»  National Review

December 17th, 2001

  Studyin' War Some More


The issue of the London Spectator dated March 24th this year ran a special section on the military, its place in British society, and its future prospects. The lead-off piece was by historian Niall Ferguson, author of that fine book The Pity of War, which is about WW1. Ferguson deplored the "demilitarization" of Britain, and the profound implications of that phenomenon, not only for the nation's security, but for her culture. He complained of the difficulty he was having indoctrinating his sons with any sense of military values or virtues: "In vain have I visited toyshops in an effort to equip them with some serious plastic weaponry. It is a great deal easier to buy merchandise inspired by Star Wars than by any real wars."

The issue drew some rather scathing mail from German readers, pointing out that, even after allowing for the Blitz, the British experience of war has been radically milder than continental Europe's, where all those nations engaged in the world wars of the last century had endured the shocks of defeat and occupation — "being bossed around by armed foreigners," as one reader expressed it. They have a point, of course; but if Britain has been excluded from the worst war has to offer, how much more so the United States, whose cities, prior to September 11th, had never been attacked from the air?

What do we know of war? Even our military men now have less combat experience than at any time in the nation's history. America's wars of the 1980s and 1990s were small affairs, the battles brief and extraordinarily one-sided, involving comparatively tiny numbers of combatants. The youngest Vietnam veterans are now nudging fifty; the youngest Korean War veterans are in their mid sixties; the youngest WW2 veterans are well into their seventies. Samuel Johnson observed that: "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea." I doubt if this still applies, since the experience of not having been a soldier is now so nearly universal.

The experience of war is kept alive for us in books and movies, of course, but it is in the nature of such things that we get a selective impression. Saving Private Ryan was a very fine movie, but it probably left large numbers of young people believing that wars are won solely by brave men storming beaches and engaging the enemy face to face. Tom Brokaw's 1998 bestseller The Greatest Generation broadened the canvas a little, showing nurses, engineers and union organizers. Now, it is certainly true that WW2 could not have been won without the heroic efforts of combat infantrymen and those who supported them at home, but these images we have been getting the past few years have tended to gloss over, or leave out altogether, other factors in the 1945 victory. There was the terror-bombing of enemy cities, for example; a strategy that many allied war leaders — notably Churchill — had serious moral qualms about, and whose precise military value is still the subject of debate. The experience of being an urban civilian on the receiving end of a 1,000-bomber incendiary raid has received very little attention from movie producers and has not figured at all in the "greatest generation" productions. Neither, for that matter, has the grueling and horrible but un-photogenic business of keeping the Atlantic sea-lanes open, recreated so unsparingly in Nicholas Monsarrat's 1951 novel The Cruel Sea. For all that we flatter ourselves about the realism of recent war movies like Ryan and The Thin Red Line, we have slipped into a popular conception of warfare as romanticized, in its own way, as the Song of Roland.

I confess I never felt much at ease with the "greatest generation" promotions. Sure, it was good to see the old folk being honored for the sacrifices they made in turning back the mid-20th century advances of barbarism. Yet there was something smug about it all, something self-congratulatory and … boomer. It was as if the postwar elites were saying to their parents: "Yes, we scoffed at your values and ignored your sacrifice. When we weren't actually denouncing the military virtues, we were steering as far clear of them as we could. Certainly we never showed any fondness for them, and brought forward as the first President from our generation a man who held them in open contempt. But, hey, that was then and we've, like, changed our minds about the whole thing. You okay with that?" Nor have boomer movie-makers altogether shaken off the mindset they left college with. It is interesting to recall that Spielberg promoted Ryan in the first place as an anti-war movie. Neither Ryan nor any other recent movie has included, on the allied side at any rate, a war-lover personality of the Patton type. Such people are rare, no doubt; but they are probably essential to victory. Tom Hanks's Captain Miller and his unit are all more or less reluctant soldiers, doing their dogged duty in a spirit of: "The sooner this is over, the sooner I can get home to things I really care about." That is a common attitude among fighting men, probably a majority attitude in conscript armies; but it is not the only one possible, nor the one that is most useful in actually winning wars. GIs in the Pacific used to boil the flesh from severed Japanese heads and send the skulls home to their girlfriends. You won't see that in a Spielberg movie, nor the frame of mind that engendered it.

Perhaps it is the dim awareness of these truths, post-September 11th, that caused the HBO movie mini-series Band of Brothers to perform below expectations after being showered with critical praise. HBO executives are putting a brave face on this, saying that by any standards but the ones expected of it, the series — whose executive producers were Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks — didn't do badly at all. (Ratings were less than for The Sopranos but more than for Sex in the City .) The first episode screened on September 9th, and the studio pulled all publicity for two weeks after the terror attacks. That can't have helped any; nor can the last episode's having to go up against a crucial World Series game. Even after making these allowances, though, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the appeal of even the most "realistic" war movie fades somewhat when obliged to compete with images of real war.

It may be, of course, that we don't actually need to know much about war. While any of us might be visited at any time by random horrors like those of September 11th, long-grinding struggles between mighty nations, fully mobilized, are inconceivable nowadays, at any rate to us. Not, perhaps, to others. Niall Ferguson's difficulties finding war toys for his son came to my mind when I was in China this summer. It happened that we were in a large Manchurian city, staying with Chinese relatives, at the time of my own son's sixth birthday. The lad's doting grandpa wished to buy him a present, so off we all went to the city's main department store. Invited to select from the toys on display, my son went unhesitatingly for a large and hideous green plastic gun that gave forth, as well as a very realistic automatic-fire sounds, a voice yelling: "Fire! Get down! Cha-a-a-arge!" In Chinese, of course.