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Pictures in Contrast

A look at two World War II movies and the American perspective of war.

by Jonathan Wilson
April 12, 2001

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Pictures in Contrast_Jonathan Wilson-A look at two World War II movies and the American perspective of war. The movie "Saving Private Ryan" depicted the horrible reality of war as experienced by the Americans on D-Day. The movie "Enemy at the Gates" depicted the horrible reality of war as experienced by the Russians in Stalingrad. These movies have obvious similarities. The first involves a mission among the ruins of France. The second involves a mission among the ruins of Stalingrad. At times, enemies occupy the same buildings. The blood and noise and confusion are compelling. And both movies begin with soldiers in boats.

Now see the contrast. In "Saving Private Ryan," an armada of Americans and British soldiers are mounting the invasion they have been stock-piling for two years. The American soldier is a one-man munitions depot: Rifle, pack with rations and first-aid, ammo, grenades, flak jacket. In fact, he is so weighed down with equipment that when the landing craft stalls short of the beach, the soldier plunges into the water and sinks.

The American is facing machine-guns, land-mines, and .88mm cannon. The subtext to the D-Day invasion, however, is that by June 6, 1944, Nazi Germany no longer had an Air Force with which to defend its Western front. We do not know these things from Steven Spielberg, who directed the movie, but history informs us that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, charged with defending France, was livid that two tank divisions of the SS remained in base in northern France throughout the establishment of the beachhead. History also tells us that Rommel refused to officially request the mobilization of the SS Panzers, because he was sour on not having direct control over them.

Many Americans fell on D-Day. It was heroic. It was tragic. And military historians from around the world acknowledge, that considering the scope of the operation, casualties suffered by the Western Allies were amazingly light. Final piece of subtext: After studying the immense amount of information regarding German operations, it has been concluded that approximately 80% of the Nazi war effort was directed against the Soviet Union, right up to the fall of Berlin by Russian forces.

The American home front experienced rations on sugar and meat and gasoline. The feat was epic. That may indeed have been the "Greatest Generation." And Americans fought a war on two fronts as well. We were contending with the Empire of Japan, too. We take nothing away from our heroes doing what they had to do.

Now switch the scene to the German invasion of Russia. It is the Fall of 1942. The German military is at the peak of its power. They intend to
encircle and demolish Stalingrad as a propoganda victory to discourage the Russian people, and also provide themselves a bridgehead to the oil fields of
the Middle East. For the Germans, victory is not only a possibility, it is an expectation.

"Enemy at the Gates" shows Russian soldiers from the interior being loaded onto box-cars and shipped, by train, to the front. They are clothed in brown uniforms. No one has been issued weapons. When the train stops outside Stalingrad and the box-cars open, their first view is a vision of horror. The city is already rubble, and the sounds of battle rage. Officers begin to pull soldiers out of the box-cars and load them onto the boats to cross the river and land at the docks of the city.

The entire river is within range of German artillery. Some shells land, blowing troop transports apart. And then, overhead, come the German dive-bombers. Airplanes of the still-intact Luftwaffe dive-bomb and strafe the Russians, unchallenged by any Soviet aircraft. Those soldiers who jump overboard to save their own lives, are shot by their officers as they swim.

After that murderous crossing, the survivors are rushed to the munitions wagons. An officer shouts these instructions through an amplifier:

"Every third man gets a rifle. The one with the rifle, shoots. When he dies, the one who follows picks up the rifle and shoots."

The men then wait behind a makeshift bulwark of rubble as the officers continue instructions. "You must move forward. You must not retreat. We are determined not to lose Stalingrad to the Fascist invaders. If you retreat, you will be shot." The whistle blows. The men charge forward. For every two out of three, their only weapons are their voices. Many are cut down by German rifles, machine guns, and tanks. The ones remaining realize it is futile. They turn to run. Their officers urge them forward, waiting at the only machine-gun issued to the regiment. Retreating Russians are shot by their own machine-gun.

All of this happened on their own sovereign soil.

It is good for us to remember the sacrifices of our own service men and women. The bullet wound hurts just as much whether you have equipment or not. The death of a friend is just as painful whether you can carry your own rifle or not. The explosions are just as loud, the bombs are just as deadly.

Perhaps, though, a movie like "Enemy at the Gates" can help us set some things in context. Perhaps it helps us to see why the Soviet Union saw the occupation of Eastern Europe, including half of Germany, as a strategic necessity after the war. Perhaps it helps us understand why Stalin was so furious with the Western Allies for postponing the invasion of France for so long; someone already as paranoid as Stalin certainly had no reason to trust the Western Allies.

Perhaps our rations of sugar and meat and oil make us a little bit arrogant. Imagine how we would view our world if the entire Eastern United States had been invaded and controlled by Nazis for three years? Imagine if the battle for Cleveland reduced that city to ashes? Suppose that 20 million Americans had died in World War II, 18 million of them on our own soil? Maybe, just maybe, we would have a different idea about what "total war" means.

We would definitely have a different idea about women in combat, in the infantry, with rifles if they were lucky. This is not Hollywood's exaggeration.

If the movie helped me to appreciate the enormous sacrifices of the Russian people, men and women alike, it also helped me to appreciate the enormous privilege that comes with liberty. For "Enemy at the Gates" features the political commissars too, those who played fast and loose with the truth in order to maintain Communist Party propoganda. American Generals are reassigned, decommissioned, and very rarely court-marshalled, for losing battles. Stalin expected nothing less than suicide. Nikita Kruschev, Stalin's man to save Stalingrad for the party and the nation, pronounced his death sentences on arrival.

For Mother Russia and a beast name Stalin, 20 million patriots gave their lives as human fodder against the Nazi War Machine.

What sacrifice are Americans willing to make to preserve that which is truly worth defending? Liberty, freedom, democracy, religion, dissent,
individualism: Or is there something in the very quality of these things that make us cynical?

These questions are purely hypothetical, but perhaps not for much longer. Our continental isolation is no longer a defense against war on our own soil. Acts of terrorism have the potential of bringing massive destruction to American cities. How would we fight back? Would we sacrifice liberty, freedom, even democracy, in order to maintain our individualism, our consumerism, our material abundance? Or would we realize that by surrendering to fear and yielding our liberties, we would become our enemy, undercutting the very values that formed us and that are worth defending?

Twenty million Russians died on behalf of one monstrous paranoid maniac against another. So how much are Americans willing to sacrifice for liberty and freedom?

Hypothetically. I'm asking because I don't know and I would like to know your opinions.

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