Tatiana Prorokova. Journal of Military Ethics. Volume 18, Issue 2. 2019.
Introduction: Ethics, Film, and World War II
The Second World War changed, as the famous cultural and literary historian Paul Fussell (1989, ix) puts it, the “psychological and emotional culture” of all the nations that partook in that brutal contest, including the US. The war itself was not just about coping with the intense physical load but, probably most importantly, it was about “deal[ing] with … the rationalizations and euphemisms … , [with] the abnormally intense frustration of desire in wartime and some of the means by which desire was satisfied” (1989, ix). Fussell speaks about the enormous material damage caused by the air bombing and shooting; however, he emphasizes also the damage the war did to “intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity, and irony, not to mention privacy and wit” (1989, ix). What Fussell finds problematic is that when the war was over, people tried to “sanitize” and “romanticize” the bloody battle that lasted for six years (1989, ix). For Americans, the main reason for doing so was arguably a desire to sanctify the war so that US citizens would feel the significance of their grandfathers’ participation in World War II. This is, however, possible only when the nation sees the “pure” side of the war, namely, that their grandfathers were fighting on the right side with good intentions. Fighting against the Nazis was a justification strong enough to allow certain facts that could tarnish the reputation of American soldiers to be omitted or just remain unspoken. The war was partially stylized into an “adventure” where good fought against evil. I argue that this tendency was, to some extent, transferred to film. Nonetheless, many directors have also tried to question the war in their works and show the reality of combat as authentically as possible. This includes Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg, and the mini-series Band of Brothers directed by, among others, David Frankel.
Before proceeding to the analysis of the chosen cinematic examples, however, it seems reasonable to consider the following two issues: first, how film portrayals of war cultivate, formulate, and eventually promote specific understandings of particular wars, as well as how film creates an image of those who partook in those conflicts; and second, referring specifically to World War II, how the war that took place more than 70 years ago has been generally reflected on screen over that vast period of time.
The complexity and importance of war explain the emergence of a large number of disciplines that analyze the problem from various angles. Nonetheless, perhaps the most obvious perspective from which one can examine war is a historical one, since every war inevitably becomes part of history, including cultural history. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that war-related themes can frequently be found in various forms of media, such as literature, music, art, and film. All those contributions are significant as they shape cultural perspectives on the issue of war. In this article, I focus only on film for two reasons. First, film has a very specific ability to visualize events, both facilitating and intensifying one’s perception. Second, the chosen cinematic examples can be considered a visual re-visiting of World War II, i.e. they obviously differ from the films on World War II that were released shortly after the war was over.
War is one of film’s most popular topics. Considering only wars the US has taken part in, one can find cinematic examples that deal with the American Civil War (Shenandoah , Glory ), World War I (Shoulder Arms , Paths of Glory ), World War II (Saving Private Ryan , The Thin Red Line ), the Korean War (Sayonara , Inchon ), the Vietnam War (Apocalypse Now , Full Metal Jacket ), the First Gulf War (Three Kings , Jarhead ), the Balkan War (Behind Enemy Lines ), the Afghanistan War (Brothers , Lone Survivor ), and, finally, the Iraq War (Stop-Loss , American Sniper ). This panoply shows that film has been a solid platform not only to portray the complexity of war but also to deal with various wars, taking into consideration different historical periods and events.
In depictions of war, the issue of ethics becomes a key one. Among the ethically relevant questions to ask are the following: How does cinema portray war? Does it tend to take sides? Can one consider these cinematic representations to be historically correct re-tellings of the events in question? Does film depict war events in order to make them persist in collective memory? These are truly complex questions, and each of them would need a detailed examination. What I will do in the following is to consider them as they relate to ethical challenges and problems. Specifically, I argue that every representation of war to a certain degree employs ethics.
It is important, however, to understand that different wars provoke different reactions and, eventually, different representations. For example, whereas American participation in World War II is frequently referred to as participation in a “good” war, US intervention in the Middle East (Afghanistan and Iraq) in the twenty-first century hardly resembles the “good” war against the Nazis. The cinematic portrayal will arguably depend on two factors: first, against whom war is waged, i.e. who the enemy is; and second, what means are applied in order to win the war. In short, historical facts and factors ultimately play a significant role in the formation of a cinematic portrayal.
Moral justification of war on-screen takes place most explicitly when the war itself, or rather the participation of a specific side and its committed actions in a given war, can be historically and ethically justified. Perhaps the only example of war that can be treated in this way without raising additional questions and provoking a negative response is the allied cause, including American participation, in World War II. Since the intervention of the US has generally been deemed legitimate, its portrayal in film reflects a similar tendency. The fight against the Nazis in Europe, the freeing of innocent people from the occupied force, and the destruction of concentration camps—these are the actions that created the image of a “good” war.
When analyzing the representation of World War II on screen, it is important to bear in mind that Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers—two relatively modern and quite famous examples of World War II cinema—are far from the only films on the “good” war. The film medium responded to the war during the war and also almost immediately after it was over, and indeed, a great number of works were created shortly after 1945. Guy Westwell comments that those films were “largely committed to a process of reckoning and reconciliation as well as celebration of American victory and hope for the future” (2006, 46). Those were also films that, to borrow from John Whiteclay Chambers II and David Culbert, “established the prevailing public images of war” (1996, 3). Additionally, Thomas Doherty emphasizes the fact that only when Hollywood began to depict World War II, did film finally start to “matter” (1993, 5), which aptly underlines the influence of World War II as a cultural subject-matter on the development and ultimate establishment of cinema as a serious medium.
Since Vietnam, which had a great effect on the way in which war was understood and debated in the US, World War II has widely been referred to as a “good” war. Albert Auster claims that in the US, the beginning of the twenty-first century was an especially important period for World War II cinema, as that was the time when the “glorification of the generation that had endured the Great Depression and heroically sacrificed to win World War II” became a “notable cultural theme” (Auster 2005, 205). In turn, I contend that although Saving Private Ryan was released at the end of the twentieth century, it clearly can be considered a preamble to that important cultural shift that was aptly consolidated by the release of Band of Brothers.
Remembering World War II in Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan was Steven Spielberg’s second film on World War II, after Schindler’s List (1993), and it attracted a lot of attention from both film critics and the audience. Interestingly, responses to the film are divergent. Doherty argues that in Saving Private Ryan, “the hell of war is shown in all its fury and horror, stripped of romance, nobility and happy endings … [The film claims that the war] is violent and terrifying, that good guys die, that moral verities wilt under fire” (1998, 68). Steve Vineberg claims that
Spielberg is able to burn away any remaining shred of romanticism his audience may have cherished about the nobility of some wars by leveling his pitiless gaze at the Second World War, which was, at least, a fight that needed to be fought. (1999, 35)
Toby Haggith says that “[t]he release of Saving Private Ryan is regarded as a landmark in the history of war films, because of the visceral power and brutal realism of its treatment of combat” (2002, 332). Catherine Gunther Kodat contends that the film “casts itself as a reverent tribute to our fathers’ generation” (2000, 78). Nicholas J. Cull believes that “sentiment and realism are so intertwined in Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s overwhelming depiction of the war those men fought, as to suggest a new cinematic genre: sentimental realism” (1998, 1377). Whereas Lawrence H. Suid claims that it was “the initial rush” that made “critics [heap] praise on Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, with many calling it the greatest war movie film ever … [that] perfectly captured the reality of combat” (1998, 1185). Jake Horsley argues that Saving Private Ryan is a “powerful glimpse into the horrors of war and a tour-de-force of cinema that suffered from the … basic problem [that it], in its bid for moral depth and social significance, reduced itself to asinine sentimentality” (2005, 280-281). Frank J. Wetta denounces “reactions to Private Ryan by newspaper columnists” that “reflected a kind of amnesia about combat films—as if no one but Steven Spielberg has even attempted to portray the experience of combat honestly” (1998, 895-896). Finally, Howard Zinn, a World War II veteran, comments:
I disliked the film intensely, indeed, was angry at it. Because I did not want the suffering of men in war to be used, yes, exploited, in such a way as to revive what should be buried along with all those bodies in Arlington Cemetery—the glory of military heroism. (1998, 138)
I support the latter opinions, specifically, that the film is not sui generis as many directors had already raised the issue of the brutality of World War II before Saving Private Ryan was released. Also, one can detect certain blunders in the film’s plot. Yet, one should not underestimate Spielberg’s work because it raises important questions concerning the American military intervention in the Second World War. As Frank J. Wetta and Martin A. Novelli put it, Saving Private Ryan is a “film to be taken very seriously indeed” (2003, 874).
Wetta points out that Saving Private Ryan is perhaps the only film on war that starts with the climax (1998, 895). The audience is immediately immersed into the bloodshed that took place on D-Day in Normandy, on 6 June 1944. For almost 25 minutes, Spielberg depicts the landing of American soldiers at Omaha Beach, which represents the “cacophony of the battlefield scenes” (1998, 895): the roar of the breakers, the shooting that never stops, severely injured soldiers screaming “Momma!” all the time, splashes of mud and vomit, floods of blood, mixing with the sea and covering the whole field with a dark red medley, prayers in whispers and appeals to God for help—all these sounds and images mix, creating the total chaos that reigns on the battlefield. With pinpoint accuracy, Spielberg demonstrates that this is war and good guys die—good American guys die. Moreover, the episode illustrates Fussell’s argument that mainly young soldiers were fighting World War II and that “among the horribly wounded the most common cry was ‘Mother!’” (1989, 52). Anne Gjelsvik accentuates the “graphic depiction” of the battle that critics approve of for two reasons: it reflects the reality of war and it “leaves the spectator with appropriate feelings and moral afterthoughts,” which makes Saving Private Ryan a major contribution to the cinema of war (2009, 117-118).
Many critics notice the expert camera work in this opening episode. Wetta speaks about its innovation (1998, 895), while Haggith claims that the realism of the battle scenes is achieved by “mimicking the style of combat film shot by Allied cameraman” (2002, 332). The film as a whole is quite authentic, due to the fact that Spielberg paid attention to every detail: “arms, vehicles, uniforms, unit insignia, every stripe and hash mark in pace, down to the distinctive diamond-shaped design of a Hitler Youth dagger” (Doherty 1998, 68). For Spielberg, it was of the utmost importance to create a film that the veterans of World War II would appreciate, which was rarely the case with other war films: “They all said, there were two wars fought, there was our war and there was Hollywood’s war” (Spielberg, quoted in Haggith 2002, 333). Spielberg did not want the story to be done in a “Rambo” style, just as he did not want to show the traditional “hell” of war. His goal was to create a film “uneasy for the audiences to bear through” (2002, 333). Showing dead bodies of American soldiers, Spielberg convincingly dramatized the horrors of war. He did not create another John Wayne film, where every death is avenged and the enemy experiences greater loss (2002, 334). What the audience really witnesses in Saving Private Ryan is slow death of young men who cry and curse the war. According to Haggith, the director manages to avoid another cliché, namely, he does not really give us much time to get to know the characters better: the majority dies shortly after we see them for the first time (2002, 334).
As for the filming itself, Spielberg was inspired by the US combat cameramen in The Battle for San Pietro (1945) and With the Marines at Tarawa (1944)—films that display real attacks (2002, 335). In Saving Private Ryan, the scene at Omaha Beach is shot from a low angle, which is true to real combat footage, where cameramen for safety reasons simply do not have a chance to stand up and capture a larger view. Nevertheless, the camera changes position several times, namely, when we get to observe the location of German soldiers and when Spielberg reveals the size of the beach (2002, 340). Additionally, Haggith singles out the most “inconsistent” scene, i.e. when Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) checks the positions of German soldiers with the help of a small mirror (2002, 340). At first, the camera shows Miller from the side, as if the cameraman were sitting right next to him. Immediately after, Hanks’ character is shown frontally and from a distance so that the audience realizes that the cameraman is right there under fire, while the whole unit is hiding behind a rock. Moreover, during the battle, the camera shakes a lot, while blood and water stain lens: something that typically does not happen in real combat films (Haggith 2002, 341, 335). Additionally, Haggith finds it very improbable that a soldier would allow a cameraman to film him vomiting, which indeed takes place in Saving Private Ryan (2002, 343). However, it is important to bear in mind that Spielberg obviously was not shooting a documentary; on the contrary, as Haggith himself argues, “Spielberg’s aim was to bring the audience as close as possible to the experience of being in combat” (2002, 334). Therefore, I argue that showing everything that was going on in the battlefield, even something that a combat camera would never shoot, brings Spielberg’s film closer to reality. As for the director’s imitation of a combat camera, I disagree with Haggith who claims that the director “failed” in trying to do that (2002, 348). My assumption is that the film simply would not have been that famous and successful if Spielberg had made it entirely in a “combat camera style.” Thus, a great advantage of Saving Private Ryan is that it is a Hollywood film on war that brings the audience closer to the reality of war.
The questions of authenticity and specific filming techniques become especially significant when analyzing the issue of US intervention in World War II and its reflection in the film. Spielberg’s film displays the hardships of US involvement in the form of the difficulties and horrors so many American soldiers faced during the war. The director accurately demonstrates that the intervention was an indispensable mission conducted to fight against evil; yet he does not seek for unnecessary embellishment. On the contrary, Spielberg makes his film as genuine as possible.
When the battle is over, the camera focuses on a dead soldier who lies on his stomach, his rucksack bearing the inscription “Ryan. S.” on his back. Later on, the action is transferred to a room full of typists who write letters to soldiers’ families in order to inform them about the deaths of their relatives. Sergeant Hill (Paul Giamatti) accidentally finds out that there are three letters in all for Mrs. Ryan that will let her know that three of her four sons are dead. The situation is reported to the US Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) who decides to send a detachment of eight people to find the fourth son and bring him home to his mother. When some of the officers express disagreement, General Marshall takes a letter written by Abraham Lincoln and reads it out loud:
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom. (Saving Private Ryan)
The emergence of this letter serves to show that securing the lives of US citizens has always been the main task of the US government. History repeats itself, but no matter how many battles are fought, the government bears responsibility for those who fight for the state, defending US principles and views. The letter may also be perceived from a cynical point of view, namely, that politicians are, in fact, rich in profound words that inspire patriotic feelings. Any of these speeches, however, turn into idle talks for a mother who has lost her sons. Politicians are often good at planning; yet they never really know what war entails. The words of the veteran of the Gulf War that started more than forty years after World War II, vividly support my argument:
But next time Clinton decides to loose off a barrage of missiles he should watch this film. Because Saving Private Ryan opens one’s eyes to the fact that wars are not about governments, they are about people. War is not glamorous and safe, just brutal, cruel and bloody terrifying—and people die. (Flt. Lt. J. Nichol, quoted in Haggith 2002, 333)
Hence, every intervention can be analyzed and felt from two radically different perspectives: on the one hand, the way it is planned by the government, on the other hand, the way it is directly carried out and experienced by soldiers.
One of the tensest scenes in Saving Private Ryan is the fight between Pvt. Mellish (Adam Goldberg) and a German soldier. The scene is important not only because it represents a clear confrontation between what the film perceives as good (American soldiers) and evil (German soldiers), but also because the scene demonstrates the Otherness of evil. Spielberg deliberately does not provide the audience with English subtitles, so whatever the German soldier says remains unclear to both Pvt. Mellish and to the viewers. Karen Jaehne argues that the use of the German language can be interpreted as a technique to create an uncomfortable atmosphere, in which “the German’s words are another kind of torture for Mellish, threatening him or cursing him” (1999, 39). Thus, one gets the sense that not only the territory Germans occupy makes them feel superior; use of a—for their opponent—foreign language empowers them, too. American intrusion therefore looks more like a childish game, where, as Jaehne claims, American soldiers are “innocent” (1999, 40).
American innocence, however, is questioned twice in the film. Firstly, this happens in the scene when Captain Miller and his soldiers rest after a short attack in a bombed city. As a wall in one of the houses collapses, German soldiers playing cards are revealed. Everything happens very suddenly; both the American and the German soldiers point arms at each other. Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) warns the Germans that if they do not put down their weapons, the Americans will start shooting. A moment later, American soldiers open fire and the Germans, being in the minority, are killed. Evidently, in this situation the German soldiers should have been captured as prisoners of war. Interestingly, those who shot the soldiers are not revealed to us. But it is made explicit that it was not Captain Miller, which allows him, as a commander, to remain innocent.
American morality in the war is further questioned in the scene where a German soldier, taken as a prisoner of war by Captain Miller and his detachment, is forced to dig a grave for himself. What makes the scene even more humiliating is the desperate attempt of the German to stay alive: “ … Please, I like America! Fancy schmancy! What a cinch! Go fly a kite! Cat got your tongue! Hill of beans! Betty Boop, what a dish. Betty Grable, nice gams.” It gets even worse when he desperately starts to sing in English and then finishes his supplication with repeated exclamations of “Fuck Hitler!” (Saving Private Ryan). Jaehne calls it a “stream-of consciousness list of Yankee cultural exports” that is apparently announced in order to make the Americans believe that the German is on their side because he knows so much about their country (1999, 41). Finally, the soldier is let go by Captain Miller. Such a decision, curiously enough, again characterizes Miller as a good American. I would like to emphasize that the Captain is always portrayed in the most favorable light. This noted, it is important to realize that Captain Miller symbolizes authority in the film. The fact that the one with a higher rank acts according to his conscience can be a reference to the American government and the Army commanders who, planning an intervention, always try to remain “clean,” no matter what happens.
Saving Private Ryan justifies American intervention and portrays the involvement as a positive engagement that should make the US feel proud, as the country provided help to maintain peace and freedom. The issue of pride is raised at the very beginning and at the end of the film, when an old man, surrounded by his family members, comes to the Arlington National Cemetery. Suid underlines the “greatest emotional impact” that is conveyed in both scenes (1998, 1186). The old man falls down on his knees and starts to cry, looking at the cross on the grave. He asks his wife who tries to comfort him whether he lived a good life, which implies, whether he “earned” to live his life or not. By this time, we already know that the old man is not Hanks’ character but the saved Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon). Captain Miller sacrificed his life on the bridge that Pvt. Ryan and some other soldiers were supposed to defend. Miller’s last words addressed to Pvt. Ryan were “Earn it” (Saving Private Ryan). This particular phrase makes the ending rather ambivalent. What exactly did Damon’s character earn? He earned his life, but he did so at the cost of Miller’s death and the death of many other soldiers from Miller’s detachment. Vineberg asks: “[H]ow can anyone earn that kind of sacrifice, and what would it even mean to earn it?” (1999, 36).
Interestingly, Ryan’s attitude to the sacrifice is quite light. Eventually, the audience stops sympathizing with Ryan’s tragedy because virtually there was no tragedy for him. Ryan survived. If Spielberg wanted to make the story deeply patriotic, he should have created another ending, because Saving Private Ryan’s ending is trite. And “the quiet thanks” at Miller’s grave does not become, as Suid puts it, “the film’s raison d’être” (1998, 1186). On the contrary, it just reminds us of a whole detachment of soldiers who died, trying to save one man (who finally did not even want to go back with them because he found “new brothers” on that ill-fated bridge, whom he did not want to leave). However, one could argue that the ending, where Miller dies whereas Ryan survives, helps Spielberg make a clear point: that good guys, those whom we love (arguably, Miller is a more likeable character for the audience simply because he is the main character in the film), die in war. The description of a “common American soldier” provided by John Bodnar aptly characterizes Miller, too:
… [T]he common American soldier was fundamentally a good man who loved his country and his family. He went to war out of a sense of duty to both, and he wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Rather than being a natural-born killer, he was a loving family man who abhorred the use of extreme force but could inflict it when necessary. (2001, 805)
Of course, one can question the role of Americans in World War II, their means of solving conflicts, and the decisions that were made, but it is important to bear in mind that in the context of World War II, the collective goals were much more important than individual ones, and reaching the collective goals ultimately made “the nation and its warriors … moral and honorable” (Bodnar 2001, 806). The important message that the film transmits is that we must “honor these men and ‘earn’ the freedom they have left us” (2001, 815). Indeed, Miller’s sacrifice can be perceived not just as the rescue of one man but as “the general sacrifice of the war years” for the benefit of “the specific postwar world” (Cull 1998, 1377).
It is obvious that World War II symbolically became a “good” war and even today many politicians refer to that war as an example of the real patriotism and devotion of Americans to their country (Zinn 1998, 138). Although the war also destroyed many people, physically or mentally, and begot hate, World War II remains a model war (1998, 139). Exactly this representation of World War II and the purpose of American intervention are reflected in Saving Private Ryan—a film that aims to make one feel national pride and devotion to the US from the very beginning, with the American flag is waving in the air.
Band of Brothers
The mini-series Band of Brothers directed by, among others, David Frankel and produced by, among others, Steven Spielberg, is one of the World War II film projects that continue Saving Private Ryan’s tradition: It aims to tell the truth about the war and to reveal the feelings of soldiers who took part in the battles. It is based on the book of the same name written by Stephen Ambrose. After having been published in 1992, the book enjoyed great success, a success duplicated by the film adaptation almost 10 years later (Cull 2002, 991). Band of Brothers covers quite a long period of time, starting from the training camp in Georgia, 1942, and proceeding to war actions and the life of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of the US Army in field conditions until the end of the war, in 1945.
Nicholas J. Cull argues that Band of Brothers can be treated as a historically reliable mini-series, where real events complemented with special and dramatic effects reinforce the plot (2002, 991). Moreover, as Cull observes, Band of Brothers has two great “advantages” (2002, 991). I would suggest that these two aspects unite Saving Private Ryan and the mini-series, both of which represent the gritty realism of the war in a highly authentic way. The way the US intervention is portrayed in Band of Brothers is reminiscent of its representation in Saving Private Ryan, too.
First, Band of Brothers examines very serious issues that emerged during the time of the war and that were and are still frequently avoided by many directors of war films, namely, the shooting of prisoners of war, psychological breakdowns, alcoholism, marauding, inaccurate planning of war actions, and firing by one’s own side. Second, historical accuracy is achieved through narration of events that really took place. More than that, the scripts are based not only on the facts provided by Ambrose, but also on those given by the survivors of Easy Company (Cull 2002, 992). One realizes this through the specific way in which each episode is constructed, i.e. in the episodes’ openings, real veterans of the war tell the audience about their war experiences. Cull underscores the uniqueness of the mini-series, where many clichés of the war-film genre are avoided:
Characters emerge from the narrative gradually rather than through the expected generic events or conversations. There are no exaggerated regional politics in the make-up of the company, no soliloquizing in letters home, and few moments of convenient narrative closure. The result creates the welcome sensation of events speaking for themselves, without a scriptwriter’s heavy-handed moralizing, propagandizing, or sentimentality. (2002, 992)
Indeed, one can speculate that in part 7 of the mini-series, “The Breaking Point,” the improbable representation of commanders in war films is implicitly made fun of, when Maj. Richard D. Winters (Damian Lewis) considers candidates for company commander. The camera flashes to his first choice—Lt. Shames (Joseph May)—who yells at his solders: “Don’t you ever talk when I am talking! You got that? You never ever talk when I am talking! Both of you … ” (Band of Brothers). Lt, Shames resembles the ultimate stereotype of how a “real” commander behaves in film. Interestingly, in the end, “the only real choice” (Band of Brothers) for Maj. Winters is 1st Lt. Lynn “Buck” Compton—the most experienced, self-possessed, and steadfast individual among of all the candidates.
Finally, World War II in Band of Brothers is not just a political drama. It is first and foremost a tragic and violent event that causes deaths, physical mutilations, and psychological traumas. All these aspects are reflected in the mini-series: soldiers find their comrades dead both on the battlefield and when no attack is has been planned, because this is war and people die not only when a special operation is performed but daily and randomly; soldiers constantly get injured, they lose their arms and legs; and lastly, we see how hard it is for many of them to stay psychologically sane as displayed in part 3, “Carentan,” when Pvt. Albert Blithe (Marc Warren) realizes that he is blind, suffering from the extreme stress of battle, but some time later starts seeing again; or in part 7, “The Breaking Point,” when Lt. Compton suffers from war hysteria. However, the mini-series suggests that all those losses were not for nothing. This is illustrated in part 9, “Why We Fight,” when American soldiers find the Landsberg concentration camp. The soldiers are shocked by the horrifying view: people in this place resemble skeletons, they can barely walk; some of the barracks they live in have half-burned down—because that was one of the ways in which Nazis attempted to execute the prisoners before fleeing to safety. The soldiers ask Cpl. Liebgott (Ross McCall)—an American Jew, the only one among the soldiers who speaks the German language—to find out who these prisoners are, and soon he shares that these are Jews. This is a very powerful moment because it illustrates how the war and the fighting were being negotiated in the minds of those who were carrying out the military actions. The scene demonstrates that American soldiers were not only fighting against evil Hitler on an abstracted level; World War II concerned and influenced them on a personal level, too. The heart-rending and harrowing sight of the camp serves to prove that all the casualties and losses Americans incurred were not in vain; the intervention itself was necessary to free the oppressed and stop the injustice and extermination.
The peculiarity that arrests my attention is that in World War II, Hollywood in the main abstains from depicting scenes of concentration camps. Films and mini-series like Marvin J. Chomsky’s Holocaust (1978), Daniel Mann and Joseph Sargent’s Playing for Time (1980), Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Donna Deitch’s The Devil’s Arithmetic (1999), and Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone (2001) focus exclusively on the issue of the Holocaust and concentration camps as a means of extermination during World War II. However, Hollywood cinema generally fails to provide a broad collating of examples that could visually provide a moral explanation for the US’ decision to intervene, in the form of a link between the fighting and the Nazi atrocities.
The fact that US soldiers liberated prisoners of concentration camps is briefly discussed in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2009). The powerful effect of the scene where American soldiers enter Dachau is gained by the camera’s focus on the prisoners. The camera further moves on a track, illustrating the horrors of Dachau: children, women, and men, clenching the barbwire fence with their freezing fingers. We witness soldiers examining the territory of the camp and discovering piles of dead, already frozen bodies. The film then features the moment when US soldiers shoot unarmed German guards (POWs), deliberately drawing out the process of execution to draw the audience’s attention to both the historical relevance of the “murder” (as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Teddy Daniels, admits that it was, while telling about his participation in the liberation of Dachau) and its importance to the film’s plot. Despite illustrating the war crime committed by US soldiers, Shutter Island’s strong and overpowering scenes of the concentration camp serve to justify US military intervention and support the characterization of American soldiers as liberators, hence, accentuating their good intentions, although also revealing the means by which the prisoners’ freedom was achieved.
Band of Brothers touches upon the ethical side of the intervention, too, but from a different angle. A crucial question inevitably arises: does cinema serve as a means of disclosure of historical failures? The mini-series obviously refers to the fact that although the Allies had information on the existence of concentration camps, they did not destroy them as soon as they could have, leading to the further torturing and killing of thousands of people in them. Yet, Band of Brothers explicitly claims that soldiers were unaware of such camps, which we realize in the scene when Sgt. Perconte (James Madio) runs to Maj. Winters to report that they found “something” in the forest, but they do not understand what it is. As we observe later, the officers, just as the privates, do not know that the horrible discovery in the forest is a concentration camp, and they are unaware of what it is meant for. The issue of US intervention in World War II is therefore bifacial as the intervention: On the one hand, is a violent one with many particular flaws, and with the soldiers not being fully aware of what they were fighting against. On the other hand, the intervention can be treated as an exemplification of the ethical use of force, which clearly needed to be exercised in the case of World War II.
In conclusion, it is important to emphasize the shift in the cinematic portrayal of World War II that took place in the 1990s and the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the moral justification of World War II became a peculiar feature of perhaps every film that dealt with that war. The most obvious reason for that is, arguably, the devastating experience of the US in Vietnam—the war that made the US rethink its interventionist policy; the war that produced thousands of veterans whose service was not appreciated; the war that made Americans feel ashamed, and that to a large extent destroyed the faith of American citizens in their government and values. Whether World War II was a “good” war per se is a difficult question to answer. Obviously, as in every war, atrocities, barbarism, and militarily unethical behavior took place during World War II. However, when considering the menace that the enemy posed, the suffering that the war caused for innocent civilians, as well as the Holocaust—one of the most horrible genocides in human history—and its ramifications, it becomes clear why World War II cinema tends to justify US intervention in Europe, insistently portraying it as a truly “good” war.