Shock and awe

Colonel Kilgore in 'Apocalypse Now'. Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia. The bombing of Baghdad. Few of us have experienced war first-hand. So why, asks Kevin Jackson, are we addicted to its imagery? A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before...
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The Independent Culture

In the peasant village, a bell rings, pretty young women hasten and shoo small children into air-raid shelters, young men race for their pitifully inadequate gun emplacements set on frail bamboo mountings. For a crucial few seconds, the camera puts us on the villagers' side emotionally as well as literally: here are victims - innocent victims? - in the making. Cut back to the sky, above the river, where a feral pack of incoming helicopters moves into final attack formation and loudspeakers begin to blare some incongruously lordly 19th-century strains from Die Walküre. "Scares the hell out of the slopes! My boys love it!" yells the officer in charge, a square-headed, whimsical psychotic with an idée fixe about ideal surf patterns.

In the peasant village, a bell rings, pretty young women hasten and shoo small children into air-raid shelters, young men race for their pitifully inadequate gun emplacements set on frail bamboo mountings. For a crucial few seconds, the camera puts us on the villagers' side emotionally as well as literally: here are victims - innocent victims? - in the making. Cut back to the sky, above the river, where a feral pack of incoming helicopters moves into final attack formation and loudspeakers begin to blare some incongruously lordly 19th-century strains from Die Walküre. "Scares the hell out of the slopes! My boys love it!" yells the officer in charge, a square-headed, whimsical psychotic with an idée fixe about ideal surf patterns.

Now we are up aloft with the attackers rather than the attacked. Sweaty kids with guns, black boys and white boys, some jazzed with excitement, some stoical, some only just containing their terror. The slightly older ones sit on their helmets instead of wearing them - they'd sooner risk their brains than their testicles. Flying so low that they almost graze the water, the helicopters come within range of the shoreline and, on command, open fire. Missiles dart swiftly ahead, leaving white trails, the shoreline gun emplacements explode into flames, and scrawny male bodies go flying.

Soldiers blast down at the peasants with M-16s, rake them with machine-gun fire. "Death from above." Wagner, ear-shattering explosions, shouted obscenities and anguished screams from the wounded. When one of the choppers touches down in the village square, a peasant girl manages to throw something on board - a landmine, which explodes a couple of seconds later, killing the crew. "Savages," spits the commanding officer in genuine disgust at this murderous act. An aerial sniper cuts her down as she runs for cover...

Thus (with thanks to Thomas Pynchon, whose outstanding novel about the final days of the Second World War, Gravity's Rainbow, provided the first line) the beginning of one of the most famous sequences in modern cinema: Colonel Kilgore's dawn helicopter raid from Apocalypse Now. It divides audiences into many factions, including those who find it ludicrously anti-American, a caricature of the US military's conduct in Vietnam every bit as puerile as Kill-Gore's daft name; those who find it all but fascistic in its mindless kinetic energy, its glorification of sheer brute force; and those who think it is just a total gas, man. Rock and roll!

I once saw it in a cinema in Nashville, Tennessee, where almost everyone else in the audience was from an army unit, and was dressed in combat fatigues and green camouflage paint. When it came to Kilgore's notorious line about remembering the smell of napalm - "smelled like... Victory" - they let loose with a unanimous blood-hungry howl which made us civilians hunch down in our seats and wish for invisibility. Yeeeeee-haaaaaah!

Another time, in London, I sat next to an elderly gentleman - certainly old enough to have been a combatant in the Second World War - who shrieked a single four-letter word again and again and again as the choppers circled and rained fire. What demons was he letting out? And yet another time, I watched it on late-night television in the company of a woman who was simply disgusted that such brutal images should be served up in the name of entertainment, and demanded that we switch it off.

The intensity of such otherwise varied reactions to Coppola's film - and, after all, as Alfred Hitchock once said to a leading lady, "It's just a movie, Ingrid" - seems more curious when one considers the all-too familiar experience of seeing certain kinds of genuine war coverage on television. It seldom sears the eyes or clutches at the heart. Take the so-called "Shock and Awe" bombardment of Baghdad which served as a prelude to the Iraq war last year, for example. I am probably no more than averagely callous, and yet when I watched minute after minute, hour after hour of the capital city being blasted to rubble, I found it hard to make the essential moral leap from a boring television image - a distant fireworks display, a singularly artless son et lumière - to the implicit horror of what was happening unseen within that image. (It took printed words - notably Robert Fisk's in this newspaper - to provide the necessary ethical supplement to the idiot box's offerings.)

To sting myself awake during those sessions, to rebuke my own failure of imagination in the face of CNN's homogenising, hypnotic cathode rays, I kept reminding myself of a scene from another famous war movie, Lawrence of Arabia. Omar Sharif's character, Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish, seeing the lights and hearing the thunder of a distant artillery bombardment, murmurs "God help" those trapped under such appalling fire. But they're Turks, replies Peter O'Toole; meaning, our deadly enemy. Sherif Ali isn't exactly your standard soggy pinko - he'll literally kill a man for swiping a cup of water - but when he's pondered this objection for a second, he concludes: God help them, anyway.

There are several seminars' worth of observations that may be spooled out from this fairly simple comparison of two technological visions of warfare. For a certain type of moralist, the key point would be that it is one among millions of instances of a peculiarly modern form of unreflective hypocrisy - that which leaves the viewer harrowed by the fake and bored by the real. At heart, it is the same double-think identified by Coleridge some 200 years ago, when he considered the spectacle of a rich young English girl weeping over the fate of sad lovers in a novel while sipping her nicely sweetened tea, blissfully unaware that the sugar dissolving in her cup, imported from West Indian plantations, is the fruit of the slave trade. Coleridge's verdict was bleak: as she indulged her most refined sympathies, she was drinking the refined blood of negroes.

Painful comment, even after the passage of a couple of centuries. Few of us like to look too long or closely into the murkier realities of our First World prosperity, or at the precise scope and nature of our purportedly finer feelings. But Coleridge was a philosopher of aesthetics as well as ethics, and he would have seen that the distinction here between the emotional effect of potent fantasies and (superficially) dull realities is not wholly, or even mainly, a case of a reprehensible double standard. Instead, it is- just about the oldest paradox in the book of Western observations on the matter - that odd truth that art, whether good, bad or downright crass, can often stir us when the world itself cannot.

Stir us to what end, though? A tricky question, and one which takes us to the heart of why millions of people enjoy war movies when they would, presumably, be terrified and disgusted by its abominable realities. A now rather old-fashioned, rather pious view of art as an instrument of sweetness and light would earnestly hope that we go to war movies to be confirmed in our pacific instincts, and that all responsible imaginative accounts of armed conflict should be "anti-war" - straightforwardly pacifist in the manner of Wilfred Owen, Henri Barbusse, Erich Maria Remarque and other psychic casualties of the Great War. (A warm and fuzzy point of view that the poet Alice Goodman - who write the brilliant libretto for John Adams' opera about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, The Death of Klinghoffer - once dismissed with the withering phrase that she did not think it the business of art to "tell you to eat your greens".)

A fallacy? Probably. It has yet to be proved that all the anti-war films ever made have helped prevent so much as a single half-hearted border dispute anywhere in the world; and yet decent, liberal critics still feel awkward in dismissing decent, liberal war films, however much they might secretly, guiltily hanker for the infantile pleasures of seeing Arnie dealing it out to a bunch of evil goddamned rag-heads and slopes.

Ask which directors have made notable war movies, and it soon becomes apparent that it might be easier to name those who have abstained from the genre. In no special order, the celebrated war-movie makers include D W Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, Howard Hawks, Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa, Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Andrei Tarkovsky, Roberto Rossellini (Rome Open City and Paisa), Sam Fuller (his autobiographical movie about life as an infantryman, The Big Red One, has recently been restored, reputedly to great effect), Chris Marker, Tony Richardson (The Charge of the Light Brigade), Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, Troy), Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), Richard Lester (How I Won the War), Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter), Brian de Palma, Robert Altman (Mash, Streamers), George Lucas (if Star Wars counts - and why not?), Ken Loach (Land and Freedom), Derek Jarman (War Requiem), Peter Weir (Gallipoli, Master and Commander), John Milius, Orson Welles, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Sam Peckinpah, Louis Malle...

Enough. But it is worth noting that of all the movies made by this distinguished crew, very few indeed fit comfortably into a pure and simple War!-Huh!-What-is-it-good-for? slot. Mash? Fairly openly a satire on all modes of pomposity, smugness and bigotry, not just a tirade about the Korean (read: Vietnam) War. The Charge of the Light Brigade? The portrait of a self-engrossed gerontocracy, in which gross military incompetence is a symptom, not the illness itself. The Deer Hunter? A few of us think this alleged modern classic is an irresponsible, lunatic fantasy, unworthy of consideration in adult debate. But "anti-war"? Not really.

To be sure, cinema has not wanted for its Wilfred Owens. A fair number of the canonical war films - some merely famous, some genuinely worthy of being thought great - do overtly address the futility, madness and pity of war rather than its gallantry. Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, for example; or Abel Gance's J'accuse, with its astonishing, terrifying vision of mutilated armies of First World War soldiers rising from their muddy graves to take revenge on the living (the earliest zombie film?); or Jean Renoir's heart-breaking masterpiece La Grande Illusion, with its resolutely anti-ideological insistence that there are bonds between people of good will which can transcend the simple-minded idiocies of national borders, jingo arrogance and bellicose cant. The international body of documentary work which sifts through the scars and crimes of modern warfare is also extremely distinguished, and at times profoundly moving, from The Sorrow and the Pity and Shoah to Errol Morris's fascinating collaboration with former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, The Fog of War.

Oliver Stone is probably the most prominent Owenist film-maker of recent years, albeit an intensely macho and abrasive Owenist, ready to punch you in the chops if you question his motives. At any rate, one walks away from Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth fully aware of having been told with intense vehemence that war is a Bad Thing, though the precise reasons why this is so may remain a shade hazy: because it means that you lose your youth? Your innocence? Your soul? Your legs and bowels? All perfectly sound reasons for bitter protest - but Stone protests too much, or too incoherently, for the undoubted visceral power of his individual sequences to add up to much more than a subjective howl of rage and pain.

By contrast, Stanley Kubrick's far more intellectually distanced, at times almost glacial commentary on the condition of men at war followed a path ever deeper into detached global misanthropy - from Spartacus and Paths of Glory, which at least admits some glimpses of redemptive human feeling amid the stupidity and corruption of the officer classes, via the grotesque terminal farce of Dr Strangelove, to the numbed, automatised soldiery of Full Metal Jacket, winning their tiny, pyrrhic victories in "a world of shit". It is as if Kubrick had come so much to despair of our species and its incorrigible habit of using the bomb instead of the brain that he no longer thought it worth indulging the comforting dream that we will one day grow out of being killer apes.

But this may be too solemn, too dismissive a view of that complex man. Kubrick, after all, was long fascinated by the figure of Napoleon (aren't all film directors? Abel Gance, he of J'accuse, also made a Napoleon film, and a fine one at that). He spent years planning a Napoleonic epic, traces of which have survived in his film of Barry Lyndon and in Anthony Burgess's novel Napoleon Symphony, which is dedicated to Kubrick. You don't devote immoderate time and energy to a subject like Napoleon simply to tell the moviegoers of the world that he was a very naughty man. War is, to be sure, Hell, but it is also an instrument of policy, at times of grand vision; and it is not only Nazis and nut-cases who can recognise that a great general, like a great politician, may be a kind of artist.

Hence some of the power of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia - whose inspired screenwriter, Robert Bolt, had to be bailed out of a prison sentence for his part in mass protests against atomic weaponry. CND supporter he may have been, but Bolt was keenly alive to the boldness of Lawrence as artist-general, and to the triumphant bliss of, say, taking Aqaba by land. The film does not deride Lawrence for being a guerilla leader and highly effective terrorist against the Turks; it does condemn him for indulging in one particularly vile massacre ("No prisoners! No prisoners!") and for being naïve enough to believe that the allied powers would keep their word on Arab independence. We're still living with the long-term fall-out of that little mess.

Much the same point could be made of Coppola's screenplay for Patton: Lust for Glory, which, despite the overt finger-wagging of the title, manages to see the glory as well as the lust in a strange and driven commander. Magnificently brought to life by George C Scott, the Coppola Patton is preening, hubristic, occasionally brutal and at times not far from barking mad. And yet he is more a figure of awe than of snotty-nosed, peacenik teasing. When Patton recites his (in all conscience, dismal) poem about having lived many lives and been a soldier in each of them, very few people are tempted to giggle; while the echoing martial score lends that declamation additional gravitas. Richard Nixon loved the flick.

In both these cases, the screenwriters have found their way to a point so obvious that subtler minds may tend to overlook it: if the famous military leaders of history were all donkeys leading lions (as a few of them unquestionably were), there would be nothing but folly and waste in their stories, and only masochists would want to see them. If it is the weakness of those who have never seen combat to underestimate the full horror of killing and being killed, it is the weakness of the benevolent idealist not to understand the fatal attractions of war, particularly to young men. One of the reasons why Apocalypse Now is remembered when umpteen dozen other 'Nam movies, from The Boys in Company C to Go Tell The Spartans, are pretty much forgotten is that it embraces the full emotional range of the phenomenon, and dares to admit something that less ambiguous works cannot allow themselves to countenance: seen from a certain angle, war can be exciting. Glamorous. Fun. "Smelled like... Victory." Yeeeeee-haaaaaah!

This ambiguity may well reflect something unexaminably deep in our natural history; it unquestionably stems from something deep in our cultural history. Though you can find isolated poems about the lamentable qualities of war in all but the most monolithically bellicose cultures (classical Chinese poets did a nice line in pondering the futility of it all), a great deal of poetry has celebrated the martial arts, starting with the staggeringly violent poem that itself starts Western poetry, the Iliad. And that all makes a lot of sense: if your national survival or national prosperity depends on having a large reserve of 19-year-old youths ready and willing to go off to kill, maim and enslave foreigners at enormous personal risk, then the official culture had better ensure that the career option seems attractive. Be a hoplite, see the world. And if the state religion dares to cast awkward doubt on the propriety of martial virtues... ah, but the priests usually know better than that.

From Sparta in the 5th century BC to Athens (Georgia) in the 21st century AD, you will find plenty of vocal support for the view that war fosters, tempers and gives the ideal arena for the greatest of human virtues: physical and moral courage, obviously, and self-sacrifice, and fraternity, loyalty, patriotism, piety (if your culture goes in much for gods or God), hardiness, discipline, skill with horse and sword and gun. And only the callow or the irredeemably cynical would question that these are indeed virtues. That gentle soul William Morris thought that physical courage was the virtue of all virtues, the one on which all others depend.

The counter-intuitive notion of chivalry - the good manners of war - has also been the subject of alluring praise, while some eccentric souls, from Yukio Mishima to Friedrich Nietzsche, have thought the spectacle of war uniquely beautiful, especially when waged by attractive young men. Many of that aesthetic crowd also consider war the natural condition of humanity, with periods of peace as boring, inconvenient and shoddy vacations from the real deal. Man was born to be a warrior, said Nietzsche, and woman for the recreation of the warrior. (It was not a doctrine that made him particularly happy, but then he had his doubts about happiness, too.)

A very great number of art works embody some recognisable version of such traditional military values: in fact, any widespread, thoroughgoing resistance to or criticism of those views is rare before, let's say, the advent of cinema circa 1895. (Technical aside: until the development of rapid-exposure stocks, war photography as we now know it was impossible. You could photograph soldiers at attention, or corpses; anything livelier would simply not register.)

This is not to say that the voice of scepticism against the call to arms was silent for millennia. After all, the Shakespeare who dreamed of Henry V's irresistible rallying cry also created the prince of shirkers and tactical cowards, Falstaff. Now that we have learned the habit of praising works of art for their multiplicity, their contradictions, their uncertainties, it has become routine to seek out and admire those Falstaffian moments when the voice of the works' official belief system, as it were, is rebuked or refuted by some alternative viewpoint. Where our forebears might have seen fudging and confusion, we see richness and, if we are condescending about the past, "surprising modernness."

But a taste for ambiguity, by definition, is a taste that leaves you impatient with the single-minded. Which is another reason why, however impeccably liberal and internationalist we may be in our politics, however much we may have, say, raged and protested over the cynical folly of a war in Iraq, we are none the less likely to tut and fret when confronted with a film, or a novel, or an article about which simply tells us to eat our greens. And however much we admire Albert Schweitzer or Marie Curie, we know that a film of their lives is unlikely to give us the kind of gross, rip-snorting excitements that Oliver Stone is going to deliver in his forthcoming epic about Alexander the Great.

The challenge for film-makers who wish to be more than hacks or propagandists when depicting war has grown into an increasingly complex one. New standards of verisimilitude in depicting battle - and, to date, the Omaha beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan has established a high-water mark - mean that audiences will no longer be content with less graphic intimations of conflict. (The next taboo to be broken by a mainstream movie will be to show a well-established reality: that men going into combat often foul themselves in terror.) Note, though, that Ryan was by no means an anti-war film: Spielberg firmly believed in the justice of Operation Overlord: he just wanted to show the price that young American men paid for it.

Saving Private Ryan - a syrupy and foolish film, once its honourably gruelling prologue is done - trails other discomforts in its wake, not least among them the likelihood that it has left large numbers of young viewers under the impression that D-Day was a purely American action, and that America single-handedly won the war against Hitler. It used to be said that history was a tale told by the victors; increasingly, in a climate where it seems that many citizens no longer care about basic facts, let alone nuances and interpretations, history is a tale that is passing into the hands of the global entertainment industry.

Does it matter? You don't have to be a white-feather pacifist to feel that it matters a very great deal. Nowadays, a film which tells us that war is hell because people get hurt looks, at best, naïve: wholesome enough, but strictly for the kiddies. But a film that - let's hypothesise a little - engages the heart and mind by proposing that a particular war might have been bad because it was waged incompetently, on mendacious or illegal grounds, from motives of naked self-interest and in a climate of ignorance and bigotry - well, that might really be something to respect.

Would such a film do the world any more practical good than Abel Gance's J'accuse? Hard to say. But some wars are fought not with a view to being won outright, but so that something might not wholly die. In short: say not the struggle naught availeth.