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07 June 2008

On Connecting Dots

Last night, in the waning hours, something — Sentimentality? Nostalgia? Uninvited flashbacks? — compelled me to dig out and run my almost forgotten VCR of Saving Private Ryan.

I’d tried to watch it once before, a couple of years ago, soon after it had been launched with tons of hype and rave reviews swirling in its wake. But that time I didn’t make it much beyond the opening scenes of the chaotic beach-line slaughter, the cliff-top fire-fights, and the close-up of Captain Miller’s trembling right hand. When a squad of surrendering Germans was summarily gunned down, I turned off the player and didn’t even bother to rewind.

But last night was different. Alone, as usual, I tried to do some writing, but nothing worked, so I decided to blow away the cobwebs with a movie. My eye fell on the Ryan cassette in a corner of the bookcase, and with the unnameable “something” still in the air, I thought, “What the hell. Let’s give it a try.”

I watched. And it all came piling back in on me. All the stuff I’d tried for so long to sublimate, to stifle, to hide in my gizzard. It was right there, up front, staring me in the face.

I was in that war, but not at Normandy. I was infantry trained, but, unlike the film’s Captain Miller, I never worked at it, having instead been assigned to undercover Intelligence in the European Theater of Operations. I never shot a German, and a German never shot me. We tried, of course, but each time we both proved to be inept in the art of the running handgun fight in a dark alley, and so we all survived. In a manner of speaking, that is. I don’t know about the German guys. I like to think they went on to become amiable, pot-bellied grandpas, serenely puffing Meerschaums in Schnitzel am Rhine. But if they were anything like me, they’ve spent more than half a century trying to live with the memories of the tensions, sights and sounds, and smells and guilts of that impossibly dreadful time.

Oddly, as a novelist, I’ve written a kajillion words about war. As a movie buff, I’ve seen every major war movie, from Birth of a Nation to War of the Worlds. And in each book I’ve written, in each film I’ve seen, wretched memories were inevitably evoked. But I was a younger man then, and subjectively I was able to maintain a kind of objective distance — a separation of what really had been from fictional projections of what might have, or could have, been. In my novels, I was reliving personal experiences via representative people caught up in representative situations, and I seemed to be protected from further inner trauma by the sweaty, outward process of making up people I could lay it all on. And in the movies I saw, there was always an awareness that the people on the screen were pretending to be people facing pretended perils; the explosions were faked, the gunshots were blanks, and the dead guys would soon be scrambling to their feet and heading for the hot coffee and sandwiches at the location canteen.

But Ryan proved to be different. I think the aging process has made it so. Ryan was pure fiction, too. The explosions and the gunshots were fake and choreographed, too. The dead and injured were just pretending, too, as in all those other films. But the apartness, the sense of watching play actors from a distance, was gone. I was back there again, 64 years back. I had changed. The ellipsis no longer worked. The mental and emotional editing that had eased the major hurts and even euphemized some of the more unbearable recollections, were no longer in play. I was watching fiction and reliving fact.

When Ryan had run its course and I’d turned off the machine, the sense of melancholy was overwhelming. Not only because I had relived the sounds and stinks and sights of all those years ago, but mainly because I knew they have never stopped. In all my years, there has never been a time without war. Somewhere on the globe, every day I’ve lived, men have been slaughtering each other in the name of politics, greed, and religion. And it’s now at its most intense. Today we have legions of Captain Millers and Private Ryans killing and dying in distant lands to keep gaggles of implacable religious zealots from killing you and me, right here on Main Street, as they did in New York on 9/11 and as they did in London on 7/7.

The saddest part is that so many Americans don’t understand that we are currently in a war for survival. From blue collars to college professors, from housewives to senators, they just can’t connect the dots. Most of them are so blindly angry at one man for winning an election they didn’t expect him to win they would destroy the nation just to humiliate him — and to punish those idiots who voted for him. They simply can’t seem to see that the murderous religionists were already hard at work on us long before the man they hate was in office, and that when the object of their hatred is finally out of office, the fanatics will still be there, still on the attack, still determined to kill us all, their American apologists first in line.

Which elicits an even larger irony — the largest, unspoken truth of all. Back in my war, we GI’s made a sardonic joke of our anxieties. Sidling up to a buddy, eyes darting left and right, field jacket held outward to conceal the gesture, we’d show the palm of a hand in a quick, covert Nazi-style salute and whisper conspiratorially, “In case we lose: Heil Hitler.” And then we’d break out laughing. In the Cold War, we’d hear campus shouts of “Better Red than dead.” But then, as it is today, there was no hiding it behind a jacket, there was no joke intended.

Most of those who condemn their own country for fighting to defend itself against the political-religious zealots seem to believe that, if they show loud and open contempt for Americans who are fighting back, the murderers will spare them for not having fought back — for having voiced approval of the murderers and their aims. They are like that terror-stricken German soldier in Saving Private Ryan. Forced to dig a grave by his GI captors, and fearing that the grave might be intended for him, he shouts out all kinds of gaudy affection for “the American Way” and a laundry list of obscene denunciations of the Nazis and Hitler himself.

People like this fail to connect the three Big Dots. There is no way that Dot No. 1 — ingratiation — can be linked to Dot 2 — blind savagery — and bring about Dot No. 3 — personal survival and life-long serenity. Not when the savages’ intention is to remove from the world all people who don’t look like them and think as they do. It’s roughly like trying to (Dot 1) sweet-talk (Dot 2) Godzilla and expect the monster to forgo his plans (Dot 3) to chomp you up and instead roll over and purr. It just ain’t gonna happen.

Ryan’s Captain Miller showed us he understood that when, lying in the rubble, mortally wounded, he fired his .45 pistol in weary defiance, emptying it against the hull of an approaching German tank whose commander was intent on turning him to pulp under a caterpillar tread.

And in an exquisite, culminating irony, today’s enemies and their sympathizers fail to connect the three biggest dots of all: Those comprising any hateful minority (Dot 1) will never be able to (Dot 2) make the world over in their image, thanks to (Dot 3) the legions of Captain Millers spawned by an aroused, angry majority. They can kill, and kill, and kill, then kill some more, but there will always be someone left who will figure a way to kill them back.

Where’s the lasting satisfaction, the holy serenity in that, eh?

Melancholy? Oh, God, yes.


Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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