The Duke Initiative on Theology and the Arts brought acclaimed screenwriter Randall Wallace to Duke Divinity to talk about “Faith and Storytelling.” Wallace wrote, produced, and/or directed such films as Braveheart, Pearl Harbor, and We Were Soldiers. My interest in story-telling, my experience in war, and having just written a book myself, I was interested to hear what Wallace had to share.
The week prior, I reviewed We Were Soldiers to retrieve my prior impressions thereof from many years ago, when I watched it while still on active duty in the Army. I was reminded that We Were Soldiers was filled with very simple characters and depicted violence almost in a caricature – it happened so frequently that I lost all sense of individuality and the deaths seemed much more at home in a comic book.
I could not bring myself to review Pearl Harbor due to its ties, for me, to combat-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that I acquired in my 14 months in Iraq as a forward observer for the artillery. When I first watched it, I was an 82nd Airborne paratrooper looking forward to being reassigned to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Frankly, I remember being more impressed with the scenery than the story it told.
The next time I encountered Pearl Harbor was on a cold morning in November, 2004, hours after having witnessed the death of a comrade in northern Iraq. Stumbling into the chow tent in a daze, I watched on a small television screen as Zero Planes strafed the same Hickam Air Field from which I deployed 10 months earlier. I was struck by the “phoney-ness” of the violence (a phrase popularized by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, whose author, J.D. Salinger, was a WWII veteran), I marveled morbidly at how human beings could possibly be entertained by fake violence, at how the violence I had just witnessed had misappropriated for the big screen.
I did not know then, but I know now that art is one of many actors in our lives that shape our self-identity and moral character, for good or evil. Liturgy, music, movies, and other forms of artistic expression make us who we are. Dr. Jeremy Begbie, in a video interview in anticipation the 2011 After the Yellow Ribbon conference, said “What the arts are doing… are giving form to our experience.”
If good art can give form, then bad art can deform. Dave Grossman, himself an Army Ranger and psychologist, writes “The media in our modern information society have done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing and have thereby become part of society’s unspoken conspiracy of deception the glorifies killing and war.”
The arts, especially movies, shape how civilians and future service members understand war. Psychotherapist Edward Tick tells us “When the arts portray war, when orators ennoble it with elevated and skillful discourse, we can be lulled into thinking that war itself is not horrible beyond speaking. We can be seduced into feeling that it is beautiful, elevated, ennobling –or, at least, survivable.”
Wallace’s movies have served as a cultural backdrop that underwrites an enthusiasm for war that only those who have never experienced it could dream up. In We Were Soldiers, he takes significant poetic license to glorify our cause in Vietnam. The Battle of Ia Drang, the first encounter of American and Vietnamese communist forces, where the story takes place, evokes themes of the greater war itself; huge amounts of Viet Minh casualties, ambiguity about success, the presence of the international press, etc. In what at least one scholar calls “cinematic Jeremiad”; Wallace takes a battle commonly seen as representative of the whole war, sterilizes it, and treats it with cosmetics. Characters are flat and disengaged. The history and political reality within which it was situated is ignored outright.
By removing the particulars, Wallace makes an avatar for war itself, and in so doing, passively enables (or becomes complicit himself in) the conspiracy of deception that captivates the hearts and minds of the American watching public. Wallace’s movies are one subtype in a genre of war films that are cheap and uncritical, like John Wayne movies were for another generation.
But during the talk, Wallace claimed that he tells only love stories. He wants to connect us to what it is we love, what it is we find worth dying for. But why is it that love is found so often, for Wallace, in war? If he has not experienced war, has he therefore not experienced love? Why is it that in his search to give us meaning, he so often turns our attention to organized violence? Is it because he himself is victim to the moral incoherence and nomadism that defines American society?
In the end, it seems that, for Wallace, war serves as a means to sentimentalize art. When his son watched Braveheart in a classroom with his peers, he rushed to ask his dad “How do you do that? How do you make the girls cry?” The elder Wallace revealed his apparent artistic raison d’etre – to move his audience to tears. His art had a purpose, it had a telos (to use language popular at the Divinity School) and it had nothing to do with the raw and uncompromising obscenity that Tim O’Brien insisted was a necessary ingredient to any true war story. The obscenity served merely to evoke emotion. I began to understand why the killing in We Were Soldiers reached nearly comic intensity in the battle scene…
It is important to recognize the liturgical nature of movies like Wallace’s and to name them as liturgy. These stories, and many others like them, shaped me before I went to Iraq and they all failed to prepare me for the lived experience of combat. Movies like Pearl Harbor and We Were Soldiers make light of the tangible and visceral experiences of war – they must. Even Restrepo, a movie shot in war and featuring actual blood, tears, and death, could not actually transport its civilian viewers to combat, the best it could hope for was to view war as through a mirror dimly.
With soldier suicides as high as they are, it makes me wonder if the narrative that movies like this provide morally deform young men and women by inadequately depicting the real and profound questions they shoud wrestle with before experiencing war. To reduce veterans’ lived experience to cheap tears and easy royalties degrades not just the stories Wallace relies upon, but compromises the veterans themselves. During Wallace’s talk at Duke, pointing to the few self-identified Vietnam veterans in the room, it felt too much like John Hagee claiming to be a friend of Israel in order to justify his screeds about the coming apocalypse.
Redemptive violence is performed by Christ on the Cross, not by Mel Gibson in his repeat appearances in Wallace’s films. War as performance, choreographed and cosmeticized, might as well be ballet (not that there’s anything wrong with that…), but don’t call it war. Don’t call it art either; the pursuit of a predetermined emotional response is nothing more than consumer savvy. Movies like this effect moral selves, giving un-formed persons a stolen language and kitschy uniforms on the way to the recruiting station. If I wanted that, I’d reenlist. If you want that, don’t take Wallace’s account as credible –he doesn’t know war any more than The Duke did. Co-opting language to which one does not belong and spinning misleading tales of ill-gained glory is, at best, misappropriating military culture and, at worst, boiling our young in the milk of moral dyslexia.
 Logan Isaac, Reborn on the Fourth of July, InterVarsity Press, 2012, pp.46-47
 LTC Dave Grossman, On Killing, BackBay Press, 1995, p.34
 Ed Tick, War and the Soul, Quest Books, 2005, p.126
 Susan Owen, “Memory, War, and American Identity,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 2002
 Tim O’Brien, The Things they Carried, Broadway, 1998