5 Memorial Day War Movies

In America, Memorial Day is typically said to mark the “unofficial beginning of summer,” so in the day off, the grills come out and the girls start to take a few things off. But there’s plenty of time for that, isn’t there? I like to look back at the men who made it possible, or so at least runs the trope. Is it that simple in fact? Maybe, maybe not. War isn’t crystal clear, it’s always a sandstorm and truth always gets lost to some extent in the whirlwind. Often, “good” people in turn are victimized by it, sometimes becoming “bad.” All of this is a major theme in The Red War.

In keeping with this theme, and to look back a the men who got swept up in it, fighting and dying for their nations and what seemed so very right to them, I present to you these five movies which I think are worth your time.

The Lost Battalion (2001) Rick Schroder

The Lost Battalion (2001)

I’ve said over and over again that World War I was completely without glory. There were no flag raisings on Iwo Jima, no exultant crowds in liberated towns, cheering the GIs on. There was no heroic crossing of the Delaware, or glorious riches and empire waiting at the end of the harrowing ordeal. What there was was mud, trenchfoot, poison gas, and nothing but a bloody trench to be won. And at the end of it all? No riches awaited, only another terrible conflict. World War I was a tragedy not just in loss of life, but maybe even more in the human mind – the loss of faith, the forever shattered dreams of progress.

World War I is often sadly overlooked in favor of the Second World War for cinematic coloration, but The Lost Battalion, starring NYPD Blue’s Rick Schroder in the role of Major Charles Whittlesey, commander of a battalion in the 77th Infantry Division, captures this gloom well. It is from the admittedly overdone American doughboy perspective, but what we see is an authentic World War I feeling, and it is based on a true story.

In the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the final days of the war, an American battalion gets separated and lost from the main line of a combined Franco-American attack. As they consider surrender an unacceptable dishonor, the battalion is forced to hold off relentless German assaults over several days. Ammunition and supplies dwindle and the dead mount. Humiliatingly and despairingly, the battalion is pounded by their own artillery.

Finally, “the lost battalion” is found. Whittlesey isn’t interested in platitudes. He just wants to move to the back of the line with his men.

If you want to see some action, you’ll like The Lost Battalion, but the true strength of this underrated movie is in the bond that develops between the men, the New York humor (the battalion is a New York unit, with a few unfortunate souls that wind up in it from other states), and the horrific experience of this horrific war, the war which destroyed the hopes and dreams of mankind. This point is hammered home in that the real life Whittlesey, who was given the Medal of Honor for his exploits and was once a promising Harvard-educated attorney, committed suicide in 1921. His body was never found.

We Were Soldiers (2002)

The Vietnam War may rival the First World War in terms of its sheer misery to the soldiers. Steaming, insect-ridden, muddy jungles, rice paddies, and ambushes, endless ambushes, awaited the men who were sent there. Also like the First World War, there seemed little glory to be won, at least it seems that way looking back on it – bragging rights over a rice paddy? Unlike the First World War, the country was in the midst of a great social and cultural upheaval, and Vietnam veterans were treated poorly when they came back home.

In 1965, the story was a little bit different. The terrible nature of this war and the indecisiveness of the American strategy hadn’t presented themselves yet. It’s here, in the Battle of Ia Drang, that We Were Soldiers takes place. After attacks on an American base, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore and his battalion are sent out to eliminate the attackers. Helicopter warfare is seen making a major presence for the first time, as they are lifted into the Ia Drang valley. What follows is a harrowing multi-day ordeal where the battalion is surrounded and hammered by North Vietnamese forces who know their country well and use it to their advantage.

The similarities with The Lost Battalion don’t end there. Hal Moore calls in the big firepower – this time in the form of planes – but one of the bombs gets way too close, and several of his own men are roasted. One has skin falling off his face and arms.

Unlike The Lost Battalion, air power is sufficiently advanced now to eventually end the ordeal, but the defended ground is recaptured by the North Vietnamese. It’s just a small sample of a long war to come where enemies would appear from nowhere, and patches of ground would shift as suddenly and whimsically as the winds. It’s notable that the real Hal Moore (recently died this February) wrote a book about his experiences in Ia Drang. It’s linked with the movie below.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Full Metal Jacket is very much unlike the preceding two movies. While they are more classically “heroic,” this movie examines the realities of everyday life as a soldier. Battle is dramatic and sucks up attention, but most of a soldier’s life isn’t spent fighting, but training and trying to live normally, yet inevitably failing at some point. Military conditions never permit a civilian existence. Of course, Full Metal Jacket doesn’t fail to display combat scenes, as you’ll see below. The twist is that it examines them more from a psychological perspective than the other two movies.

Full Metal Jacket has two overall parts. The first is the most famous. Here, you see the training to become a Marine. Men are stripped of their civilian identities, almost literally, and are made into new men, US Marines. A more sinister interpretation, which the movie doesn’t attempt to refute, is that men are dehumanized and reprogrammed as if they were robots, killing machines. For one, the reprogramming goes horribly wrong, “Private Pyle,” whose bumbling ways quickly land him at the bottom of the social hierarchy and earn him the ire of the gunnery sergeant. He eventually suffers from severe derangement, killing the gunney and himself.

The second part covers the surviving Marines in Vietnam. One of them, “Joker,” now a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, reunites with his friend from training, “Cowboy.” The joyful reunion is cut short soon, as the Tet Offensive begins. Three years have passed since the war began in 1965 with events like the Ia Drang valley. It was the Tet Offensive that permanently shifted the public’s perception of the Vietnam War, even though it devastated hostile Vietnamese forces tactically. Strategically, it persuaded the American public to turn against the war.

At the Battle of Hue, Stars and Stripes documents the deaths of many marines. At the movie’s climax, “Cowboy,” in command of the squad after the deaths of officers and sergeants, leads the men to confront a sniper. The power of the lone sniper is demonstrated as more men go down, including Cowboy. After an ordeal, Joker confronts the sniper, only for his M16 to jam (a common occurrence in the Vietnam war). He’s saved by his comrade, a newbie to combat, who guns her down, shouting jubilantly “we got the sniper!” This joy is sung at the end of the movie with the Mickey Mouse March, the men feeling they’ve proven themselves in combat.

Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor takes place in July, 2005. The conflict in Afghanistan has been raging for nearly four years, but the mountainous terrain and the tribal warriors of that country make it as difficult to tame for America as it had been for conquerors going all the way back to Alexander the Great and beyond. The Taliban are no longer governing, but they have by no means been conquered.

It’s up to SEAL Team 10 to root them out and prevent them from coming back to power. A high level Taliban target, Ahmad Shah, has been identified, and a four man fire team, consisting of Lieutenant Michael Murphy (who was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for deliberately exposing himself to enemy fire to make the call on a satellite phone), Marcus Luttrell, Danny Dietz, and Matthew “Axe” Axelson are sent in to reconnoiter the area to confirm Shah’s location in Operation Red Wings. The mission goes horribly wrong when they’re spotted in their hiding place by goat herders. After an intense debate, the goat herders are let go, and the team retreats. Soon afterward, they come under a furious assault.

Numerous facts about the mission, notably the number of attackers, are exaggerated in the movie (and book) Lone Survivor as compared to the real Operation Red Wings, but the power of the movie isn’t in its details or combat scenes (though those are good), but in the grit of the Navy SEALs that not only survive, but fight on fiercely through their terrible wounds. These modern Spartans are trained to fight until they physically are no longer able to. If you’re not dead, you can’t quit, and Marcus Luttrell didn’t. In so doing, he lived to fight again, and tell the story of his fallen comrades, to ensure their glory.

Lone Survivor will put a boot to your ass and make you wonder why you’ve been stuck in idleness and indolence for so long. I can’t say that it wasn’t something that I didn’t notice when writing the climax of part 2 of The Red War, where the protagonist, Hector Turenne, enters into katabasis to earn his masculinity in combat.

As a note, The Lion of Sabray is the story of Mohammad Gulab, who saved Marcus Luttrell’s life. Proceeds from the book go directly to supporting him and his family. I hope you’ll consider hearing his story too.

Glory (1989)

In 1863, it was clear to both sides that the Civil War wasn’t going to be the short cakewalk that they assumed in 1861. The South wasn’t going to come to its senses so easily, it would need to be conquered. The Yankees wouldn’t be licked so easily, they would need to bleed so badly that they couldn’t physically fight anymore.

Glory tells the story of an innovation – the raising of a regiment of negro soldiers, the 54th Massachusetts, commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. That this was done in Massachusetts isn’t surprising, the people there didn’t have any doubts about the war, unlike those say, in Maryland or North Carolina. Under white officers, black soldiers are recruited, despite the promises of instant execution for anyone involved in the enterprise should they be captured by the enemy.

Glory is famous for rocketing the career of Denzel Washington, who won an Academy Award for his performance as Silas Tripp.

The regiment begins to win respect for its exploits in combat. Eventually it is given a mission to take Fort Wagner, a heavily defended and strategic location. The casualties are horrendous. Colonel Shaw is killed along with many other officers, as is Tripp. The fort was never taken.

There are some factual inaccuracies. The real Shaw wasn’t so enthusiastic about assaulting the fort as he eagerly volunteers to do in Glory, but the movie demonstrates Civil War combat in all its cumbersome and terrifying fury and also the at the time unexpected courage even of men who are disdained by their country.

Memorial Day is a commemoration, a memory of courage which may be more necessary than desired, and Glory hammers that point home.

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