On Memorial Day, there are lots of speeches made about past battles and sacrifices, but I always think of a couple of movie lines. Now, Hollywood is not usually the go-to place for inspirational patriotic words, but occasionally, they come up with something so simple and profound that it hits you between the eyes. One such quote was from In Harm’s Way, and it was from no less than John Wayne. It wasn’t a speech and it wasn’t his usual macho growling, just a quiet truth. Wayne was a naval officer waiting for the Japanese fleet to appear and a great battle to begin. With him was Burgess Meredith as an ex Hollywood screenwriter. The nervous Meredith was bemoaning the fate that led him to the bridge of the cruiser on the eve of a battle with the Imperial Navy.
“I should be back in Hollywood behind a typewriter; I’m not cut out for this. I’m so frightened my bones are clicking,” he says.
Wayne doesn’t yell at him or tell him to get hold of himself. He looks thoughtful and replies in a soft voice.
“Most battles are fought by frightened men who’d rather be somewhere else.”
Exactly. People seldom become heroes or sacrifice because they want to or because they are seeking glory. They do it for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they sense that it needs to be done. “War is not the answer” claims the feel-good-about-yourself bumper sticker, but most people know the tragic and regrettable truth. Sometimes war is the answer. War was the answer to whether we would remain a British colony subject to the whims of the Crown. War was the answer to whether we would end slavery, and war was the answer to whether the Nazis and Imperial Japan would divide the world between them. That doesn’t mean a war can’t be ill-advised or poorly executed, but it does mean that wars sometimes are the only way to settle momentous issues. The world is a dangerous place, and that makes it necessary to sometimes do unpleasant things.
Another Hollywood quote illustrates the point. The most famous line in A Few Good Men is when Jack Nicholson shouts “You can’t handle the truth”, but the line that follows is far more profound.
“We live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be defended by men with guns.”
On Memorial Day, we remember the people who never made it home. The ones who, through various circumstances found themselves as the “men with guns” standing on a wall, or on a ship, or in the air, or in a foxhole nervously watching the sky and the tree line, waiting for the enemy to appear. They may have been frightened and they may have wished they were somewhere else, but they stood firm and did what they knew had to be done.
Happy Memorial Day.