Hollywood & The Art of War

I’m a fan of military flicks, and most of the ones I’ve seen focus on three conflicts: World War II, the Vietnam War and the Iraq and Gulf Wars. What’s interesting is the subtle differences in how these conflicts are presented by Hollywood.

World War II movies have the most inspiring stories. Films like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers (technically a TV miniseries) portray war as regrettable, but a necessary evil in the face of a greater evil. That the mission is noble is never questioned, which is curious because the propriety of humanitarian intervention was a hot-topic in America at the time.

Allied soldiers are presented as young men fearful of death who nonetheless courageously move forward to serve humanity. The soldiers aren’t above reproach, but abuses are generally targeted at the enemy (e.g. the desire to shoot Nazi POWs rather than play nanny). It’s a rare film that suggests Allied soldiers abused civilians, which is in keeping with the overall heroic tone of the films.

At the other extreme are Vietnam war flicks which portray war as an senseless waste of human beings. These include films like Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. The promising young soldiers embroiled in the Vietnam War lack the moral high-ground of WWII soldiers. Simply put, godless Communists don’t play villain as nicely as genocidal Nazis. Being forced to fight (conscription was the norm) for a senseless cause made it hard for soldiers to justify their violence.

Another feature of these films is that psychosis is common among the grunts (low-level soldiers) and these bouts of insanity lead to atrocities like the My Lai massacre. The mental breakdowns are largely blamed on the general atmosphere of the war, however – individual culpability is ignored. There’s a sense that you can’t blame the boys for doing what anyone in such terrible conditions would have done.

More recently are movies dealing with the Iraq and Gulf (desert) wars such as Jarhead, Generation Kill (technically a TV miniseries) and The Hurt Locker. In terms of style, these fall somewhere between inspiring WWII films and depressing Vietnam War films.

In these films, we see a growing comfort with wars waged for a less-than-pure purpose. The belief that the desert wars are about oil is so widespread it's cliché, but these films are much less negative than those from the Vietnam era. It’s as though Hollywood accepted that war motivated less by moral concerns than economic interests is redeemable.

Unlike their Vietnam War and WWII brethren, these soldiers weren’t conscripted and they accept their role as “grunts for hire”. There is a hyper-masculinization of conflict – the soldiers call themselves “warriors” (not entirely jokingly) and are itching to “kick some Haji ass”, as Generation Kill puts it so eloquently. Though their cause may not be noble, the soldiers seem to have accepted their role with gusto – perhaps this is why we see fewer instances of psychosis.

Another subtle shift is that abuse of civilians is admitted – soldiers not infrequently grapple with the temptation to mistreat innocents. However, such abuse is generally blamed on individual weakness rather than the atmosphere of combat, suggesting Hollywood is less comfortable attacking the war-machine.

To wrap-up, there are subtle differences among these films depending on the conflict they present. Of course, what I've discussed are Hollywood films reflecting Hollywood’s impressions of the conflicts. Whether Hollywood’s views are representative of general public opinion is an issue for another post; or as a great military strategist put it, perhaps just as all war is based on deception, all war films are based on deception.

1 comment:

Luc von Carrot said...

Interesting piece. all wars are downright ugly and should be shown as such. now I don't know what Hollywood objectives are, but it is quite possible that it has nothing to do with representation of public views. More likely it is to shape these views in accordance with requirements of a given ideology. In that regard a word manipulation comes to mind.