With Memorial Day approaching, I've been thinking about war.
What is it good for?
I have been lucky enough never to have fought in a war. (I got a high number in the famous Draft Lottery of 1969, and so was never called to go to Vietnam.) But my father Lester Robinson served as a sergeant in the Army during World War II. He fought in the Pacific – in New Guinea and the Philippines. He got sick before I could get all his Army stories out of him, but I know that he hated the Army. He hated the stupidity, the inefficiency, and the waste. Not to mention the death. I still have his dog tags hanging in my office
So what is war good for? There seems to be no cure for it.
According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, there are four major wars currently going on in the world (the Boko Haram insurgency, the Iraq War, the Syrian Civil War, and the War in Afghanistan) and ten "minor" ones (the Libyan Civil War, the Mexican Drug War, the Sinai insurgency, the South Kordofan conflict, the South Sudanese Civil War, the PKK rebellion, the War in Donbass, the War in North-West Pakistan, the War in Somalia, and the Yemeni Crisis).
There is some dispute over the exact number, but the United States has been at war for about 93% of its existence: 222 out of 239 years. The only five-year period that we haven't been in some kind of war since the founding of the Republic was 1935-40. And for some of that time, we were gearing up for World War II.
Jimmy Carter is the only American president of the twentieth century who never sent troops into armed conflict. Mention that the next time someone makes fun of Jimmy Carter.
So what is war good for?
The only answer I can come up with is that you can make art out of it. Some great works have come out of the suffering and death of war. So I'd like to mention three works that made something wonderful out of something horrible.
GUERNICA by Pablo Picasso
I grew up seeing this great painting often at the Museum of Modern Art in New York before it was returned to Spain in 1981. I spent a lot of time at MOMA when I was a teenager, especially when I was a freshman at Columbia. I would go there all the time for movies, etc., to get out of my dorm, and I was always sure to see Guernica, Starry Night, and the Monet waterlillies.
The power and beauty of Picasso's one and only large-scale painting moved me deeply as it has millions of others, who see it now at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. Like most great paintings, it works as a whole and in its individual sections. Standing 11 feet 5 inches high and 25 feet 6 inches wide, Guernica makes immediate, visceral impact. The large mural shows a scene of suffering and chaos during war. Using only black, white, and gray, Picasso creates a complex world of violence against people, animals, and the material world.
Then you see the individual atrocities: a woman grieves over a dead child in her arms, menaced by a bull ... a horse dies an agonizing death, with a huge wound in his side ... a dismembered soldier lies under the horse ... a figure is entrapped by fire ... a frightened woman floats into the room to witness the destruction ... hands are disfigured by stigmata ... in the dark of night, the world seems to be exploding. Picasso orchestrates the horror, making it terrifying present as if the entire world of war could invade one room and explode it.
Painted in 1937 by Picasso in response to the German and Italian bombing of the Basque village of Guernica that Franco's Spanish Nationalists requested, Guernica became a symbol of antiwar, anti-fascist sentiment, the whole world over. Picasso refused to allow the painting to enter Spain until Franco was gone and that country embraced "public liberties and democratic institutions." And indeed, the painting was not ceded by MOMA to Spain until 1981, six years after Franco's death.
As the writer Alejandro Escalona said, "Guernica is to painting what Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is to music: a cultural icon that speaks to mankind not only against war but also of hope and peace."
One look at Guernica, and you know all you need to know about war. Ever. That's genius.
A nice documentary on "Guernica"
A good close look at "Guernica"
"Guernica" in 3D!!!
DISPATCHES by Michael Herr
I'm not a particular fan of war, but I find that I have read quite a few "war novels." WAR AND PEACE, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, CATCH-22, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, SLAUGHTER-HOUSE-FIVE, JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN, THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, etc.
But other than the Tolstoy, the writing that has brought the feeling of war closest to me is Michael Herr's DISPATCHES. Herr's 1977 masterpiece isn't a novel, but it has virtually everything that I love in a novel: ultra-exciting writing, a created world, brilliant observations, humor, tension, momentum, etc. Herr was Esquire magazine's correspondent in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. His articles were always fascinating, and when he came out with his big book, it exploded on the literary scene.
John Le Carre called it "the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time." Both Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick wanted to get some of Herr's magic into their Vietnam epics, and indeed Herr contributed to the screenplays of both Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.
Herr never published much after DISPATCHES. He wrote a biographical novel about Walter Winchell that I've never been after to hunt down and a few other things.
Maybe this was a one-shot masterpiece. (As Herr said, "I went to cover the war and the war covered me.") But who cares? He's guaranteed his immortality with this great book.
When I read DISPATCHES, I think, "This must be what the experience was actually like." That might be the highest compliment I can give to any piece of writing.
Why Michael Herr went to Vietnam as a reporter
Michael Herr – in the heart of darkness – if war is so bad, why do people keep doing it?
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE by John Ford
I've already blogged about two of my other favorite "war movies" – THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (BLOG #86 – WHEN THE VETS CAME HOME: 1946, HOLLYWOOD'S SECOND GREATEST YEAR) and PATHS OF GLORY (BLOG #103 – THE OSCARS – WINNERS AND LOSERS) – but I can always blog about John Ford, my favorite director and, by consensus, the "greatest director of all time." (A record four Best Director Oscars, the very first American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, Presidential Medal of Freedom, etc.)
Released in 1945, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE was the first Hollywood film that Ford made after he served in the U.S. Navy making documentaries. He made four documentaries, the most famous of which is "The Battle of Midway." Ford was in the middle of one of the great "hot streaks" that any director has ever enjoyed. From 1939 to 1949, he made at least seven masterpieces (STAGECOACH, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, FORT APACHE, and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON), and I'm not including THEY WERE EXPENDABLE on that list. THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is only very, very good.
It is the story of the PT boats ('PT' stands for 'patrol torpedo') and the disasterous defeat of the US Navy in the Battle of Phillipines. It starred John Wayne, Robert Montgomery and Donna Reed. Because the film was released just as the war ended, it had to be re-cut and what was a vengeful afterword became a peaceful and forgiving prologue. The film's power is somewhat compromised by this re-framing, but there are still scenes with the inimitable Ford magic: scenes of love and comradeship ... gorgeous long-shots and brilliant movement within the frame ... scenes of devotion and sacrifice ... the loving appreciation of the details of everyday life.
Like most Ford movies, it champions the average guy. In this case, the average sailor. As one of them says, "We little guys, the ones who are expended – never get to see the broad picture of the war, never find out the reasons back of the moves or failure to move. We only see our part – look up through the palm trees at the seamy side of it."
It makes me think of my father, fighting in the Pacific, trying to get home alive.
Even if it's not the most famous Ford, it's still a wonderful movie and the perfect choice for Memorial Day viewing.
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE – the original trailer
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE – the very end
and a few other goodies
Edwin Starr – "War" – the original
Bruce Springsteen – "War" – live 1986 – (the song starts at 2:12)
Bob Dylan – "Masters of War" – scorching live version
Phil Ochs – "I Ain't Marching Anymore" – live – I saw Phil twice. Great talent; another sad story.