Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Movie Vets Help the Rest of Us Appreciate


Like most Americans, I have never experienced the honor of wearing the uniform of one of our brave military branches in service to my country. I have heard it from many who are my same age. We turned 18 years of age in the late 1970's and early 1980's. There was no war, unless you count the Cold War, and in many homes the tradition of military service was not passed along.

I have always felt it missing from my own set of life experiences and from my professional resume. An opportunity to experience that sense of duty and honor, and of service to my country and community, is certainly one of the many reasons that I joined the Philadelphia Police Department almost two decades ago now. If I didn't make the choice as a kid to put on the uniform of my country, then at least I could put on a uniform here and help protect our homeland.

Still, it would be hard for most of us to ever appreciate what real soldiers, sailors, and pilots have experienced as they have defended both our nation directly and the cause of freedom around the world. While television news shows missiles being launched and far away explosions, they rarely, if ever, show the truth of close, intense combat situations and the split-second decisions that can mean the difference between life and death.

What was it really like to climb inside the cockpit of a fighter plane in World War II and engage in a mission over enemy lines, perhaps in combat with Nazi or Japanese pilots? What was it really like to crawl inside of a tank and head out into the deserts of Iraq? What was it really like to trudge through a swamp in the jungles of Vietnam? What was it really like to charge on to a battle field in the Civil War? What was it like to cross the Delaware River in a small boat, freezing and shivering in the cold with General Washington in the Revolutionary War?

For all of it's many faults, one of the things that Hollywood has managed to do best is to portray those military heroes well, bringing us close to the battles and often inside the very heads of the individuals involved. Whether those men and women were fighting in combat in war time or protecting our nation and it's interests in peace time, motion pictures have given us the opportunity to get close to the action.

In 1998, Steven Spielberg took us right out on to Omaha Beach with it's horror and death during the D-Day invasion of World War II. Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Paul Giamatti, Matt Damon, Dennis Farina and the rest of the stellar cast of 'Saving Private Ryan' took us into the heads, hearts, and minds of the heroes who rescued humanity from Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.

In 1994, Hanks had joined with director Robert Zemeckis and fellow actors Gary Sinise and Mykelti Williamson to explore the Vietnam War and it's participants from some unusual angles in 'Forrest Gump'. Back in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola had given us a look into the jungle battles with starring turns from Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Sam Bottoms, and Dennis Hopper in 'Apocalypse Now'. In 1986, Oliver Stone's 'Platoon' with Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, and Charlie Sheen took us back to the 'Nam.

While World War II and Vietnam have been the focus of some of the best war movies in motion picture history, many other conflicts around the world have shone a light on the struggles and accomplishments of America's fighting heroes. From 1935's 'Gone With the Wind' visiting the Civil War to 2005's 'Jarhead' taking us inside Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm we have seen American troops rise to defend their nation, democracy, and freedom.

So while few of us have had or ever will have that experience, we get at least a small taste of the hardships, the horrors, and the sacrifices that men and women make when they join the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and other military service groups thanks to the best of these Hollywood productions. Still, while it gives us a taste, it will never compare to real life.

Those men and women represented by these Hollywood characters and caricatures, by these retellings of history, and by the drama of fiction within a historical construct are the real heroes who we must always thank and never forget.

Especially today, on Veteran's Day here in the United States, we must all join together in supporting and thanking the military veterans who fight for our nation, and in some cases who are injured and even die for the cause of our freedom and liberty.

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