American Culture

US war movie military policy: Baby Boomers grew up on films where battle was noble and Americans never died

America’s permanent war policy is a reflection of WWII movies, which offered an unrealistic vision of war’s motivations, consequences

My Depression-born parents raised me in a rural idyll during the Eisenhower years. As a child, I snuck into the Garden Theater to watch war movies. They enthralled me: Battle Cry, To Hell and Back, Away All Boats, D-Day the Sixth of June, The Wings of Eagles, Battle of the Coral Sea, and my favorites, the submarine movies: Run Silent Run Deep, The Enemy Below, and Up Periscope. I revered Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and John Wayne in Operation Pacific and The Flying Leathernecks. Later, I learned mediated definitions of traitorous betrayal in Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare.

I liked those flicks. The good guys always won. The good guys were honorable and noble; the bad guys — usually Teutonic or Asian in appearance and demeanor — were nasty and evil. Those movies inculcated in me the patriotic notions that much of personal and national honor lay in defense of an American definition of freedom, of the sanctity of my homeland, of democracy rooted in American exceptionalism. That I was learning to instinctively fear and loathe any enemy — especially one labeled the Other — escaped my notice.

War, these movies taught me, is entered reluctantly and only after due, transparent discussion by the nation’s leaders. But as a child eating popcorn and tossing Jujubes from the balcony of the theater, I learned nothing about the imposition of freedom, of democracy, of American values on those who hold different values and beliefs and refuse to adopt what America “offers.”

In junior high I voraciously read about the means and materials of war — books on ships, airplanes, and rockets. Achievement of manhood and romantic notions of adventure attached to my understanding of war.

So much of childhood play was embedded with the heroic roles and noble motives of war I and my pals learned in those World War II movies. We reinforced those roles and motives, fighting among ourselves with snow forts and snowballs in winter and games of capture the flag in the woods in summer. Children learned an Americanized image of conflict early but rarely its eventual cost.

Back then, so young, I did not know that during World War II the American press would not show the bodies of American soldiers. That might discourage the citizens from buying war bonds. Heroic images only, please. Hence the American press heralded Joe Rosenthal’s picture of six servicemen hoisting the American flag atop Mount Suribachi. But the press did not display pictures of the bodies of their comrades splayed on the beaches of Iwo Jima. Their nearly 7,000 lives paid for that iconic image. In 1945 anyone could purchase the picture for three cents — a postage stamp commemorating the raising of the flag, not the loss of life that made it possible. Three of the men pictured on the stamp died in the next few days after the flag raising.

While young, I did not know how many servicemen and women died or how many were wounded in all these American wars — unless, of course, a body count was deemed by someone in power necessary to justify a declaration of war or the continuation of a conflict. That cost, borne by sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and siblings and friends, was so often a media footnote. I was only dimly aware that civilians died, often horribly. Radiation from an atomic bomb. The fire of napalm. The unseen and unheard fired remotely from a drone.

I did not know the cost of war — the time, the treasure, the blood. Not until the mid-1960s did I come to realize my mediated education about warfare was so terribly wrong.

Canisters of film flown back to the United States from Vietnam reflected the stark cost of war — images of American servicemen dead in villages, dead in jungles, dead in rice paddies. (Twenty-six of those dead were young men of my age from my home county in Massachusetts.) Network newscasts showed these grainy, flickering images to Americans sitting comfortably on sofas in living rooms across the country. Newspapers and magazines showed, too, more of warfare’s cost — Vietnamese civilians dead in villages, dead in jungles, dead in rice paddies.

I did not serve. I cannot imagine the reality of fighting in a war. I can only imagine what the media of fact and fiction have shown me. I do know, however, some of the costs: I know men and women who have suffered physical and psychological injuries. I know families who have lost loved ones. Is there any one among us who does not know intimately the cost of war inflicted on family and friends?

I turn 68 years old tomorrow. I am an American, and a proud one. However, I am a citizen of a nation that has been at war or in a perpetual posture of preparation for war since my birth. But I am not a pacifist. If you hit me, I will hit you as hard as I can. If you topple skyscrapers and kill 3,000 of my fellow citizens, I will support finding you and killing you. John Wayne lingers in me: You can run, but you can’t hide.

But support for my government’s military adventures does not come as quickly — or as blindly — as it once did. The government now rarely tells the governed enough to demonstrate whether the public’s support is warranted — or whether the government’s motive is only selfish (We want the oil!) or ideologically convenient (So what if Osama’s not there? Saddam has WMD’s!).

As I have grown older, the military might of the nation has been sent without formal declaration of war by Congress to Panama (Operation Just Cause), Grenada (Operation Urgent Fury), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Operation Deliberate Force), Iraq (Operations Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn), Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom), and Libya (Operation Odyssey Dawn).

Today, jingoistic shouts can again be increasingly heard: Sanctions against Iran don’t work! Hit ’em before they nuke us! Push the Russians out of Crimea!

Why? Why is the first impulse that of unholstering the gun, aiming it, then firing when the aim alone does not frighten? When disagreement, even threat of attack, rises from afar, the militaristic impulse blinds us to other possibilities.

Perhaps this is an answer: I was not alone in undergoing childhood conditioning about war by school, church, parents, and especially media messages. Those who have sent young American men and women to fight in wars of choice in the last three decades are like me — probably raised on a diet of World War II movies. These are the leaders — those of my generation — who continue to train us to fear not just the enemy but to fear also the consequences, however unlikely, of not attacking and defeating any enemy.

And how we have done against that enemy? How measurably well have the United States’ militaristic impulses done in identifying and eliminating an enemy in this century? Is We killed bin Laden! enough?

Carl Sagan opened Episode Seven (“The Backbone of Night”) of his Cosmos series by recognizing the conflict between humanity’s promise and its selfish, self-destructive nature:

The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars. … In our personal lives also, we journey from ignorance to knowledge. Our individual growth reflects the advancement of the species. [emphasis added]

Sagan’s words first aired in November 1980. I still had hope then. Reagan would soon call out Gorbachev. The Berlin Wall would fall; the Soviet Union would collapse; the psychologically and financially expensive Cold War would expire.

Yet America remains at war. America’s leaders have chosen to be at war. These leaders (and they include the people who run the profitable defense industry) found sufficient provocation to enter other countries and sold a justification to the purveyors of media messages, who sold it to us.

Any environment, and in this case, a media environment, is not a permanent sculptor of attitude, behavior, and opinion. No matter the conditioning, free will should enable moral choices.

But that’s a difficult attitudinal change. One of my S&R colleagues, in reviewing this post, told me this:

People are not necessarily products of their environment, but to free themselves from the engrained requires significant effort. That’s something most are either incapable of or unwilling to do. So we are left with a generation in power that while confronted with war’s reality as young adults had a very different version of war and enemies seeded into their minds at a young age. One of those is a lot easier to ignore than the other, and I believe that we’re likely to reap the fruits of your generation’s childhood for some time yet.

It is necessary, perhaps obligatory, for the nation to have a military. Our Constitution reveres that premise: to provide for the common defense. But we should ask:

Has the militaristic impulse threaded itself through our culture to such an extent that it has prevented the nation from developing other capabilities of prosperous survival?

Did the nation over-invest in military might and under-invest in economic prowess?

Did the largest military spending in human history leave too little money to sharpen the minds of the citizenry, leaving our educational system to underperform that of so many other nations with fewer resources?

Even our political system — the means by which the governed elect those who would govern — has adopted strategies of war as the status quo. The attack ad is no less an advertising display of shock and awe as a flight of cruise missiles striking Baghdad is militarily. Political campaigns operate from war rooms — just as NFL teams do on draft day.

It is a truism that young men and women die when old men and women armed with guns quarrel. Humans are a flawed, selfish, suspicious lot. Flight or fight is ingrained in us. Why has so little effort been made over millennia to add “or talk” to that encoding?

At minimum, the impulse toward war may have to wait until I’m dead, as well as those who were raised like me. When we’re gone, perhaps another generation less tainted than mine can step into deciding the worth of war. That generation most likely did not see World War II movies as I did, was not taught to “duck and cover” should the A-bombs begin to fall, and began pledging allegiance to the flag in kindergarten.

Of course, that generation has spent all-nighters playing video games — Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield, and Medal of Honor. Mediated imagery of war remains a popular entertainment — and a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Some argue war is necessary. Yet without enduring, worldwide peace, survival of the species — you and me — is a long shot.

5 replies »

  1. Well stated Denny and truth in every word. Where troops were spit on or at the least eyed with suspicion in the 70’s we’ve now become a warrior society glamorizing “stand your ground” and treating discourse and negotiation as the path of wimps and wussies.

    It’s all about money, and if we can somehow disrupt and disconnect the military-industrial complex with something crazy like, hell I don’t know, peace maybe? Then we can spend more feeding and educating our youth instead of leaving them to languish while we continuously fuel this monstrous war machine we’ve built.

  2. We aren’t citizens anymore, we are subjects in the American Empire. We have become what we rebelled against in the late 18th century. We have allowed shameful, craven men, like Reagan, Bush, and Bush, Jr., to expand manifest destiny beyond our national borders and cultures into other lands and remove the options of self determination in those lands which we claim to fundamentally hold so dear.

    We don’t even have elected representatives anymore, we have spokespersons for various corporations and political action committees. The promise of my childhood, The American Dream to which I still stupidly and hopefully cling, was that my country would be a beacon for compassionate democracy, leading by example through science, humanitarian aid, diplomatic accommodation. We would lead the world into space, feed all the hungry, treat all the sick, be haven for the politically and sociologically hunted and repressed.

    Instead, in my fiftieth year what we have is underfunded education systems because scared old white men still think Jesus and a sword are better ways to lead than to configure our government to truly guide and serve the people and let our society evolve. We are turning into everything Americans are supposed to abhor: fat, stupid, intolerant, militaristic xenophobes. My love for my country isn’t as strong as it used to be, and I respect only what we still could become, not what we currently are.

  3. You wrote: “Not until the mid-1960s did I come to realize my mediated education about warfare was so terribly wrong.” I, too, grew up playing all war, all the time (except for baseball and football). We American men who have been able to do an about-face and oppose unprovoked war deserve a pat on the back.