1917: An Appreciation, and Tideline

Something a little different this time: a movie evaluation. SPOILER ALERT! You may learn the ending if you haven’t seen it.

Allow a Great War dilettante a little leeway, here. Sam Mendes’ film 1917 is 119 minutes long; surely, you can take about a tenth of that to read, not a review, but an appreciation, of a technical marvel on a par with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).

While the plot is pedestrian (sending two NCO’s across No-Man’s-Land to stop a doomed attack, saving a corporal’s brother), and the acting at best average. However, the viewer has to appreciate the flawless digital editing that makes the action seem to flow seamlessly as the cameras rotate around the characters as they move through the trenches, resulting in the impression that the film was shot in two VERY long, continuous takes. I cannot see how 1917 could have had any competition for Best Cinematography and Visual Effects at the Academy Awards. Hitchcock, who was at bottom a technician, insisted on shooting his version of the 1929 play Rope as all one scene, stopping the action only to change film every seventeen minutes by running the camera behind one actor’s back or another.

Allowing some leeway for a non-button-counter, the sets and costumes in 1917 gave the distinct impression that this was taking place there, in Flanders, sometime in 1917. The lead actors, however, don’t do it for you–it’s the rest of them. The weary lieutenant just before Schofield and Blake jump off into the wire looks like half a hundred such people I dealt with in my quarter-century in the US Army: OK, you’ve got stupid orders, but at least I don’t have to carry them out, so you go do it, you poor SOB. And the attitudes of the men in the “casual truck” were perfect: Brother, better you than me. The senior officers offer the two enlisted men the usual mix of “you have to do it” and “best you can” and “if not you, who”- style instructions that are the old sergeant’s curse.

But, too–spoiler alert–there are moments in an otherwise mundane plot when, because of the effects and the editing, I somehow expected to see Charleton Heston screeching “its a madhouse! A madhouse,” in Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J. Schaffner). Running through a burning village dodging German soldiers, one could almost feel the heat, the unbelievable panic, the terror. And suddenly materializing at his destination, the survivor of the little mission struggles to be heard amid the chest-beating and the inevitable “I follow orders” mentality, the resignation that he feels before he finally does get the General’s attention.

I know enough about WWI to know that such a mission would not be given to a couple of NCO’s. If there had to be such a thing, it would have been given to a lieutenant at a minimum and an infantry section, who would have brought more than one Lewis Gun with them. Also, I know that the wire men worked day and night to stretch the phone lines between all major headquarters: it is unlikely that a battalion would be out of touch for more than 12 hours even nine hundred feet, let alone nine miles, ahead of the MLR. At the same time, such a message could also have been carried by aircraft–quickly and more reliably than two soldiers risking their all. But, like the highly-unlikely mission in Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), that truth wouldn’t make for much of a story, would it?

The technically questionable blunders I saw–an abandoned German artillery park with broken guns and shells strewn all over is one–have plausible explanations. That one is easy: not enough horses to pull the broken weapons and salvageable junk back. This is after the Turnip Winter, after all, and the German Army was starving. Sick animals weren’t treated in some places (I understand); weak ones were eaten, so there were real shortages of draft animals. Using trucks for a sneaky withdrawal–like that one was supposed to be–would give the game away. Also, the presence of non-white soldiers in the Devons: as casualties were taken, fragile British units might have been brigaded together in the field for a day or so, though unlikely. More likely that they were added to the otherwise all-white cast to alleviate the inevitable protests in the US if they were not there. The Movie Police, after all, work on feelings, not facts. Their made-up outrage over the all-white cast in Saving Private Ryan (1998; Steven Spielberg) was bad enough; allow the producers some rhythm here, OK?

But the criticisms about British generals not thinking much about the loss of 1,600 men in a single attack is, charitably, unfair by that time. The British Army no longer had the manpower to waste by that spring. While the whole story is made up, it would be incredible to imagine that any British general by the war’s third year would cavalierly just throw away a village’s worth of Englishmen…certainly if they had no artillery support.

Ultimately, though, we as film viewers have to remember that these products are intended to entertain and to make money. Movies are not time machines, and some are better than others at conveying a sense of being there. 1917 is an excellent film that deserves its accolades and its revenues, and at least some of its criticisms. But, as some have done, to dismiss it out of hand because of its plot and technical flaws is to deny what is otherwise a very entertaining nearly two hours… more enjoyable for some of us than the rest of the hokum at the theaters, anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet…sorry for the spoilers. If you have, think about it as a product of the entertainment industry, not an educational tool. It became available on DVD 31 March.

Tideline: Friendship Abides

Cover of Tideline: Friendship Abides, Part Two of the Stella’s Game Trilogy

Where Stella’s Game ends, Tideline: Friendship Abides begins….and is available now in paperback and E-book at your favorite booksellers

Life has its limitations, natural and artificial.  Natural limits are nature’s doing; the others are ours.

Natural limits are imposed by nature–like the ocean tides. The rest are imposed—often reluctantly, sometimes of necessity—by how we live our lives. We set limits on what we hope to achieve, the challenges we’re willing to face, or what we’re willing to tolerate, or to settle for.

Those decisions come easier when we don’t have to make them alone; when we have the love and patience of true friends.

But those limits are to be tested. The friends have goals to achieve; milestones to reach. They were eighteen when they joined the Army and Navy in 1973. But what do they do, these new Cold Warriors, without a war to fight? They work while they live: they write letters while they learn, love, laugh and cry…and wait for that next war. America’s war in Vietnam is ended, but the after-effects are still felt. Watergate is in the news; so is Cambodia. The world is still a dangerous place, and even “cold wars” have casualties.

A tideline  on a beach marks the sea’s normal limits, where the sea in a normal tide will stop. The tideline for these friends….well, we did say a normal tide… 

Tideline: Friendship Abides—Part Two of the Stella’s Game Trilogy–follows our cast of characters out of the ‘70’s and into the ’80’s. Expect to see Part Three, The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs by the end of the year.

Operation Homecoming, Stella's Game, and Tideline

The war was over; the last American combat casualties were months before; the POWs were coming home.

It was 1973, and the last negotiations had scheduled the return of some 500-plus American prisoners of war from North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, Laotian, and Chinese captivity. As the men were flown to the Philippines to be debriefed and treated, the medics were surprised at how resilient they were, how mentally healthy despite debilitating injuries and malnutrition.

Burst of Joy

LTC Robert L. Stirm, left, greeted his family at Travis AFB 17 March 1973, after six years of captivity. This photo Burst of Joy by Slava “Sal” Veder, won a Pulitzer Prize, and did more to encapsulate the end of America’s “Vietnam experience” than any other image. The cameras were more than happy to record every heartfelt greeting, every fragile survivor, every dash across the hardstand into the eager arms of fathers barely known; of husbands weak and tired; of sons and brothers who had experienced isolation that few could appreciate…

And not a protester in sight…

And frankly, THAT was weird as I recall. Though most of the protests had sputtered out after 1970 and the Kent State shootings, we seriously expected to see protesters outside the air bases and hospitals…but nothing. Maybe because we were tired, all of us in America were; tired of the division, of the shouting, the screaming, the whiffs of smoke and tear gas for no end other than to protest a draft that sent less than 30% of its inductees to a conflict that would see no victory because it wasn’t supposed to…

And there were those bracelets again…

The POW bracelets that many people wore, starting in 1970, nickel plated or copper, they were engraved with the name of a POW or a missing American; some five million of them were sold by Voices in Vital America (VIVA). They vanished from most wrists for unknown reasons in about ’72, but during Operation Homecoming, out they came again. Those who had bracelets engraved with men who came back celebrated; some sent their bracelets to “their” PWs. Those with bracelets engraved with names that didn’t come back got blue star stickers…and by July those bracelets were back in the drawers.

But there were still more than five hundred men missing…

“Missing” in war means a lot of different things, and in the mid-20th century it could mean burned up in their aircraft; suspended bleeding in a parachute harness until death overtook them and they were consumed by the jungle; blown to smithereens and unidentifiable by any means at the time, or even just took off, making a life elsewhere.

But some were still held captive…

In his book, Henry Kissinger stated that he knew there were still Americans captive in Southeast Asia, but the North Vietnamese could wait; Kissinger, Nixon and the whole Western world needed an end to the carnage. So, he signed the best treaty he could get for himself, Nixon, and the whole Western world…and for Vietnam, for that matter. But as a result of that treaty, the Saigon government almost certainly saw the writing on the proverbial wall. Most sources say that the Saigon regime gave itself no more than three years to live after January 1973. They were right.

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, watching the POW’s come back is a family matter, hearing the commentators mention that this guy’s mother died while he was in a cage; that one’s family was so excited about his return that they took out a two-page ad in the local paper; that one’s wife didn’t want to wait and divorced him. These were teenagers–high school seniors–glad that the draft was ending but unsure about their own futures. Both the girls and the boys would watch the joyous reunions, be happy for the bracelet-owners whose men came home, and try to feel for those who did not. But it was hard: they had nothing to compare that agony to.

Tideline..Ever Rising

Footprints in the sand along the Tideline

Guess where this beach is for an autographed copy of Tideline: Friendship Abides. The kids grow up, as happens when you keep feeding ’em. But they have lives of their own, and they write letters to friends and loved ones wherever they are.

They write lots of letters…

They write because between 1974 and 1986, the Internet was still called DARPANET, there was no World Wide Web (hypertext wouldn’t come along until a decade later), no cell phones in general use, no blogs (I know; ancient history), so no e-mails. “Social media” was, well, sitting around and shooting the bull. But they still had fun, fell in love, fell out of love, went to war, and worked for success in their chosen professions: three of them in the Army; one in the Navy. And they wrote letters.

Tideline: Friendship Abides is the second part of the Stella’s Game Trilogy, and should be available at you favorite booksellers by mid-April.

My Lai, Stella’s Game, and Tideline

By 1968, the conflict in Vietnam had lost any popular support that it had had in the US…and in Vietnam.

Unidentified women and children just before they were killed
Ronald L. Haeberle photo, Wiki Commons

On 16 March, 1968, soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, and Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry, both of the 23rd Division (also called the Americal Division), killed somewhere between 347 and 504 people in two hamlets called My Lai and My Khe in the Son Tinh district of South Vietnam. An unknown number of women were raped, some as young as 12; children were mutilated. It was the best known of several such atrocities in the entire conflict. It took place during Operation Muscatine, which started in December 1967 and went on until June, 1968, aimed at securing Chu Lai.

Gee…don’t that sound simple?

The first time the American public knew anything about these massacres was September 1969, in a vague press release from Fort Benning about charges of murder being filed against Lieutenant William Calley. In trickles, then in floods, photos, names, dates were revealed as more people came forward with more testimony, more photos. Several reporters and photographers had been there, had seen the aftermath; one even claimed to have stopped some of the killing. There was a Pentagon Vietnam War Crimes Working Group that investigated these and several other massacres, but “war crimes” were never brought against anyone.

Over a year later…

William Calley stood trial for murder on 17 November 1970. It was hard to get eyewitnesses to testify against Calley, but one did, and Calley’s defense team couldn’t shake the testimony. On 29 March 1971, Calley was found guilty of 22 specifications of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

No one else was ever convicted of anything related to these crimes…

Despite the protest marches and the riots and flag-burning in the streets of America, the general reaction over Calley’s conviction was one of mild outrage. Within the US Army, Calley was regarded as a victim of the war’s culture of body count: the higher the better. He and his men–over a hundred would have taken part–were also victims of the nature of the conflict. While most of the victims were women and children, many of these guy’s friends had been victims of women and children bearing satchel charges and grenades, using both their youth and their sex to get close to American targets before setting off their weapons. While the protesters could use the conviction to bolster their arguments of an “unjust” war, the paltry number that Calley was actually convicted of deflated their argument somewhat.

The most common name Calley was given was “scapegoat…”

Calley spent less than two weeks in prison; President Nixon ordered him placed under house arrest at Fort Benning on 1 April 1971. After numerous appeals, Calley was released in September, 1974. The biggest reason for the successful appeals was pre-trial publicity, lack of corroborating witnesses, and the refusal of both the Department of Defense and the US Congress to make available evidence that Calley’s defense team requested. That and the general outrage over the acquittal of Captain Ernest Medina–Calley’s boss–who had planned and ordered the sweep operation that, in part, resulted in the massacres. Despite the unpopularity of the war, there was a great stink of cover-up. I distinctly recall that the popular media at the time of his conviction was nearly schizophrenic.

But by then, US troops had been out of Vietnam for two years, and no one was interested anymore.

Stella’s Game...watch her deal

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, the characters react to the conviction of William Calley–and the crimes he was accused of committing–in significantly different ways. While one is outraged, others are resigned; most question why not others. Scapegoat, martyr, example are names Calley is given…but not baby-killer or murderer.

But this was the 70’s, and the characters are fifteen and sixteen, looking forward to a future with a war that does not appear to have an end, and a draft that may not, either. Though Nixon campaigned on an “end the draft” platform in ’68, it was renewed for two years in September ’71–while the Calley appeals were ongoing–though everyone knew it would not be renewed again.

They know all this, but the boy’s future was still a question mark, and the girls were concerned for them.

Tideline is Rising

Where Stella’s Game leaves off, Tideline: Friendship Abides picks up. Join JJ and Mike, Ann and Leigh after they leave school on their life adventures, from 1974 to 1986. Tideline is scheduled for publication by April, 2020.

Join in the adventure!