War stories are the most enduring stories of all. That’s a rather depressing thought, but no less truthful. War stories go as far back as the Illiad, and continue to be written about, produced for film and television or for the theater.
What is it about war stories that continue to sway audiences? What do we gain from them? When Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released more than a decade ago, it opened our eyes about the true costs of war and the bravery of the men who fought in WWII. But if it was designed to caution us, we did not heed its warning. Within two years of its release, we were in Afghanistan. And two years later, we were fighting in Iraq. Both wars were painfully unnecessary (as the recent killing of Osama bin Ladin has pointed out), and the fear and jingoism which brought us into both conflicts now seem of a different time and place.
During that time we were presented with more war stories. Hollywood played its part by releasing films such as In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, Lions for Lambs, and The Hurt Locker, which won its director Kathryn Bigelow an Oscar in 2010. Documentaries such as Restropo (whose co-director Tim Hetherington was recently killed while documenting the war in Libya), No End in Sight, and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 demonstrated the power of documentaries to tell war stories in all their raw authenticity. The number of fictional tales about Iraq or Afghanistan have been scant, but war stories are still being written. Both Denis Johnston’s Tree of Smoke and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn are about the Vietnam war. Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner takes place during the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and follows through to the rise of the Taliban. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun hauntingly details the civil strife that occurred in Nigeria during the 1960s. And then there was James McBride’s Miracle at St. Anna, a WWII story about black soldiers which was made into a film directed by Spike Lee. In non-fiction, which has taken up the slack of war reporting, there is Sebastian Junger’s War, Brandon Friedman’s memoir The War I Always Wanted, Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War, David Finkel’s The Good Soldier, and a wealth of others. Television presented us with the miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific, both about WWII; Generation Kill, about Iraq; Army Wives, and Saving Jessica Lynch, an NBC movie that was rightly criticized for its inaccuracies.
Then of course there are the classic war novels and films: War and Peace, The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, Catch 22, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Send Me Home; Apocalypse Now, The Bridge on River Kwai, Patton, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Back to Bataan, M*A*S*H, Platoon, Glory, and so many others, many of which starred John Wayne.
But the question still remains. What draws us to these stories? I suppose it all depends. There seems to be three different types of war stories out there. There are those stories which validate the actions of war as an heroic endeavor: men testing out their mettle on the battlefields, true leaders rising to the challenge of defeat and victory. These are the tales of the Illiad, of Shakespeare’s Henry V, of Patton, of The Green Berets. Then there are the stories that are meant to simply document the war experience: Saving Private Ryan, Hamburger Hill, All Quiet on the Waterfront, The Hurt Locker, HBO’s documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam and Generation Kill. Then there are the anti-war stories, the stories that are meant to caution, to horrify, to provoke. Films like Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon, Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, Redacted, and The Tillman Story, a documentary about fallen U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman, whose death from friendly fire was misused by the Bush Administration as propaganda, fall easily into this category.
Depending on what audiences are searching for at any given moment, war stories offer insightful glimpses into what it is like to be on the battlefield, to witness the horrors of carnage and destruction, and to suffer from its aftermath. They, like horror stories, push us to the mouth of hell and bring us back to safety. Unfortunately, what they cannot do is teach us somehow to avoid them in the first place.
This Memorial Day I dedicate my post to my late grandfather, Paul Buford Shipman, a WWII veteran.