Edward Tipper, of Band of Brothers fame, passed away today. Check his story out sometime today if you get a chance.
It seems odd to connect the book All the Light We Cannot See with the violent war movie Hamburger Hill. One is filled with elegant and gripping prose. The other reeks of dirt, blood, gore, language, and nudity. And yet, a beauty resonated within them both.
All the Light We Cannot See is the story of a blind young girl, and a smart, small boy caught up in WW2. Werner is a German and Marie is French. Their lives touch for the briefest of poignant moments. Instead of getting down in the muck of war, Doerr captures haunting horrors in words of longing, and broken grace. You know all that is happening is gross, mean, and destructive, yet you are removed from all that by a prose that takes you higher. And somehow this lofty view makes it all the more terrible. It paints death with beauty which only makes the death more jolting, more revolting. Your heart weeps at the loss of innocence, family, goodness. You see souls torn more deeply by the careful choice of each perfect word.
Hamburger Hill is as opposite as you can get. There are no majestic shots, no moving music, and no quotable dialogue. All there is is a handful of very young men cussing, fighting, and lusting. They are covered in dirt, sweating, and unattractive in every way. But, as the movie culminates, beauty blazes through. It is seen in the worst guy who hasn’t said one pure thing about a woman, hugging the other guy who’s girl just dumped him. It’s seen when a Lieutenant weeps as his men are mowed down by friendly fire, when a sergeant explains why he came back to Vietnam, when race is sponged away between white boys and black boys cause they’re all dying, when a private wipes his sergeant’s face, and when a man holds so gently his dying buddy. Great tenderness blooms between these men as they attempt to fight their way up a hill for ten days.
Beauty is found even here.
Two stories of war, as different as can be, and yet both show a light burning bright in the darkness.
Reading/watching these back to back was emotionally taxing, and yet it reminded me of why I’m drawn back to war stories over and over. I love seeing the light in the darkest moment. I love the beauty that blooms in battle. I love brotherhoods. There is something magical about men who have fought together that we’re losing in our feministic culture. I plan to go down kicking and screaming. I will be a woman who honors warriors without demanding to be one.
I love these stories because they capture the reality of my existence. I am not what I seem on some level. It’s true, I am a middle class, white, suburban housewife. But, I’m also a saved sinner, a healed monster, and a warrior in the battle against sin. War movies are my unseen reality and my church family is my band of brothers. I may not want women to be forced into the bond of battle formed between men, but I can also be part of that great friendship in the spiritual army of the Lord. When I see them fighting down in the dirt, when I see two children suffering all that war brings, I look with my Christian-colored-glasses and see the spiritual battle I engage in every day.
Life is more than it seems, both uglier and more beautiful.
Sometimes as a writer, I lose my way. I forget what story I’m telling when I’m in the middle of plot lines, time lines, and commas, but movies and stories like this help re-align me. They help me keep fighting. They help me to pray for my family. They remind me to hug and hold cause I don’t know the battle my fellow soldier may have engaged in this week.
There is beauty even here.
Many of you know I’m a huge Band of Brothers fan. On Saturday we lost one more of these few remaining heroes. My heart goes out to his family during this time of loss and I hope the Lord uses it to effectively call his own as they ponder the shortness of even this great man’s life. I’m thankful that I had the honor of even knowing this man’s name and parts of his story. I’m thankful for his sacrifice for our country.
When I went in, I was eighteen. I thought it was all glory and you win lots of medals. You think you’re going to be the guy. Then you find out the cost is very great. Especially when you don’t see the kids you were with when you went in. Living with it can be hell. It’s like the devil presides in you. I knew what I sighed up for, yes, and I would do it again. But the reality of war—words can’t begin to describe it. – Bill Guarnere“I treasure my remark to a grandson who asked, “Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?” “No”, I answered, “But I served in a company of heroes”.” – Dick Winters
Let’s get this out of the way first. Deanna, you can’t see this movie, though I wish you could. Second, prepare to put on your Christian-colored glasses. Ready? Good.
I think war movies are important. I think they help us civilians connect with the men and women who are fighting and serving. I think they help civilians realize the cost to our soldiers in a way a dry history book never can. Don’t get me wrong, you should read about the great sweeps of history. The changes in power, the wars won and lost, the how and the why behind those victories, but you don’t want to lose the human element. You don’t want to forget that while one country is winning a war and the other is losing, someone’s son, brother, father, husband, nephew, grandson is out there bleeding and dying.
More importantly, I think war movies have great value in a spiritual sense. We are in a spiritual battle. We are called to spiritual warfare. Do you know what that means? Do you have any sense of what war takes? Do you understand the training and dedication needed to fight a war? Paul and the other apostles didn’t pick their language at random. The Holy Spirit inspired them. He chose the language of war to describe our fight against sin, both inside us and around us. Watching war movies and reading warrior stories helps flesh out that illustration. It helps you understand the bond we are to have in our local churches. We are soldiers, brothers and sisters, together. We should act like it. Don’t let yourself be removed from war and warriors in some vain attempt at earthly peace that will never happen. See the illustration, and be strengthened by it.
There are a few movies I have found helpful in fleshing out some of the emotional sides of history, and expanding my understanding of spiritual warfare….or, maybe these are just my favorites:
Band of Brothers – This series follows Easy Company, who suffered devastating losses during WW2 to their ranks, from basic training to the end of the war. It gives you a sense of the way war broke these men and the bond between soldiers. I actually recommend you watch the series before reading the book.
Saving Private Ryan – This was the first war movie I saw in the theater. I watched it the night before my brother shipped out. After seeing that movie, I begged him not to go, but he’d already signed the dotted line. I’m glad he didn’t listen to me as an 18-year-old.
We were Soldiers – based on the book with only a few historical inaccuracies, this film features one of our greatest American heroes at his finest, Hal Moore. It shows his dedication to his troops and his skill in battle. This movie doesn’t get into the Vietnam argument – should we be there or not – but focuses the viewers’ attention on the families left behind as the boys fight and die. It shows Moore’s dedication to bring his boys home, dead or alive. I highly suggest reading the book as well as watching the movie.
Black Hawk Down – Vietnam was over by the time I was born. Obviously, I heard about it, it was still being widely discussed and all those broken men were coming home, but it wasn’t my war. The fight in Somalia was the war of boys a few years older than me. I didn’t really learn about this war until a few years after it happened. This movie shows how quickly things breakdown on the battlefield. I watched it while my brother-in-law was in Marine basic and my brother was still deployed. I prayed a little more faithfully for them after watching this film. Again, I highly suggest reading the book as well as watching the movie.
Lone Survivor – The movie for my war. I watched those towers fall on 9/11. I watched President Bush declare war on terrorism. I listened and prayed as my fiancé, now husband, seriously considered joining up, and my brother, now home, expressed frustration at being home. This was a war I saw. But I saw much of it through the eyes of the media, and through the eyes of a happy girl busy planning her wedding and getting ready to run her first business. I also wasn’t into military history just yet. That came a few years later. So, I watched this war from the sidelines, never really affected by it, other than to be proud of our troops.
About a week ago, I went on a father/daughter date with my Dad to see Lone Survivor. Now, you may recall that I’ve already read the book by the same title, and loved it. I followed all the news I could get my hands on about the movie for the last few months, and familiarized myself with Marcus Luttrell’s story. I wasn’t disappointed. The movie is gritty, as accurate as it can be for a movie, moving, well filmed, well acted, and even has Marcus as a background SEAL, which I almost yelled out in a movie theater, but instead just whispered to my Dad.
When you watch a war movie after reading the book, it’s like getting all the highlights of how someone you know died or was broken. The book gives you insight into the heart and mind of the soldiers it’s about, and then the movie gives you the visuals. It’s a rough way to learn about war, but I find it works well for me. The men involved and the events stick in my brain when I’ve both read the book and watched the movie. My Mom(in-law) asked me if I cried when I saw Lone Survivor. I told her yes, but not through the whole film, just the beginning, middle, and end. I mean the thing opens up with a corkboard covered with pictures of Murphy, Axe, Danny, and Marcus. The real guys, not the actors. The real heroes. How could I not cry?
Lone Survivor wasn’t filmed like an action flick. There were very few slow motion scenes, massive explosions, or acts of ridiculous physical gymnastics. What it did show was how difficult it is to hold things together once the bullets start flying, how important the bond between our SEALS is, how well trained they are, and how heroic this team was. The movie is violent, but I don’t think it’s indulgent. It wasn’t violent just to be violent. It was violent to help the viewer see and know what these boys suffered.
I think just about everyone needs to see this film, or read the book, to know and understand modern warfare. It’s gonna make you mad. It’s gonna make you proud of some Texans. It’s gonna make you proud of our SEALS. It’s gonna help you understand the cost of war. They lived it. They died in the fight. These are the real American Heroes. Not actors, not entertainers, not athletes. Soldiers. These soldiers. Murphy, Luttrell, Axe, and Danny are the Heroes of my generation and my war. Don’t forget them.
“Never out of the Fight”
For two hours, I sat tensely in a movie theater unsure of the emotional impact of seeing four men I’ve read a lot about actually fight for their lives. I’ve read about their parents, their friends, their wives and fiancés. I’ve read the accounts of their families waiting to find out if they were alive or dead. I’ve read about the funerals given for these men. I’ve read Marcus Luttrell’s own account of being on Murphy’s Ridge while his brothers died around him. I was tense and armed with lots of tissues. But I thought it was important to see this film. I thought it was important to remember them. I’m thankful for how many people are aware of them now. To be honest, I might have been a little more excited about this film, than the Hobbit. Why? This story is real. These are real, earthly, flesh and blood, American Heroes.
What did I take away from it? Go see it! I can’t wait to see it again. I respect our military more than ever, and wish our media did the same. If they did, we might not have lost those men that day. But, deeper than that, richer than that, more long-term, more enduring, I dovetailed Lone Survivor with the message preached the Sunday before: ” A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 ESV) The church is commanded to love the members of its local congregation. Love the person hardest for you to love in your church family. If you want an earthly, visual example of loving one another, go see this movie. Be inspired to get back in the fight, to stand, back to back, shoulder to shoulder with your fellow soldiers, your fellow church members, and fight against sin and the evil one. We have a greater war to fight, the only good war. We have a greater captain to follow, the greatest Captain. We can’t see this war. We can’t see the wounds, battle scars, and bullet holes in one another as we sit in our pews and live our lives, but they’re there. We’re never out of the fight. Love your brothers and sisters sitting next to you on Sunday morning. They’re your family. They’re your brothers in this war.
Some books stick with you. They are taskmasters while you read them, constantly interrupting your thoughts, your day, demanding you set aside everything you must and want to do to read them. They are dangerous books, not because of their content, but because they become part of your makeup. They weave their story, borne up on words, into your psyche. They become a part of you. If someone wants to know the real you, they must at some point understand these books.
Every story haunts us one way or the other. Some are gentle hauntings – a general sense of warmth, a remembered character, a soft smile when they’re mentioned – like Christopher Robin, or Bilbo. Other books rip us apart with their hauntings – a cold sense of horror, characters we wish to forget, a shudder when they’re mentioned – like Manhunter by John Douglas, or Whispers by Dean Koontz. Some bind us to those around us with their hauntings – a laugh knowing we all know, fans who name their kids after characters, an easy subject to discuss with strangers when they’re mentioned – like Harry Potter.
Taskmaster books go deeper. They whisper to you when you pass them on the shelf. They line your mind with both joy and sorrow. With them comes enlightenment, horror, peace, the world seen through a new light. These books have lines that become your lines. These stories become your stories, the ones you take out and share in a hurried whisper with a close friend. They’re above fan-bases. Sometimes, often, they’re above becoming movies, though it’s attempted, but something’s lost in the translation between word and film. These books haunt their readers in all the ways other books attempt to. They are gentle, ripping, and binding. These are the kind of books every author wants to pen.
Over the last few years, I’ve come across a small handful of these books out of the hundreds I’ve read:
- Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
- The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
- L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
- With the Old Breed by EB Sledge
- The Killing Zone by Frederick Downs Jr.
They demanded to be read over everything else going on in my life. They stuck with me, stuck in the back of my heart and mind weaving their stories into mine. Lord of the Rings and Watership Down did the same thing when I first read them.
I came across a new one the other day. It might prove to be only the gentle haunting, not the ripping and binding ones as well. I’m not sure yet. Right now, it feels like one of these great books. It’s Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. This is the story of a mischievous troublemaker, Louis Zamperini, whose older brother encouraged him to take up running to keep him in school and to channel his energy. He became an Olympic Athlete. Then WW2 started. Zamperini’s story takes him literally out of the frying pan and into the fire. After his plane goes down over the Pacific, he spends over 40 days at sea in a life raft, only to be ‘rescued’ by the Japanese. Now his real trials began. He spends several years in POW camps facing starvation and torture. His family and friends don’t know if he’s alive or dead. Zamperini remains unbroken through all these trials until he comes home. Nightmares haunt him. He drinks. He destroys his family. Life seems without hope. But God. And that’s all I’m gonna say. You’re just going to have to read the book!
Unbroken is not a happy story, but it is a joyful story. It reminded me of The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom (another haunting, stick-in-your-head story). Not a happy story, but a rich story full of joy.
I think this story will stick with me because it is a wonderful picture of God’s grace in man’s darkest hour. I think it will haunt me because I now know how many soldiers died just trying to learn to fly planes, and how harsh life was as a Japanese POW, but even there Christ had his children. It will inspire me because even in the darkest of these moments, our soldiers and the allied soldiers still fought the war in their own small ways. It will remain a part of me because so many of these men came home broken, but so many of them came home strong. It will become part of me because it was such a vivid picture of God pursuing a sinner to the very bitterest end, through shark-infested waters, sadistic prison wardens, and broken souls. God never let Louis be, not once.
Historically, this book is wonderful just because of the breadth of its scope. The details are rich, well researched, and vivid. Laura Hillenbrand is a masterful writer. I have struggled with how to rate it. It is fairly clean, but the subject matter is very rough just by its nature. It would be a great book to have your children read when they study WW2, but I would probably regulate it to High School. It has a few moments of “adult content” which are minor but still there, and graphic descriptions of the horrors faced by our soldiers.
Unbroken. When I started this book I had no idea the journey it would take me on. I had no idea how much I would come to love this man, Louis Zamperini. I had no idea how vivid the grace of God would be. Someday, I believe I will meet Mr. Zamperini. Not here….but in heaven at the feet of Christ. Maybe I’ll get to tell him how much he encouraged me, at which point I’m sure he’ll say it wasn’t him, but Christ and Christ alone.
“It was all just people trying to pay their last respects. The same everywhere. And I am left feeling that no matter how much the drip-drip-drip of hostility towards us is perpetuated by the liberal press, the American people simply do not believe it. They are rightly proud of the armed forces of the United States of America. They innately understand what we do. And no amount of poison about our alleged brutality, disregard of the Geneva Convention, and abuse of the human rights of terrorists is going to change what most people think.” – Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell
Most of my Modern Military History reading has centered on WWII and Vietnam. The ghosts of all that went wrong in Vietnam still haunt the edges of my generation brought on by whispered stories from fathers and grandfathers. Like a toothache, we continue to poke at it and explore it trying to figure out what went wrong. WWII shines like a lighthouse in the dark history of war. It was the good war. The war we were right to fight. Light and dark. WWII and Vietnam. But I have yet to explore much about the Korean War or my own generations war in the Middle East. Another blogger, who has since passed away, reviewed Sniper One on his blog around the time Chris Kyle was murdered spurring me to add more modern warfare books to my reading list. Reading only two modern warfare books so far, I have come to two completely unsubstantiated and personal observations.
If you get tired of all the political correctness that saps the courage from our moral fiber, read some modern warfare books. These soldiers don’t mince their words in their personal observations about how our wars are and aren’t fought. The politically correct ruling class imposes sometimes-impossible, often frustrating, rules on our soldiers when they’ve never been in combat. It’s a fact. They haven’t reexamined the Rules of Engagement (ROE) that US and British soldiers operate under in the context of fighting terrorist. Terrorist known our ROE and use them against us all the time. They use them to kill our soldiers while the ROE and the media – waiting to cry ‘Barbarian!’ at the drop of a hat – tie our soldiers’ hands by behind their backs. This is the rub in both the books I read on our war in the Middle East. What was meant for good has ended up costing us many lives. (Unsubstantiated, Personal Observation #1)
Sniper One by Sgt. Dan Mills is the story of a British sniper unit besieged in Iraq in 2004. They go in on a peacekeeping tour and end up fighting for their very lives. This book is great not only for its exciting and amazing story, but also for the historical perspective it provides. At one point, the unit, while out on patrol, visits an ancient cemetery where they find the tombs of English soldiers from forgotten wars. It was eerie to realize we have been fighting over the same dusty plot of land for hundreds of years.
Sgt. Dan Mills never apologies for being a soldier in Sniper One. These men trained to fight. No apologies. These English soldiers love what they do and believe they are doing the right thing. They’re not out to hurt everyone they can. In fact, they spend a fair amount of time worrying about a family stuck in the line of fire and a dog they adopt. But, they don’t think the way to handle terrorist is with kid gloves. It’s refreshing to read about men being men and doing what men do without apologizing for a job well done. They took the fight to the terrorist and won with superior training, weapons, mentality, and a little help from the USA. These men were dedicated, well-trained warriors. I’m thankful for men like them.
My only caveat for this book is that due to it being written by an Englishman it lacks the moral lines we favor here in the USA. You expect a bit of language when you read anything military oriented, but this book didn’t pull any punches. (Part of it could be that I’m not used to British cussing, so it really stood out.) It also didn’t pull any punches about what men do in the down times between battles.
Have I just had my head in the sand for too long? Most of the books I’ve read about WWII have a certain carefulness to not indulge. They will mention a few cuss words, or a few illicit meetings, but it is always mentioned in passing, or not at all. It’s not the point because it’s not appropriate. (The joys of reading older books!) Books about Vietnam are not that much different. Every war has its ugly parts. You can’t escape that. And I don’t mean just killing innocents, or bloodlust, or sociopaths. I’m talking specifically about the language and sexual dalliances that go along with warfare. Many books on warfare don’t focus there. They might mention them in passing, but they’re only in passing. Sniper One didn’t pass. It dedicated a whole chapter or two to it and it was a bit disconcerting. Are all modern military books so immoral, I asked myself? Am I going to have to bypass anything written about the War in the Middle East because modern writers don’t know the line between history and gossip?
The answer, so far, is no. (Unsubstantiated, Personal Observation #2)
After reading Sniper One, I read Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell. This book has a little bit of language and none of the other problems. Americans, on some subconscious level, still cling to the idea that a good story, true or fiction, doesn’t have to be quiet that earthy to be ‘good’. We all understand that life is not clean, it’s full of sin, it’s gross, indulgent, and full of lust, but that doesn’t mean we need to bathe in it every second. I think it’s important for someone to know the sinful struggles faced by our military….that someone isn’t me. For this reason alone, I enjoyed the modern American military story better than the British one. I respect the British military, no doubt, but I don’t want to read that kind of stuff. Does it make them seem more human and less heroic? Yes, which can be good. It keeps us from naïvely idolizing them. It also borders on gossip – indulgent, tantalizing – we just don’t need to know. There are other, better ways to show the humanity of our soldiers. I think Marcus Luttrell does this well. He talks about his fear, his pain, his confusion, and what he views as his moment of cowardice: when he puts his gun down in combat and covers his ear because he can’t stand the sound of his dying fried screaming his name. That’s humanity.
Lone Survivor. Now there’s a book. I first picked it up while my husband and I were on vacation last August. I had a passing knowledge of Operation Red Wings from a Facebook fan page dedicated to the American hero Michael Murphy who died during the Operation. I knew it was going to be a rough, emotional story. Marcus – the only SEAL to survive – starts the story with his visits to the families of the other three men who died up in the Afghan mountains. Talk about instant tear-jerker. I put the book down for a few weeks, just not ready to emotionally deal with it.
When I picked it up again, it became my workout partner. I read it on my Kindle and boy-howdy! If you want some motivation to work up a sweat, read about Navy SEAL training. It makes you proud of them and it makes you feel like quite the wimp.
Lone Survivor detailed out the battle fought on Murphy’s Ridge between four Navy SEALS and about 100+ terrorist. It’s a heart-wrenching story. Marcus, the only survivor, fell down mountains, was shot, and blown up, before he’s taken in by some friendly Afghans. They protected him, at the cost of their own village, for several days before a group of Army Rangers found him. Marcus explained how his buddies fought and died beside him, how he agonized over them, went back out to retrieve their bodies, and came home to his family still haunted by their screams.
The more light-hearted side of this book, the part that brings a smile to my face, is Marcus is a tried and true Texan. He’s politically incorrect and conservative. It’s refreshing to read a book like Lone Survivor where your beliefs are appreciated instead of disparaged. It’s refreshing to hear President Bush spoken of in a positive light. It’s refreshing to know men like this fight for us on foreign soil.
“Before the dust had settled on lower Manhattan, the United States demanded the Taliban hand over bin Laden for masterminding the attack on U.S. soil. Again the Taliban refused, perhaps not realizing that the new(ish) U.S. president, George W. Bush, was a very different character from Bill Clinton.” – Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell
If you want a great story with great heroes, read Lone Survivor. If you feel the need to uproot your “first-world” problems just a bit, read Lone Survivor. If you want to understand what it’s like to be a Texan, read Lone Survivor. If you just want a little reminder that there are a few moral people, under God’s common grace, still out there, read Lone Survivor.
I would love to have my nephews hear the story of the Battle for Murphy’s Ridge. Someday, when their older I’ll share it with them. Sniper One is a good story, but I would want my nephews to be much older, maybe in their late teens or early twenties before I would recommend it based totally on the level of inappropriate content. (If you’re a parent with a son joining the military and you want the harsh reality of the temptations he will face, you might consider reading Sniper One to help you have some frank conversations with him. This is the only good I can think of from reading those parts and not skipping them.) On the other hand, Lone Survivor would be a great companion to modern military history studies for boys in high school. (As always, this is purely my thoughts. You, as a parent, need to know what you want your kids to know and what they can handle.)
My two unsubstantiated and personal observations remain just that. As far as #1 and the ROE, I can do little about that but try to understand the history going on around me. #2 and the lack of morality in modern warfare writing remains to be seen, but I’m more hopeful for good stories about our brave soldiers that don’t reduce themselves into blood baths or gossip.
Here’s to the Navy SEALS who died in service to our country.
(This article is dedicated to Steve at Imagineer-ing who suggested Sniper One but passed away before I could share my thoughts on the book. Thanks for all your support, Steve.)