“We perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifice. It may be the ministers and generals who blunder us into war, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution.”
Charlie Madison, James Garner’s character, appears to be a quite cynical participant in WWII. The movie is set in London in the days preceding D-Day. Charlie Madison is a “dog-robber,” an assistant to the admiral of the Navy. A dog-robber’s job was to “keep his general or admiral well-clothed, well-fed, and well loved during battle,” and Charlie Madison was apparently the best at what he did. Emily Barham, played by Julie Andrews, is offended by Charlie’s cavalier attitude and the American military officers’ opulent acquisitions of the finest clothes, food, liquor, and perfume when her countrymen are doing without basic necessities in the midst of war. But then they fall in love and everything changes for them.
Emily is a young British driver in the military motor pool. We learn that she has lost many of the people close to her in wartime. Her father, her brother, and her husband – all soldiers, all killed in the line of duty. Charlie is a self-proclaimed coward and will go to any length to stay out of the heat of battle.
In a conversation with Emily and her mother, Charlie tells what he really thinks about war. “I’m not sentimental about war. I see nothing noble in widows,” he tells Emily’s mother. “Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and in the interest of humanity. So far in this war we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity.” Charlie explains that we make things worse by making heroes of the war dead. His own brother died in battle, “an everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud. .. Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age.”
“We perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifice,” Charlie Madison says. “It may be the ministers and generals who blunder us into war, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution.”
As the story unfolds, Charlie becomes an unwitting hero himself. An unstable admiral decides he wants a movie made of the D-Day invasion to publicize the Navy’s vital contribution to the war. Though he tries to connive he way out, Charlie Madison finds himself on Omaha Beach on D-Day with a camera in his hand, in a cold sweat, trying to run away from the fighting. He is declared the first casualty on Omaha Beach when his colleague gets his picture just before he falls amidst enemy gunfire. When the picture is picked up by all the media, the Navy seizes the publicity opportunity. Then when he is found to be alive, he is proclaimed a hero as the first one to land on Omaha Beach.
Charlie Madison is outraged by attempts to portray him as a hero. He comes close to exposing the charade. With the press core waiting inside, Charlie tells his buddy, “I’m going to tell them the truth… I will not help you preserve the wonder of war.” In the end, with Emily’s persuasion, he realizes that it will be better to go along so he can enjoy a comfortable life and a home with Emily. So Charlie, in the end, lives up to his reputation as one who will not sacrifice himself for the sake of truth. After all, one reason Emily was able to fall in love with him was that she saw him as someone sure to avoid the ultimate sacrifice of war which had taken the other important men in her life.
“The Americanization of Emily” is a great study of war and human nature. William Bradford Huie’s writing supplied the screenwriter (Paddy Chayefsky) with many cogent observations of human behavior. If you haven’t seen the film, it is definitely worth the viewing.
Having never been in the military, I cannot speak from my own experience of battle, but I do think that in recent years our leaders have been too cavalier in sending our young men and women into war. In the end, it is thousands of ordinary people and their families who pay the highest price for war. Here is a poem I wrote several years ago after attending the memorial service for a Viet Nam vet whose remains were among the last of the MIA’s to be returned to the States:
A World Apart
by Charles Kinnaird
I saw the man as his knees buckled
With the 21 gun salute.
It must have been his wife
Who caught him
And supported him
While the rest of the shots rang out.
He only wanted to honor his fallen comrade
Whose dog tags and bone fragments
Lay in a coffin
After 15 years missing-in-action.
Only a couple of years older than I,
He was raised in a town much like mine.
But his instinctive response to the gunshots
Showed me that we were a world apart.
Gunfights in the middle of the night
Marked the difference in our worlds.
Having to live on high alert without knowing the enemy,
And smelling death at every turn
Helped create his world apart from mine.
There is kinship
In our widely divergent lives.
There is a shared grief,
A commonality of tears,
Unrequested darkened days,
And gratitude for a woman's touch
That unites us in our world apart.