Lugging the guts into the next room

If Uncle Sam hadn't sanitized the horrors of WWII, "Saving Private Ryan" wouldn't have been needed.

By Bruce Shapiro
Published July 30, 1998 5:40PM (EDT)

Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," with its graphic depictions of screaming, disemboweled teenage soldiers and dismembered corpses, has provoked long-overdue acknowledgment of the lingering psychic scars borne by World War II combat veterans. Until now, war stories -- both on screen and around the kitchen tables of countless families -- offered only fleeting insinuations of something unspeakably dreadful beneath the guff and euphemized surface of what Studs Terkel called "The Good War."

Why has it taken so many decades to start this frank national conversation? Commentary on "Saving Private Ryan" has universally ascribed the near-silence on this subject to a sort of generational contract between World War II veterans anxious to move on and an American public flushed with the glow of victory. But the truth about the origin of this 50-year silence ought to be a national scandal: The U.S. government deliberately censored news and films about battlefield traumas -- and continued to do so for years after the war was over.

From the outset of World War II, the very subject of what used to be called "war neurosis" or shell shock drove Pentagon brass to distraction. Many officers agreed in principle, if not in practice, with Gen. George S. Patton, who in Sicily in 1943 slapped and kicked a decorated soldier hospitalized with shell shock, called him a "yellow bastard" and shouted on his way out the door, "There's no such thing as shell shock. It's an invention of the Jews." Initially the War Department, insisting the problem was weaklings and malingerers and not the horror of war, attempted to weed out sissies: 800,000 draftees and recruits were rejected for psychological reasons, 20 times the rate of World War I. It didn't work. In 1943, the height of the war, the number of U.S. soldiers discharged as psychiatric casualties actually exceeded the year's new recruits; by V-J Day, 504,000 American soldiers, enough for 50 divisions, had been lost to emotional collapse.

If World War II soldiers carried more psychological scars than is suggested by popular mythology, they also proved more resistant to the work of killing. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a psychologist and former Ranger, points out in his provocative 1995 book, "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society," that an Army study found that only some 15 or 20 percent of World War II soldiers would actually fire their weapons in battle on any given day. (Firing-range training for Vietnam was altered precisely to "desensitize" soldiers in order to raise those trigger rates -- which indeed made GIs more likely to shoot the enemy but also may have made them more likely to shoot civilians in places like My Lai.)

Information like this rarely surfaced in public. Battlefield censors routinely purged reporters' dispatches of information about war neurosis, malaria and other unpleasant details. Graphic accounts and photos of injury were often sanitized for fear of demoralizing the home front: The 1977 book "Life Goes to War," for instance, contains not a single photograph of dismembered corpses. And for the most part, war correspondents rarely balked at these restrictions. John Steinbeck recalled in a memoir that "the foolish reporter who broke the rules would not be printed at home and in addition would be put out of the theater by the command." It was not, Steinbeck said, "that the correspondents were liars," but that "it is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies."

Among the "things not mentioned" by correspondents was Patton's scandalous attack on that shell-shocked soldier in Sicily: 20 reporters traveling with Patton's unit acceded to a personal request from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to suppress the story. Instead, it was broken in Washington, three months after the fact, by columnist Drew Pearson.

In some sense, "Saving Private Ryan" is really the fulfillment of the long-frustrated desire of one of Spielberg's Hollywood ancestors, John Huston, to present a less sanitized version of the war and its impact on rank-and file soldiers. In 1944 Huston was commissioned by the War Department to produce a documentary on the battle for Italy. For months, he accompanied a front-line unit, shooting uncompromising, grunt's-eye footage of the Italian campaign. When he premiered "The Battle of San Pietro" for a roomful of Army brass, first a three-star general and then a parade of lower-ranking officers walked out. The film was promptly classified "secret"; it was eventually shown publicly, minus nearly one-third of its footage, only through the personal intercession of Gen. George C. Marshall, who thought it would be a useful tool to prepare new recruits for the rigors of war.

"San Pietro" served as a prelude to a later, postwar, episode that laid down the rules for depictions of battle trauma for years to come. In 1946, the War Department hired Huston to produce an educational film, as Huston recalled in his memoir, "to prove that nervous and emotional veterans were not lunatics." Huston took the great cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who shot "The Magnificent Ambersons" and a long line of other masterpieces) into Mason General Hospital on Long Island and obtained releases from a ward full of war veterans recovering from battlefield trauma. For months he filmed their psychotherapy sessions. Huston's cameras rolled as one soldier, who'd left the battlefield with an intractable and paralyzing stammer, recovered his power of speech: "I can talk! Listen, I can talk!" he calls out. Witnessing this recovery, Huston wrote later, was "like having a religious experience."

Huston obtained permission for a premiere screening of the film he'd titled "Let There Be Light" at the New York Museum of Modern Art. But just before show time, two military police officers showed up at the museum and confiscated Huston's film. "Let There Be Light" was immediately banned by the War Department; the soldiers' releases were purged from the files. Into the 1970s, the Pentagon restricted screenings of Huston's film to "the medical profession and allied scientific groups." It was only in 1981 that the Defense Department finally authorized a Los Angeles screening of Huston's unsparing yet optimistic depiction. "I think it boils down to the fact," Huston wrote in his memoir, "that they wanted to maintain the warrior myth, which said that American soldiers went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience, standing tall and proud for having served their country well. Only a few weaklings fell by the wayside. Everyone was a hero, and had medals to prove it."

The cost of maintaining that warrior myth was high. Conventional wisdom holds that the hero's welcome accorded returning World War II soldiers left them more supported, and so less damaged, than those who returned from Vietnam. In fact, recent studies show post-traumatic stress disorder just as prevalent among those enthusiastically received World War II veterans as among their Vietnam-era counterparts. And in certain respects it was precisely division over Vietnam -- within military ranks as well as broader society -- that granted Vietnam's GIs permission to talk honestly about their exposure to extreme violence as they gathered at GI coffeehouses and recovered in VA hospitals. Events like the unprecedented moment in 1971 when the Vietnam Veterans Against the War threw their medals back at the U.S. Capitol not only amounted to political protest; those soldiers were refusing to cooperate in the mythologizing of their own military service.

The edifice of denial Steven Spielberg has begun to demolish was erected by government censors, not World War II soldiers. Perhaps it is now time for wholesale reconsideration of a generation beaming with officially sanctioned postwar optimism, while carrying on its back such massive wartime baggage. It is worth considering whether some of the worst national excesses of the 1950s and 1960s might have been aided and abetted by the coverup of World War II trauma. How much anger was generated, and how much was the generational division of the 1960s exacerbated, by silence and mythology surrounding World War II combat experience? Without the image of victory unalloyed by ongoing suffering, would any president have been able to commit the public to Vietnam? The country might be a different place had the news media and Hollywood sooner found a way to grant World War II veterans some ratification for memories that first government policy, and then the culture as a whole, told them had no place at the public table.

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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