Forget Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor from 2001. Forget Richard Fleischer's Tora! Tora! Tora!, an even better film about the December 7, 1941 attack, from 1970. Forget, even, Fahrenheit 9/11. Forget the us-versus-them schlock, the tacked-on romantic subplots flourishing amidst a backdrop of total war, the mean-spirited finger-pointing.
We're searching for the soul of war, here, the combat alma mater that emblazons itself on a soldier's body far more resonantly than does a symbol on a college sweater or high school letterman's jacket. We're searching, here, for JFK's axiomatic orphan of defeat, that crushed kid left disfigured, disheartened, and disavowed by his war experience. We're searching for that guy who actually did save asses in World War II, the guy who landed at Inchon, the guy who traded shots with the NVA across the Mekong. This is our soldier. This, as Americans, is our war. This, as Americans, is our tragedy.
One by one, these are our guys.
Listen. On December 2, 1970, a miserable and rainy night in Manhattan by all accounts, Carnegie Hall was swaying. “A lot of people write songs about wars and government—very social things,” said the performer, “but I think about young guys who were like I was when I was young. I had no more idea about any government or political things or anything. And I think about those kind of young guys now." And he sang:
"I can't write left-handed.
Would you please write a letter to my mother.
Tell her to tell our family lawyer.
Try to get a deferment for my younger brother.
Tell the Rev. Harris to pray for me, Lord.
I ain't gonna live. I don't believe I'm gonna live to get much older."
Bill Withers put himself in the position of a soldier whom the enemy “has done shot in [the] shoulder.” It's a personal account. It's practical. After all, how does a righty write a letter when a Vietcong bullet has suddenly transformed him into a southpaw? How is the family line going to survive with another son conscripted into active duty?
Forget the blood, the entrails, the fibrous ligaments so clingy and prominent in modern war films. Listen to the soldier; his pleas are our own. He is the war, embodied. We relate to him. Michael Bay might show us a dangling hulk of arm to illustrate the pain of war personified by Bill Withers' soldier. Michael Moore might interview a distraught mother and juxtapose it with a fat-and-happy eggnog shot of Barbara Bush at a Crawford Christmas party.
In these cinematic visions, though, the techniques of the filmmakers supersede the stories of the soldiers they're trying to tell. The soldier's humanity, his humility, is suddenly snatched from him. We watch the gore of Bay, the bizarre non sequiturs of Moore, and we're shocked. We've got to end this carnage right now, we think. The shock registers on our faces, roiling our stomachs, pinging our old injuries from high school sports. The filmmakers' shock becomes our own, the war loses its unfiltered rawness, and the soldiers lose their identities.
And we've lost the individual tragedy that war wreaks upon each individual victim.
We forget about our younger brothers, upon whose shoulders the worthless fight will now fall. We fly the flag at half-staff sometimes; it's much easier than asking a personal man of god to pray for a single soldier's soul. We shock ourselves out of coherence, out of the individual stories of 2,133 Americans in uniform who have died fighting Operation: Iraqi Freedom.
Listen. Here is war in the words of Solomon Burke:
"I'm risking my life every day
To end this fight
Deep down inside my soul right now
I believe I know, I said
I know this cause is right
I just want you, baby
Please keep a light
Keep a light burning
In the window til I
Til I, til I, til I
Come on home again"
Burke, a soul man who suffered under the shadow of Marvin Gaye in the 1960s, uses Withers's simple approach to his war ballad, “Leave A Light in the Window.” Burke's soldier calmly prays for his wife to hang a light outside for him, a simple request from a grim soul. Burke's soldier is focused on that lamp on the window; we assume thousands of his brothers were issuing similar pleas throughout the jungles of Southeast Asia that night.
We imagine a string of individual lights, a glowing premonition of Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial in Washington. In Burke's words, we see each light, each man, each name. No matter the rightness or wrongness of this war, we imagine thousands of silently individual wishes to come home. We see every man's soul bared in the window.
“My niece is a hooker, and my nephew's a junky, too,” shouts Stevie Wonder in “Front Line,” which, like “I Can't Write Left-Handed,” is a personal salvo fired against the personal butchery of warfare. Wonder mocks the status quo of white America, sarcastically recalling “a quote from a movie that said 'who's more a man/ Than a man with a reason that's worth dyin' for?” George C. Scott in Patton? John Wayne in The Green Berets? Wonder's veteran “up and joined the army back in 1964…. Volunteered for Vietnam where I got my leg shot off.”
Ironically, Wonder's soldier's quest to become more of a man, that is, to be all he can be, ends with his dismemberment. Is this legless hero more of a man? Is he a man at all?
Again, the war is personified in Wonder's character. The soldier becomes more than a symbol; Wonder's voice invades your ears, pipes itself into your soul. We see the homeless vagrant on the street corner; we get angry. We don't encounter thousands of forgotten veterans every day; the war pieces itself together for us man by man, memory by memory. They had this man standing on the front line.
Who doesn't love a good protest song? When the pot smoke cleared, who wasn't distraught—hell, pretty pissed off—after Neil Young lambasted President Nixon and his “tin soldiers” in 1970's “Ohio”? “We're finally on our own,” Young declared, and, post-RFK, post-MLK, post-Chicago '68, and post-Woodstock (and Altamont) '69, younger Americans really were on their own. My parents graduated from the University of Wisconsin—the Berkeley of the Midwest, I was told—in 1968, and they couldn't be hippies anymore.
Finally on their own, my father joined the Army to help pay for medical school; after contemplating a job offer from the NSA (which would have meant disavowing all of her foreign-born friends), my mother went to work for John Conyers. The seventies had come; my parents were on their own. Nixon was coming—had come, even—and there were four dead in Ohio. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young burned the White House down with “Ohio.” But the four dead? Americans needed Life Magazine for their stories. War, as the president says, is a national effort, a patriotic putsch against evil. He forgets, however, the personalities of his soldiers, the tragedies of his troops.
Bill Withers grew up in Slab Fork, West Virginia and served in the U.S. Navy for eight years. He, like Philadelphia's Burke and Saginaw's Wonder, knew buddies converted from friend to fodder. They tell their stories. And we should listen.
Simon Maxwell Apter is a Prospect intern.
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