It all started a few weeks ago with a documentary about five top Hollywood film directors who joined the military in 1942 to produce films supporting the war effort. In addition, Netflix provided several films produced by these men, beginning with “Why We Fight,” a film aimed at firming up support for the war among Americans, many of whom were wary of getting involved in another European War. Other films told the story of fighter pilots in the Mediterranean, African-American soldiers and Russia’s contribution to the war.
Well, as a child of World War II and a lover of American history, I couldn’t pass these films up, so I watched them all — from the videos of speeches by Hitler and Mussolini in “Why We Fight,” to the gruesome stacks of bodies awaiting the ovens filmed as a film crew accompanied American officers on a tour of the horrific Nazi death camps.
Anyway, one thing led to another, and I went on to watch other war-related offerings from Netflix. Eventually, I watched “The Longest Day,” where the bloody invasion of France seemed to have been accomplished with very little bleeding. That led me to pick up “D-Day,” a book I bought some time ago from the bargain shelf at Barnes and Noble, but hadn’t read yet. As I write this, I am about halfway from revisiting the men who struggled across Omaha Beach, parachuted into the middle of German-held territory or flew the planes that provided air support that interrupted German supply lines. The book was more honest about the nature of the battle than “The Longest Day” was.
It isn’t unusual to find me reading about conflict. I prefer to read history — even when I read fiction I prefer historical novels — and when you read history, war and bloodshed frequently play a role. Our nation’s history is full of wars, and the killing started well before we became a nation. Before I began reading “D-Day,” I was partway through “The First Frontier,” which is subtitled “The forgotten history of struggle, savagery and endurance in early America.” So when I take a break from the death struggle on Omaha Beach, I find myself reading about the Pequot War in the 1630s, when English settlers in New England and their Indian allies all but annihilated the Pequot tribe. Forty years later, King Phillip’s War broke out, and by the time it ended, 10 percent of the men in Plymouth colony had been killed and more than 40 percent of the Indian population had been killed, sold into slavery or driven out of New England.
This compulsion to revisit films and books about wars happens to me just about every year during May. I think it happens for three reasons. One is that Memorial Day is observed in May, so it’s an entirely appropriate time to reacquaint myself with the sacrifices that have been made in defense of our nation.
The second reason is that I was born during World War II, started school during the Korean War, received my BA degree during the Vietnam War and got married the day after the Six-Day War Israel fought against its Arab neighbors. Put the Cold War in the mix and my entire youth was marked by warfare.
The third reason is that I never served in the military, even though I was eligible for the draft during the worst of the Vietnam War. People tell me that I was lucky to be rejected for medical reasons, and I guess I was. Still, in the back of my mind, I wonder who took my place back in 1968 when I was sent home and what happened to him. I honestly think I would have been a lousy soldier for any number of reasons; still, I wonder if I could have performed honorably in defense of my country had I been inducted.
So, whenever spring rolls around and Memorial Day approaches, I usually find myself once again drawn to books, movies or television documentaries in which war is a prominent element. During the next few days I will probably revisit the naval war in the Pacific by watching “In Harm’s Way,” again, and I might revisit the Ken Burns series, “The War,” as well. I will think of the men who fought them — men like my Uncle John, who was fighting in Italy on the day I was born, or an old friend down in Greybull who saw combat in the Philippines. I’ll also think about the men and women whom I didn’t join in 1968 and wonder again who took my place in that war.
It’s not much, but it’s the least I can do.