, we need war movies now even more than in the ‘40s. So why aren’t we getting them? One reason surely is that, in the years since World War II, our self-assurance as a nation, the self-assurance necessary for the waging of war, has been shaken, and Hollywood reflects that. The change occurred against the backdrop of postwar history, but I believe it has as much to do with our cultural values, their uses and misuses, as it does with events. The Western ethos, with its Christian roots, demands that we look to our own sins before judging the sins of others. It’s amazing how quickly, after the war ended, Hollywood began to examine the ways in which Americans shared the moral failings of the Axis.
As early as 1947, we had “Crossfire,” about an American GI who commits an anti-Semitic murder. In 1949, “Home of the Brave” depicted a heroic African American soldier dealing with prejudice. And by 1955, there was the classic “Bad Day at Black Rock,” in which a veteran uncovers homicidal anti-Japanese bigotry when he tries to deliver a medal to the father of a Japanese American killed on the battlefields of Italy.
Such self-examination and reform are part of the measure of our greatness. But there’s a difference between a humble nation confessing its sins and a country of flagellants whipping themselves for every impure thought. Since the ‘60s, we have had, it seems, an endless string of war movies, from “Dr. Strangelove” to “Syriana,” in which the United States is depicted as wildly aggressive and endlessly corrupt -- which, in fact, it’s not; which, in fact, it never has been.
In taking our self-examining ethos to these extremes, we have lost a kind of wisdom, wisdom that acknowledges the complexity of human life but can move through it to find the simple truth again. While assessing the intricate failings of our moral history, many of us have lost sight of the simple truth that the system that shapes us is, in fact, a great one, that it has moved us inexorably to do better and that it’s well worth defending against every aggressor and certainly against as shabby and vicious an aggressor as we face today.
Not only have we lost this kind of wisdom, but I think that a handful of elites -- really only a handful of academics, journalists and artists -- has raised up a golden counterfeit in its stead. With this counterfeit wisdom, they imagine themselves above the need for patriotism; they fantasize they grasp a truth beyond good and evil, and they preen themselves on a higher calling than the protection of our way of life. And all the while they forget that they imagine and fantasize and preen only by the grace of those who fight and die and stand guard to secure those freedoms that our system alone guarantees.
When war comes, as it always will, and when it is justified, as it is now, some nuances and shades of gray have to be set aside. It is time, instead, for faith and for ferocity. Our enemies have these weapons, after all. Our movies should inspire us to have them too.