Imagine that you were able to interview a number of the survivors of Custer’s battle at the Little Big Horn. Imagine further that some film had been taken of the battle and you were able to get your hands on it. Imagine, as well, that a very realistic Hollywood movie had been made about the battle and you were able to get some choice footage from it. Then you locate a fine composer who can establish just the right mood, as you weave it all together into a documentary movie.
That comes close to what Brian Iglesias and Anton Sattler have accomplished with Chosin, a film about General Douglas MacArthur’s much bigger and more recent debacle. It is known as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, and it took place in the far reaches of northern Korea in the early winter of 1950, only five months after the Korean War began. As a truly horrible experience, though, Chosin Reservoir was Little Bighorn on steroids. It was anything but a short, sharp decisive battle. It lasted for 17 days, sometimes in driving snow and always in bitter, sub-zero temperatures. The American soldiers were surrounded and vastly outnumbered by several divisions of Chinese soldiers, and, in spite of strong evidence of what was about to happen, their leaders had been taken completely by surprise. Listening to the compelling stories that the interviewers were able to elicit from a truly extraordinary collection of veterans, one is, by turns, heartbroken and inspired. Particularly inspiring, as well, was the actual footage of the rescue of some 98,000 civilian refugees—many of them Christians—who faced almost certain slaughter at the hands of the Communists who suspected them of collaboration.
I attended a premier showing of Chosin at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, DC. There was a panel discussion afterward with the two film makers, both of whom are U.S. Marine reserve officers and combat veterans of the first Gulf War and of Iraq, and two Chosin Reservoir battle survivors. All agreed that the fact that the filmmaker/interviewers were themselves combat veterans explained, to a large degree, how they were able to draw out the stories of the battle survivors so well.
They are probably right. But what might have been a crucial factor in making this movie an artistic triumph makes it, to my mind, somewhat dubious politically. Little Bighorn is now universally recognized as a military disaster born of extreme hubris, the folly of one inadequate leader, General George Armstrong Custer. Chosin Reservoir was General MacArthur’s Little Bighorn, except that it was far, far worse in almost every way imaginable. By the usual military measure, it was a crushing defeat. From positions that they occupied deep in the country, the United States Army and Marines were driven out of North Korea, never to return. The makers of Chosin commendably avoid politics or appearing to espouse any particular point of view, for the most part. But war is by its very nature political; it is not just another tragedy or act of nature. Politics is unavoidable in a war story. In “avoiding politics,” the filmmakers end up depicting Chosin Reservoir as a battle for survival. If the Americans escape their encirclement and make it back to the port and onto the waiting ships, they “win.” They do and they do, at least all the ones we see on the screen. We never have to worry if those individuals that the viewers get attached to are going to make it, because there they are, alive, telling their stories. To be sure, we get to hear them tell about the gruesome deaths of some of their closest buddies, but those are not people that the viewers have come to care about.
In this regard, fiction is a superior medium for imparting the greater truth. In the splendid Korean War movie, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, for instance, the viewers grow strongly attached to one of the characters who does what she has to do to survive during the Communist occupation of Seoul, but then, because of that, she is shot as a collaborator by the South Koreans when they retake the city. The full senseless horror of this war and war in general is thus better revealed.
The Dead Have No Voice
The documentary makers are hamstrung, to a degree, by their method. It is one that they share with all compilers of history who depend upon the accounts of the survivors. They can’t interview the dead. But they might have escaped the charge that they are unduly glorifying a costly defeat, and glorifying war in general, if they had interviewed, say, some of the widows or other loved ones of those who were killed. My late mother, who never quite got over the loss of her drafted younger brother in that war, would have made a good interview subject. Also, I should think that there would have been plenty of expressions of understandable bitterness toward their leaders by many, if not most, of the interviewees. Virtually all we get to see are the brief complaints that captured Chinese soldiers are being ignored as evidence that the Chinese might have come into the war in force. (One of the survivor panelists called it the biggest failure of military intelligence in our history and said that he learned upon meeting with a Chinese veteran of the battle that the Chinese had been deployed to Korea for a full month before the actual mass attack.)
Perhaps it was because I saw the screening in a very military setting, and perhaps it was because the young film makers, like so many of their cohorts, flaunted their Marine background so strongly, but the movie, even with all the horror it depicted, to me came across as a bit too pro-war. I can imagine General Buck Turgidson of Dr. Strangelove fame being pleased with it as an illustration of the American military “can-do” spirit instead of the needless blood-let that it was, resulting from political and military bungling.
With all the talk these days about anyone in uniform as a “hero,” selflessly serving the cause of freedom, one could easily lose sight of the fact that many of those who paid the ultimate price at Chosin Reservoir and in the Korean War were draftees, or joined to get a better deal than they would get when they were inevitably drafted. There’s a certain irony in seeming to depict that as a glorious sacrifice for the cause of “freedom.”
All in all, this is a very powerful and important movie that repeatedly brought tears to my eyes. I fear, though, that it will be misused and the wrong message will be sent.
December 16, 2010