Friday, January 22, 2016

Good God, Y'all! Bring Us a War!

More than a decade before I received my draft notice during the Vietnam War, Hollywood was busy programming my psyche for the big moment. Maybe their intention was simply to make millions selling entertainment to a grateful, relieved nation, still craving cinematic celebrations of escaping the evil clutches of the Demonic Triad: Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini (our generation's Snoke, Kylo Ren and Darth Vader). But in the process, they might as well have laced our polio vaccinations with a testestoronic cocktail that would blossom into a relentless desire to become patriotic warriors  -- for a while, anyway.

So Hollywood is where we'll start a reminiscence of the crappiest mail day of my life.

All those American World War II movies I saw as a kid in the late 1950s and early '60s -- what did they teach me?

They taught me that war might be hell, but it was a glorious one. 

And speaking of hell, they might've caused me, for the first time in my life, to understand the conditional or selective or relative nature of religion. My ethos had been pretty much defined by Southern Baptist teachings by then, so I would've already memorized and taken to heart the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus.

So I knew "thou shalt not kill," "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," "love thy enemy," "turn the other cheek" and "blessed are the peacemakers." I'd also seen Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (about which I hope to write a separate piece), and saw how the commandments came to be and what God sounded like when he inscribed them in a fantastic way on the side of a mountain. (He sounded like a 45-rpm recording of Charlton Heston's voice played at 33-rpm.)

When I saw so many people getting killed in that film, I sort of let it go, because I had already learned not to hold biblical standards too tightly to the standards of literary realism. There was so much killing and looting approved by God in the Old Testament (which my dad read aloud to me almost nightly), a sensitive little guy like me had little choice but to accept it as art that was not to be taken literally. How else could I look forward to a life wandering around on a planet where its Creator might at any time choose to smite the snot out of me and my family?

But in those WWII films (in which God tended to play a less significant role, in fact, rarely showing up except for those times when a strategically placed bible kept a Jap bullet from killing Corporal Johnson from Arkansas), I saw regular old non-King-James-English-speaking men shooting each other like hunters peppering a covey of quails with bird-shot. And they did it with no remorse and with no one in the movie or the theater yelling out "Hey! Thou shalt not kill! You're going to hell for that! I'm telling! God sees everything!"
"We sure picked the wrong slaves to pursue this time!"

So lesson learned: "Thou shalt not kill, more or less. But when someone threatens your country, you can shoot their sorry selves, and you won't be charged with it."

And, of course, I also watched western movies, so: "Thou shalt not kill unless you're trying to turn a huge continent into the new Promised Land or the new Eden or the City on the Hill, and you're slowed down by an indigenous population who, never having invited you in the first place, are now trying, in their primitive way of communicating, to kill you." 

So killing in war was like scoring points in basketball, and war, too, was a team game, so you had plenty of guy buddies, even Yankees, that you initially didn't like, but with whom you eventually bonded, so much so that when the Krauts blew up Petrocelli with a hand grenade, you actually cried and tried to give him a final drag on your cigarette before he took his last breath. Then you'd go all Achilles on Jerry (slang for Germans) and wipe out an entire squadron as payback for the death of a guy you couldn't stand back in boot camp.

"Thou shalt not kill," my ass! Killing could be a good thing. The audience cheered. And the young guys in the theater, hopped up on Zero candy bars and Pepsi and having adjusted their respective moral codes (except for the psychopaths, of course), became impatient for their own time to come around at last, so they too could demonstrate their love for the United States -- which didn't even include Hawaii or Alaska, for crying out loud -- in a savagely violent but socially acceptable way.

The weird moral moratorium on "Thou shalt not kill" spread like the plagues of Egypt over other issues. Amputations, for example, became a sign of heroism, and not a massive inconvenience for the amputee. Young men dying was not tragic, because they were soldiers and their deaths led to a good thing, an American victory. 

In an eerie, subliminal, insidious way, this cinematically sanitized red-white-and-blue view made these fathers, brothers and sons expendable. Anyway, they would soon return as the names of streets and field-houses and parks and such. And poor Billy from a Wisconsin dairy farm, who was run over by a tank, is now up there with the angels, smiling down on the country whose freedom he protected. 

All of it, all the butchering and martyring and dismembering, was not only okay, it was good. God looked at it, and saw that it was good.
It's just a movie, John.

All of this I learned, not from history or any detailed knowledge of what that bastard Hitler was up to, but from some of the lousiest, cheesiest, phoniest movies ever made. My dad, who served during that war, but avoided combat because he was blind in one eye, couldn't stand most of them, not for moral reasons, but for their inauthenticity. People didn't talk out loud in theaters back then, but he would lean over and whisper to me, "That is not how you salute," "You don't salute sergeants," "You can't hit nothing holding a weapon like that," and so on.

And he would never go see WWII movies that featured John Wayne because it steamed my dad's onions that "the Duke" could basically replace George Washington as the father of our country without ever serving it, never squeezing a trigger with his faux heroic index finger.

But boys my age gobbled it all up like candy. We had not seen Rashomon yet (God forbid! It was Japanese), so we didn't know movies could "lie." And the few movies that tried to depict the numerous obstacles of transitioning from combatant to civilian were nothing young boys would go see. The finest of them, The Best Years of Our Lives, came out in 1946, a bit before our time, and we would've never sat through all three hours of it anyway.

Murphy was both an actor and genuine war hero.
We only digested the romanticized guts'n'glory part of war. And, like fried chicken and biscuits, once digested it became part of us. We longed for it, craved those green helmets and the heroic burden of machine guns, belts of ammo, a canteen -- even as we saw in real life a veteran with his wooden leg, another with paralyzed legs who got around with those shiny crutches that clasp your arms, a teacher who had a colostomy bag, and many men with thousand-yard stares before we'd ever heard of the term.

Primed by the endless fare of sanitized Victory Parades, we lived our little insignificant snotty-nosed lives and waited for the next war.

By God, we would be ready, and we would answer the call.
We sure didn't see this coming.


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