In this post on Abu Muqawama, Ex seems to agree: war movies are about entertainment, even though they're always going to miss a few details.
But I do not understand my fellow Iraq veterans complaining the Hurt Locker isn't realistic enough. When did war movies suddenly have to be realistic? Did Blackhawk Down start this? Was it the bank robbery scene in Heat? The reason I say this is that one of my best childhood friends was walking through a Walgreens in Nashville, passed a $9 DVD Double Feature of Kelly's Heroes and the Dirty Dozen and immediately thought, correctly, "Oh, man, this would make Ex's year if I bought this and sent it to him." Now there is very little that is realistic about either movie, but c'mon, they are surely two of the greatest war movies ever.The comment thread there is interesting, as it covers a wide range of views: Ex is right, movies are entertainment; Ex is wrong, war movies should get the war parts right; and basically everything in between. Like I said before, I don't have a really strong opinion about this, but as a historian I suppose I trend towards favoring realism and authenticity.
So it was with great interest that I read this op-ed from yesterdays online Times. It was authored by Michael Jernigan, an Iraq vet who was severely wounded in Mahmoudiya. Jernigan isn't so much concerned with whether war movies are realistic or unrealistic (though he does say that he "saw a lot of reality" in "The Hurt Locker"), but rather with the entire genre's fundamental theme: that there is something commendable or positive about war. I'm going to excerpt the article at length here, because I think it helps you to understand Jernigan's criticism.
While I agree that "taking our money by walking on their graves" is a bit "extreme," it's hard to ignore the kernel of truth in what Jernigan says: war movies, at least in some part, are profiting by offering to viewers a tiny slice of some imagined simulacrum of war, a taste of what it's like "being there" without any of the downsides. Sure, a lovable character might die, or the mission might go bad, but at the end the lights come on and you can walk away. Jernigan didn't just walk away.
Later in the deployment my Humvee was hit by a large I.E.D. I had my forehead crushed in, lost both eyes, had to have my right hand fully reconstructed and took severe damage to my left knee. One buddy lost a foot; one of the others took shrapnel to the forehead but lived; one took superficial shrapnel wounds to the arm and one of my best friends died.
On a later deployment to Iraq that I did not go on, I lost three more friends to I.E.D.’s. One of them was the Navy Corpsman (Marine medic) who saved my life on the battlefield back in Mahmudiya. I have a tattoo over my left breast (where my heart is) that says “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps motto. It is Latin for “Always Faithful” and refers to always accomplishing the mission. Around the “Semper Fidelis” are four names. “Thompson,” “Belchik,” Cockerham” and “Hodshire.” All great guys that I would let date my sister.
“The Hurt Locker” and all the other movies I mentioned, whether they are good or bad as entertainment, are still war movies and war movies glorify the acts of violence that I described above. How do you feel about that? Would you bring your children out to the battlefield to witness it live and in person? There is no happy ending. Kelly does not get the gold, Stryker does not make it to the top of Mount Suribachi and 8-Ball gets cut down by a sniper. Please remember that when you watch a war movie you are watching stories about young Americans who went far from home and risked their lives; some of them died there with only their brothers in arms to witness. Hollywood is now taking our money by walking on their graves.
Maybe that’s extreme. Of course I understand why people watch war movies. I watch them, too. But I have seen my friends die and most of the movies just bring up very painful memories.
It's almost certainly true that modern war movies, with more realistic effects and less societal censure for graphic violence, do a better job of at least hinting at the horror of war. "Saving Private Ryan," for example, does a better job of showing exactly how much it sucks to be an infantryman than did "Patton" or "A Bridge Too Far." Is that an improvement, or just an indulgence in the fantasy that anyone who's not been there can ever really understand just exactly how much it does suck?
It's probably not fair to suggest that these are two ends of a spectrum of opinion about war movies, because Exum and Jernigan are really answering two different questions. So do you think that the makers of war movies have a responsibility to authenticity, to exposing the awful realities of war and whatnot? To convince young people that war isn't fun, and that soldiering isn't a great adventure?
Answering these questions isn't really about movies, I don't suppose, but about morality: even in a world that needs soldiers, and that knows it needs soldiers, do writers, filmmakers, and other entertainers have some responsibility to create art that refuses to glorify war? Would it even be effective if they did? After all, we've had Stephen Crane and Robert Service and so on, and "Platoon" and "The Thin Red Line" and "Dances With Wolves" and others that make it clear that war's no picnic. But there will always be Virgil and Tennyson and John 15:13. And what about art for its own sake? Should we be similarly critical of literature and film that deals with drug abuse, or murder, or suicide?
Take a look at the AM thread and the Times piece and let us know what you think about this stuff. This is one of those rare instances where I don't have a firm, calcified opinion on the issue at hand, so take advantage!
Relatedly, here's Thomas Rid's "Great Films on Small Wars" post from Kings of War a couple of weeks ago. I should probably be embarrassed to admit I've only seen four of them.