The Dehumanization of War
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
The Dehumanization of War
The average American citizen has been lucky. The last major invasion of U.S. soil, which took place some 200 years ago during the War of 1812, threatened the lives of millions of Americans and even resulted in the burning down of the White House. However, since then the United States has not had to contend with any serious land invasion. The attacks on Pearl Harbor and on the World Trade Center were horrific, but the United States is positioned geographically so that it is buffered with two vast oceans on its sides and two large, allied nations north and south. For Europeans, wars often took place in their backyards. During World War II, Britons suffered through the German blitz during the bombing of London. France and a slew of other countries were militarily occupied by German forces; and the Germans themselves suffered through the Allied bombing of Dresden and other cities. American citizens safe at home, on the other hand, learned then of the atrocities of war through newspapers or radio, as we do now typically through television or movies. Set in World War II, David Ayer's 2014 film Fury seeks to make Americans understand the sacrifices made by the men and women fighting in combat zones overseas.
First and foremost, Fury feels real. Everything that the characters feel during any scene, I feel right along with them. The actors' emotions and reactions to their chaotic environment and desperate battles jump off the screen right into my face. The dehumanization of war is shown in heartbreaking detail as soldiers who barely know each other are thrust into extremely dangerous situations. Through the short amount of time they are with each other, the soldiers in Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier's platoon form a familial bond and strive to protect each other no matter what, even as they watch comrades all around them blown to pieces or burned to death. The scene that stands out to me the most occurs after Norman Ellison-trained as a clerk-typist and in the war for only eight weeks at this point-is assigned to Wardaddy's tank squad. Norman's first task is to clean out the tank. Inside the tank is the bloody face of the soldier who had died there before him, whose place he is taking. While gruesome, jolting and horrifying, that is the reality of war. It is not a glamorous job. During the subsequent scene when the tank squad's unit has captured a German soldier in the uniform of the SS (Schutzstaffel), infamous for its atrocities, Wardaddy takes it upon himself to demonstrate to Norman more of the harsh realities of war. After forcing a pistol into Norman's hand, Wardaddy pulls the trigger over Norman's grip and against his will, shooting the captive German in the back. Wardaddy and his platoon have developed an intense hatred for the Germans. Even though the German soldier shows a picture of his family and begs for mercy, he is executed. Of course, it is against Norman's morals to kill him in cold blood, but to the others, who have been in the war longer than he has, it is personal. Wardaddy and the other American soldiers who are watching the scene unfold are unable to feel empathy for the German, unable to see him as anything other than a monster who has been shooting at their brothers. A concoction of hatred and rage replaces the pity that they might have otherwise felt, and there is no trace in the others of the guilt that Norman clearly feels over this event.
Watching this stunning film reminded me of an extraordinary educational experience I had in high school. At seventeen, I had the privilege to interview two men who were in World War II: Joseph Brooks and Garland Copland. Joseph, a British soldier who was twenty-one at the time of his service, said he was the first Allied soldier in his landing craft to step on the beach at Normandy. "The others didn't want to get off on the smaller boat. And then they wouldn't get off at all. They were afraid. Someone had to be the first person to get off." In his mind, he was not a hero, not anyone special. He was just a man who knew that someone had to make the first move and the others would follow. During my interview with him, he described his experience on Normandy differently from what I had heard or seen in movies or read in other testimonies. A German soldier was wandering around the beach, with no idea that the British and Americans were coming in force. When Joe asked him if he spoke English, he said he spoke a little. "I told him he needed to get out of the way. I didn't want to kill anybody." The German soldier complied, and his life was spared, at least temporarily.
Joe's recollection of this story, one where he displays an overt reluctance to kill, contrasts sharply with Wardaddy's eagerness to inflict harm upon the enemy. However, Joe's tale does connect with an important scene near the end of Fury. After Norman's unit, including Wardaddy, has been wiped out, Norman hides underneath their disabled tank. German soldiers search the tank, and one of them shines a flashlight underneath it and illuminates Norman. What comes next in the scene is a complete surprise. Wardaddy had grimly warned Norman that the Germans would torture him for information and then inflict a gruesome death upon him if he were captured alive, but the soldier who discovers Norman in hiding just switches off his flashlight, walks away, and lets him live. This German soldier does not see Norman as an enemy but as a young man who is scared and out of options, in the same way that Joe saw another German soldier walking around the beach at Normandy. Ironically, after all of Fury's focus on atrocities committed by the Nazis, especially by members of the SS, including the hanging of women and children accused of collaborating with the enemy, it is a German soldier who shows that he has not been completely dehumanized by war. The combination of Joe's story and Fury's climax shows me that even though war is ugly, not all soldiers are killing machines who shoot to kill every person who is not on their side.
Garland Copland's testimony was also humble and humane. He was a twenty-one-year-old American soldier from the South. He told me about one of the first experiences of combat he had after he was sent overseas to Nuremberg, Germany. "I hadn't seen that much fighting until that night. I was a machine gunner. They were shooting at us, and I was put into a wine cellar. Bullets were flying everywhere and I figured that would be my last day. I didn't do much. To tell you the truth, I was scared." Garland and Joe did not know each other during their time in the war. They did not even cross paths. However, I noticed that their stories had a lot in common. Neither of the men thought they were heroes; they were just two young men who were trying to stay alive, and they were scared and homesick. I was especially reminded of Garland's story at the very end of Fury. When rescuing American soldiers find Norman cowering underneath the tank, one of them says to him, "You're a hero." From the look on Norman's face, I can tell that he does not feel like a hero. He has just been trying to stay alive. Perhaps he feels that the real hero is Wardaddy, who, at the expense of his own life, trained Norman on the job under great duress and kept him intact through multiple battles to see this day.
Never in my life did I think that I was going to be able to meet a World War II veteran, but I was proven wrong. Joe and Garland were great men. I was surprised to discover that these men lived only five minutes away from me, but I was also heartbroken that very few people in our neighborhood knew that. From their stories, I learned how terrible the war was for a soldier. I did not expect Fury to have so many stories relatable to the ones I heard. The brutal realities shown in Fury mirror the first-hand accounts given to me by those who were actually there. Norman's struggle for survival during an arduous campaign against the German military reduces him at the end to a boy who is scared out of his mind. Though he is called a hero, does he really feel like a hero? Being able to see an accurate representation of what Joe and Garland were talking about hurt my heart but also inspired me to remember and appreciate them again. Two years after interviewing them I found a job in the retirement home where they were living. We got to know each other better, and we became friends. They did not feel like heroes at all; they were normal men with normal lives who were thrust into war and made many sacrifices to preserve the freedoms of millions of Americans and others around the world. What Fury and the testimonies of Joe and Garland have taught me-that was not taught to me in history books-was that the men and women who are sent to war have the initial intention of fighting for our country, but they end up fighting for the brothers and sisters they have met overseas, and also for themselves, just to survive-just as the enemy is trying to do, too. I also learned that not every soldier is dehumanized by war. The mercy shown by the real Joe Brooks and to the fictional Norman Ellison taught me that some people have a moral core that transcends even the atrocities of war.
Fury. Dir. David Ayer. Perf. Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Columbia Pictures, 2014. Film.
Brooks, Joseph. Personal Interview. 2011
Copland, Garland. Personal Interview. 2011.