BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
I have been a War Lover as long as I can remember. I loved John Wayne as a military hero: Flying Tigers, The Fighting Seabees [the word “Seabee” comes from initials “CB” which in turn comes from the term Construction Battalions], They Were Expendable, Sands of Iwo Jima:
Then Steve McQueen, in The War Lover or Hell Is for Heroes or The Great Escape.
I grew up with Two-Fisted Tales comics, and Frontline Combat.
“CALL UNCLE BILL!” my mother shouted from the bathroom. He came on a Saturday morning, March 10, 1951. Off I went to see The Steel Helmet at the Ogden Theater in Chicago (at 63rd and Marshfield, a favorite place I could walk to). And after the movie–VOILA!–I had a new baby brother. That was neat. Go to the movies–and get a brother. (That is one of my fondest memories of a time–and one of my favorite movies, yet to this day.)
And then, older, I became so aware of content and history. In addition, after years with studying and teaching Shakespeare–and reading of war, like The Iliad and The Aeneid, like For Whom the Bell Tolls or All Quiet on the Western Front–I realized that if the essence of a tragedy is our awareness of the WASTE OF GOOD, then surely the essence of war is double tragic: waste upon waste.
I asked, What of this loss of all that is good or could be good in a man?
War brings out the worst: disregard for all that has been taught to be valued, to be sacred: life and property, manhood itself. It is often a rite of passage, a ripping from the womb of adolescence or youth (or younger, with boy-soldiers), tearing at morals, sensibilities, a sense of love and decency. And war tears apart, rips from limb to limb, often literally.
This is nothing new: we have wars, we live war. Some live for war itself; for some, it is a job, maybe even a duty. Sometimes only the players change; sometimes the same territory is fought over and paid for again and again, in human life, in human misery.
Arma virumque cano: “I sing of arms and the man,” Virgil put it so aptly many years ago (29-19 BCE) in a “great” war story. However, what is so “great” about a war story, so great that I “love” such tellings of action or characters in military situations.
A war story is truly a work of art, a play that pits human against human in extremis, in the extreme. It is a show from an artist’s perspective, a show of good and goodness–if such is possible in this Game of War, which relates hurt and hurting, winners and losers, death and destruction.
“Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies,” said Picasso (1923). The artist of war, as in Guernica, shows the truth of the story: that war IS hell, that war IS a double tragedy, that the truth of war needs to be told, to be shown: heroes die, we die. Death is real: portrayed, acted, dramatized.
Of course, there is often much more to it: morality, politics, history–even theology (a story of gods and about God, perhaps?). For me, however, it is character (Saving Private Ryan), story (The Hunt for Red October), emotion (even with Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” mournfully played while I watch Platoon, tugging at my senses). Sometimes I cry, I mourn, I laugh (even); I am moved. I often think of the artist trying to exorcise his devils (Shakespeare’s “war” stories like Othello?), showing the waste of souls (like Apocalypse Now), or relating war’s errors and futility (A Bridge Too Far).
I am a War Lover. I have my favorites, even those about love-in-war (like The English Patient). But I do hate war and what necessitates it and what it does solve or not solve. Yet I am not a “hawk” by any means. Nevertheless, I have accepted the reality of it. And I am aware as an American citizen that I am a recipient of the spoils of war (The Patriot). And so it goes (Slaughterhouse–Five). Perhaps, someday–highly unlikely–we may experience A Farewell to Arms.
© James F. O’Neil 2015
ADDENDUM: Full Metal Jacket was recently “voted” the best war movie ever made–arguably, very arguably. Stanley Kubrick’s film was “victorious” in a title matchup of Military Times‘ “Military Movie Madness,” downing Patton by a sizable margin vote to determine the best military movie ever made.