[Marxism] Re: Alienated images

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 30 17:44:16 MDT 2004

DLVinvest at cs.com wrote:
> I think it more likely that Speilberg was Searching for Private Profit than 
> marketing a particular ideological message to the masses. Divining his motive 
> beyond the pecuniary is a little more slippery. 

(When reading the references to John McCain below, think about John 
Kerry's consideration of him as a running-mate. Also think about Kerry's 
incessant references to his war hero status. And Hollywood's embrace of 

Selling Private Ryan
Stephen Ambrose, Tom Brokaw, Steven Spielberg, and the Abuse of Nostalgia

By Nicholas Confessore
American Prospect, 9.24.01

This June, for the second time in their lives, the men of Easy Company 
invaded Normandy. It was considerably easier than the first time. From 
New York City, the surviving veterans flew in a chartered jet--courtesy 
of American Airlines--to Paris, where they boarded a chartered train to 
the town of Carentan, courtesy of HBO, and were deposited at the Utah 
Beach Memorial on the 57th anniversary of D day.

There, boasted a flurry of HBO press releases, several dozen 
construction workers had labored mightily to build an 80-square-foot 
high-definition movie screen, a viewing tent, and a reception area that 
could accommodate up to 1,000 guests, "as well as lounge and bar space." 
The occasion for all this was not so much the annual D-day 
commemoration, which was squeezed in after lunch, but an event that had 
for all intents and purposes replaced it: the star-studded premiere of 
Band of Brothers--a $125-million television miniseries produced by 
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, based on the book by Stephen E. Ambrose, 
telling the true-life story of Easy Company, and appearing on a TV 
screen near you in early September.

Like almost everything Spielberg has touched, Band of Brothers will 
probably be a great success. But like D day itself, the miniseries is 
only part of a larger endeavor--one that began, fittingly, with the 
publication of Ambrose's book a decade ago. Over the years, Ambrose, 
Spielberg, and the television journalist Tom Brokaw have produced a body 
of loosely collaborative, thematically intertwined works about World War 
II, including a number of hugely popular books by Ambrose; Spielberg's 
1998 film Saving Private Ryan, for which Ambrose served as a consultant; 
Brokaw's Greatest Generation book trilogy (largely inspired by Ambrose's 
D-Day and Citizen Soldiers) and related NBC specials (narrated in part 
by Ambrose); and Ambrose's National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, for 
which Brokaw and Spielberg have been major donors. Besides their obvious 
mutual interest in martial affairs, the historian, the filmmaker, and 
the journalist have come to share a sense of mission. They seek not to 
entertain but to educate. And they claim to offer a new, more accurate 
chronicle of World War II--films told "from the dogface's point of 
view," a journalism that will "pay tribute to those men and women who 
have given us the lives we lead today," a history of "who they were, how 
they fought, why they fought, what they endured, how they triumphed."

Instead, they have advanced a history in which victory is unambiguous 
and celebrating the past is the same thing as remembering it. Though 
sentimental and synthetic, their account of the war is also widely 
embraced and lucrative. Band of Brothers, D-Day, and Citizen Soldiers 
all have been best-selling books. Anyone who has not made it through 
Ambrose's many tomes has likely read his newspaper columns, watched him 
on a chat show, or listened to him narrate a documentary. Saving Private 
Ryan was among the top-grossing movies of 1998, its success almost 
single-handedly having revived the World War II genre in Hollywood. 
Brokaw's books have sold more than five million copies, and his 
television specials are even more popular. For many Americans, World War 
II has been replaced by World War II--written by Stephen E. Ambrose, 
directed by Steven Spielberg, hosted by Tom Brokaw, and starring Tom Hanks.


Granted, it's easy to take such marketing bravado too seriously. But 
together, Spielberg, Ambrose, and Brokaw command a disturbingly vast 
audience. Why?

A major theme of all their work (and, indeed, much of the coverage that 
it has inspired in the press) is the explicit, ungenerous comparison of 
the Greatest Generation and what Brokaw describes, with evident 
discomfort, as "another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers." Since 
all three are themselves boomers, along with most of their imitators and 
much of their audience, it's hard not to see such uneasiness as 
self-loathing. If the heroes we enshrine inevitably reflect deeper 
preoccupations, then it's revealing that the World War II industry took 
off in the mid-1990s, just as the long-awaited political ascendance of 
the boomers--epitomized by early Clintonism, an idealistic creed in 
which ideas trumped character--seemed to have gone horribly awry. 
Against that background, the embrace of the Greatest Generation by their 
once-rebellious children seems like nothing so much as an act of belated 
filial piety. Not unexpectedly, many boomers began to search for new 
heroes--heroes who would reflect the values that they had spurned in 
their youth. And like so many people in so many eras, they settled upon 
a Cincinnatus.

In April 1995, Ambrose published the first of several columns that 
advocated the presidential candidacy of Colin Powell. Predictably, they 
took the form of a comparison between Eisenhower, the great hero of 
World War II, and Powell, the great hero of Operation Desert Storm (and, 
as a proud Vietnam veteran, a kind of anti-boomer boomer). "Like Ike, 
Powell is not going to seek the office," Ambrose wrote. "He must be 
convinced that he has a duty to run and there is genuine public 
support." Readers were informed--nay, assured--that "no professional 
politicians were involved in the Citizens for Eisenhower clubs that 
sprang up spontaneously in 1951" and that "it is the same for the 
Citizens for Colin Powell organizations." (At the time, Ambrose was a 
board member of Citizens for Colin Powell.) Moreover, "Powell shares 
another quality with Ike. When people look at him, whether they are 
conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, he makes them proud to 
be Americans." And of Powell's qualifications for office? "Soldiers," 
Ambrose lectured, "spend their lives learning how to lead." In any case, 
he wrote in a version of the essay that appeared several months later in 
Newsweek, "most people don't choose a president based on his position on 
the 55-mph speed limit, or even abortion. They want someone who inspires 

For Ambrose, Powell was the classic war-hero politician: a potential 
leader whose greatest political virtue is his lack of politics. When 
Ambrose wrote that Powell took "the demoralized U.S. Army of the 
1973-1975 period"--the early post-Vietnam years--and turned it into "the 
best army in the world," the historian may well have hoped that Powell 
would do something similar for the republic itself. But Ambrose was not 
alone. For a man who never declared his candidacy and never set out to 
build a political base, enthusiasm for Powell was remarkably wide. The 
same month that Ambrose urged us to "draft Colin Powell," Gallup gauged 
Powell's personal approval rating-- admittedly, a crude measure--at an 
astonishing 72 percent, far higher than that of any other potential 
candidate for the White House at the time. His rating remained in that 
range throughout 1995 and early 1996, when American politics was widely 
deemed relentlessly vicious and hopelessly partisan, and it has only 
risen since.

Whatever his virtues and faults, Powell seemed to understand how 
unlikely he was to live up to such expectations; like Cincinnatus, he 
declined to run. But the imprint of his non-candidacy continues to 
pervade American politics--from the astounding deference paid to former 
Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska this spring, when The New York Times 
Magazine revealed his role in a 1969 massacre of civilians in Vietnam; 
to the refusal of Beltway politicians even to consider rethinking plans 
to build a World War II monument on the National Mall; to, most 
significantly, the rise of John McCain. During the 2000 
presidential-election campaign, McCain--a likable, opportunistic, and 
previously unaccomplished Arizona senator--was widely touted as the only 
worthwhile thing in Washington. Other politicians might have had the 
endorsements, the policies, and the votes, but only he, it seemed, could 
"restore honor"--as one major profile put it--to American politics.

McCain--more accurately, McCainia--was Powellism taken to the extreme. 
The story of his capture, torture, and imprisonment in Vietnam is well 
known, the course of his life arguably inspiring and even heroic, and 
his personal appeal obvious. But while Powell's vaguely centrist 
opinions somehow authenticated his vaguely centrist appeal, McCain 
emerged as a dark-horse contender for the White House in spite of his 
politics. Though McCain spent most of the campaign aligned with his 
party's conservative wing, his apostasy on a few issues--all of them 
widely supported by the American public, though not by the GOP 
leadership--was and is taken by many as evidence that he is above petty 
politics. He isn't, of course. But war-hero candidates--McCain, Powell, 
Eisenhower--are popular precisely because they are Rorschach candidates. 
As empty vessels, they are more easily pressed into service as symbols. 
In politics, McCain is the pluperfect symbol of boomer regret: insolent 
in youth, a redemptive Vietnam War hero in middle age, and a 
postpartisan crusader today.

But it's troubling that we need him to be. If the popularity of a Colin 
Powell or a John McCain reveals a desperate thirst for heroism in 
American life, it also exposes the sheer poverty of our expectations. 
Ultimately, the wide embrace of old war heroes--like the wide embrace of 
an old war--reveals less about the past than it does about the present. 
The Greatest Generation does not require an Oliver Stone; it already 
produced a Norman Mailer, a Joseph Heller, and a Studs Terkel. But there 
is something cynical about the idea that our greatest generation resides 
in the past--and something decadent about investing citizen-soldiers 
with the unique ability to create and nourish democracy. The Greatest 
Generation deserves more. So do the rest of us.

full: http://www.prospect.org/print/V12/17/confessore-n.html

Marxism list: www.marxmail.org

More information about the Marxism mailing list