Sunday, May 27, 2007

Memorial Day Weekend Double Feature, pt 1

Subject: Cinema
Clint Eastwood recently directed a pair of films about the WWII battle for the island of Iwo Jima. "Flags of Our Fathers" was the first, from the point of view of the US veterans of that conflict. "Letters of Iwo Jima" is the more recent 2nd, from the point of view of the Japanese. I'll watch that one tomorrow, but tonight was all about the US side.

The title, and the surrounding narrative, is from the point of view of the generation before me. My father's generation. Their fathers were the ones who actually fought in WWII. "The Greatest Generation" they're now called in popular culture. My dad was a part of those that went to Vietnam, but his father's unit died on a bridge in France during the attempt to take back Europe from the Nazis. My grandfather wasn't on that bridge, however; he died in a hospital in the States just months beforehand. He never actually got to ship out to fight, but the irony was that he died a veteran anyhow. No shame there, but I can only imagine how he felt. My dad made sure that we understood the circumstances, so I can only feel the appropriate reverence in his name.

My mother's uncle, who was my de-facto grandfather (on the account that her father died at an early age as well), is the closest WWII veteran to me. He's a wonderfully interesting man, mayor of the city I was born in througout the '70s, and a best friend to my father. When my father died, he was devestated. My father was a confidant of his, and he was the one one of the few that my uncle was able to tell stories of his days in the war. They were very unpleasant stories, and I haven't been told more than just a few myself via my father. As Eastwood's "Flags" says, the ones who survived just didn't talk about it. They just wanted to forget. And I don't blame them.

My great-uncle's worst experiences were in the European theater during the final stages of that aspect of the war. That I only know a few dramatic tales that my father felt should be passed on. My uncle himself has told a few simple stories about the occupation of Japan, though, where he was shipped off to after everything was over. Nothing particularly out-of-the-ordinary; just a normal soldier doing his duty and wanting to come home.

Eastwood concentrates on the key battle of Iwo Jima. Or, more specifically, the situation "back home" at the time. The way he portrays it, the US is out of war funding, and is trying desperately to raise funds via war bonds, and is more than willing to use whatever half-truths of glory it can from the war in order to facilitate that.

There's a lot of obvious parallel to the current rhetoric around our awful excursion into Irag, and that's unavoidable, but I'd wager you could match it to Vietnam and Korea as well. Essentially, the goverment, and the military itself, will willingly sacrafice the truth in exchange for the opportunity of propaganda that furthers it's interest.

In this case, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, which a photograph became such an iconic event, illustrates just how much lives and truth are sacrificed, because the power of a photograph, no matter how accidental, or how staged, or how compensetory, has on the psychie of the population. Individual heroes who should be remembered are shunted aside in exchange for easier (and perhaps wealthier) pickings. Even in what most Americans would feel is the most justified of wars, our government has done this sort of propagandizing to us.

Never in any way does Eastwood intimate that anyone involved didn't deserve the special treatment they got. He only pokes at the fact that there were others who probably deserved the truth a bit more; or at least their surviving families did. And it wasn't an easy decision. A propaganda effort usually happen due to a greater need. And our history can only judge if the effort was truly worth the price that we paid. Eastwood actually portrays that conflict fairly, though we're left very sympathetic to the truth that contradicts it.

That can't help but be seen in the light of the current administration's effort at propogandizing the Iraq war, and it really calls into contrast the reasoning behind the purpose behind the WWII efforts, and what we're up to now. In fact, it makes the current events look like such a paltry, small thing that it reinforces why we should be embarrassed by it.

In the movie, the effects-shots of the harbor during the invasion showed just how fucking vast, how fucking huge the effort was to take that god-awful sulfuric rock. The losses on both sides during just that one conflict are staggering to contemplate. It's horrific, and it's also real and part of us all and it shouldn't be thought of lightly. I can't even begin to imagine just how terrible it would be to be thrust in the same situation, as much as I'd like to think that I'd do my duty and do what it take in defense of my country. But that implies a trust in leadership and the mission, which I don't think has been justified since those days.

A bit of Eastwood's treatment is ham-handed, sure. A bit overwrought and cliche. There's quite a bit of post-modern warfilm brutality preceding it and it doesn't break any new ground that "Saving Private Ryan" or "Band of Brothers" didn't already cover. But the WWII genre is sacrosant, and there can only be serious consequences for invoking it. Rightly so.

Tomorrow, I'll watch "Letters from Iwo Jima" and hopefully learn something more. It's hard to imagine the Japanese as our enemies anymore, because they most definitely are not. We have so much in common and so much to find admirable. So it's important to realize the lessons of those days where we were so much more driven to be hateful and driven towards seperation because of war, yet find that we're more the same than different. And hopefully, that can help us in our descions regarding those that we all to willingly percieve of as threats, in hopes of having a little empathy and self-identfication, which can only help in the attempt to get through the crisises of this world, instead of letting them boil over into drasticly awful warfare and retribution.

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