Military Films: What’s Real and What’s Not?

Military training is unique in that it involves learning how to, literally, put your life in someone else’s hands on the modern battlefield. In basic training, soldiers are assigned a “battle buddy” or in more advanced training like Ranger School, a “ranger buddy.” The soldiers so paired help each other pass inspections, shine boots, make beds, mop floors, clean weapons, pass classes, learn topics and work together during battlefield training and assorted live-fire exercises. It is an awesome responsibility. Many soldiers who wash out of training either didn’t have a competent ranger buddy or were themselves incompetent.

Basic training also emphasizes the “team concept” over the “lone wolf.” For every Alvin York or Audie Murphy, there are thousands of dead guys with something to prove. The Army certainly doesn’t discourage individual gallantry, but it stresses how crucial it is to think rationally, rely on your team members, and function as a whole rather than as a thousand individuals.

Such training prepares soldiers for life after the armed forces, too. Although most civilian jobs do require life-threatening work, people who were once accountable for keeping someone else alive usually handle workforce pressure much easier than those who weren’t. In fact, as some Army training films point out, “it’s no wonder so many of today’s white-collar workforce started out green.”

Many films about the Army do depict it accurately. John Wayne may have had an undone chin strap, but there isn’t an easier way to be told to “drop” and do push-ups than have your chin strap undone. Other movies portray weapon mishaps and bullets flying everywhere on a post for comedic effect; in reality, spraying bullets anywhere but downrange in a controlled environment on post would result in severe disciplinary action, possibly even a court martial. Some even show schoolboy high jinks loaded with sexual innuendo and toilet humor as part and parcel of Army training. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, soldiers-in-training laugh and joke like anyone else while relaxing, but training time is serious business.

Other military films are downright gritty in their realism. A prime example is Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot,” which shows the rigors, triumphs and, more often than not, heartbreaks of service on a German U-boat during World War II. Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” is another example: The actors actually went through an abbreviated form of basic training for the movie. Its depiction of Vietnam pulled no punches and even included an unwarranted killing of a civilian and the murder, however well-deserved, of a fellow soldier who was the murderer’s superior.

Perhaps most gritty of all, military documentaries deal full-bore with the horrors of war. The number of people killed during World War II, for example, tops 60 million, and the Germans and Japanese were the primary ones who committed atrocities. New documentaries that cover the needless slaughter of Poles at Katyn have only recently come out with the release of some of the Russian/Soviet archives. It is the change in current political climate that often prompts the release of many “unexplored stories”.

Among the many untold stories coming out of World War II, included that of the exiled Polish Air Force that traveled to France, Belgium and England to carry the fight to the Axis. Outlined in Gerald M. Kochan’s exemplary 1998 film “White Eagle in Borrowed Skies,” the Polish fliers distinguished themselves wherever they flew. As a unit, for example, they were responsible for more than 200 aerial-combat victories over the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

Borrowing from Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 novel “A Bridge too Far,” Kochan plans an even more ambitious documentary film about Operation Market Garden and Bernard Montgomery’s smug vilification of the Polish paratroopers whom he had hung out to dry through faulty planning and drops into hot landing zones far from the objective. Ryan asserted that the Allies swept the giant failure of the 1944 attack under the rug, and the new documentary seeks to explore not only this but also what other options the Allies had.

A successful military officer, foreign-service officer and civilian who supports the Defense Department through innovative education and logistics development, Kochan has been involved with the armed forces ever since graduating from Miami University in Ohio in 1978. Commissioned that year, he served with distinction his entire career. He also is a veteran of Desert Storm and the Iraq War.