As the final credits rolled across the movie screen, I just kind of sat there with a blank look on my face. My spouse and I had just watched an early screening of the We Were Soldiers, the 2002 Mel Gibson film that recounts the events on Landing Zone X-Ray in November 1965, when Hal Moore’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment went toe-to-toe with a significantly larger North Vietnamese force in the Ia Drang Valley. The book upon which the movie was based is a literary masterpiece that tears at the soul. In writing We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, Moore and his co-author, Joe Galloway, told an epic story of war: its tragedies and triumphs, its joys and sorrows. Much of that was lost in the film version. Then there was the ending.
“What’s wrong?” my wife asked. “It didn’t end that way,” I replied. “There was no glorious final charge. There’s so much more to the story.” That wasn’t how the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley ended. Not even close. That battle ended with the ambush of Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade’s 2-7 Cav as they marched overland to Landing Zone Albany for extraction from the jungle valley. An ambush that left 151 Americans troops dead and another 121 wounded. No heroic cavalry charge into battle. No flag waving. No victory parades. Just a terrible tragedy.
THE GRAND FINALE
Contrast that with another film from that period, Black Hawk Down, the adaptation of Mark Bowden’s book on the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. While there were certainly Hollywoodisms in the movie, the storytelling was thorough and largely accurate. The ending, though, left audiences in stunned silence: the final scene fading to black as the ramp of a cargo aircraft closes on the caskets of the 18 men who lost their lives during the climactic battle of Operation Gothic Serpent.
As brutally stark as that ending was, it was appropriate to a film that contrasted the brutal realities of war with the mundane normalcy that pervades the profession of arms. One moment spent trash talking over Scrabble words, the next dealing with a traumatic injury. The dark humor that underpins an existence that has to contend with issues most people never experience and cannot imagine. The unforgiving nature of war. Ridley Scott ended that movie just as it needed to end. And it was brilliant.
this is the end
If you stop to consider how most war movies end, they typically sputter to the finish line with a stereotypical Act III Hollywood ending along the lines of We Were Soldiers. But wars don’t end that way. Any halfway decent World War II movie should include the obligatory return trip on a troop ship, where thousands of people share a few bathrooms and fewer showers. Vietnam-era films should all end with an airport scene where no one seems to even notice returning troops. It might not sell in Hollywood, but it’s real life. And people need to see it.
So, how should the war movies of the Forever Wars era end? If you’re aiming for accuracy and for reality, then there are options. They don’t all have to end on the same note. But to get the story right, Hollywood needs to get closer to our reality.
1. The Armory.
If a war movie is going to be truly accurate, it should end with the characters standing in line to turn in weapons to a disgruntled and disinterested Rear-D armorer. Who, by the way, has nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. “This weapon has sand in the chamber. I can’t accept it.”
2. The Last Troop, Part 1.
When Hollywood finally closes the book on Afghanistan, the final act should be reminiscent of the street scene with Nelson and Twombly in Black Hawk Down. Two soldiers looking around and asking, “Did they leave without us? I think they left without us.”
3. The Amnesty Box.
Every deployment ends with a trip through customs. It’s the one opportunity troops have to dispense of the contraband of war. The amnesty box tells a story of war that only a combat veteran would truly understand: dollar DVDs, enemy weapons, unexploded ordnance, and—of course—porn. Lots of porn. Whoever said an army fights on its stomach never looked in the amnesty box.
4. The Last Green Beans.
If there is one thing that’s become synonymous with modern conflict, it’s the Green Beans coffee shop. Sort of like the Starbucks of contemporary warfare, there seemed to be one on every FOB. I want to see a movie fade to credits with a solitary Green Beans stand: no one in line, the counter covered with dust, and a sign reading, “Check out our new location in Syria.”
5. Ali Al Salem.
Where you wait. And wait. And wait some more. This could be the last hour of a good war movie. Shuffling from sleep tents to the latrine, from the latrine to the dining facility, from the dining facility to the operations center, from the operations center to the sleep tents. Waiting to be told to go somewhere, sometime, where you’ll continue to wait.
6. The Last Troop, Part 2.
The crowd in the gym leaves. The lights are turned off. Everybody leaves. Except the poor soul whose spouse emptied their bank account, sold all their belongings, and left them to sort things out upon their return. That’s always going to be someone’s brutal reality. And it sucks.
When you finally make it home and the only thing standing between you and block leave is reintegration processing, where you know any wrong answer will only delay your return to normalcy. “I feel fine.”
8. Return to Garrison.
You’ve just spent a year of your life—or longer—slugging it out in the show, and you’ve got the scar tissue to prove it. The readjustment to garrison life can be so mundane that it’s maddening. Instead of combat patrols, you’re in meetings all day. Instead of nine-line reports, you’re submitting PowerPoint slides. Any halfway decent war movie needs to end with someone being chased across the PX parking lot by second lieutenant who wants a salute.
9. The FLIPL Follies.
Thanks to social media, most of the public has a broad—if uninformed—awareness that war often results in equipment losses (or abandonment). But that’s the big-ticket stuff. The sheer number of Financial Liability Investigations of Property Loss (FLIPLs) that result from combat add a mind-boggling apostrophe to war. We’ll write off a motor pool full of MRAPs, but let’s talk about that laptop you brought back from Kunar Province. “You’re going to have to pay for this laptop. It has a hole in it.” “That’s called a bullet hole.” “Yeah, you’re still going to have to pay for it.”
10. Ronald McDonald.
Plato famously said, “Only Ronald McDonald has seen the end of war.” Okay, he didn’t really say that. But he should have. Any definitive exploration of the Forever Wars needs to end on a bench at Ali al Salem Airbase, where Ronald sits alongside the McDonald’s in the food court. That guy has heard it all, seen it all. The stories he could tell.