"Through cowardice we shall all be safe"

Categories: Film
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In the March Vanity Fair, James Wolcott wrote an engrossing appreciation of the subversive 1964 anti-war film, The Americanization of Emily. Owing to contractual disputes, the movie has been virtually impossible to rent, steal or borrow for years now. Recently, however, my wife managed to obtain the single copy owned by the Minneapolis Public Library. As Wolcott points out in his VF essay (alas, no link), the movie contains one of the great anti-war scenes in movie history. Unlike the usual anti-war classics, the scene does not depict carnage and slaughter. Rather, it consists of an epic exchange between a cynical "dog robber" Lt. Charles Madison (portrayed by James Garner of Rockford Files fame) and a war widow Mrs. Barham (the mother of Madison's lover).

The dialogue--composed by the masterful Paddy Chayefsky--is especially resonant in these times of flag waving and heroism, bluster and bullshit. Here is an excerpt from the best part:

MADISON: That night, I sat in the jungle of Guadalcanal, waiting to be killed, sopping wet. It was then I had my blinding revelation. I discovered I was a coward. That's my new religion. I'm a big believer in it. Cowards will save the world. It's not war that's insane, you see. It's the morality of it. It's not greed and ambition that makes wars. It's goodness. Wars are always fought for the best reasons. For liberation. For manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far in this war, we've managed to butcher some 10 million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war, it seems we'll have to destroy all of man to preserve his damn dignity. It's not war that is unnatural to us. It's virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue we shall have soldiers. So I preach cowardice. Through cowardice we shall all be safe.


MRS. BARHAM: After every war we always find out how unnecessary it was. And after this one, all the generals will dash off and write books about all the blunders made by other generals and statesman will write their secret diaries and it will show beyond any shadow of a doubt that the war could have easily been avoided in the first place. And the rest of us will be left with the job of bandaging the wounded and burying the dead.

MADISON: I don't trust people who make bitter reflections about war. It's always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a hell it is. It's always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parades. We shall never end wars by blaming it on ministers and generals or war mongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It's the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers--the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widows' warbs like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exhaulting its sacrifices. It may be the ministers and generals who blunder us into wars. The least the rest of us can do is resist honoring the institution.



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