That wound totally changed my life. I came home before the war was over, alienated from my past. No one wanted to hear my story, the story of war: the nature of my wound—skull and brain blown open, buttock sheared off, shrapnel in my pelvis. I was paralyzed until an operation took pieces of shrapnel, and skull, and helmet, and helmet liner from my brain. Parents, friends, girlfriends had a different story of war to mine—one told to them by Hollywood. They believed in the movies’ praise of valor. No one wanted to hear that I resonated with shame over my wound: what kind of man was I, hit in the butt, after a short time at the front? How could I expose that gaping hole with its livid scars to a woman? In my anger and rage—over long years—I hurt loving parents, lost a marriage, and was not the father I should have been. Once, I even tried suicide.
There was little psychiatric help for my generation of combat soldiers. There was no PTSD. We were told to shut up and get on with life. And those who couldn’t—thousands whose emotional problems were so severe they were hospitalized, or even given prefrontal lobotomies, making them zombies for the rest of their lives
It was movies, shoot ’em ups—the ones my parents and my friends saw—that largely interpreted World War II for civilians. Even the best of those movies, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) had the same message: adjust and get on with it. And books that disagreed? While Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) and Robert O. Bowen’s wonderful The Weight of the Cross (1953) told a more honest story, they were largely for intellectuals. Movies were the nation’s most important storyteller.
Hollywood provides our national narrative—interpreting our individual and corporate lives. The entertainment industry, no matter its intent, inevitably convinces us that we have “seen” war, when at best we have seen a portrait of it. We mistake confected image for war’s reality, and that image prevents us from ever seeing its truth. When watching a film we do not kill or get killed, yet killing is all that war is about. As General Patton, leader of the Third Army in France and Europe, preached: “… no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country, they won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his.”
The insanity of killing in a firefight or a bombing can never really be shown in a movie: the sweet, sick smell of blood, the odor of feces and urine released from a dying body, the stale sweat and gun powder. Somewhere in France—I will never know where, maybe it was even my imagination—I remember a dead German soldier on the side of the Macadam road, sprawled in death, matted blood in his blond hair that waved grotesquely in the wind. On the top of his head a bird perched, maybe it was a robin, but the bird had dipped its beak into the blood, and it glinted in the sunlight as the bird sweetly sang its cheerful melody over the dead German’s body.
And that is the madness of war: the chaos of a firefight, then suddenly the song of a bird, the sight and smell of blood, the utter stillness of the dead.
J. Glenn Gray in his fine book, The Warriors (1958), points out that viewing a spectacle has always been one of humanity’s greatest delights. It is “the lust of the eye” that so seduces us when we look at war and film. Remember the “shock and awe” of the Iraq War in March, 2003? We knew it was terrible, we knew it was vicious—so many lives lost, so many innocents wounded—yet it was captivating viewing. We separated the spectacle of bombing from the act of killing. As war becomes a spectacle, the viewer forgets that an army is a machine constructed for one thing only: killing more of them than they kill of us.
And even when Hollywood makes a genuine effort to show war as it is, as in the first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998), it stumbles on this fundamental flaw of the medium: movies can never present the reality of killing and wounding, the horror of loss, the torture of violence, the savagery of terror. The inescapable permanence of it all.
And, so, when combat soldiers come home from overseas, they return to an environment now alien. Friends, family, and strangers on the street have an image of guns and glory, violence and heroic viciousness. How can the soldier speak truth to the collective cultural narrative? How can their truth be believed against pervasive, profound misunderstanding?
This world of supermarkets, glut of goods, expressways, movies, TV, video games, and Twitter is fundamentally in denial of the truth of war. Can that smell of combat ever be forgotten? Twenty veterans in this country commit suicide every day. Now at 91 years of age, as I gaze at those crossed U. S. and French flags before sleep, the truth of a firefight still remains—the memories of so much pain.
I pray we will learn to hear the soldier’s story—not the story from Hollywood and our media. I pray we will find a way for soldiers and veterans to tell their story so we finally learn the truth of war and, then perhaps, at last, will seek real peace.
Written by Edward W. Wood Jr.