Except for mourning family members and Boy Scouts loyally placing tiny flags on veterans’ gravestones, hardly anyone knows anything about Memorial Day except that it’s a day off. It’s the saddest of the military holidays, invented after the Civil War, supposed to help us honor, or at least pause to remember, all the American dead from all our wars. That’s a lot of men and some women to remember going back, well, how far?
Big and small, we’ve “done” about 70 wars starting with the mid-18th century so-called French and Indian wars where George Washington was bloodied and when we got our first taste of industrially massacring Native Americans, mainly Ojibwas and Algonquins who sided with the French against our British masters.
Before penicillin, it’s hard to get an accurate sum total figure of all those combat deaths because so many men died of disease and what was later called shell shock.
In our thirteen major and 60 or so “minor” wars, let’s call a round figure of one and a half million dead. Compared to the mass war slaughter in, say, Russia or China, that’s small potatoes, but big potatoes for us. Our dead include wars you never heard, such the “Quasi War” with the French, the First Sumatran Expedition and Sheepeater Indian War plus, of course, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan. A large number of U.S. wars were fought against our own Native Americans (Modocs, Nez Perce, serial Seminole wars etc.) and other “colored” peoples in China, the Philippines, Haiti, central America, Mexico etc.
This doesn’t and shouldn’t take away from the genuine valor of so many American soldiers who fought, died, massacred others and were scalped in return.
Sadly or inspiringly, the truth is men and now women sometimes like to go to war. To do one’s patriotic duty can be exciting as well as deadly. You get a sense of purpose and usefulness, possibly your own worth by being in uniform. Personally, I liked being in the military including its chickenshit.
It’s also thrilling to watch war movies. To “celebrate” Memorial Day, Turner Classics on TV is throwing shot and shell at us for a solid four-day, 72-hour marathon starting Saturday. The lineup includes 34 “classics” from the Civil War on. Unless my eyes deceive me Turner is not showing, or avoiding, some fine anti-pro-war films, Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Kubrick’s Paths of Glory as well as All Quiet On The Western Front and Howard Hawks’s The Road To Glory(co-written by William Faulkner). Turner’s bias is toward blood-and-guts “combat” stories, comedies and “touching stories of the families who wait at home”.
In the midst of all the testosterone-laden, gut-wrenching ‘kill, kill, kill’ is some real quality that fails in the mission of sending men off to war. If you can make your way past The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes, there’s The Best Years of Our Lives, the Quaker-friendly Friendly Persuasion, Sidney Lumet’s brilliant exposure of military sadism in The Hill, the German-made Westfront 1918, and John Huston’s butchered but decent The Red Badge of Courage.
Missing, thank heaven, are Ronald Reagan’s favorite Patton and Katherine Bigelow’s “ballsy” recruiting poster The Hurt Locker. But I’m sorry we won’t see Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, a surprise masterpiece telling the battle from a Japanese point of view.
What’s not to love about war movies? Vivid images of men shooting the crap out of each other heats my blood. The gore of “this is how it is” is ultimately romantic and seductive. Most war movies can’t help but call us to arms. Rat tat tat to Black Watch bagpipe music.
Some movies, like Catch-22, M*A*S*H*and Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, which also are not on Turner’s list, make an attempt to lower the testosterone level with some humor and cynicism. But in the end it’s almost impossible to outshout Objective, Burma, The Dawn Patrol, Where Eagles Dare and Twelve O’Clock High.
It’s a dilemma. How to pay tribute to the war dead while giving pause to young men and women who may be thinking about stepping into the dead soldiers’ combat boots?
Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. His latest book, “Hemingway Lives!” will be published this spring by OR Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.