Sunday, November 8, 2015

Going to War with Gary Cooper

“War monuments have never stirred me,” wrote author, historian and World War II Pacific combat veteran William Manchester in his memoir Goodbye, Darkness. “They are like the reconstructed buildings at Colonial Williamsburg, or elaborate reproductions of great paintings; no matter how deft the execution, they are essentially counterfeit.
“In addition, they are usually beautiful and in good taste, whereas combat is neither. Before the war I thought that Hemingway, by stripping battle narratives of their ripe prose, was describing the real thing. Afterward I realized that he had simply replaced traditional overstatement with romantic understatement.
“War is never understated. Combat as I saw it was exorbitant, outrageous, excruciating and above all tasteless, perhaps because the number of fighting men who had read Hemingway or Remarque was a fraction of those who had seen B movies about bloodshed. If a platoon leader had watched Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Errol Flynn, Victor McLaglen, John Wayne or Gary Cooper leap recklessly about, he was likely to follow his role model.
“In crises, most people are imitative. Soldiers received ‘Dear John’ letters copied from those quoted in the press. The minority who avoid Hollywood paradigms were, like me, people who watched fewer B movies than we had read books. That does not mean we were better soldiers and citizens. We certainly weren’t braver. I do think that our optics were clearer, however — that what we saw was closer to the truth because we weren’t looking through MGM or RKO prisms."

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