Thursday, July 26, 2012

Fifty Shades of Blue and Grey: Civil War Torture Porn?

Alex and his droogs couldn't hold
a candle to modern ultra-violence...
even with Rossini on his side.
Over the past few days I've been thinking about violence. We are a culture of violence. We idolize blind rage and violence, we normalize it and worship it.

No bellwether in our culture shows this fact more clearly than our film ratings system, which allows grotesque depictions of man's inhumanity to man to be peddled to teens but turns its nose up at even the slightest mention of human fecal matter or copulation.

We, as a collective American culture, promote violence, normalize it as the proper reaction to any given problem and outright encourage it.

Except violence in entertainment is easy, cheap and meaningless. It's some of the easiest filler in any script. As an exercise a few weeks back, I edited down a copy of Ron Maxwell's Gettysburg to remove every line spoken by a Southern character. The only Southerners left on camera would be in non-speaking scenes only, I decreed to myself. I expected the movie to shrink to somewhere in the window of 20 minutes. It didn't.

But that wasn't a function of an abundance of Federal dialogue (although there was more in aggregate than I expected). The movie seemed to become one never-ending explosion punctuated by flapping flags. I'd wager that even removing the Federal dialogue, there would be nearly a solid hour of random things blowing up and random plumes of smoke.

Compare this to the two greatest war films ever produced [1]: Bridge Over The River Kwai and Glory. The amount of real, gut-wrenching violence in these films is miniscule, and used to a very specific end. But what they lack in violent, orgasmic gore they make up for in deep,l philosophical meaning about the nature of war, suffering, loss, struggle and liberty. The greatest war films of all time are actually anti-war films, weaving a narrative that investigates why war, as Sherman once said, is, "all hell."

When visitors step onto battlefields, what type of story are they seeing? Is it a grand glorification of a nation drenched in blood, valour through slaughter? Or is it a real, deep discussion of the concrete consequences of politicians and citizens deciding that a nation or people deserves to be attacked? Is it glory or heartbreak?

Never forget that when the original cast
fell down dead 150 years ago that
they didn't go out for a cold one later
that night. / CC Graham Milldrum
Over at History and Interpretation on Tuesday, Elizabeth Goetsch posted about dealing with grief in interpretive landscapes. When a visitor to a battlefield broke down into tears, Elizabeth was confounded as to how to react. Tears were not part of the typical repertoire of visitor responses. "While visiting the battlefield could prove an emotional experience," Goetsch writes, "I rarely encountered the raw emotion through tears."

But what better reaction to a place where thousands of men tore at the entrails of thousands of other men, where children lost beloved fathers, mothers lost beloved sons, men lost beloved arms which had plowed the land or worked the lathe that fed their families? Isn't any reaction aside from tears callous, hardhearted and inhumane on some level?

Shouldn't the most meaningful landscapes of war, like the most meaningful films about those wars, inherently be anti-war landscapes? Shouldn't they be places where we atone for the collective sins of the past and learn to make better decisions in the future?

No. They should simply be places where we glorify torture and death, like a masculine version of a Mary-sue porn novel. Who needs deep, resonant meaning when you can just soak up the orgasmic excitement of battles and tactics?


[1] - Yes, I am aware this is an entirely personal judgement, but this is afterall my blog post.


  1. Excellent post Captain John!

    As for the best films... BAH! Where is "The Longest Day"? How about "All Quiet on the Western Front" (the b&w, not the one with John Boy)? Surely you wouldnt leave out that paragon of the AmRev "The Patriot"? (ok I am kidding on that last one as my hated of it is well known)

    We shall need a movie list on here.

  2. I would like to see a movie list, too.

    I believe I have digital media on the brain. The result? My desire to use the many media-types available to me to express my gratitude for you inducting me into the blogging conversation:


    All goofiness aside, I agree with you and struggled with the "what does this place mean" while working at the battlefield. I still dislike the use of the term "Civil War Buff" for it conjures up images of those seeking the facade of some shining glory of war that I saw as non-existent. The gore is there, it is a battlefield. Rarely are people prepared for the fullness of what that truly means (if the fullness is even a comprehendible thing to our 21st century sensitivities!).

    Well done.

  3. Civil War and the glorification of violence...well this is a topic that at Gettysburg College came up every once in a while. Sometimes it was a discussion with fellow students, other times it was part of a reading in class, and finally it was sometimes addressed in discussions during class.

    While the ideal for battlefields, films, television, and books about war are to be anti-war; the problem is that the glorifying of war will never end as long as time goes on. I'm not going to absolutely defend or attack either position here, but I will say that both camps fulfill a purpose - keeping each other in check.
    The anti-war tries to keep us from recklessly engaging in war, think twice about using force, and remind us that there are severe consequences to war. Those that are, pro-war or whatever term you would want to use, are the ones that make sure there are still some people willing to fight when it becomes necessary, make sure our readiness doesn't lapse too much that we can't defend ourselves, and keep learning how to win efficiently and quickly as possible to minimize casualties and damage.
    Wars can be deterred and minimized, but can never be completely stopped. At this point in history, thanks to technology that primarily America has lead in developing, conventional wars are pretty close to extinction. Countries, at least those facing us, now have to resort to the kind of warfare Sun Tzu wrote about in which minimal resources must be stretched as far as possible for the largest effect possible. In other words, we can no long play Chess that emphasizes battle and force and instead play Chinese "Go" as it's called and try and control territory with as few pieces as possible on the board.
    So, I say that people like John here need to keep on doing what he does with supporting anti-war. As for that Civil War enthusiast or "Buff", just make sure he gets reminded once in a while how horrible war is to reign in his fandom of violence. He will always be around, and he also contributes to helping the country learn about our past tragedies in his own way - Specifically, the very numerous buffs pay taxes that help pay for those parks and educational programs that talk about the war (not to mention other voluntary donations) - and his interest in the war helps keeps the subject in the public forum rather than be neglected and forgotten (where it does us no good).

  4. I have seen people cry at reenactments I have participated in (albeit they were WWII reenactments). While some might claim that Saving Private Ryan is bloody entertainment, I would wager more would see it as a horrifying exhibition--and a compelling one at that. "Glory" and "heartbreak" can mesh together easier than what one may initially think.