By Scott Ross
Samuel Fuller, who was one of the men on Omaha Beach the morning of 6 June, 1944, had no illusions about war. Nor about “heroism,” or “valor,” or “glory,” or “honor,” or “sacrifice,” or any of the myriad phony platitudes civilians have been throwing around for decades in their fruitless desperation to convince themselves their beloved sons, brothers, husbands, lovers died for something ennobling and worthy of the ultimate penalty of armed conflict. Note that I do not say “sacrifice.” Aside from the fear that if I did Fuller’s ghost (complete with cigar) would haunt me to my grave, I simply don’t believe it. No one but a self-glorifying fool willingly sacrifices himself on the altar of war.
(Although god knows all too many allow themselves to be sacrificed. By generals, presidents, politicians and assorted deluded fanatics and disinterested kibbitzers who’ve never so much as smelled a battlefield. If they didn’t, there’d be, if not no wars, far fewer of them.)
When it comes to memorializing I am as one with another wounded war veteran who became, like Fuller, a vital, idiosyncratic screenwriter. In his screenplay for The Americanization of Emily Paddy Chayefsky, through James Garner’s irrepressible Charlie Madison, preaches cowardice. “That’s my new religion,” Charlie says to Emily’s war-widowed mother:
“Cowardice will save the world. It’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes wars. It’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny – always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some 10,000,000 humans in the interest of humanity. Next war, it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us. It’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved…”
But Charlie/Paddy goes further, indicting in the complicity for needless death more or less everyone, Mrs. Barham included:
“It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a hell it is. It’s always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parades.
“We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogeys. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio… An everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud…
“Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September… May be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, Mrs. Barham, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave.”
Charlie, interestingly and ironically, later falls on Omaha, a casualty less of the war he reluctantly serves in than of the sudden madness of his Admiral, who insists that “The first dead man on Omaha Beach must be a sailor!” and orders Charlie to film this “glorious” death. That he is wounded, not killed, is a further irony; it puts him in the international spotlight as the very thing he loathes: A living memorial.
Still. Even I, a pacifist to my bones and no lover of either war or of the military, have never been able to think of D-Day without a chill, and a sense of wonder at the intestinal fortitude it must have taken those boys — and they were largely boys — to storm those beaches. “Intestinal” is the right word, I think, not only for the reserves of strength, metal, physical and psychic, it required (even if, as in all organized combat, the only choice was to stand and die, or move and maybe live) but for the short voyage from the troop ships to the shore in those gut-loosening little landing craft rocking on the waves, everyone aboard puking into his helmet or over the side. To know, as you neared the shore, that if your boat was not shelled to pieces before it landed, the moment it did those in the front were almost certain to be machine-gunned instantly and that, even if you survived that, you still stood a pretty good chance of being blown apart by a mine or a bomb, or shot to ribbons as you ran.
I’m also thinking today of Sam Fuller, and particularly of his semi-autobiographical 1980 masterwork The Big Red One, the epic reconstruction of his own experiences in the Second World War, including D-Day. Working with a much smaller budget — and, hence with fewer bodies and far less recourse to elaborate special effects — than Steven Spielberg had at his command for his later (and infinitely bloodier) re-creation of Omaha in Saving Private Ryan, Fuller still managed to convey the event in terms that, whatever its practical limitations, left no doubt as to the horror, the confusion, and the hideous odds that attended the event. And, since by the D-Day section of Fuller’s movie we know the five central characters much more intimately than any of the corresponding figures in Ryan, our investment in their fates is far greater than with Spielberg’s version, despite the level of graphic hideousness, necessary to a full, realistic image of what happened on that beach on that day. We are, therefore, less moved by what occurs in Spielberg’s movie than merely staggered. (Fuller, additionally, was not saddled, as was his successor, with a risible, ludicrous plot; Lee Marvin’s Sergeant would simply have shot Matt Damon and finished his mission.) There’s a recurring image in the D-Day sequence of The Big Red One that is at once astonishing, economical, and utilitarian: A soldier’s arm in the shallows, a still-ticking watch on its wrist. Each time Fuller cuts back to that wrist, the water is that much bloodier, and we get an instant sense of time as it elapses on that watch-face.
Speaking of time, I’m struck today, as I often am, by the mutable relativity of it. When I was much younger, and the events of World War II were only 20 or 25 years in the past, I couldn’t fathom that, to me, vast abyss of time. It seemed as far away from my own reality as the Civil War. I don’t know, but I suspect this dislocation must be very common in the young: You can’t quite reconcile the idea of time when your own age can be counted in single digits; coming to grips with a time that’s longer ago than you’ve been alive seems, somehow, impossible. I imagine this is one reason younger people (under 20, say) have difficulty finding immediate relevance in history, or indeed in any period longer than their own conscious memory. When I was 4, the war had only been over for 20 years. Now it’s been over for almost 70, and yet it seems much less long ago to me than when I was a child. Such are the disturbing vagaries of age.
Whatever my reticence to celebrating this as an anniversary, as opposed to merely marking it with respect, I can understand those who do: The inhabitants of Normandy, for instance, for whom D-Day spelled the end of their domination by Hitler, and conquered Europe generally, for which it was the beginning of the end for the Nazi regime.
And, of course, the survivors.
In his memoir A Third Face, Sam Fuller recounts what was said on Omaha by a colonel he particularly admired, “There are two kinds of men out here! The dead! And those who are about to die! So let’s get the hell off this beach and at least die inland!”
As the Robert Carradine character in The Big Red One — not coincidentally, Fuller’s stand-in — says in voice-over at the end of the picture: “Surviving is the only glory in war.”
Text (other than that by Samuel Fuller and Paddy Chayesfky) copyright 2014 by Scott Ross