In 1930, Lewis Milestone’s stunning All Quiet on the Western Front overwhelmed audiences with its stark visions of combat in the trenches of World War I. In 1998, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan brought the grizzly horrors of D-Day to the screen for all of us to ponder. Lined up between them are hundreds of movies in which violence and agony, patriotism and bravery are mustered in representations of one of our sorriest achievements: warfare. From John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) to Charlie Sheen in Platoon (1986), the heroism of American servicemen has stirred our hearts and minds. Meanwhile, Ernest Borgnine in From Here to Eternity (1953) and Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now (1979) were there to remind us of the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.
With the release of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, an extended re-enactment of the catastrophic 1993 events in Mogadishu, Somalia, it seemed a fitting time for a freewheeling discussion.
The panel that we assembled consisted of:
Sidney High, from the City of Detroit’s Department of Environmental Affairs. He was a U.S. Army sergeant in the 1990 Gulf War, in charge of water supply to a prisoner of war camp.
Chris Jaszczak, who runs the Detroit art space 1515 Broadway in Detroit and is director of operations for Events Services Inc., coordinating some of the largest public events on the planet, from papal appearances to rock concerts. He was a U.S. Marine Corps corporal in Vietnam.
And James Keith La Croix, who writes about film for Metro Times and works as an EMS paramedic in Detroit. He says, “The closest I ever got to war was auditioning once for Full Metal Jacket.”
We saw Scott’s film and then viewed the CNN Perspectives TV special, “Somalia: Black Hawk Down,” a documentary account of the events in Mogadishu (based on Mark Bowden’s work for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which became the book Black Hawk Down and Scott’s source material). The CNN special presented considerable background information missing from the movie, including events — such as a deadly missile attack on a Somali clan — that could be seen as stirring up the hornet’s nest that the city of Mogadishu would soon become for American forces.
Metro Times: Will people learn anything from Black Hawk Down?
High: Typically, when people go to the movies, they want to feel good. And without knowing what happened prior to this one day (in terms of the previous air strikes), we come away thinking that Americans were just trying to do their jobs, and A) people didn’t appreciate it and you didn’t know why; and B) they were hostile. I just came away from the movie not understanding the anger.
La Croix: In film terms, it sutures us into the perspective of white middle-class America. It’s the same rhetoric that you hear all the time here: “Wow, we’re doing everything for these people in the ghetto. And what do they do in L.A.? They riot. What do they do when the lights go out in New York? They riot. We’re giving these people welfare and all this stuff and they’re just killing each other like animals.” It just seems like the filmmakers took that rhetoric — in almost like a sleight of hand — and they just stuck it in another country, but it’s still in a black context.
High: You commit a disservice when you don’t give the whole story. I’m not in the heads of the director or the writers, so I don’t understand why they did it.
Metro Times: What, if anything, is missing from this film?
High: The CNN report filled in some gaps. From the movie I understood the Americans’ position and why they began the endeavor, but I never understood the anger of the Somali people toward Americans from the movie.
La Croix: Whenever you have an event, or events, it’s kind of like the uncarved block of what you make of them creatively. When you think of the information that we just saw on the CNN video — the book itself is about 400 pages, so that’s impossible to boil down to even an epic film — but you think, “Why did the screenwriter and the director and the producer make the choices that they made, to carve what they carved out of that block?” Because what they carved out was this kind of humanitarian mission — they kind of alluded that the U.N. troops were bad guys and they just showed these crazed Somalis … We were seeing everything from the eyes of the Americans.
Jaszczak: To make an analogy, let’s imagine that the story that needs to be told is 8,000 frames, if we’re going to use film as the unit of measurement. What we saw were 80 frames, and they weren’t the beginning or the end. They were at some point in the middle of it. You can watch those 80 frames over and over again, and be affected by them, but there’s no context, all the stuff that led up to it. The captions that ran at the beginning very briefly set the stage but didn’t go into any detail, the why of it. Why were the Marines there who left before [Mohamed Farrah] Aidid attacked? The film points out the anomaly of the Somalis attacking us and all we want to do is feed them, but that’s way simplistic and isn’t accurate. I’m still not clear on what actually precipitated it. I know that the immediate history was that 24 Pakistani UN soldiers were killed and the murderers were alleged to be members of Aidid’s clan. That’s what prompted our action. We wanted to snatch Aidid, because they were now killing U.N. soldiers. Simplistically put, that was the mission. That’s part of my problem, because I don’t understand what led up to that.
Not only is there no context, there’s no character development, not individuals or even “the Aidid clan.” If you don’t define the individuals in the army, at least define the cause, at least give us a sense of what it is they’re fighting for.
Metro Times: So what are the American people being given in this movie?
High: Propaganda. … It’s true that the humanitarian effort was there, but other than from the CNN report you didn’t get any idea that there was any bad judgment by the U.N. or the U.S. in terms of their efforts over there, but it turns out there was … They obviously underestimated the Somali capabilities and will, and that led to the catastrophe.
Metro Times: In Scott’s film, you can pick up a sense of the bravery of the Somalis, that they were really motivated, although you didn’t know why. These people were just determined to get the American troops out of their city. So the only conclusion that the film leaves you with is that they’re maniacs, wild people. And since the U.S. force that went into Mogadishu was painted as essentially all-white …
La Croix: In reality there were only two black Americans in the entire force.
Metro Times: … it was like the white cavalry against the crazy black Apaches. It was just another racist war.
High: I came away with the same feeling. The Somalis had all this anger. I know they were motivated. I guess when you’re at home you have more to lose, you have more will to defend your space. And while I’m sure they appreciated the food and the humanitarian effort, I don’t think they appreciated the political intrusion on their country. After the raids on Aidid’s clan that led to many deaths, middle-of-the-road people became extremists, fanatical.
Metro Times: When we take a film that’s two-and-a-half hours long, and roughly 30 minutes of it are used for character introduction and two hours of it turn out to be a battle, you wonder what the purpose of that is.
Jaszczak: That’s how the movie excels. If you go to see Black Hawk Down thinking that you’re going to be enlightened about anything except the reality of conflict, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s a great film in terms of conveying the visceral aspect of it.
La Croix: Just under the surface, you get into the implications of these actions. I think it was Albert Schweitzer who said, “I think of the African as my brother.” But they often leave out the end of that quote: “… albeit my backward little brother.” And there’s the implication behind this film: “You know, these are backward black folks, and look, they can’t even feed themselves. They’ve got this warlord mentality.” It’s not very much different than, say, a thousand years ago with the Crusades: “These are infidels; they’re heathens; they don’t know Jesus Christ. We’ve got to either give them Christ or kill them.” It’s that mentality that these people are backward. Did we have that same mentality when we went to Bosnia? I don’t know if we did. The question is, is this a racial thing? Is the military looking at countries with brown faces and saying, “Well, look, they evidently can’t do for themselves.” One interesting thing in Bowden’s book is that he says that the clan system worked, but because it didn’t look like democracy, Americans came in and said, “Oh, my God, what are you people doing? You’ve got these guys with these factions of power, and they’re killing people to maintain power.”
Metro Times: What is the one scene or image from Black Hawk Down that you’ll remember for a long time?
High: The scene where the soldier just fell from the helicopter, when they were initially deploying and he missed the rope and fell. It just showed, with all the training that goes on, that things happen and nothing’s perfect. The plan was supposed to be a 30-minute operation; it did not go 30 minutes. With all the training and technology … a simple accident like that — and he’s probably done it hundreds of times. (They train and train day and night.) It shows that things can happen.
La Croix: The things that stick out to me are the ones that seem just a little surreal. The image of that donkey cart going down the street and this donkey just keeps reappearing. All of these people are being killed and this donkey is just unscathed, walking through this firefight.
Metro Times: Ridley Scott thinks of Black Hawk Down as an anti-war movie. Do you agree with that?
La Croix: In some respects. In the end, it just seems like senseless slaughter.
High: It comes out anti-war, but when you give half-truths, I still think you do a disservice. Americans are smart enough to accept our faults and accept what we do right at the same time. And here you don’t give them a chance to do that. It’s just treating someone like a kid: “Hey, this is all you can handle. You can’t handle the truth.” In the CNN report, it said that Pakistan agreed to help immediately, but in the movie it sounds like the Americans had to strong-arm the Pakistanis to get them to act. If that’s one distortion, it makes you wonder what else has been distorted in the movie.
La Croix: I didn’t really feel that the Somalis were so much the bad guys … You had these forces that were pitted against each other, but the ones who really came off as the bad guys were the U.N. You get these blue helmets with no faces — and when they do have a face, it’s a Pakistani face, like the guy driving the troop carrier who’s just rude. He’s like the “Seinfeld” soup Nazi: “No soup for you.”
Metro Times: If you were a young man of 18 or 19, would Black Hawk Down give you pause about going off to war?
Jaszczak: There’s something about — I don’t know if it’s being patriotic or jingoistic — when what’s being portrayed is losing, if you lose gallantly, it makes people want to go and enlist. It’s the good cause. But I don’t think you leave Black Hawk Down with any sense of it being a good cause or a bad cause. Although in the prologue, the film tries to tie it in generally with the famine, so I suppose we’re supposed to look at that as the cause. And it is one that the politicos have given as the only reason we were there.
Metro Times: Sidney, you were in the Gulf War in 1990. What was your job over there?
High: I was attached to an EPW [enemy prisoner of war] camp, one of three camps set up there during the war. The whole experience was interesting. I got a chance to see how Islam was practiced in the Middle East. I got a chance to go into Kuwait and see the devastation that took place, see the oil wells on fire …
We had two sets of prisoners, the regular army and what was called the Royal Guard. They were separated within the prison, because the Guard were the hard-line troops and more fanatical, and then you had some people who had been either drafted or pulled into this business who really didn’t see any reason for the fight. And they would actually want to fight each other. You came away feeling that some of these people had been forced into this, that really their heart wasn’t into it.
I think we learned a lot from the Vietnam War, and were concerned about American casualties … which is why we bombed the Iraquis night after night, day after day, before we even engaged them on a man-to-man basis with ground troops … The psychology of us providing the prisoners with three meals a day, after they’d been dug into bunkers and were being bombed day after day after day … they really weren’t trying to escape. It was like, “These guys are feeding us three times a day; we have access to showers and water.” When you’ve been sitting and being bombed every day, feeling the earth shake up under you and you’re maybe 10 miles from where the bombs are actually falling, you can imagine if you’re right there at ground zero and hearing this day in and day out for months before you’re captured. People were turning themselves in, so we really didn’t have too many disturbances in the camp. In fact, we had an incident when one of our towers fell over into the camp, a guard fell into the compound with the prisoners with his machine gun, and they helped him up and gave him his gun back. They were happy to be fed and safe, and no one was being mistreated, from what I saw. They were treated with respect. You talked to them and found out that people are people. Some could speak English and some couldn’t, but you never lost sight that these were human beings, at least I didn’t.
Metro Times: What did the film Three Kings (1999) have to say to you with regard to your experience in the Gulf War?
High: I look at it as Hollywood … but I don’t think there was anybody with any decision-making power on that film making sure that the Arabs were being portrayed in a dignified manner. I didn’t really connect with the movie. I looked at it more as entertainment, as a comedy, as opposed to some meaningful, fact-based movie.
La Croix: I have a friend from Yemen who went to see Rules of Engagement  and he was completely incensed at that movie. He said, “Man, if you didn’t know anything about Yemen, you’d just think it’s this patch of sand with some Bedouins with trigger fingers. You know, we’ve got cites. We’ve got public transportation. We have a life; it may not be a First World life, but then again it’s not a Third World life either.” Again, it’s like the filmmakers made them the Indians. “We just became these savages with AKs, and the U.S. Army was forced to do what they had to do.”
Metro Times: Has there ever been another movie based on the Gulf War?
La Croix: That’s an interesting question, because there hasn’t, and why? When you think about it, within less than 10 years of Vietnam, we had a glut of movies — Apocalypse Now , The Deer Hunter  etc. — and now we’re more than 10 years away from Desert Storm and there’s one movie made about it. [Ed. note: A reader later reminded us that there is indeed another Gulf War movie: Courage Under Fire (1996), with Meg Ryan, Denzel Washington and Matt Damon.] From what I hear it was a cartoonish comedy. What’s up with that?
Metro Times: James, you know another guy who participated in the Gulf War. What was his experience like?
La Croix: His detail was graves and registration, so his job was basically mopping up after the conflict, you know tag the bodies and put them in body bags. One of the things that I remember him relating was the degree of devastation that these weapons left. He found a troop carrier that was hit by some kind of missile — there was one side of the vehicle left, everything else was gone. And the only thing that they found, human remains-wise, was a spinal column and two testicles.
High: I saw the devastation along the roads, where there were tank turrets just blown totally off. You can just imagine, everything in it was just charred. The bodies were removed from there by the time I came through, but just like looking at a bad car accident, you could say, “No one survived that.” For the most part, the Iraqi tanks were old Russian models from maybe the Korean War. They didn’t have a chance.
Metro Times: So it looks like the wars of the future will involve more and more technology, less and less human risk.
La Croix: That’s the way people want it, don’t they? Isn’t that the win-win situation? People have often made the joke that this new generation of kids with their Play Stations is being trained to fight the next war with joysticks. You just sit in some command center with radio-controlled planes and armament and just light people up. That seems to be where it’s going. We want to have our cake and eat it too — we want to fight the war, but we don’t want any of our guys to get hurt.
Metro Times: The first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan shows the average viewer a picture of war that most people hadn’t seen before. At the time that it came out, it seemed like those images were profoundly sympathetic and humanistic, like, “We want to show what war’s really like; we wouldn’t want this to happen to anybody.” But when we compare that to Black Hawk Down, can we say the same thing, that we wouldn’t want to put you in this situation?
La Croix: It was a double bind in Black Hawk Down. If Ridley Scott intended to make an anti-war movie, maybe he only half succeeded, because, like in Saving Private Ryan, when you get into this situation and you see metal just flying all around you and stuff exploding, it’s a wonder that anybody could survive …
Metro Times: It’s just dumb luck. It’s not even about being a great soldier.
High: It’s not about heroism. It’s nothing to do with that. It’s just not your time …
La Croix: There’s a certain amount of skill involved as far as seeking cover, etc., but I don’t know how far that skill goes.
High: Those guys are running like crazy. They don’t really know that where they’re running is a safe zone. They’re just running for cover. They could be running right into it and really not know. In Kuwait, when those Scuds were coming in to hit, people were just running anywhere — there was no organization to it. Sirens were going off, so we knew there was an incoming Scud and it was every man for himself. The commander was running, no orders, nothing. You just ran and you didn’t know where you were running to.
Metro Times: What if the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan and the whole last two hours of Black Hawk Down were somehow commercials for technological warfare? Like anti-commercials trying to convince us that “You don’t want to do this anymore, do you? Look at this. Let’s change war so that we don’t have to do this ever again.” They’re not saying that we never want to have war again, but let’s just make it so that our boys never have to go through D-Day again.
La Croix: A lot of the CNN coverage of Desert Storm sounded like commercial rhetoric: “And once again, the surgical-strike capability of the missile takes out the ammo dump, but leaves the hospital next door unscathed.” They might as well have put in a little caption saying, “Our missiles, making life better for you.” It seemed like advertisement for these billion-dollar weapons.
High: There are a lot of good warning commercials out there, but people still use drugs. People go to war over ideology, religion, greed and craziness — and anytime you’re doing it, you don’t picture yourself as the loser, initially. In Black Hawk Down, they pictured a 30-minute mission that in reality lasted 15 hours. Technology has advanced so far, but basic human nature hasn’t advanced much. Some of the customs of Third World countries are more humane and dignified than what you consider in a more technologically advanced country.
La Croix:You could also interpret Black Hawk Down as a pro-war movie, in that the guys in Delta or the Rangers look at war as an extreme sport. Sidney is saying that he went into the army for financial reasons, but you can’t get into the Rangers, and certainly not Delta, by just wanting to have a decent gig. These guys want to fight. They want to be in this situation, the adrenaline, the bullets whistling. That’s their thing. And in a way, this movie is sado-porn. It’s like, “Let’s get in there and see these guys taken apart by this gunfire, by these bombs. Let’s see what this AK does to this body.” It’s almost pornographic in a way.
High: You get a glimpse of that when one of the Rangers says, “We wanted to get involved; we wanted to be engaged.” Of course, he got a little bit more than he expected. He wanted to use his training, but also wanted to control the situation and you can’t control war. You can’t say, “I just want to get in there and see a little bit of it. I want people to get hurt, but none of my side.” You just can’t go in there with that kind of thinking, because that’s not reality.
Metro Times: If you each had to pick your three favorite war movies, of all the ones you’ve ever seen, which would they be and why?
High: Full Metal Jacket , because it’s a renegade movie. I felt the characters in it, people from all walks and backgrounds clumped together, and they developed a bond. When you go to basic training that’s how it is. You come in not knowing the guy next to you — black, white, Latino — and by the time you’re through with your training, this is your guy. You go from not knowing about him or not caring if he’s part of F troop or whatever, and he’s part of your brothers.
The opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan were just graphic. It was an anti-war movie in that regard and gave you a lot to think about. It wasn’t the glamorous John Wayne movie, because war isn’t glamorous.
And I can’t tell you why, but Apocalypse Now is one of my favorites. It was kind of warped, and you can see people losing their sense of humanity, becoming more animalistic, just survival of the fittest. That film was totally different than anything prior to it. It showed more defects in characters who were supposed to be heroes, that these guys are not perfect.
Metro Times: Sidney, did seeing Apocalypse Now before you went into the service affect you in any way, or make you rethink what you were about to do? Did watching that movie change anything in you?
High: I joined up for financial reasons — and that was school. You look at the time since Vietnam … we hadn’t had a war in such a long time … I said, “Hey, I can get in and out of here before anything happens.” You’re really kind of rolling the dice and you go in with a sense of false security. You’re thinking that maybe humanity’s progressed to where war is going to become obsolete, or at least you hope so. I calculated that it wasn’t going to happen — of course, I guessed wrong.
Metro Times: James, which war movies made the biggest impact on you?
La Croix: Apocalypse Now was one of the first movies that really broke down what war was all about. One of my favorite lines in it is when Martin Sheen’s character says, “Trying someone for murder in Vietnam is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” I’ve seen the movie so many times and finally get the sense that Kurtz, Marlon Brando’s character, understood what this war was all about and he just essentialized it and crystallized it into this hard, dark thing. What Kurtz created was the ultimate direction of warfare, and when the military looked at it, it was this horrible reflection that they didn’t want to deal with, because they still wanted to be able to say, “Yeah, we’re John Wayne” and everything. Kurtz was like, “No, we torture and kill them until they give us what we want.”
Then The Deer Hunter really messed me up. I was in tears at the end of it. And the reason was that I saw that movie when I was a junior or senior in high school and it just plagued me that those guys could be my friends. …. I’ve only seen it twice, because I can’t subject myself to it.
And my last one — I was wondering whether to use it or not — is a forgotten movie, Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War . Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn are in this platoon in Vietnam. Penn, after a firefight, rapes and murders a Vietnamese girl and basically everyone in the platoon, except for Fox, is OK with that: “Hey, it’s war — shit happens.” But Fox is like, “No, this is war, but shit doesn’t happen that way.” He stands up and says that just because we’re out here doesn’t mean we suspend all the rules of humanity. Penn represents this force that said, “We’ve walked outside of the grid. There are no lines. All of that morality and ethics and stuff, we left that in the United States. Now if we’re horny, we rape folks. And if people piss us off, we kill ’em.” Fox ends up having his life threatened because he goes over to command to report Penn. And the response he gets is, “It’s Vietnam and …?” It was noteworthy that DePalma showed that in war people go into a different place not just geographically but mentally.
Jaszczak: Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter, all three of those probably more so for me because Vietnam is the experience that’s being related, and that’s my personal experience:
Apocalypse Now because my memories of my experiences, as most people’s memories are, are episodic. The device of the river in that film is a perfect way to tie that all together. There are scenes in Apocalypse Now, as Sheen’s character is making his way up the river, that are page for page out of my memory book. From the absurdity, because we certainly felt the absurdity while we were there.
The Deer Hunter, because every minute that I was there, there was at least some part of my psyche that had to recognize the fact that it could be my last minute alive — just as in the Russian roulette confrontation, every time you spin the cylinder and pull the trigger, it could be the last time. The other thing with regard to Deer Hunter is that I’m first-generation Polish-American. The characters in the film were from this small Slavic-American community and were religious. It related with my demographic, I suppose. The characters in it, some got drafted, some enlisted. It was very much the experience. It was very representational with very believable characters, which made it all the more appalling what happened to each of them. And I knew people who ended up paraplegic, who got lost in the reality of the experience. One day you didn’t see them anymore — they got shipped back. Were they playing Russian roulette? Not necessarily, but I guess there are other forms of Russian roulette.
Full Metal Jacket was almost biographical. It was the Marines — the first half of the film was their basic training, so obviously I went through that. And the second half, the battles that were depicted were the battles that I fought in and it was exactly at the same time that I was there. In a way it was almost (sighs) …
I have a book of photographs taken by Douglas Duncan, who for years was the house photographer for Life magazine. I was wounded in Vietnam in a siege at a place called Khe Sanh, one of the more prominent battles. I remember the first time that I looked at his book and saw the photographs. There was no photograph of me in the book, but when I looked through it, they were all me. I can still feel that orange mud on my hands, the grit, even now. We were under siege for almost two months and it never ended the whole time we were there. We were being shelled constantly — you never stayed out of cover — you ran — that’s how I got hurt was running out for parachuted stuff, because I was a supply guy. I was medivac’d out before the siege ended.
Metro Times: The final scenes of Full Metal Jacket involve searching for a Viet Cong sniper, who turns out to be a young girl. Chris, how did that particular sequence feel to you?
Jaszczak: To answer that question, I have to go back to the circumstances I enlisted under. I wasn’t your typical Marine, if one thinks about gung-ho, trained killer and all of that. I hope people think more of the Marines than just that. And I don’t want to denigrate the training, because I was certainly a trained killer by the time I was done with it.
I graduated from high school in ’65 and went to the University of Michigan for a year. In ’66, the draft was at its peak, the war was a happening thing and the anti-war movement had not coalesced in any real fashion. Me and a couple of guys were close friends in high school — two of us went away to college and the third one unfortunately got drafted. Within a matter of seven-and-a half months, Mike was drafted, trained, sent to Vietnam and we buried him. And the day after the funeral, Skip and I enlisted in the Marine Corps, about three months before my 19th birthday. It had nothing to do with Vietnam in any real sense, it had nothing to do with patriotism, it had everything to do with feeling guilty about the fact that … God, I haven’t thought about this in a long time … but it was very emotional, it even still is after all these years. It was the spin of the bottle, the wheel. Mike was no different than Skip or I — he didn’t catch a lucky break and we did, we both made it through.
From the time I enlisted until when I went in, there was about two months, time to think about what I had done. And it didn’t take me real long to realize that I had questions and certainly those questions were answered while I was over there, enough so that when I got out of the service in ’69 … I was pretty screwed up … I came back and was real uncomfortable. The service was done with me — they’d already used me up and I came out the other end (praise Allah). Eventually I became a member of a fledgling organization of Viet vets against the war, since I felt that strongly about it. People were appalled that there was even such an organization — we were like traitors, double traitors actually: “How could you go and now you’re betraying your brothers?”
But in terms of that scene, with the girl sniper getting shot, I’d already dealt with it. I found the scene representational in a symbolic way: What was significant to me was their cause — it was their country. I can relate to that personally. We’d be on an operation … God, I haven’t thought about this stuff in a long time … an operation could run a month, a month and a half … that’s what the Marines do. They’re confrontational. They’re the first ones in. So we were constantly probing, going into areas. We spent all of our time on their turf. And when we would stop, we’d have to throw up a perimeter, and it’s highly temporary. You dig in, and then you string up barbed wire. What would happen is … and it would be villagers … they could be women, grandpas, they could be kids … they would have explosives strapped onto them and run toward the barbed wire and just throw themselves on it and blow up … not unlike the psyche with suicide bombers now. They called them “sappers.” When your enemy clearly has put a greater value on the cause than their own existence, that’s a profound thing. The scariest person to fight is the one you have to kill, the person who’s not afraid of dying. It reached the point where the enemy could be anybody. But just because the reality was that the enemy could be anybody doesn’t mean that you can treat everybody as the enemy.
Then there’s a whole psychological and social process that takes place, like in Black Hawk Down. The Rangers didn’t call them “people,” “Somalis” or “members of Aidid’s clan.” They called them “skinnies” — they were never alluded to as anything but — they were dehumanized. As we did in World War II: “Japs,” “Krauts,” “Heinies.” Heaven forbid that you humanize them, because then it’s hard to kill them. You don’t expect soldiers to think — you don’t want soldiers to think.
Metro Times: At the beginning of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), there’s this young American soldier who’s meditating on the war — he’s actually a deserter — and he’s caught, brought back and made to fight. The film is like a Buddhist meditation on what humanity is doing to itself and about how men at war are totally terrified, traumatized and, like Sidney said, just trying to find the way out, trying to run to the nearest exit. It portrays a whole company of guys on Guadalcanal who are scared shitless, but when the battle starts somehow they manage to capture a ridge, and with all this luck and explosions, somehow they manage. And what they’ve captured is other human beings, just like them, who are the “bad Japanese.” But Malick manages to make the Japanese seem like human beings, because they’re meditating, suffering and freaking out. But the Americans are not meditating, except this one guy. He’s thinking hard about “What are we doing?”
La Croix: The Thin Red Line reminds me of this James Thurber cartoon — I think it’s called “The Last Flower” — which shows how these armies develop and destroy everything but a flower, one man and one woman. The man starts tending the flower, and then he finds the woman, and soon society is back to normal. But then armies develop and they destroy everything, except one flower, a man and a woman. The setting of The Thin Red Line is this South Pacific paradise — the indigenous people are just looking at the soldiers and are like, “What is with you? We’ve got everything we need and you’re just trying to kill each other.”
Whereas Pearl Harbor  is the ultimate romanticization of war. It’s the ultimate rah-rah film as far as valor and all of the “good things” about war. And the reason I bring it up is because I see some of that stuff in Black Hawk Down. Ridley Scott may have been making an anti-war film, but he may have also made a pro-war film which says, “Look at how those guys are together. They’re a family. Yeah, they’re pinned down, but they’re concerned about each other.” And, yeah, it’s grisly, people get shot, but I wonder how much that will deter or attract people.
In the climate we’re in now, where it’s like, “Let’s go over there and catch that bearded bastard that did this to us,” I’m just wondering how this will play. Will people be like, “Oh, yeah, man, check that out. I’ve got to go down to the recruiter and get in the shit”?
High: Well, you will find some people like that. People join the military for a plethora of reasons.
Metro Times: The ultimate question to ask veterans of combat, maybe, is should war movies be made at all?
Jaszczak: Art has a responsibility to reflect life in all its forms, its ugliest as well as its most beautiful. We need artists to make films about war as long as there is war. The problem becomes — putting it into perspective — when it’s propaganda, when it’s used to manipulate emotions to get people, the masses, to do what you want.
La Croix: Before we finish, I want to read the quote that starts Bowden’s book. It’s by Cormack McCarthy from his novel Blood Meridian: “‘It makes no difference what men think of war,’ said the judge. ‘War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him, the ultimate trade awaiting the ultimate practitioner.’”George Tysh is Metro Times’ arts editor. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.