[In honor of Veterans’ Day, a series on cultural and historical engagements with this important American community. Please share your suggestions for veterans’ texts and contexts for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On nostalgia and nuance in one of our best recent representations of war.
I’ve written before, in this post on images and representations of World War II, about historian Michael Kammen’s categories of remembrance and commemoration: the former an attempt to capture the past with more accuracy and complexity; the latter a more simplified and celebratory representation of history. Particularly interesting, I’d say, are the cultural texts that seem to include both types, and it’s in that category that I’d put Steven Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998)—the film opens with the famous extended D-Day sequence that is absolutely gripping in its realistic depictions of the battle in all its chaos and horror, a section that exemplifies genuine remembrance of such a historic event; but then the film segues into a larger narrative that, while still featuring realistic battle sequences, feels far more driven by various war-film cliches and commemorative ideals.
Spielberg’s follow up World War II work, produced along with his film’s star Tom Hanks, was the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (2001). From its title and famous promotional image on, the miniseries certainly reflects a deeply commemorative perspective on the men of Easy Company and, through them, on World War II soldiers and the Greatest Generation to which they belonged. Like Ryan, the series is unsparing in its depictions of the violence and horrors of war; but outside of one peripheral character, the company’s over-the-top and ultimately unfit-for-battle training officer (played to crazy perfection by David Schwimmer), its portrayals of the soldiers are overtly and consistently celebratory. And one of the series’ most unique and effective touches—the choice to begin each episode with interviews with the surviving Easy Company veterans whose characters are represented onscreen—would seem to add one more compelling layer to those celebratory depictions.
But in fact I would argue the opposite: that the veterans’ interviews tend to comprise the series’ most nuanced remembrances of the war and its histories. The men talk openly and frequently, for example, about fear and exhaustion and apathy and other less-than-ideal emotions, reminding us that these were not Hollywood heroes but simply average young men thrust into an often horrifying and always uncertain world. And particularly striking are the group of interviews in which the veterans talk about Nazi soldiers, recognizing that they were similarly young and scared and human, and reflecting on what was asked of each group (to try to kill each other, to put it bluntly). Like the similarly striking choice to include in the series’ final episode a speech delivered to his men by a surrendering German general, these veterans’ perspectives complicate the kind of good vs. evil narratives that are necessary for pure commemoration, and remind us that remembrance of the war—any war—includes the histories and stories of all the involved nations and communities.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other stories or images you’d share for the weekend post?
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