“It is hard to evoke the year 1940 for people who were not alive then,” writes Frederick Buechner, “the great excitement of it, the extraordinary sense of aliveness. It was the war that did it, of course. I doubt if there has ever been a war that seemed so much a struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness… For people born since, it must be hard to imagine a time when this country seemed so much on the side of the angels, or a cause so just…with rich and poor alike caught up in a sense of common urpose and destiny…and in a way more alive to the issues of light and darkness than it has been ever since” (The Sacred Journey, pp. 66-75).
This insight may help to explain both the success of Ken Burns’ new documentary, The War—whose rating have topped even commercial programming and especially among veteran demographics—and the way in which, for all its realism and horror, the series feels almost like an epic fairy tale, a “once upon a time” kind of story. It was then, and perhaps for the last time, when all-out war took on the mantle of holiness and purpose (Eisenhower, for instance, prepped D-Day troops for the coming invasion with the language of “crusade;” if the soldiers themselves did not at first believe it, when they liberated the death camps they many of them came to see that what they had done was in fact a kind of redemptive work.)
The massive casualties (even “deaths per square foot of land taken,” as in the battle for Sugar Loaf Hill in Okinawa) tended only to confirmed the war’s stakes. Soon to be imprisoned at the hands of the Nazis, Bohnoeffer in 1937 suggested that when Jesus calls to his disciples, he “bids them come and die.” This particular call to arms could well have seemed a kind of divine summons in the world, this selfless service a kind of sacred vocation, and the inestimable sacrifices of blood a healing flood. At least we can say that the obedience and sacrifice of the soldiers ultimately vanquished the evil of the Axis and redeemed its remaining victims—in short, the world was cleansed of its most obvious evils.
Burns’ film stands in stark contrast to the new movie from director Paul Haggis (Crash), In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon. This film is inspired by actual events—which might mean almost anything—but it gradually comes to feel like a documentary. We follow in painful detail the complete unraveling of a long-frayed family, along with the undoing of past certainties and the exposure of a nation whose flag is raised (mistakenly at first but then intentionally) upside down.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a career soldier and former Military Policeman—one who has believed in and lived his life by the rules. The death of his first son in previous combat has wounded but not dissuaded him. In that sense he has fared better by half than his wife Joan, played by Sarandon, who is not only deeply aggrieved but irretrievably cynical. Hank, now retired and driving a gravel truck, still polishes his shoes each night and situates them at the foot of the bed, presses his pants on the bedside to maintain the crease and later, makes his own hotel bed with military corners.
Deerfield receives a call from the base where his younger son, Mike, is stationed after a tour in Iraq. The caller says that Mike is AWOL and has 24 hours to report or be charged. Hank drives to the base-town to find him, and the search becomes a kind of tragic-heroic quest. Neither the military nor the local constabulary demonstrates any real interest in the mystery, whether from actual indifference or, as it turns out, stonewalling.
After the mutilated and burned body of his murdered son Mike is discovered, Hank begins to oversleep. His bed goes unmade. His increasingly silent grief drives him further from his already estranged wife while the gruesome death becomes a metaphor for the ways in which not only his own marriage but even the nation is sundered and seared with anger and sadness. Against Hank’s stern counsel, Joan still insists on seeing what is left of her son’s body. “Is that all?” she whispers through the window (movie viewers are on the body-side of a protective glass and read her lips.) “Is that all that is left of him?” She walks away in silence, Hank’s arm tight around her shoulder. She seems ready to collapse but turns and hugs Hank for a long moment. It is their only intimacy. Soon, he has taken her back to the airport where with a cool kiss to his cheek she departs again. She does not speak, does not look back.
Hank is left to discover the truth, which he does, all the while trying to maintain belief both in his son and the ideals by which he has lived his life. An overworked detective and single mom, Emily Sanders (Theron) becomes an increasingly sympathetic ally against her own employers and, especially, the military base’s commanders. While Mike’s murder is at first blamed on the usual suspects—drugs, ethnic hostility—together Hank and Emily discover that the war itself is the murderer, and not only of Mike and the other soldiers of his unit but of others on the base and their families. This war has destroyed any mythic sense of holy warring (despite whatever “crusade” language might be invoked by the Powers that Be), as surely as it has obliterated the conscience of its participants.
Which is harder for Deerfield to bear? The disintegration of the principles by which he has ordered his days—he had resolutely believed that “we” are the good guys (and his son, too, by experience and implication) and the enemy are bad guys; the world, in sum, was cast not just in absolute terms, if not black and white then in red, white and blue—or his son, as we discover with Hank, gone so horribly wrong?
Early in Mike’s deployment he is so sensitive as to break general orders and even record with his camera phone the death of an Iraqi child who had been playing in the street till Mike runs him over as his convoy races by. He weeps to his dad to “get me out of here.” Soon enough, however, that tender-heartedness is itself dead and in its place has risen a sadism so fierce as to allow him again and again to brutally finger the deep wounds of Iraqi prisoners with the question, “does that hurt?” His protracted cruelty earns Mike the nickname “Doc.”
At one point, a soldier’s anger boils over in invective and curses toward Sanders as she approaches the truth of Mike’s death. The soldier’s commander restrains him, ushers him down a hallway and says, “Walk away. Just walk away.” The truth, however, is that none of them can. “You have no idea what we went through over there…” the soldier says, whether by way of rebuke or apology, and in one way that is true. But soon everyone knows that the chaos has overtaken them all. Evil is no longer shocking; it is merely the font in which they have all been immersed. The horror is banal, boring—and when the truth is finally reported—Mike’s buddies have in fact killed him—it is with a kind of matter-of-factness that is numb and numbing: “We had to hurry because we were hungry,” says the confessing soldier. “Hungry?” asks Sanders. “Starved,” says the soldier. The detective she shuts off her tape recorder. Everything has been said.
So does Hank Deerfield discover that what was once true, if ever, is true no longer. One night he tells the story of David and Goliath to Sanders’ son, tries to school the boy that that there are rules to be honored even in combat. In the case of Israel and the Philistines, one did not shoot with arrows even a giant who had offered challenge with the sword. In the case of the current conflict—as he also had assured the boy’s mother—those who have fought side-by-side against the enemy would never turn on each other. Even this last certainty crumbles around him.
Deerfield takes his place in a kind of cinematic prophetic succession with Russell Crowe’s Maximus (Gladiator) and Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, in the Bourne series of films. Especially in the trilogy’s last installment, Bourne—who was labeled a “rogue agent” after he abandoned his original “programming” and mission to “protect American citizens”—reveals that the recruiters and programmers are themselves the rogues and as willing to kill American citizens as anyone else. It is the CIA, and by extension, the entire government that has gone rogue from its identity and best purpose. Bourne, alone but for one late convert (Pamela Landy, played by Joan Allen) is left to bring down the corrupt leaders of the agency and does so.
Likewise, Maximus—victimized into the gladiatorial games by the cruel machinations of the insane and patricidal Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) proclaims as he enters to Coliseum, “Marcus Aurelius had a vision of Rome and this is not it, this is not it.” The sad benediction might well have come, with variation, from Hank Deerfield.
Early in the movie, Deerfield stops his truck in front of the local elementary school and berates a Latino janitor for inadvertently running the flag upside down up the pole. “That is an international distress call,” he barks. He explains that flying the flag in that way means that the nation is in terrible trouble, under attack and with no ability to defend itself. It is a plea for intervention, “please come help us,” because we cannot help ourselves. He rights the flag with snap and pride.
Later, he curses a Latino member of his son’s squad, sure as he is that the man is a drug dealer and responsible for his son’s murder. Deerfield has already beaten the man as he was being arrested. When the truth is at last revealed—the man had nothing to do with the murder—Deerfield invites the badly bruised soldier to share with him a drink. They sit together, share a small bottle of whiskey and, almost Eucharistically, there comes truth-telling and reconciliation. A bit of it anyway.
And the end of the movie Deerfield returns to the flagpole. He takes a faded and torn American flag—one that has done “hard duty,” Deerfield tells the same janitor, and a gift from Mike to his Dad, shipped home “with love” just hours before the murder—and while the janitor looks on raises the colors, again upside down and this time on purpose. “You leave it just like that,” Hank says.
And so the movie ends with a kind of prayer, duct-taped in place till an answer should come. This flagpole, it seems, is where Americans will increasingly meet, this prayer the one they increasingly will pray: please help us, for we can no longer help ourselves.
Burn’s film, The War, is dedicated to “all those who fought and won that necessary war on our behalf.” Whether or not WWII finally rises to the level of a just war is a debate for theologians and ethicists; still almost all would agree that it was in fact “necessary.” The final episode’s tour through the death camps, just one cursory glance at bodies stacked like wood, one look into the startled eyes of survivors, are confirmation enough of that penultimate benediction.
It would help many of us, I think, to be certain that the planners of the present conflict at least aimed toward such liberation and redemption—I recall that no less that Elie Wiesel supported the “preemption” on this basis alone: that Saddam was a murderer of his own people. As time goes by, however, if we are less and less certain of our first best motives, we are increasingly convinced that it is our own nation now in the darkness, upside down, in need of liberation and deliverance from an unraveling self-image and a war that seems neither just, nor necessary…nor in the least wise energizing.