General Sherman didn't exactly say "war is hell." It's a paraphrase.
Great quotes were never thought up as such, at least not the ones that were spoken spontaneously. This was pointed out by a reviewer of the Civil War movie "Gods and Generals." There are lines in that movie spoken as if the person wanted to get into Bartlett's. Reality isn't quite like that.
Another reviewer who happens to be the late Roger Ebert, described "Gods and Generals" as "nostalgic" about the U.S. Civil War. The flick was supposed to appeal to Civil War buffs who already knew all the "good lines." An example is "There stands Jackson like a stone wall" (the reference being to Stonewall Jackson).
Ebert liked the movie "Gettysburg" but not "Gods and Generals." Many of the same creative people were involved. The "Gods" movie was the second one and it was oddly devoid of inspiration. It pulled certain levers to remind us it was all about the Civil War. It went out of its way to try to show us the Confederates weren't all bad. That crossed a Hollywood line.
Hollywood has historically suggested that many of the Confederate leaders were valiant and fundamentally good people, who were just products of their culture. And, victims of destiny. Defeat was always in the cards for those people.
So, "Gods and Generals" comes out, a movie best described as turgid, and it tells us not only that the Confederacy likely had virtues, but there's a nostalgic sort of sheen over the grand conflict - absurd on the face of it.
Let me tell you, if you could actually smell a group of these Civil War soldiers, you wouldn't feel any nostalgia.
"Sgt. Rock" amidst WWII carnage
World War II also generated its odd sense of nostalgia, although we outgrew it. As a child I read the "Sgt. Rock" comic book.
The 1960s were a time when we weren't disturbed so much by war imagery. It helped that much of that imagery was sanitized. When the Eddie Albert character gets killed at the end of the movie "The Longest Day," there is no blood or suffering. He performs a nice "death" in which he simply falls to the ground.
The real WWII veterans might have corrected that imagery. Those gallant members of The Greatest Generation just seemed to shrug and stay quiet. Oh, it was a basic part of their nature (to be temperate and enabling).
It helped that the U.S. was on the winning side of what has been called "the good war." Let the kids have their myths about war, they may have reasoned. Well, they sure did. They saw us kids consume comic books like "Sgt. Rock," which, if you were real impressionable, might make you want to sign up for military service.
The story of Sgt. Rock had him growing up amidst much misery. He lost three fathers in his youth! His siblings had a litany of misfortune. Maybe the subtle message here is that a great warrior understands the hard knocks of life. Maybe you join the military because "things can't get any worse." So maybe you have "nothing to lose."
Us comic book consumers maybe could have surmised we could set higher standards for ourselves. We were kids and so we just rooted for Franklin John Rock to kill the enemy. He became known as the iconic war comic hero, truly hard as nails as a non-commissioned infantry officer. He led the "Easy Company" in the European theater, after starting out in North Africa. He was promoted to assistant squad leader when his superiors were killed.
Later he became squad leader and eventually sergeant, the latter rank coming after he held Easy Company's position on a hill despite a German onslaught that killed his comrades. He later turned down promotion to stay on the battlefield. He and his company had a propensity to find their way to the thick of the battlefield.
I'm reminded of the movie "Gettysburg" in which the Chamberlain character, played by Jeff Daniels, is told on the morning of day #3, after a hellish struggle on day #2, that his Maine unit would get a respite as they'd be positioned at "the middle of the Union line" which was deemed "the safest place on the battlefield." Of course, General Lee was drawing up plans for day #3 that would have the Confederates concentrating all their forces trying to penetrate that middle! What absolute folly.
Day #3 was a hellish bloodbath in which the Confederates were stymied.
The idea in those days was to send a massed force toward an entrenched position, knowing you'd lose a certain high percentage of troops, but enough would get through to "get" the enemy. It was always a very sad strategy, but never more so than in the U.S. Civil War where the development of the rifled gun (as opposed to smoothbore) made defensive positions much more effective.
General Longstreet absolutely implored Lee on trying to get Confederate forces in a defensive position at Gettysburg. Legend has it Lee wasn't listening. Lee wasn't full-go with his health.
Nostalgia about the Civil War? It's hard to court when you think of Lee's crippling diarrhea at the time of Gettysburg - a common affliction at the time, when culinary standards were obviously minimal (e.g. rancid bacon).
Nostalgia also isn't compatible with the way your typical Civil War troops smelled. Nostalgia is felt by those who have the comfortable luxury of detachment in time from the events.
A common objective of so-called Civil War "buffs" is to get in the heads of the Civil War soldiers, trying to understand why they were willing to do this. I have always felt we just can't accomplish this. It's too hard for us today to relate to the day-to-day life and travails of the mid-19th Century.
We study the Civil War knowing we can't truly relate to the hardships of that time, whether on the military or civilian fronts.
I once subscribed to "America's Civil War" magazine. I always grab an old copy for when I dine at Pizza Hut. I may have a reputation there for doing this (and also wearing my reading glasses).
War myths overcome by reality
I once ordered a book from Edward Hamilton Bookseller called "The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation." That's me there in that generation. The book is wholly consistent with the points I'm trying to make in this post. The myths and nostalgia about WWII, embraced in the 1960s, went through a steady and sad deconstruction.
"Sad," yes, but it brought us into the realm of reality, underscored with finality when the movie "Saving Private Ryan" came out. We would have been aghast at the "Ryan" movie (Tom Hanks) in the 1960s. We wanted to see a triumph like when our favorite football team wins. "The Longest Day" with John Wayne certainly gave us that.
Wayne acted again for "The Green Berets" but his magic couldn't make that war (Viet Nam) palatable. Viet Nam brought the process of deconstruction squarely into the forefront.
"The End of Victory Culture" is a book that is an autopsy of a once-vital American myth, the cherished belief that triumph over a less-than-human enemy was in the American grain, a birthright and a national destiny. The deconstruction began with Hiroshima. Viet Nam awakened my generation to the staggering tragedy of war, how it is senseless to weave any myths from it.
But surely there were myths in the 1960s, eagerly ingested by all too many of the teeming boomer boys. Yes, it was a male phenomenon. Can you imagine girls being fans of "Sgt. Rock?"
We had the "Combat!" TV show which aired at the height of the mythology, from 1962 to 1967. The exclamation point was presented as a bayonet! We saw the grim lives of a squad of American soldiers fighting the Germans in France. Rick Jason starred as platoon leader 2nd Lt. Gil Haney, and Vic Morrow as Sgt. "Chip" Saunders. This was TV's longest-running World War II drama: 152 hour-long episodes. The last season was "in color."
Guest stars of significance passed through, several of whom hadn't gained fame yet (like Ted Knight and Frank Gorshin).
Many boys my age played with WWII-inspired toys. An example might be a plastic hand grenade operating on "caps" (as used with "cap guns"). I remember TV commercials for a board game called "Hit the Beach." Can you imagine? Can you imagine a game like this being palatable after "Saving Private Ryan?" But back then it was the days when the "Victory Culture" mythology circulated, and WWII veterans apparently chose to stay quiet. WWII vets stayed quiet about a lot of things, including the misbehavior of their kids.
"Hit the Beach" was a WWII Pacific campaign game. Players are in a race with each other to reach the final objective: the main Japanese headquarters. The Japanese defense forces, made up of 14 gamepieces, are obstacles for all players. Hoo boy, each player has six pieces: two Marines, two infantry, one Naval landing support ship and one strategic air support aircraft.
Imagine, all this sobering stuff as part of a board game. And all the while we're reading "Sgt. Rock."
Viet Nam brought all this imagery down to the miserable level where it belongs. CNN's Wolf Blitzer says as part of his objective reporting that Viet Nam was a war that "America lost." NBC's Brian Williams reported objectively that Viet Nam was "a colossal mistake" by the U.S. The architect was a fellow named McNamara, once described by JFK as "the smartest man I ever met."
I have heard the same kind of compliment directed at Ben Bernanke, head of our Federal Reserve. Heaven help our economy.
"War is hell," as General Sherman once said, albeit in a paraphrase. Movies and comic books are odd places to acknowledge it.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org