Portraits of Mars
In Hollywood war movies of the 1940s, American soldiers fought for a sense of national purpose. In subsequent decades, they fought mainly for the sake of their buddies. Now, when the mayhem in war films is more realistic than ever, Hollywood seems unwilling to give the violence a larger context.
Honor, fear, and interest. Of the three motives Thucydides gave for war, honor came first. That was because, as an officer, he understood that fear and interest do not rank high among the reasons men march into battle. What soldiers know, artists know too. For millennia, poets, sculptors, storytellers, and painters have depicted war as driven less by fear (“weapons of mass destruction”) or interest (“blood for oil”) than by motives such as those the historian Donald Kagan, writing in the journal Commentary (1997), included in a definition of honor: “the search for fame and glory; the desire to escape shame, disgrace, and embarrassment; the wish to avenge a wrong and thereby to restore one’s reputation; the determination to behave in accordance with certain moral ideals.” For almost a century now, the movies, too, have been portraying those same motives for war.
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Martha Bayles writes about culture and the arts and teaches in the Honors Program at Boston College. She is the author of Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music (1994).more from this author >>