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Violence in Today’s Society: Movies About War

I'm over it, and it's about time you are, too.

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The other day in history class we watched a clip from the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” My teacher prefaced the clip by saying that if we felt at all uncomfortable during the graphic scene we were about to see, we were welcome to walk out whenever we wanted.

The clip started, and within two minutes I already felt like I was going to be sick. I looked around the class and noticed that everyone was engaged, but few people had (or were at least showing) terrified or disgusted or uncomfortable looks on their faces. The clip continued for about another ten minutes or so, and the whole time I was thinking “Why do I need to be watching this amount of violence?”

In an interview done in the Washington Post, former WWII medic Leigh Willoughby  is asked about his experiences. (You can read the interview here.) Kelly writes how “A lady who [Willoughby]  met once asked him if he had seen “Saving Private Ryan.’

‘I said, ‘No, I don’t like war pictures.’

‘She said: ‘Oh, you should see it. It’s like the real thing.’

‘And I said, ‘How would you know?’ 

The movies can’t capture the smell, Leigh said — the gunpowder and smoke, the unbathed men, the holes dug in the ground to defecate in. And they can’t re-create the bond.”

Tom Hanks stars in the movie Saving Private Ryan.

Why do we need to know the true extent (or as true as a feeling can be conveyed through a screen) to which this violence occurs? We are not the ones fighting on D-Day’s bloody beaches. We are not the ones who watch our best friends and our brothers and our sisters die on the battlefield.

These violent films make the concept of war legitimized.  These movies cheapen the value of the terrible historical pattern of war in which millions of men and women have fought and died for. By putting this kind of violence on a screen and stuffing popcorn in our faces, it’s like we make extreme violence a theme park ride:“With only 15 dollars you too can watch thousands of men die– and from the comfort of a cushy movie theater seat!” I’m not by any means saying we need to experience war to learn about it, or that we shouldn’t be educated about the reality of what war is, but I feel as though it is an infringement and violation of the sacred nature of war to imitate such absurd, bloody violence on a screen.

Why do we get to observe war and be left completely unscathed when thousands of veterans are left with mental and physical scars that will never disappear? Does watching this higher level of violence in the portrayal of a war increase our respect, our honor, for what occured on that battlefield? It shouldn’t, but it seems like that may be the case in today’s society.

We need a culture hack. Even if no one felt like they were going to vomit after watching a 10 minute clip on a blurry smartboard, I think they should have felt that way. I know for certain some members of the class were so disgusted they had to look away, but their discomfort seemed by in large to be the minority. And why didn’t more of my classmates feel that way? It’s not anyone’s fault if they weren’t uncomfortable, and it’s definitely not that the members of my class happen to have an extreme lack of empathy.

It comes down to this: our culture is completely desensitized to violence. We are so desensitized that we dont’t even blink when another 8 year old pretends to kill someone while playing a violent video game. We are so desensitized that we can’t even change gun laws when 17 more of our youth get massacred in their own high school. We are so desensitized that we don’t even flinch when another black teen is shot from police brutality. The numbers in which people are dying and are killed by violence in today’s society are so large that we can’t even comprehend what one more lost life means. But the overexposure to violence from within every aspect of the media is what makes us numb to this violence. Desensitization has led to an inevitable feeling of detachment.

APUSH teacher Mr. Shark said about the topic “From a teacher’s perspective, movies like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ are invaluable because regardless of the violence that is in them, they give people perspective of what [this experience] is even remotely like. If people walk out of class with their jaws dropped in awe from what they’ve seen, then I’ve done my job.”

I think Tom Hanks’ shaking hands at the beginning and end of this scene is the image we should be talking about. I completely understand what Mr. Shark is saying, and I do admit that I might have had an extremely visceral reaction to this scene because I simply didn’t grow up watching much on-screen violence. I’m not exactly sure what specific alternative I’d propose as a solution to these violent scenes. All I know is that something needs to change within our culture–before we can’t feel anything at all.

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Violence in Today’s Society: Movies About War