For a lot of Americans, Memorial Day weekend has become more significant as the start of grilling season than as an opportunity to reflect on war and the many costs that it exacts on American society. But if you are looking forward to three days of relaxation and a good dose of pop culture, may I suggest a compromise?
Political rhetoric about war and our treatment of veterans can be numbing — and disappointing. But if you want to read, listen to some good music or watch a movie this weekend, cultural treatments of conflicts and veterans issues can provide powerful alternative ways to think about why we go to war, how we conduct ourselves in conflict and how we treat the people who fight for us. Here are five books, movies, albums and television shows that look at four conflicts from the last American century, all of which would make for a thought-provoking day off.
1. “The Harlem Hellfighters” by Max Brooks and Caanan White: Released earlier this year, the “World War Z” writer’s graphic novel, a collaboration with artist White, about an all-black unit in World War I is shattering — and particularly timely, given the debate stirred by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” The book is a visceral evocation of the horrors of trench warfare. But it is also a sharp reminder that venerating volunteer troops for their service is an ideal that has not always been a reality. The hideous violence directed at black troops by their fellow citizens, the people they were ostensibly going overseas to protect, is as shocking as the effects of gas or the rats in the trenches.
2. “Land and Freedom,” by Ken Loach and “Spain in My Heart”: Loch’s film about the Spanish Civil War is unfortunately difficult to track down, as I discovered when I tried to purchase it as a gift last year. But it is a striking film to watch, just as “Spain in My Heart,” a collection of songs about the conflict, is to listen to. We are in a moment in U.S. history where the idea of fighting a war on the basis of principle rather than geopolitical advantage is in some disrepute, and for good reasons. Revisiting the Spanish Civil War is an opportunity to consider that perspective with the advantage of some historical distance.
3. “Sleeper Cell,” created by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris: Before Showtime had a hit with “Homeland,” it had “Sleeper Cell,” which may prove to stand up better under the judgment of time than its successor. Why is a show about an American-born Muslim FBI agent who is assigned to infiltrate a terrorist cell led by a hugely charismatic man (Oded Fehr, who deserves to be an enormous star) — in other words, a show about law enforcement operations — on a list of pop culture for Memorial Day?
Because in the era of the war on terror, the lines between law enforcement and combat have been blurred, sometimes to devastating effect. Reckoning with the cost we have charged to soldiers for what might have been law enforcement work is part of what we need to do to consider that choice. But we also need to think about what it means for law enforcement officers to have to handle issues that rise to the level of national security. “The Americans” is doing a wonderful job with this. But “Sleeper Cell” came first.
4. “Coming Back With Wes Moore”: I spoke with Wes Moore at length about his new documentary series for PBS, part of the service’s attempt to do a better job by the veteran populations that are part of his constituency. As we come to the end of active combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, this powerful set of films is an important caution that the timelines of conflicts are not determined by declarations of war and formal surrenders or treaties. Moore’s deep commitment to introducing us to a series of veterans and their families raises important questions about what it means, in substantive terms, to “support the troops.”
5. “The Losers,” by Jack Starrett: I will freely admit that this is the strangest entry on this list, a pulp about a motorcycle gang dropped into Cambodia by the CIA, and ultimately sold out and sacrificed by spies playing a greater game. The characters are sometimes repulsive people, and given the time it was made, there are plenty of stereotypes. But it is also an uneasy portrait of the competing imperatives in any conflict, and the gap between contractors (however eccentric) and the people hiring them.