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Private Ryan

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Tags U.S. HistoryWar and Foreign PolicyWorld History

07/20/1998Paul Fussell

The Guts, Not the Glory, of Fighting the 'Good War'

By Paul Fussell

Washington Post, Sunday, July 26, 1998; Page C01

Instructed by his experience as a volunteer in Civil War military hospitals, Walt Whitman declared that the real war will never get in the books. Nor in films either, we can say, after we've seen attempts to represent more recent wars in such confections as "Sands of Iwo Jima" and "The Longest Day." Loyal to its cliches of sentimentality and melodrama, as well as its touting of well-known actors with guaranteed box-office appeal, Hollywood is normally no place to go for accurate, unforgettable news about World War II.

An exception to this dismal principle may be Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan"--at least part of it. Despite its boys'-adventure-story plot, which involves an attempt to locate and rescue a soldier whose three brothers have all been killed in the war, the movie's treatment of D-Day is so unrelenting in its appalling honesty that few combat veterans will emerge from it without crying and trembling all over again.

Indeed, the first half-hour of this film should stifle forever all the unfeeling cant about the Good War. I'd like the Omaha Beach section made into a self-contained pseudo-documentary titled "Omaha Beach: Aren't You Glad You Weren't There?"

Spielberg has emphasized the realism and authenticity of his product, and there are shocking things here seldom present in Hollywood war films. The weather on D-Day was vile and many of the GIs, already scared half to death, had to stand for hours packed in rocking and plunging landing craft. Because there was no place to vomit, they vomited on their buddies. The troops were almost uniformly landed at the wrong place, and attempts to straighten out the mess on the beach were defeated by the cacophonous noise--German artillery, machine guns, mortars, all firing at once--which made orders impossible to hear. Plans having gone awry, the Americans had no way to defend themselves, much less attack the Germans, and many were murdered without firing a shot as, heavily loaded, they stumbled into deep water.

Blood, in run-of-the-mill war movies, tends to look too thin; in "Saving Private Ryan" it is thick and when it is arterial blood it comes out in correct rhythmic spurts. The medics are appropriately blood-covered, and when they inject the blessed morphine, most often they insert the needle right through clothing--quicker that way. Nor do they hesitate to use overdoses of morphine to hasten death when appropriate. In the movie, this is the reward given a boy with an obviously fatal wound who employs his bloody mouth to frame his final words, "Mama, Mama."

But despite its authenticity about blood and noise, and about the tendency of both sides to shoot prisoners with pleasure, the film neglects something familiar to most combat infantrymen: open cowardice. In the battalion I fought in, two young officers, after their first night on the line, simply took off. They finally turned up in Paris. I also remember a new lieutenant who, when the position he was commanding came under German machine-gun fire, ran at full speed to the rear. While former infantrymen don't talk much about the horror, they also don't willingly advertise such blots on the myth of uniform American heroism.

It was T.S. Eliot who declared that humankind cannot bear very much reality, and perhaps Americans especially were in his mind, what with their optimistic impulse not to dwell on the nasty and to invoke every possible euphemism to disguise unpleasant truths. The very word "combat" is an example; "fighting" would be more accurate, if less implicitly heroic and self-congratulatory. Hollywood is still the dream factory (the nightmare factory, in Spielberg's movie), and if it really projected the whole truth about anything, it would go bankrupt speedily. Honorable as it is in places, "Saving Private Ryan" does not mark a new moment in Hollywood history. Hollywood's purpose is profit, and it has learned that violence sells.

Invasions don't happen every day, but the dangers confronting an infantryman, if less dramatic, are constant--and all but impossible to film. Living among such dangers daily can turn a man into a bundle of anxieties, many of them lasting a lifetime. The soldier is obliged to conceal his fears lest he cause a panic, or at least invite the contempt of his fellows. Occupying ground just recently vacated by the enemy, he must be careful where he touches the earth with a hand or a foot, because a buried mine may go off. In the European Theater of Operations we learnedthat the least likely things left behind by the enemy might blow up when touched: cigars, musical instruments, rolls of toilet paper, innocent-looking food and drink, and, preeminently, desirable German weapons like Luger pistols.

The fighting men of World War II knew one awful truth, an internal, subjective feeling that cannot be captured by a film dealing with externals. Having experienced the skill and persistence of the Germans and all too aware of the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender, they knew that the war would not end until they ended it, somehow, with their bodies. Spielberg's film shows how painful this was going to be.

(c) The Washington Post 1998 http:www.washingtonpost.com

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