Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 2004 / 5 Kislev, 5765
David D. Perlmutter
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
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
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.
Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
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.
04/15/03: 'Palestinians' are to blame for Fedayeen Saddam
03/27/03: Time for Muslim world to prove the West wrong
02/13/03: Don't warn me, again
01/23/03: 'Palestine' for Dummies
11/05/02: Decision '02 may well be finalized on Dec. 7
08/29/02: Should Israel go Nazi?
07/29/02: Thou shalt judge our Jewish leaders
07/11/02: The Lie of the Land
05/30/02: What did you do while Israel was destroyed?
05/21/02: George Lucas has gotta go!
04/18/02: To jump-starting the market, the animals need to be re-trained
© 2002, David Perlmutter