Friday, August 12, 2005

Where are the War Heroes?

Lawrence Suid sent the following Op-Ed, originally written for the New York Times, which declined to publish it:
Where Are the War Heroes?
by Lawrence Suid

In trying to answer his question: Where Are the War Heroes?, Damien Cave may have gone to the wrong people. Instead of talking with journalists, military historians, and a former general, he probably should have talked with the entertainment media.. To be sure, George C. Scott’s Patton did acknowledge, “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.” This certainly explains why few heroes emerged from the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Nevertheless, Hollywood has regularly produced heroes on the screen even while fighting these unpopular wars. Richard Nixon watched Patton twice before ordering the invasion of Cambodia. While some Americans saw Scott’s warrior Patton as the cause of the Vietnam War, others wondered where was the general when the nation needed him.

In fact, many people observed that people like Patton and Robert Duvall’s Marine flier in The Great Santini should be locked up between wars. In any event, if unpopular wars fail to produce heros of the ilk of Sergeant York and Audie Murphy, filmmakers have always managed to provide Americans with visual images of men and women who went beyond the call of duty while carrying out their government’s orders whatever the popularity of the war.

William Holden’s Navy flier in Bridges at Toko Ri objects strenuously to having been recalled to active duty, yet he dies heroically, albeit in a muddy ditch. Gregory Peck’s Army officer takes Porkchop Hill in the movie of the same name even though he and his men know they will have to give it up when the Korean War cease fire goes into effect. Even Michael J. Fox’s character in Casualties of War acts heroically by reporting that his comrades had raped and murdered a Vietnamese girl even though the guilty soldiers might try to kill him.

This portrayal remained the exception in movies set in Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, at the same time, Hollywood began the process of rehabilitating the image of the American fighting man. Of course, filmmakers had to return to World War II or to the peacetime military for their heroes. Midway, in 1976, portrayed many heroes in the battle that changed the course of World War II, not the least of whom was Charlton Heston who led an attack against the Japanese fleet before crashing spectacularly onto his carrier, albeit a crash that used a Korean War jet for the explosion.

A Bridge Too Far, the next year, portrayed several real American heroes particularly General James Gavin and Major Julian Cook whom Robert Redford played crossing the Rhine in a canvas boat in the face of whithering German fire. Ultimately, Top Gun, with Tom Cruise playing the ultimate peacetime Navy fighter pilot hero, completed the rehabilitation of the military’s image which Vietnam had so badly savaged.

With the American people once again believing its armed services could succeed in any combat situation, President Bush I easily mustered the nation’s support for the first Gulf War and the military quickly drove the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait. However, the war lasted too short a time to produce actual heros, leaving it to Hollywood to create, in Courage Under Fire, the first female recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Although Steven Bochco is offering up his own heroes in the FX series Over There the current Iraq war presents problems not only to the producer but to the military whatever its interest is in providing the American people with heros. Real heroes, such as Sergeant York and Audie Murphy, and cinematic ones emerge as a result of their fighting against overwhelmlng odds. In the current war, despite the devastation the insurgents are inflicting on American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, the United States military holds a numerical and quality of firepower over the enemy. Consequently, only occasionally do Americans find themselves performing beyond the call of duty. And, as the war becomes more and more unpopular because of the growing loses and the reality that no Weapons of Mass Destruction existed, Americans will have less and less reason to praise those heroes that may be offered up.

With that said, to make his point, Mr. Cave ignored that CBS Evening News has every night presented a “Fallen Hero” to the American people. Whether the nation will respond to other heroes, real and imagined, may be seen starting this Friday when The Great Raid opens nation-wide, telling the true story of how a small force of U.S. Rangers rescued more than 500 American POWs from a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines despite facing a vastly superior number of enemy soldiers. Will people want to sit through images of Japanese atrocities may well depend on whether military heroes still have appeal to Americans, especially during an unpopular war.