Virtual Warriors

Nostalgia, the battlefield, and boomer cinema


When images of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were first broadcast, American journalists almost immediately invoked the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Even as that analogy became standard rhetoric of political commentary, the Bush administration altered its characterization of the events, eschewing an early preference for terms such as "terrorist" or "criminal acts" in favor of saying America had witnessed "an act of war." Yet while a country feeding on electronic images of the carnage called for a vigorous military response, wary studio executives scrambled to cancel or postpone television programming and movie releases suddenly deemed inappropriate or insensitive.

The premiere of a new Schwarzenegger film about terrorism was put on hold, the broadcast of the mini-series Band of Brothers was interrupted for a week, and a rerun of an X-Files episode featuring the terrorist bombing of a bank patronized by FBI agents was cancelled. Overnight, the real terror of history had displaced (at least temporarily) the manufactured variety, and the prospect of a new kind of military conflict of incalculable dimensions and uncertain outcome crowded out the simulacra of war, violence, and bloodshed that are a staple of the entertainment industry.

One of the striking features of the cultural environment in which the events of September 11 exploded has been a burgeoning fascination with war, specifically with World War II. Since the release in 1998 of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, America's theaters have been crowded with major motion pictures devoted to that war. The Thin Red Line (1998), Enemy at the Gates (2001), Pearl Harbor (2001), and Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001) are soon to be followed by Windtalkers, the story of the WW II Navajo codetalkers, slated to open in early 2002. For those who cannot wait, HBO's Band of Brothers, based on Stephen Ambrose's book, is back.

Programs on the second world war are featured so regularly on the History Channel that wags commonly call it "The Hitler Channel." Since September, the History Book Club, which has always carried a long list of World War II titles, has barraged its subscribers with new books about Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima, Omaha Beach, and the German army.

Meanwhile, Hampton Sides' Ghost Soldiers has climbed the New York Times bestseller list, and Tom Brokaw's An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation—his sequel to The Greatest Generation—can be found in every airport. Stephen Ambrose, a talented writer of considerable range, might well have made an entire career out of the books he's penned on the war: new hardback copies of Band of Brothers (originally published in 1992) are currently billeting in the major bookstores alongside his The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B24s Over Germany and The Victors—Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II. It is not overstating matters to claim that for the last three years we have been awash with World War II reminiscences and cultural memorabilia the extent of which we haven't experienced since before the Vietnam War.

Why now? How do we explain the current resurgence of interest in the second world war at a time when the last surviving veterans of the conflict are passing away? The producers and executives of Hollywood, to say nothing of its screenwriters, are more likely to belong to the baby boom generation (or even Generation X) than to "the greatest generation." In fact, many members of the target audience for Pearl Harbor or Enemy at the Gates are young enough to be the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the vets who took up arms nearly 60 years ago. Why should they be so eager to weep for the dead of Pearl Harbor or Stalingrad?

Unlikely as it may seem, the 19th century novelist Sir Walter Scott might provide us with a clue. Scott was one of the most famous writers of his age, and his reputation rested in large measure on his popularizing a new sort of literary work: the historical novel. Although American readers are more likely to know Scott's medieval tale Ivanhoe, it was the 1814 publication of his first historical novel, Waverley, that established an international craze for historical fiction.

Significantly, Scott subtitled that work 'Tis Sixty Years Hence, a reference to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the vain attempt to reclaim the British throne for the Stuarts. What 60 years before had been an immensely controversial political event that deeply divided public opinion in Scotland (and greatly inflamed passions in England) had become by 1814 a purely historical event suitable for fictional treatment that would appeal to a diverse international audience.

It was Scott's genius to recognize that a political event, especially one of great import, could best be transformed into fictional history precisely at the moment at which the living witnesses and participants of the event inevitably exited the scene. For all of his antiquarian attention to historical detail, Scott characteristically altered history for dramatic purposes. He offered a new and improved version of the past that championed his own bourgeois vision of the ideal political order, one characterized by peace, religious toleration, civility, moderation, commercial activity, individual freedom, and steadfast loyalty to God, king, and country.

Written at a time when the great political conflicts of Europe seemed momentarily at an end, Scott's historical novels looked back to the political and religious tumults of the past from what seemed the more secure and peaceful world of the late 1810s and 1820s. The lives of Scott's fictional heroes and heroines inevitably intersect with those of famous historical personages—Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Duke of Monmouth, Cromwell, Saladin—during a period of political crisis of far-reaching consequence: the Jacobite war of 1745, the Scottish religious wars and political rebellions of the 17th century, the English Civil War, the Crusades.

Scott's fictional protagonists are always "middling folk." These respectable, often prosperous and genteel characters with their "modern" middle-class mores appear anachronistic against the backdrop of historical epochs filled with violent religious fanatics, doomed aristocrats, deposed monarchs, wild romantic Highlanders, chivalric Christian knights, and Muslim warriors. But if Scott's fictional heroes seem to have been magically transported backward into time, they nonetheless fulfill an important narrative function by allowing Scott's readers to identify with the witnesses and minor actors in great historical events. Careful to appeal to the widest possible audience, Scott made certain that the stories he told offered a romantic hook; the resolution of the historical or political crisis is typically punctuated by the long-delayed and much anticipated union of Scott's fictional hero and heroine. Scott's formula is imitated to this day, especially in Hollywood.

Prior to the beginning of the present "War on Terror," in the post?Cold War era of the 1990s, writers, film producers, and the American public as a whole might be said to have found themselves in a historical lull comparable to that of Scott's readers in the 1820s. The United States in the 1990s seemed more peaceful and prosperous—and more self-satisfied and uninteresting—than the America of 30 or 60 years ago. The anxieties of having finally achieved cultural preeminence and political authority in uninteresting times seems to have particularly burdened the baby boomer generation.

If their youth was characterized by the turmoil of the Cold War, the nuclear threat, political assassinations, the civil rights movement, Watergate, and above all, the Vietnam War, such grand historical events were, with the possible exception of the civil rights struggle, resented or mourned rather than welcomed, forced upon a recalcitrant generation rather than passionately embraced in the manner with which their parents had greeted the epic challenge of World War II. At the moment that the first boomer was finally elected to the American presidency and his generation seemed at long last poised to determine the destiny of the nation, if not the world, the engine of history seemed to have stalled. The historical legacy of the boomers was not to be a new Camelot, of which they'd dreamed since their youth, but the Lewinsky White House. The great matter of the '90s was not a cause that would hallow any war, but the rancorous impeachment and Senate trial of a president whose most memorable acts were the proper subject of a fabliau rather than an epic.

In recent years, there has been a widespread and unfulfilled cultural yearning for a cause worth fighting for. The great majority—including the Big Boomer himself, Bill Clinton—had side-stepped or avoided the Vietnam War, rather than passionately engaging in it or opposing it. Clinton's "mixed emotions" on the events of September 11, as reported by Andrew Sullivan, reveal with shocking clarity the degree to which the ex-president nevertheless yearned for a historical cataclysm as a means to his own self-definition and glorification: "He [Clinton] has said there has to be a defining moment in a presidency that really makes a great presidency. He didn't have one."

The recent spate of World War II movies, books, and television programs has provided an ersatz means by which those anxieties, self-doubts, and recriminations—and, inevitably, the boomers' characteristic narcissism and self-justifications—could be expressed. Like Scott's historical novels, the films signaled an unfulfilled epic desire on the part of a generation that has felt itself diminished by comparison to the one that preceded it. They have, for better and worse, functioned as a means by which some influential boomers might, surreptitiously, assign themselves a central place, even an epic role, in a history that in fact did more to shape them than they it.

In an interview Spielberg granted when Saving Private Ryan was released, the director summed up his view of the great conflict. "I think it is the key—the turning point of the entire century. It was as simple as this: The century either was going to produce the baby boomers or it was not going to produce the baby boomers. World War II allowed my generation to exist." There you have it. The ultimate benefit, the highest justification and sanctification of the greatest, if not the bloodiest, war in human history: the birth of the baby boomers.

The World War II films of the last three years have been popular in part because they employ the most advanced special effects. The spectacular dimension of these films—the opening scenes on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan, the scenes on the Volga in Enemy at the Gates, and the elaborate recreation of the Japanese surprise attack in Pearl Harbor—overwhelm the audience with visual and sonic power. No dialogue is necessary and little is supplied. In the age of the global audience, contemporary studio executives understand what their predecessors in the silent era surely appreciated: Visual spectacle and music cross borders easily.

Nonetheless, these films represent more than a triumph of special-effects technology. They also exhibit an impulse to remake the image of the generation that fought the second world war so as to flatter the values, beliefs, and mores of the baby boom generation. By reinventing their parents as an idealized version of themselves, the boomers have not so much memorialized the "greatest" generation as presented a glorified image of its successor.

Recent World War II epics have, a la Scott, allowed the boomers to dress up in their parents' vintage clothes and parade the dominant cultural and political ethos of the 1990s in the garb of the 1940s. In Pearl Harbor, the prevailing sexual mores of the 1990s, to some degree a cultural legacy of the 1960s, are peremptorily thrust back into the 1940s. Indeed, the film's main characters' casual embrace of premarital sexual relations is conveniently depicted as the inevitable result of a world crisis. If not for Hitler's aerial assault on Britain, Lt. Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) and Capt. Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) would not have to rush matters, nor would Evelyn have to console herself, not long after Rafe apparently perishes in the Battle of Britain, in the arms of her beloved's fellow flyboy and best friend, Capt. Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett). You don't like free love? Blame it on history. And if not for the fiendish Japanese bombardment of what looks more like a holiday paradise than a functioning naval base, an attack that precipitates a series of events culminating in the death of bachelor #2 (that's Danny) in faraway Manchuria, our poor heroine might never have been able to make up her mind.

Of course, all ends happily when Evelyn and Rafe are ultimately reunited, with daddy Capt. Rafe nobly adopting as his own the son Evelyn and Danny had enthusiastically conceived amid billowing satin parachutes in a conveniently vacant airplane hanger. (Pleased with the return to family values? Thank history.)

The basics of this tangled romantic plot might have been pulled wholesale out of a Scott novel such as Old Mortality, in which the heroine finally marries the hero when his rival and friend is conveniently killed off in the last skirmish of the Scottish religious wars of the 17th century, despite the hero's best efforts to save him. But whereas Scott seemed genuinely interested in Scotland's 17th-century religious politics, the makers of Pearl Harbor—screenwriter Randall Wallace of Braveheart fame (who likely knows his Scott) and director Michael Bay—seem interested in the war mainly as a backdrop to their 1990s romantic fable. If Scott personalized the political to make it more accessible, Bay and Wallace simply reduce the political to the personal and leave it there.

As my female companion at the screening described it, Pearl Harbor is just your standard chick flick with vintage planes and heavy ordnance thrown in for effect. But the film does deliver a message of sorts: The non-traditional neo-nuclear family of the 1990s, which embodies in the bio-genetic diversity of its children the varied and liberated romantic pasts of its parents, is transferred to the 1940s, where it is comfortably situated within the American grain. Thus, in the final scene of the film, Evelyn, Rafe, and little Danny Walker Jr., back on the family farm in Tennessee (where Rafe grew up with his boyhood pal, Danny Sr.), are cinematically sanctified in a final visual tableau worthy of Norman Rockwell.

Other recent World War II films have served similar ends. In Enemy at the Gates, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) is a talented young Russian sniper posted to besieged Stalingrad. He competes with his friend and patron Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a propaganda officer working for the internal Russian security service under the command of Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), for the affections of Tania (Rachel Weisz), a Russian-Jewish resistance fighter. Our young Russian hero must fight on two fronts. In addition to facing off against the top sniper in the German army (who comes to Stalingrad to pick off Vassili), he must worry about his friend Danilov picking off Tania.

Co-written and directed by the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud—born in 1943, just ahead of the baby boom—the movie panders to the sizable American market despite its focus on a pivotal battle in which the U.S. played no significant role. Setting aside the question of the combat status of Russian women at Stalingrad, we might note that Enemy at the Gates reassures those worried about the fighting capabilities of a new unisex army. Women will, it seems, honorably take their place alongside their male counterparts on the front, even if they must assume a variety of uncomfortable postures when consorting with their beloved comrades-in-arms in crowded bunkers.

By encouraging a contemporary American and Western European audience to identify with its Russian heroes and heroines (much as Hollywood propaganda films of the early 1940s generated American and Western European sympathy for our Soviet allies), Enemy at the Gates clearly signals a post?Cold War realignment of political sympathies. The Russians are no longer our ideological and military foes, just patriotic individuals fighting for their homeland. Even Danilov, the propaganda officer, turns out to have ambivalent feelings toward the official Stalinist line that Khrushchev viciously enforces. Fascism turns out to be the one truly malignant force, for unlike even the most committed members of the Red Army, German officers are willing to kill children in cold blood.

Perhaps the most striking revisionism in Enemy at the Gates is its transformation of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of World War II into a private duel between two superstar snipers that is most meaningfully played out in the Soviet (and presumably German) press. By keeping its audience in the dark concerning the military strategies and large-scale engagements that actually determined the fate of Stalingrad, focusing instead on Danilov's propaganda war, the film reduces the battle of Stalingrad to a media campaign. Though the decisive Russian military breakthrough came in November of 1942—prior to the "climactic" duel depicted in the film—Enemy at the Gates reflects a post-Vietnam sensibility that understands the "winning of hearts and minds" as the most important and strategically significant undertaking in any military conflict. Even at Stalingrad, image is everything.

Paraphrasing what André Gide once said of Victor Hugo, one might concede that Spielberg is, alas, the greatest director of war films in his generation. Saving Private Ryan is at once the best and most cunning of the recent World War II epics. It artfully disguises its revisionist aims by virtue of its scrupulous attention to the gritty and unsavory details of combat.

In his successful bid to one-up Darryl Zanuck's 1962 epic The Longest Day, Spielberg has dazzled civilian and military audiences (including D-Day veterans) with his uncompromising depiction of slaughter on the beaches of Normandy. Taking his cue from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone's Platoon, and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (Spielberg has recently claimed to have channeled the spirit of the late auteur), he seems to have combined the graphic realism of the Vietnam film with the seemingly traditional patriotism of the World War II saga.

But it might be more accurate to say that Spielberg has reinterpreted the experience of the second world war in light of that of Vietnam. The result is an exoneration of the conduct of Spielberg's generation and a subtle diminishment of the heroism of that of his parents. For if the visual center of Saving Private Ryan is the assault on Omaha Beach, the narrative center, as the title of the film suggests, is the saving of a single private in the U.S. Army.

In their efforts to rescue Ryan (Matt Damon) from behind enemy lines, the small patrol led by Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) endures a series of harrowing confrontations with the enemy that have more in common with Apocalypse Now than with The Longest Day. Miller's troops quarrel relentlessly among themselves, pointedly call into question the very purpose of their mission, and even threaten to mutiny or desert before they've rescued Ryan.

The film ultimately revolves around scenes that ask whether the shooting of unarmed German prisoners by American GIs is morally justified. No doubt such things took place during World War II, but Spielberg breaks new ground in anchoring his narrative in this issue. Spielberg's greatest generation, in spite of its bravery and patriotism, acts in a manner more closely resembling that of American troops at My Lai than that of John Wayne in World War II epics of an earlier age.

However, Spielberg is careful not to give away the game too easily. The audience is made to question Capt. Miller's compassionate decision to release a German prisoner rather than have him summarily shot by vengeful and disgruntled GIs. In the film's final battle scene, it is this same German soldier who fatally wounds Capt. Miller, and it is the most ethically upright and law-abiding member of Miller's squadron who subsequently kills the German. (Spielberg also takes pains to depict American soldiers helping, if thereby unintentionally and unnecessarily endangering, French civilians caught in the crossfire of the Normandy invasion). Critics argue that Miller's GIs should have shot the unarmed German when they had the chance, that the brutal killing was, in the context of battle, the moral thing to do. Spielberg thus implicitly justifies the behavior of his generation in Vietnam by making the case for battlefield conduct unavoidably shaped by the brutality inherent in all war. But perhaps Spielberg also suggests that one reason that American soldiers in World War II have been more favorably portrayed in the popular media than their sons in Vietnam was that the former conveniently faced a truly evil enemy—German fascists and anti-Semites—rather than one about which liberal members of Spielbergs's generation have felt considerable ambivalence (Vietnamese communists).

Saving Private Ryan also serves to assuage the guilt of the Vietnam generation through another sleight of hand. If Miller's men are Vietnam-era soldiers dressed in World War II general issue, Pvt. Ryan nonetheless refuses an opportunity to avoid danger—an opportunity that so many members of the Clinton, Gore, Quayle, and Bush Jr. generation sought.

In the midst of a military conflict, Ryan is offered the chance to avoid combat, to go home, and to do so with the full approval of his government. Of course he refuses, and stays to fight alongside a new set of unfamiliar comrades whom he nonetheless will mourn and memorialize as an old man, accompanied by his loving wife, children, and grandchildren. Rather than functioning as an implicit criticism of Spielberg's generation, Ryan's choice serves, I would argue, as a kind of compensatory fantasy.

Ryan lives out (and also lives to reflect upon) an experience of war and national service that so many of Spielberg's fellow boomers were anxious to avoid. Spielberg offers a virtual salve to his audience and himself: If once more given Ryan's choice (and his good fortune to draw a truly diabolical opponent), he and his generation really would have served bravely, rather than demurred or objected, however conscientiously. Spielberg's narrative genius offers an apologia for his generation that in equal measure assuages guilt and glories in self-justification, if not self-heroization.

In his book The Campaigns of Alexander, the second century Greek historian Arrian records the visit of Alexander the Great to the tomb of Achilles at the ancient site of Troy. Alexander is supposed to have described Achilles as "a lucky man in that he had Homer to proclaim his deeds and preserve his memory." Alexander understood that even the greatest political and military feats do not speak for themselves, they become truly important, memorable, historical, only insofar as they are recorded, interpreted, and subsequently appreciated by an audience.

Alexander's comment thus acknowledges that the fate of the hero rests not entirely in his own hands, but also in those of the artist or historian. Arrian's (perhaps apocryphal) tale casts much light on the murkier recesses of the cultural psyche of the boomers.

The boomer generation might well have been the first raised in an era in which history manifested itself primarily and most powerfully through the medium of the silver screen. Having come upon the stage of history too belatedly to fight World War II, the cultural elite of the boomer generation could nonetheless make movies about it. Or to be more precise, they could remake and revise the WW II films of their youth. For in a crucial respect, the WW II films of the '90s ultimately have less to do with the second world war per se than with earlier cinematic representations of the event.

The real (though invisible) antagonist of recent WW II films is not so much the German fascist or the Japanese imperialist as the specter of John Wayne, the larger-than-life self-image of "the greatest generation." Just as the epic deeds of Achilles in Homer's Iliad inflamed the envy and hubris of Alexander the Great, so too have the cinematic images of the Duke's heroic feats fed the jealousy and stoked the historical ambitions of the boomers.

The baby boom generation, for better or worse, is the first fully committed to the view that to control the visual representation of history is to control history itself, and thereby one's own destiny. This is a cultural reality that, for all of his anti-modern religious enthusiasm, even the malign director of the spectacular attacks of September 11 fully appreciates.