War Is for Heroics

Three cultures try to locate meaning in mayhem

Magazine Issue
May/June 2007
War Is for Heroics

William Tecumseh Sherman reported that “War is hell” (and in his march through Georgia he made it so). He went on to say “Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation.” I never went to war. Everything I know about it comes from movies. There have been many movies about men and boys at war. They’re all the same: some boys get blown up, others get moments of glory, a few get both. And the “good guys” invariably win.

The wars currently being produced by our leaders (who hid from war when it was their turn to go) aren’t as popular today as they were when glory was the anticipated outcome. Our feckless leaders must have seen some sort of glory for themselves when they sent other boys to die for them. But they’ve given patriotism such a bad name that no one now dares to make a jingoistic war movie about glory, about America conquering the world in the name of “manifest destiny.”

Three recent war films on the subject include a fairy tale set in the Spanish Civil War of 1944 and two contrasting views of the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. These films, emphasizing the horror and the grimness of war, are much honored, much cried over, but not much seen and cheered.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a Spanish-language fantasy written and directed by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. It’s set alternately in a fascist fort in a dark Spanish forest and in a magical underground fairyland decorated with ancient, pre-Christian symbols and monuments, and populated with talking insects of varying sizes and shapes. It looks and sounds good enough to eat.

The story is the tale of an 11-year-old girl, Ofelia (played by haunted Ivana Baquero), whose father, a tailor, has died in the civil war. She’s going with her pregnant, sick mother to a fascist fort in the forest so the baby can be born near the mother’s sadistic, fascist new husband. Ofelia hates, but doesn’t fear, her stepfather, his soldiers, and everything related to her mother’s new marriage, and Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s stepfather, has no use for her except obedience.

Ofelia reads fairy tales and believes them. She drifts off into a humane magical kingdom where she, not her stepfather, will rule. Fairy creatures like oversized praying mantises lead her into an underground world where she’s destined for power, but only if she shows total obedience to the fairly rules. She must follow the dictates of a ram- horned, goat-footed guide, who leads her into an underground maze. She avoids the traps of an oversized maggot with eyes on his hands, and snatches a golden key to fairyland from an enormous, emetic toad. She moves in and out of the fairy world—where she’s valued—and the frightening world of her stepfather, an outspoken enemy of egalitarianism and no respecter of females.

Up in the hills, guerrillas plan to attack the fort. They have partisans in the fort’s housekeeper and doctor, who dabble in magic and magic realism. The rebels are courageous, romantic, and doomed, while the fascists are absurdly and ineptly comic.

Is the quandary of Alices in and out of Wonderland to endure a ridiculous and annoying real world of parents and stepparents while their minds float free in a realm of princesses who rule in benevolent glory? Ofelia must protect her baby brother and, if possible, her passive-dependent mother from the stepfather. She feels loved and protected only by mythical creatures.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, the war around the fort is far less interesting, far less violent and dangerous, than the war inside the family. The film is so rich in imagination and images, we can’t predict its end or bear it when it comes. Fortunately, Del Toro offers two endings and lets us decide for ourselves whether the military world in the forest is more or less real than the fairy kingdom below. He tells us that reality is a choice, that myths may be real, and that, while not all lives end happily ever after, all fantasies are on some vital level true.

Pan’s Labyrinth is hardly fit for young children, but is indispensable for grown-ups who live, as we do, in an insane world. Literal or mythic hells might exist in fairy tales (or family life). We must know them when we see them.

Director Clint Eastwood made his name as the “man with no name” and then as .45 Magnum–toting Dirty Harry, who trapped a crook on the ground and dared him to reach for his gun and make his day. When Eastwood moved away from acting the tough guy and became an extraordinarily humane director, he brought us films about the horror and waste of violence.

In Unforgiven, he’s a retired gunman who goes on a rampage over a whorehouse cutting and is so repulsed he takes his family away from those parts and becomes a pig farmer. In Mystic River, he brings us to watch in horror as Sean Penn, lashing out in rage over his daughter’s rape and murder, slaughters his best childhood buddy (Tim Robbins) by mistake. In Million Dollar Baby, he trains a girl (Hilary Swank) to be a boxer as her only way out of a grim, trailer-park world, and watches her go into quadriplegia from the brain damage caused by a fight. Whatever roles he played as an actor, now that he’s calling the shots and laying down the value system, he abhors violence and appalls us with it to help us feel as sickened as he does.

This year, Eastwood made back-to-back films, each telling the story of the bloody and pointless battle of Iwo Jima on an eight-square-mile island of black volcanic ash, heavy with sulfur, way off in the Pacific. The battle was between 22,000 dug-in, suicidal Japanese defenders and 110,000 well-supported but terrifyingly exposed American invaders. In Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood explores the nature of heroism and how much of it is just publicity and show business. In Letters from Iwo Jima, he shows us, maybe for the first time since World War II, what the experience was for the Japanese. It isn’t that either film is so different from all those war flicks that have gone before, but the juxtaposition creates a whole new sense of the bilateral hell of war.

Flags of Our Fathers is the story of the flag in Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph, being raised by six G.I.s on the top of 546-foot Mt. Suribachi in a corner of Iwo Jima while the battle still raged below. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal took that flag as a souvenir and had some of the original six marines and a couple of extras reenact the flag raising, which instantly became the symbol of American victory, a bit like Bush’s photo-op arrival on an aircraft carrier under a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.”

Flags shows us the horror of the month-long battle and the 25,000 American casualties. (Three of the original flag raisers didn’t survive.) Meanwhile, the three surviving marines were sent on bond drives to be trotted out before cheering mobs and touted as champions of American heroics. The trio felt like imposters and wanted to be back on Iwo Jima with their buddies. It’s been said that men don’t fight and die at war for their countries or even for their families, but for their comrades at arms.

The film follows the three self-conscious ersatz heroes and their life after the summit. Sweet-faced, docile Ryan Phillippe as medic “Doc” Bradley sees through the shameful posturing, but plays his part until he comes face to face with the mother of one of the real heroes. He dissolves in tears and finally writes a book about it. Jesse Bradford, as seductive little Rene Gagnon, relishes the spotlight, the women who throw themselves at him to share his glory, and the men who offer him postwar jobs. But he can’t turn it into success in the end. Adam Beach, as reluctant Pima Indian Ira Hayes, is destroyed, if not by the carnage on Iwo Jima, by the sense of dishonesty of the bond drive. Even in his hour of glory, he faces “Injun” jokes and anti-Indian prejudices. Then, after years of painful, aimless drifting, he drinks himself to death, killed not by the Japanese but by the pseudoheroic posturing.

Heroism, real or pretended, kills.

The film is assaultive and appalling, with the color washed out of it, so the island looks even more lifeless. Mostly nameless and faceless G.I.s blow up and fall in our laps, as the Americans try to find the anonymous, dug-in Japanese in their labyrinthine tunnels through the volcanic ash. Eastwood has filmed it on the real, godforsaken Iwo Jima, and it feels real—and awful.

Letters From Iwo Jima is even more daring. It’s in Japanese with a Japanese cast and what must be a Japanese sensibility. It explores the Japanese model of heroism, centering on the glory of suicide as a tribute to the emperor and the appropriateness of killing off one’s fellow soldiers if they’re squeamish about performing the hara-kiri ceremony with their own hands. Of the 22,000 Japanese on Iwo Jima, only 216 survived the suicide orgy and let themselves be captured.

The movie shifts its focus between a few characters struggling with these questions of life and death. The general in charge, Ken Watanabe, tries to maintain his impeccable dignity and model it for his men. All of them know the war is lost and their situation is hopeless. The general doesn’t have to seek death for himself or his men: it will come in time. But he sees no glory in it either. First, they must kill the enemy.

In contrast to the general is the ideologue Lieutenant Ito, who finds suicide not just the sole acceptable solution, but a desirable one. And honor requires that all his men kill themselves. But there’s an adorable and utterly nonheroic young baker (Saigo) who doesn’t seek the glory of death and would rather live, thank you. He’s in constant conflict with Lieutenant Ito, who seems bewildered and offended that anyone would want to live.

Few war movies have ever seemed so human, so intimate, so deeply engaged in debate over the relative values of human life or death. How shameful is it to live, or even to want to do so?

After this movie, the enemy can no longer be faceless and nameless. But meanwhile, the human sacrifice continues, suicidal heroics for somebody’s infernal glory. War is hell of course, but is it really glorious?

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.