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War (What Is It Good For?)
May 29, 2011  | By Jane Boursaw



I admit I'm not really into TV shows and movies focused on war. Up to this point in my life, most of my war viewing has been limited to things like Father Goose, the 1964 movie starring Cary Grant as an aircraft spotter on an isolated island during WW2. But I didn't watch it for the war component. I watched it for his budding relationship with Leslie Caron.

When cable TV came into the house, my husband started watching every war documentary, movie and special across the dial. Then my son grew into a teenager and developed the same fascination with war. Maybe it's a guy thing. Maybe I feel things too deeply and get too heartbroken over watching peoples' lives shattered by war.

Most of the shows my husband and son watch aren't romanticized depictions of these events. You see the real people behind the battles -- aging gunners recalling tense moments in the ball turret of a B17, retired officers mapping out their D-Day strategies, and graying soldiers describing the horror of watching a buddy die in a foxhole.

Ironically, these personal stories are exactly why I stopped walking by the living room and sat down on the couch to watch. I wouldn't say I'm transfixed like the guys. I don't analyze all the strategies, artillery and major players. But these shows are helping me to understand how wars have shaped our world.


Then came The Pacific, Tom Hanks' and Steven Spielberg's super-realistic miniseries that aired on HBO last year. My husband and son started watching it, and then I started watching it and became completely addicted. We watched the entire series nonstop over the course of a weekend.

My obsession stemmed not from the war itself, but from the relationships of the soldiers, their friends and families. It wasn't an easy thing to watch. The carnage and death on Peleliu was depressing enough, but I wept when Sledge returned home with the sadness and desperation on his face that his father so hated seeing. He knew his son would never fully recover from it. If the series could have been summed up in one scene, that would have been it.

Last week, we watched a screener for Gettysburg, a two-hour documentary narrated by Sam Rockwell, premiering on the History channel for Memorial Day (Monday at 9 p.m. ET). Produced by Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, it's a compelling, CGI-enhanced look at the brutal battle that served as a turning point in the Civil War, which marks its 150th anniversary this year.

It's staggering to think that 50,000 people were killed over the course of three days in a small farm town in Pennsylvania. In today's terms, that would translate to millions of deaths right here on our own soil.


The story revolves around Amos Humiston, a 33-year-old "unknown soldier" killed on July 1, 1863. His body was found with nothing to identify him except a precious ambrotype (portraits) of his three children clutched tightly in his hand. Had it not been for the efforts of Dr. John Francis Bourns, who took it upon himself to send a description of the photo to newspapers around the country, Humiston would have faded into obscurity. But once the article reached his wife, she recognized the description and sadly confirmed that she was his widow.

Shows like The Pacific and Gettysburg open a portal into the past to bring these wars home to us in a real way. And who knows? Maybe I'll get to a point where I don't need to have my son explain how a howitzer works or what took place at Vicksburg in 1863. Then again, I kind of like that.


Here's a peek at Gettysburg:

And check out Jane's recent story on the HBO documentary Burma Soldier at ReelLifeWithJane.com.




ruth pennebaker said:

I'm not big on war documentaries, but I'd already intended to record the Gettysburg program. I just finished reading KILLER ANGELS, a novel about Gettysburg (and highly recommend it, by the way). It's a sad, fascinating, haunting story.

Comment posted on May 30, 2011 3:26 PM

Christine said:

Oh, I remember the story of the unknown soldier! I first read about him on a blog on the NYTimes website. The story was moving and sad.
Like you, I have little stomach for war or war documentaries, though I think it is important to see the human beings behind the battles.

Comment posted on May 30, 2011 4:35 PM

Jennifer Margulis said:

I haven't seen any of these shows. I am not much for war-related TV or movies, I fear. But, like you, I feel like I learn something every time I watch one. So even though I do it reluctantly, it usually has educational value.

Comment posted on May 30, 2011 4:50 PM

Vera Marie Badertscher said:

Terrific post. I share your feelings about war movies, and my husband shares your husband's fascination with them.
I would urge that you capitalize on your son's interest in war movies by visiting some of the country's fantastic museums like the D-Day museum in New Orleans, the War in the Pacific museum in Fredericksburg Texas and the fantastic Civil war Museum in Richmond Virginia at the Trediger Iron Works--not to mention evocative sites like Washington Crossing in Delaware and Gettysburg itself. (Where you can climb the stairs that George Washington climbed to his command post/bedroom on the top floor.}

Comment posted on May 30, 2011 5:07 PM

Sheryl said:

Your house sounds eerily similar to mine. I tend to avoid the endless war movies my husband and sons are so fond of watching. But I will admit, when there is an emotional, human component it can be very compelling.

Comment posted on May 30, 2011 5:17 PM

Kris @ Attainable Sustainable said:

My 15 year old is fascinated with WWII and has been watching whatever he can get his hands on. Like you, I'm not such a big fan of war movies, though I did sit through Pearl Harbor. It's all just so heart wrenching to me.

Comment posted on May 30, 2011 8:26 PM

MyKidsEatSquid said:

Gettysburg is an amazing place to visit if you ever get a chance. Other TV war series that come to mind is of course Ken Burns' Civil War and also if you haven't watched Foyle's War (which I think I have heard mentioned here so you have) but anyway, that's one of my favorites.

Comment posted on May 30, 2011 8:59 PM

Jane Boursaw said:

Squid - I've had Foyle's War sitting here for a while, but haven't watched it yet. Thanks for that recommendation. It's moving to the top of the stack.

Love Ken Burns' Civil War and sought out the violin sheet music for Ashokan Farewell after watching it. I played it in church one time and there were other musicians nearby who immediately jumped in and started playing along. It's such a beautiful, haunting melody.

Christine - Thanks for that link to the NYT story about the unknown soldier. I'm trying to imagine how his widow must have felt upon learning his identity. The detective work that went into it is amazing -- all without the benefit of the information superhighway. Now I'll have to scout out a copy of Mark Dunkelman's book, as well Ruth's recommendation, Killer Angels.

Vera - I have fond memories of visiting many of the historical places in Virginia and Washington, D.C. We made regular visits there to visit my mom's family when I was a kid, and I remember stopping by Gettysburg one time. It's been my dream to take my kids to those places -- and hopefully before they grow up and have kids of their own. It would be amazing to take a cross-country trek and visit all the places you've mentioned.

Comment posted on May 31, 2011 11:22 AM
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