To Accept the Mainstream Narrative of Wars Past is to Threaten Future Stability

by Adam Alcorn

A glimpse at War and Films by Adam Alcorn

Historians and observers alike tend to seek out a clear and rational narrative to a sequence of events in history. This is not unique to war but is highlighted by the societal necessity for justification of such a violent phenomenon.  Through film, literature, the press, and in more recent times the internet, people have always been subject to a seemingly unquestionable narrative in regards to war and just what side of history the Nation is going to fall. Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 were in a state of fervor for war. This is not an unusual or entirely unjustified response to such tragic events. The unfortunate side effect of such fervor for war is an enhanced desire among people to seek a simple narrative to complex sequence of events. The narrative presented to the Americans over a several year period following 9/11 has been proven false, but it went unquestioned by the press. In the meantime, Americans started two extended wars followed by nation building campaigns in the Middle East. Wars and other social phenomena are usually complex sequences of events that cannot be explained by a single narrative and to accept a single narrative as the historical truth is dangerous in ways that Americans are begrudgingly learning today in the hills and valleys of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is also true when remembering wars through film.

The First World War has been long remembered as an unnecessary diplomatic crisis and a waste of so many lives.  In the decades following the war this narrative was presented in many ways. La Grande Illusion (1937) was a French film directed by Jean Renoir that expressed the folly of Nationalism and the ability of humanity to come together and avoid fruitless and violent conflict. In La Grande Illusion, Renoir expresses this sentiment by providing with his cast a veritable cross section of Western European society. The rich Jewish immigrant is portrayed as Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a member of the aristocracy is represented in Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and an army officer of humble beginnings is Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin). These men all represented different classes with different struggles, real struggles. The interesting twist in La Grande Illusion is that not only do these men coexist peacefully inside a German prison camp, but they get along with their German captors as well. German Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim) even cries alongside de Boldieu after he shoots him. This expressed the spirit that is so often associated with the First World War. La Grande Illusion was another part of the single, unquestioned narrative of the time. A narrative suggesting that humanity had evolved beyond petty Nationalistic disputes and that the futility of war was understood by everyone proved to be dangerous however. When viewed in the context of the coming Second World War, the lines between unhealthy Nationalistic fury and Patriotism begin to blur. As film critic Stanley Kauffmann said of La Grande Illusion “Today its pacifist intent, as such, seems somewhat less salient (though no less moving) because so many more human beings know how futile war is and know too, that no film can abolish it”1. The moral lessons supposedly solved via the enlightened narrative presented in this film suddenly became irrelevant as the world faced the potentiality of a Nazi empire.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) was directed by Stephen Spielberg and depicted another commonly unquestioned narrative for the events of World War II.  It was a gruesome expose on the brutality of war, in many ways an anti-war film. However, as Bodnar said in reviewing the film “Ironically, while the Spielberg film reveals the brutality of war, it preserves the World War II image of American soldiers as inherently averse to bloodshed and cruelty. The war was savage; the average American GI who fought it was not.2”. Not only does this support Kauffmann’s theory regarding the futility of anti-war film, but it also sheds light upon the true power of a single, unquestionable historical narrative, accepted as truth. People are willing to believe unbelievable things when presented with it repeatedly, and without access to the truth. The “good war” reputation of World War II has played no small role in the development of the United States of America serving as policeman of the world.

It is entirely possible that the unfortunate gambles taken before World War II with the policies we call appeasement were in part a result of the narrative proclaiming World War I as the war to end all wars and that we had evolved beyond frivolous Nationalistic disputes. There is no doubt that the unquestioned narrative of American involvement in World War II that portrays the U.S. as saviors of the civilized world resulted in the policies of “American Exceptionalism” that laced the news media before and throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This cultural tendency towards accepting a single narrative as truth results in ignorance of our past that can often lead to a dangerous future.

  1. Stanley Kauffmann, “Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion,” Horizon 14, Nr. 3 (1972): 49. Scholar.
  2. John Bodnar, “Saving Private Ryan and Postwar Memory in America,” The American Historical Review 106 (2001): 805-817.

– Adam Alcorn, @AdamBlacksburg,