War & Military

Casablanca

I would like to play a game of pretend.  Let’s pretend that you are one of the most in-demand actors of your time and your contract with the studio says you have to perform in any film they choose.  The studio you are working for takes an unknown, unproduced and previously refused play and begins adapting the play for the screen.  They are in such a rush to start production and don’t wait for the first draft of the screenplay to be finished before they begin filming. At one point the director calls you on the set and tells you to just stand still and give a short nod of your head towards the camera.  You don’t know why you are nodding or where the nod will occur in the movie, you are just told to nod.   Every day the script changes.  Not just the little daily changes common to movies, but massive story changes take place. No one at the start of filming, not even the director, knows exactly how the movie is going to end. The film is half-way through production before the ending is finally settled upon.  Can you imagine how unhappy you would be and how horrible you believe the final product would turn out?  This is what happened to actors Humphry Bogart and Actress Ingrid Bergman when they starred in a film that when finished won the Best Picture, Best Screen Play, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards.  Since its production in 1942, it has continued to win honors and awards.  The play was called “Everyone Comes to Ricks”, the movie, Casablanca.

Monuments Men

It’s not often that a World War II film comes my way that stirs my soul.  It’s even rarer that what stirs my soul is not the personal story of an individual or a small group  of people standing up for what is right against the Nazi’s or an escape from a German internment camp despite impossible odds.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good war film, but most war films have the same basic features,

The Yellow Birds

I’m not one for war novels, but this little gem hooked me from the start. The writing is stellar and the characters speak and act with a naturalness that only comes from actual combat experience. 

Kevin Powers, the author, is an Iraq War veteran. The story he has written about his experiences is heart-breaking.  The narrator, 21 year old Private Bartle, had literary aspirations in school and received a lot of taunting from his friends, so he decided to prove his manhood by becoming a soldier. This mirrored the author’s life who enlisted at age seventeen.  At basic training, he meets, the pimple-faced newbie, Murph, whose mother begs Bartle to promise to bring him back from Iraq unharmed.

Of course, no experienced soldier would ever make such a promise but something about the woman reminds the private of his own mother, so he readily agrees. Big mistake. They soon get sent to Al Tafir where a series of bloody battles, including civilian deaths, jade both men. 

Civil War Fiction

Killer AngelsThis summer will be the 150 year anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the deadliest periods of the Civil War.  The three days saw record causalities and is also considered one of the turning points of the war.  Instead of breaking out a dusty nonfiction tome, consider The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. This fiction book does a good job at adequately describing the events that did occur, but shines at getting into the heads of the major players. We meet Lee, Longstreet and Chamberlain and start to understand their thoughts, positions, opinions and fears as they prepare and head into battle.  This is well researched, and really readable.  The maps give you a good visual perspective as well.

One of the things I love most about history is not only learning the outcomes and the details of the events that took place, but investigating the other possibilities, thinking about the what-ifs, and figuring out the decisions that went into what really happened.

Three Day Road

Three Day RoadI read a review of Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden's first novel of World War I, which mentions that this isn't necessarily an anti-war novel.   I had to read the sentence in that review several times to make sure I wasn't misreading or misunderstanding.  Does a war novel have to come out and specifically declare a stance? 

Really, Boyden includes anti-war elements right up to the breathtaking ending: senseless killings, madness, morphine addiction, shortsighted military leadership, dehumanization, and the day to day terror.  The characters in this book do seemingly impossible and horrible things in the name of combat.  Is that not stance enough?  Is it even important?

It is true that this book is about more than the descent into the hell of trench warfare.  It is a really poetic story of Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, Cree Indians who have grown up in Canada near Hudson Bay.  They have spent their childhood patiently hunting, skills which serve them well as snipers in some of the worst battles of World War I, including around Vimy Ridge and the Somme.  Maybe it needs to be said, but being good at killing moose to survive the winter is different than being good at killing Germans. Xavier and Elijah react differently, but equally destructively, to war.

War Books

MatterhornMy question of the week - Do women read war novels?  I don't mean to ask this in a polarizing and dramatic way, but out of genuine interest. 

I recently finished the excellent Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, a novelization about the Vietnam War.  Marlantes is a highly decorated Marine who served in Vietnam and this 600 page book was 30 years in the making.  The book is technical and almost solely set in Vietnam.  There isn't room for families, girlfriends, or real life.  This book is intense - filled with racial tensions, horrifying wounds, tigers, leeches, jungle rot, thirst, hunger, diarrhea, boredom, bad language and inept military structure.  I probably lost some of the technicalities of the military maneuvers, but in the end you really care about the characters.  At times, reading this was stressful but the pain and longing seems universal and touching.  

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