An Armistice Day reflection

Doughboys of the 64th Regiment celebrate the news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918

Doughboys of the 64th Regiment celebrate the news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918

I originally posted the below material as a comment on the “Top Ten War Movies” post from over the weekend. Bryan suggested that today, it should be a separate post. I suppose he’s right.

The context is that I was responding to two previous comments — one by Rose praising the TV series “Band of Brothers,” and the other from Phillip about “anti-war” messages. This lies in the larger context of a long debate of several years’ standing, in which Phillip takes the position that all sane people oppose war, and I take the armchair-warrior position of “not always”…

“Band of Brothers” was the best thing ever made for television.

And it had the kind of anti-war message in it that I appreciate [as opposed to the kind of anti-war message I hate, which I had described earlier as “one that beats you about the head and shoulders with the idea that war is futile and stupid and anyone who decides to involve a nation in war is evil and unjustified, and we should never, ever engage in it”]. It’s very similar to a powerful one in “Saving Private Ryan.”

There’s this great scene in which the actor portraying David Kenyon Webster — the writer, from Harvard — is riding past thousands of surrendering Germans being marched toward the rear (the opposite direction from which he and Easy Company are traveling) and he spots some senior German officers. He starts shouting at them (excuse the language):

Hey, you! That’s right, you stupid Kraut bastards! That’s right! Say hello to Ford, and General fuckin’ Motors! You stupid fascist pigs! Look at you! You have horses! What were you thinking? Dragging our asses half way around the world, interrupting our lives… For what, you ignorant, servile scum! What the fuck are we doing here?

To explain what I mean by this… I grew up with shows like “Combat,” which gave a sort of timeless sense of the war. Sgt. Saunders and his men were soldiers, had always been soldiers, and would always be soldiers. And they would always be making their way across France in a picaresque manner, doing what they were born to do.

Well, what Webster is shouting at those Germans is that NO, we were NOT born to do this. This is a huge interruption in the way life is supposed to be.

That lies at the core of Tom Hanks’ character in “Saving Private Ryan.” His men think HE was born to be a soldier, and can’t imagine him in any other role (as Reuben says, “Cap’n didn’t go to school, they assembled him at OCS outta spare body parts of dead GIs.”) — hence their intense curiosity about what he did before the war. And their stunned silence when they learn the reality:

I’m a schoolteacher. I teach English composition… in this little town called Adley, Pennsylvania. The last eleven years, I’ve been at Thomas Alva Edison High School. I was a coach of the baseball team in the springtime. Back home, I tell people what I do for a living and they think well, now that figures. But over here, it’s a big, a big mystery. So, I guess I’ve changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me, whenever it is that I get back to her. And how I’ll ever be able to tell her about days like today. Ah, Ryan. I don’t know anything about Ryan. I don’t care. The man means nothing to me. It’s just a name. But if… You know if going to Rumelle and finding him so that he can go home. If that earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that’s my mission.

There, you learn this this is NOT supposed to be where he is. This was not the way his life was supposed to go.

Now… on the other hand…

Dick Winters was a real-life guy who had no desire to be a warrior. After surviving D-Day (having led his men in an action that should have gotten him the Medal of Honor, but he “only” received a Distinguished Service Cross for it), he took a quiet moment to pray that “I would make it through D plus 1. I also promised that if some way I could get home again, I would find a nice peaceful town and spend the rest of my life in peace.”

That’s all he wanted.

And yet, by having been forced to be a soldier, he and everyone around him found that he was superbly suited to it. He was one of those rare men who thought quickly and clearly under fire, and communicated his calm and his self-assuredness to his men. He knew what to do, and how to give orders so that it got done. He had a gift.

And that gift actually was a thing of value — to his society, and to the world. And here’s where we separate. Here’s where we draw a line between being “anti-war” as an absolutist position — that war is always wrong and evil and has no redeeming qualities — and my position, which is that sometimes nations need people like Dick Winters to step forward and exercise those abilities that they have. In other words, the warrior is a valuable member of society like the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker (actually, nowadays, perhaps more valuable than the candlestick-maker).

Which seems like a good place to stop, a little more than an hour before 11 o’clock on Nov. 11.


20 thoughts on “An Armistice Day reflection

  1. Bryan Caskey

    I don’t see “Saving Private Ryan” as a profoundly anti-war movie, as Phillip does. I distinguish between war itself and the men in war. The men can have redeeming qualities.

    To me, SPR illustrates how war changes men. The most interesting character for me, by far, is Corporal Upham. He starts out as the mousy guy who’s afraid of his own shadow. Remember how he can’t even get his gear together normally when Cpt. Miller pulls him out of the translator’s area? During the middle of the movie, Upham convinces the other men not to execute the German solider they capture. This German is the one who later shoots and kills Cpt. Miller. (However, Upham doesn’t see this.)

    During that final battle, Upham is still so scared that he lets an American die in the knife-fight, as Upham just cowers on the stairs.

    Finally, right at the end of the movie, Upham changes.

    He and the Americans win the fight and have prisoners assembled in front. One of those prisoners is the original German soldier who Upham helped free (and who shot Cpt. Miller). Upon regocognizing Upham, this soldier says “Upham!” and looks happy to see his old “friend” that had saved his life earlier in the film. Feeling guilty from letting a fellow soldier get stabbed in the building and feeling more guilt at seeing the soldier he helped spare return to fight them once again, something snaps in Upham as he realizes there is no room for compassion/mercy in war, and he just shoots the unarmed German.

    Upham is the most dynamic character in the movie. He goes from the meek translator to someone who kills an unarmed man. Now, the change in him isn’t “good”. But that’s contrasted with the good qualities that other men demonstrate in the same circumstances. The war changes Cpt. Miller from a guy who teaches English to a great infantry commander.

    I guess you could call SPR anti-war, but I would call it more of a realistic depiction of war.

  2. Mark Stewart

    Upham is a depiction of the weakest link. He is what every social organization fears most; not the free self-thinker or the rigid moralist, but the cowardly reactor.

    I don’t think Upham shot the German because he saw that war is without compassion; he shot the prisoner because of his own fear about how the prisoner made him feel about himself – that he was and always will be a coward. And Upham proved it yet again. What a vile excuse for a human being. His is a life of talent and skill grown upon a desert of spirit and character.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      I’m not saying Upham is a good guy. I just think he’s the most interesting. He’s certainly a coward, as we see from his freezing in the stairwell. It’s also a cowardly thing (in a way) to shoot an unarmed man as he does. Earlier in the movie he (rightly) objects to executing the same unarmed solider.

      I think we’re mean to judge Upham negatively throughout the movie – even to the end. But it’s for different reasons.

      The war is a process in which men are tested. Men like Cpt. Miller show strength or a kind of resignation to their fate (like Speirs in Band of Brothers with his “you’re already dead” line of thinking that makes him the baddest of all the soldiers.

      Men like Upham have their negative character revealed in a similar way. I just think he’s the most interesting, because war movies don’t often give us the negative-character soldiers.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I think I heard somewhere that Spielberg said Upham represented him, the filmmaker, as someone who saw himself as unworthy among real heroes.

        I have to confess that I, too, identify somewhat with Upham. Not that I want to. I’d rather be Capt. Miller, of course. But Upham is the word-clever guy who has read, and even written, everything there is to say about war, but has no personal knowledge of it.

        When Upham states out loud one of the things that the movie is about — saying he wants to write about the bonds that form between soldiers in combat — he earns the derision of the men who actually experience such bonds. Because he is unworthy…

        1. Bryan Caskey

          Ugh. Don’t identify with Upham just because you’re well-read.

          Cpt. Miller was well-read, also. I think you’re saying that you’d be frightened. That’s natural. Everyone is scared. The questions is whether you can master your fear and do what you have to to help your friends. Upham wasn’t able to.

          I think you would be able to master your fear and help your friends.

        2. Brad Warthen

          I would certainly hope so. I can’t begin to imagine cowering on the staircase with a loaded rifle while a friend cried out for help.

          But do we know how we’d act in such an intense, hand-to-hand battle before we experience it?

          I think my larger point, though, is that Upham was the outside observer, as we were.

          He was just beginning to be accepted into the group when the battle came, and he failed the test.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Did any of y’all watch the embedded video above?

    I like the way the Americans react to the German general’s farewell speech to his men. He is voicing for them how they (the Americans) feel about their war experience, and about each other and what they’ve been through. And they have this very sober realization — or so it seems to me — that the Germans are just like them in these respects.

    The speech takes away nationalistic or ideological considerations, and evokes universal truths about what it means for men to go through combat together, whether their cause was just or not. It touches on the ennobling aspects of being a part of a military unit that has been through the ultimate experience of combat together — which fosters bonds unlike any other.

    That speech, though spoken by a German officer, is the most overt explication of the meaning of the title, “Band of Brothers.”

    Most of us, the viewers, can’t fully understand it. In that moment, the men of Easy Company have more in common with those battle-weary Germans than they do with us fellow Americans…

  4. Phillip

    You have to be really careful with that “ennobling” concept about war. Yes, that’s a nice speech delivered and listened to by good actors with some nice string music underpinning it. And yes, the horror of war does bring out moments when human beings do some extraordinary things, acts of courage, of selflessness, of comradely support. But the larger context of war, any war, still reflects the failure of humans as a species to avoid its strange habit of periodically killing large numbers of each other over matters that, seen in the larger context of existence, are absurd. Yes, we find ourselves periodically in positions where it seems there is no alternative but to fight. WWII was one such. A situation of clear self-defense is another. But it still doesn’t change the fact that war is a failure of our species.

    As Carl Sagan put it in his famous “Pale Blue Dot,”

    “…Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

    1. Doug Ross

      And so much war is fought with the alleged divine guidance and support of our Christian God… my guess is that God looks down on our vast military and our sick, poor, and hungry and says, “Apparently I didn’t make myself clear”.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      But, gentlemen, since we don’t get to be God — not even Carl Sagan, with his attempt to take a God-like view of us microbes as inconsequential specks on a pixel, gets to be God — we as humans have to deal with the world as we find it.

      Not one of those soldiers, on either side, had anything to say about whether there was a war. All they could control was how they acted, given the unavoidable fact that their countries WERE involved in a war, and one that would continue until the utter capitulation of one side or the other.

      The general is telling them that they behaved well. They were there for each other, and were willing to give their lives for each other. (If you research what motivates soldiers, it’s usually that — not a cause, or an idea, or even Mom’s apple pie and the girl next door, all of which are pretty distant concepts in combat.) And that is a noble thing, just as it is noble for people to be there for each other in giving blood back home, or helping a neighbor with a problem, or being a fireman and rushing into a burning building to save someone, etc. There are differences of degree and intensity, but these are all noble things, something that makes each of us worth more than being an insignificant inhabitant of “a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

      I knew Phillip would have trouble with “ennobling.” But that’s a word I’m not willing to back down on. I can’t, and be honest.

      Yes, I realize all the cliches that rush from that word, such as “glorifying war.” But they don’t have to, you see. War can be the most godawful, horrible s__tstorm in the universe, something that any sane person will do his best to avoid, but a human can be ennobled by how he responds to it just as can happen with any other form of adversity.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Back to the subject of movies. Probably the most unabashed evocation of the ennobling effect that is possible in war — in this case, even glorification, right down to the title — is “Glory.”

        That was a pretty awesome film. It made me feel better about being a human being, made me feel that we’re somehow more than pathetic specks in the void of space.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Several of y’all mentioned “Glory” on the “Top Ten” discussion earlier, and that was a good call. My own reflections were too modern-era-oriented.

          And too Anglocentric. “Das Boot” was another good nominee left off The Guardian‘s list, but which some of y’all mentioned…

  5. Phillip

    “since we don’t get to be God — we as humans have to deal with the world as we find it.” Yes, surely. Except that when it comes to war, humans didn’t “find” this world: we made it. In fact, we invented it.

  6. Brad Warthen

    At this point we could spin off into a discussion of Original Sin, and the extent to which we are culpable for it. Or we could ponder whether war is some sort of aberration, or something humans are totally wired for. (I once suspected we were wired for it, but Grossman’s book On Killing makes a good case for warfare actually being contrary to most men’s natures.)

    But each individual encounters war as something that IS, regardless of his own preferences or action or inaction. Each soldier has to deal with that reality, one way or another. And there are noble ways to respond, and base ones, and lots of ways in between.

  7. Bart

    Just an old man’s thoughts on the subject.

    We are flawed, imperfect creatures and as such, we will make mistakes, do the wrong thing, and go to war with each other. No one is perfect and if we were, then there would be no war, no weapons, no hunger, no poverty, no prejudice, no rich, no poor, no need for rules and regulations, or anything necessary to address and attempt to control the ills befalling humans. Yet, in spite of the ills known to society in general, when aggression and wars do occur, in those conflicts we find the better side of human nature coming to the surface along with the worst side. In times of stress and confronting danger and death, who we are inside comes to the surface and some will be able to overcome their fears and doubts, others will succumb to them. Some will react with heroism, some with cowardice, but most will simply try to survive.

    War is the epitome of the failure of humans to be able to co-exist peacefully and to respect the differences between nations and their people. But, if history has taught us no other lesson, conflict is an inherent human trait. Even the most peaceful among is more than capable of defending his or her position with vigor, generally with words. When the words become too aggressive, a war of words can escalate into the eventual armed conflict. Then, the innocents who had no initial involvement in the dispute are suddenly called upon to provide the means to fight another’s battle. Sometimes war is thrust upon us without our permission and all too often, with no actual understanding of the reasons why. Thus, when individuals display courage in the face of military action, are they not entitled to be called “ennobled” by their deeds that wouldn’t have been necessary if they had not been forced into combat?

    Combat is not necessarily restricted to a war torn battlefield in an armed conflict. Combat is waged in everyday life by thousands who are faced with life and/or death situations they didn’t cause and they must be willing to fight back if they want any chance to survive. If one has never had to engage in the combat of life and if their life has been one of relative peace and success, it is very easy to criticize without experiencing the rigors of life’s battles.

    We are an enigmatic species and contradict ourselves at every turn. As long as at least 2 humans are on earth and either living together or in close proximity, there will be conflict, fighting, and all of mortal man’s shortcomings to go along with all of the traits that make us peaceful, loving, generous, and compassionate.

  8. Brad Warthen Post author

    Speaking of Upham, I ran across this when I was looking (unsuccessfully) for a quote from the movie:

    Culturebox’s friend Nicholas Lemann writes:

    The first time I saw Saving Private Ryan, it was hard to react in any way more nuanced than just being nearly flattened by its overwhelming power. The second time, though, I detected one false, and creepy, note. That is the demonization of Upham, the translator in Captain John Miller’s “stick,” in the final extended battle scene. Over and over, we are reminded of Upham’s cowardice: Upham, in giant trembly sweaty closeup, cringes in fear. Upham fails to come to the aid of his buddies. Upham has a series of clear shots at German soldiers who don’t see him, and can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. When Upham finally does kill, it’s too late to do any good, and in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. (I saw the movie at a multiplex in the Bronx, and my appreciation of this point was sharpened by the audience’s yelling “faggot!” every time Upham’s face filled the screen.) You’re clearly meant to hold Upham personally responsible for the death of three of his comrades at arms, including, as I read the narrative logic, Captain Miller, the hero.

    The creepy part is, Upham is a sensitive, artistic type who announces early in the movie that he wants to depict the bonds that form among soldiers in combat–all of which also applies to the auteur of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg isn’t the first fictionalizer of war to establish his macho bona fides by humiliating a spun-off, pusillanimous version of himself. Remember Keefer, the writer-character in The Caine Mutiny, who spends most of his time proclaiming the superiority of moral principle to personal loyalty (just like Upham) and then gets humiliatingly told off in the end? The move here is to react to the automatic suspicion of anyone artsy in a military setting by signing on to it, rather than challenging it. See, I agree with you! They are all pansies! I’m a regular guy too! The Upham character is a particularly lurid example–his body type (skinny) and his movements (mincing) are completely different from those of the other soldiers, and seem somehow to be linked to his being more educated. Could his cartoonishness be an indication of how defensive Spielberg, who like nearly all upper-middle-class Americans of his generation didn’t serve in Vietnam, feels regarding the military and its virtues?

    1. Doug Ross

      The actor who played Upham (Jeremy Davis) has that quality about him that makes him unlikable from the moment you see him on screen. I probably had an immediate bias against him based on his role in the movie “Spanking the Monkey” – an utterly awful, depressing film about incest between a teen age boy and his mother.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yikes! How did you end up watching that?

        Gee, I can see the movie tagline now: “The kind of creepy little guy that only a mother could love.”

        The only other thing I ever saw him in was “Lost.”

        1. Doug Ross

          It was probably on HBO or a pay channel when I was staying in a hotel. It was supposedly an “indie classic”. Everything about the movie was terrible – the script, the acting, the direction.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            It turns out that he also played Charles Manson in a network production of “Helter Skelter.”

            Why? Because he looks just like him.

            By the way, the IMDB says the following about that awful-sounding movie you saw:

            He made his film debut starring in David O. Russell’s acclaimed first film, the Indy classic, “Spanking the Monkey”, which became a surprise Sundance Film Festival winner, earning Jeremy an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Debut Performance.

            Go figure…


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