Despite the duration of current conflicts, Americans seem more culturally attuned to World War II than the two wars still being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Two World War II dramas — “The Imitation Game” and “Unbroken” — hope for Academy Award nominations next Thursday, and “The Imitation Game” may win Best Drama at Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards. On Friday, “D-Day: Normandy 1944” premiered at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s giant-screen Omnitheater.
The D-Day documentary is narrated by Tom Brokaw, credited with coining “The Greatest Generation” as the catchphrase for those who won World War II. All three films deftly reinforce this generational generalization — “D-Day: Normandy 1944” from a figurative and literal wide lens, while “The Imitation Game” and “Unbroken” are more individually introspective biopics about U.S. and U.K war heroes.
“Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of author Laura Hillenbrand’s riveting bestseller about American Louis Zamperini, tells the remarkable story of a ruffian-turned-runner who competes in Hitler’s Berlin Olympics, becomes a B-24 bombardier, is shot down, spends 47 days in a life raft surrounded by sharks only to then be sent to a sadistic Japanese POW camp. His resilience in just one of those episodes is worthy of a movie. Together, Zamperini’s extraordinary story embodies the collective heroism of a generation.
“The Imitation Game” tells the story of Alan Turing, a mathematical genius who was part of a team tasked with breaking the Nazi “Enigma” code. Turing was enigmatic himself, obscuring his personal life as he worked to save the lives of millions. His heroism wasn’t just impactful during the war, but beyond: Turing’s code-breaking computer prototype was one of the machines that led to today’s digital age.
But unfortunately, unlike “Unbroken’s” Zamperini, the code breaker himself could be broken, although not by a cruel prison guard but by a brutal British legal system that persecuted homosexuality.
The two war heroes, a brawny Yank and brainy Brit, were distinctly different. Each faced extraordinary individual challenges. But both were part of something much larger — a total societal war effort. In other words, a society very different from today’s.
That’s among the theses of an important article in this month’s Atlantic magazine, “The Tragedy of the American Military.” It’s written by the widely respected reporter James Fallows, who in an interview summed up his Pentagon perspective by first reading from the piece: “It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously.”
Then he added: “The point I’m making is that in the generation since the coming of the volunteer army, and the decade-plus since the post-9/11 wars, the American public has substituted veneration of the military for any serious attention to the missions it’s sent on, the real needs it has, how we spend this money and what the long-term consequences of our military commitments are. So we’re acting as if calling people in uniform ‘heroes’ makes up for thinking seriously as a public about the job they do.”
Fallows is quick to acknowledge that many in uniform are in fact heroes and that the public has put today’s troops in a broader historical context.
“As people began to reflect on the unfairness of the mistreatment of some of the Vietnam veterans, and as this concept of the Greatest Generation took stronger form, I think the respect a lot of people properly had about broad World War II service was sort of transferred to wanting to think of people now in uniform as heroes — as many of course are.”
But his assessment of U.S. society, however harsh, is that most Americans have the luxury of tuning out real debate about military matters because, unlike previous generations, they’re not directly affected. “The distance between today’s stateside America and its always-at-war expeditionary troops is extraordinary,” Fallows wrote.
“My concern is this growing disconnect between the American people and our military,” Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Fallows, later adding: “It’s become just too easy to go to war.”
Fallows agrees: “At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks don’t work.”
Fallows’ Atlantic article may be perceived as provocative, but he said he’s had generally positive responses from many in uniform. And he believes the issues he raises should matter more in domestic politics.
“It’s a very important part of our identity worldwide, but virtually absent from our domestic debate,” he said.
Not for lack of trying. In 2011, Fallows was part of a small bipartisan task force that President Obama tasked to advise on Pentagon reform should he win a second term. Among the recommendations: “Appoint a commission to assess the long wars; clarify the decisionmaking process for use of force; restore the civil-military relationship.” The report was sent, and the president was re-elected, but the group never heard back.
The next presidential race should be different. Voters should insist that it’s about bigger ideas than the usual metadebate about the campaign itself.
As for “Unbroken” and “The Imitation Game,” Fallows notices the movie trend, too. When asked about the relative dearth of movies about Afghanistan and Iraq despite a decade of war, Fallows named the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” as the era’s best. He also pointed to TV shows like “24” and “Homeland.”
“There hasn’t been a sense of the whole nation involved the way you had with World War II dramas, and eventually the Vietnam movies, too,” Fallows said. “So I would take that as a symptom of disengagement.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.