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Memorializing the Horrors of War with 10 Must-See War Films

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"The horror... the horror..."--Apocalypse Now (1979)

"You can't show war as it really is on the screen, with all the blood and gore. Perhaps it would be better if you could fire real shots over the audience's head every night, you know, and have actual casualties in the theater."--Sam Fuller, film director and author

Nearly 71 years ago, the United States unleashed atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,killing more than 200,000 individuals, many of whom were civilians.

Fast forward to the present day, and President Obama--the antiwar candidate and Nobel Peace Prize winner who has waged war longer than any American president and whose legacy includes targeted-drone killings and at least 1.3 million lives lost to the U.S.-led war on terror--is paying lip service to the victims of America's nuclear carnage, all the while continuing to feed the war machine.

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America has long had a penchant for endless wars that empty our national coffers while fattening those of the military industrial complex. Since 9/11, we've spent more than $1.6 trillion to wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Adding in our military efforts in Pakistan, as well as the lifetime price of health care for disabled veterans and interest on the national debt, that cost rises to $4.4 trillion. Even now, the war drums are sounding as Obama prepares to deploy U.S. troops on a long-term mission to Libya and continues to police the rest of the world with more than 1.3 million U.S. troops being stationed at roughly 1000 military bases in over 150 countries.

To this end, as I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, Americans are fed a steady diet of pro-war propaganda that keeps them content to wave flags with patriotic fervor and less inclined to look too closely at the mounting body counts, the ruined lives, the ravaged countries, the blowback arising from ill-advised targeted-drone killings and bombing campaigns in foreign lands, and the transformation of our own homeland into a warzone.

Nowhere is this double-edged irony more apparent than during military holidays such as Memorial Day, when we get treated to a generous serving of praise and grandstanding by politicians, corporations and others with similarly self-serving motives eager to go on record as being pro-military.

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Yet war is a grisly business, a horror of epic proportions. In terms of human carnage alone, war's devastation is staggering. For example, it is estimated that approximately 231 million people died worldwide during the wars of the 20thcentury. This figure does not take into account the walking wounded--both physically and psychologically--who "survive" war.

War drives the American police state. The military-industrial complex is the world's largest employer. War sustains our way of life while killing us at the same time. As Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent and author Chris Hedges observes:

War is like a poison. And just as a cancer patient must at times ingest a poison to fight off a disease, so there are times in a society when we must ingest the poison of war to survive. But what we must understand is that just as the disease can kill us, so can the poison. If we don't understand what war is, how it perverts us, how it corrupts us, how it dehumanizes us, how it ultimately invites us to our own self-annihilation, then we can become the victim of war itself.

War also entertains us with its carnage, its killing fields, its thrills and chills and bloodied battles set to music and memorialized in books, on television, in video games, and in superhero films and blockbuster Hollywood movies financed in part by the military.

War has become a centerpiece of American entertainment culture, most prevalent in war movies.

War movies deal in the extremes of human behavior. The best films address not only destruction on a vast scale but also plumb the depths of humanity's response to the grotesque horror of war. They present human conflict in its most bizarre conditions--where men and women caught in the perilous straits of death perform feats of noble sacrifice or dig into the dark battalions of cowardice.

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War films also provide viewers with a way to vicariously experience combat, but the great ones are not merely vehicles for escapism. Instead, they provide a source of inspiration, while touching upon the fundamental issues at work in wartime scenarios.

While there are many films to choose from, the following 10 war films touch on modern warfare (from the First World War onward) and run the gamut of conflicts and human emotions and center on the core issues often at work in the nasty business of war.

The Third Man(1949). Carol Reed's The Third Man, which deals primarily with the after-effects of the ravages of war, is a great film by anyone's standards. Set in postwar Europe, this bleak film (written by Graham Greene) sets forth the proposition that the corruption inherent in humanity means that the ranks of war are never closed. There are many fine performances in this film, including Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli.

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John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead's aggressive, pioneering approach to civil liberties has earned him numerous accolades and (more...)
 

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