Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 2004 / 5 Kislev, 5765

David D. Perlmutter

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Slandering Private Ryan? In Fallujah | It's an irony that the week that some American television stations pulled "Saving Private Ryan" allegedly because of harsh language, many others aired parts of a video that purports to show an American Marine shooting a wounded and unarmed civilian in Fallujah.

The link between Steven Spielberg's fictional (but realistic) film about World War II and a real event in the Iraq war is a reminder that, with so few of us having combat experience or studying warfare in school, the historical context of modern combat needs to be explained better.

Television networks were responsible in that most of them edited the Fallujah images when, apparently, a Marine thought an Iraqi man was faking death and shot him in the head. But the incident also requires a detailed discussion (and visualization) of its historical context. The truth is that this is how you fight a war against an amoral terrorist enemy. Further, what that Marine did was commonplace in the history of America at war: if you condemn him, then you also attack the "greatest generation" veterans of World War II.

Take a famous scene from "Saving Private Ryan." At Normandy Beach, American soldiers, after terrible losses, finally knock out one enemy bunker with a flamethrower and Germans tumble out on fire, screaming in agony. "Let 'em burn," responds one GI without remorse. Witnessed from the comfort of our living room, it is a shocking statement and scene. But in the context of the film and of war it is understandable.

I show this clip regularly to my students and invite reactions. One young woman said, "I can imagine being so angry, so vengeful at the enemy that just killed your buddies that you don't care what happens to them." I would only add one factor to her analysis: uncertainty. In a study I conducted on police work, the most fearful thing about a cop's job, I felt, was that you never knew who would pull out a gun and who wouldn't. In a war against terrorists everybody is a potential combatant and every doorway a potential deathtrap.

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American warriors of the past knew this. Michael Lee Lanning wrote in his account of "Vietnam, 1969: A Company Commander's Journal" that Viet Cong or North Vietnamese army fighters regularly feigned surrender, incapacitation or death in order to lure GIs into grenade or rifle range. Even the actual dead were booby-trapped. The average GI learned quickly to "shoot and throw grenades at the body" rather than risk enemy treachery. And I have a friend who was a Marine at Iwo Jima. As he put it: "After the second time a Japanese soldier faked being dead only to kill one of us, we started shooting every 'body' we found as a matter of course." No surprise that war historian and analyst James F. Dunnigan estimated that, "Historically 50 percent of those surrendering [in war] do not survive the process."

In Iraq, American servicemen and women face insurgents who hide, store weapons and fight from hospitals, homes and religious places and from among civilians, booby-trap their own dead as well as those of our soldiers, disguise themselves as women and noncombatants, and, yes, fake surrender as a prelude to murder-suicide. Early in the war, British soldiers even reported insurgents picking up small children to use as human shields during a fire fight.

So what was that young Marine in Fallujah to do: wait until faking Iraqis blew him, his buddies and the camera crew up? He played it safe with common sense: he's alive, and so are the embedded journalists.

In fact, we can estimate that a sizable number of U.S. casualties in Iraq were because of the basic decency of the American soldier, sailor, Marine and flier.

That is the story that needs more reporting.

Prison scandals aside, the record of the American combatant for humanity even in the most chaotic circumstances is unequaled. In World War II, Japanese and German troops were often astonished at how well they were treated. Axis POWS in the United States, for example, were fed better food than found on the average (rationed) American civilian dinner plate. One German POW, asked about his experiences, commented that the smartest thing to do in war against America is to "get captured --- you'll have it made." An exaggeration? Yes, but also the most important message for the world about our latter-day Private Ryans in Fallujah and elsewhere. If you want to fight America and die, then your wish will be fulfilled. If you want to live, surrender —unambiguously —to American mercy.

For ourselves, we now have two generations of Americans whose only experiences of battle have been watching the news and movies and playing "Halo." Years ago I did a study of the pictorial depiction of warfare in high school history textbooks. Among my findings: actual grim combat received almost no attention. It was censored as being too disturbing for young minds. We need to upturn that illogic by teaching all Americans what combat entails: the good, the bad and the necessary.

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JWR contributor David Perlmutter is an associate professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University and a senior fellow at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs. He is the author of, among others, Visions of War : Picturing Warfare from the Stone Age to the Cyber Age. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, David Perlmutter