A lesson in history, but not from Hollywood
We were less than 30 minutes into our movie rental when my husband bolted upright from the couch and said with disgust, "What is going on with that uniform? It's all wrong. He looks more like a foreign legionnaire than a British pilot."
I should have expected it. Being married to a soldier means that you are going to have to sit through your share of war movies. And each time Nick and I do, I'm treated to a litany of criticism regarding the way Hollywood depicts the military events of the past: "That doesn't look a thing like Verdun."
"That's not a tank, it's a Bradley! A Bradley! They weren't even in existence when this took place."
By the end of each film, Nick is so genuinely upset at the liberties taken for the sake of some sentimental plot that he has often directly asked the television set, "How hard is it to get it right?"
Of course, that silly plot is usually the only reason why I'm watching the movie with him. While my husband gets lost in the history of the battle, I'm far more interested in the lessons learned, the obstacles overcome, and the great love left behind – not the details that Nick would tell you undermine the historical significance of the event in question.
For the most part, I have let my husband's disapproval go in one ear and out the other. But when he really gets going, I quietly remind him that it's just a movie. "Why watch at all if you are just going to get upset?" I ask.
He just shakes his head and tells me that isn't the point.
"These were important battles," he says. "They changed the world. We owe it to ourselves to make sure that we get them right."
At first, I didn't understand. I never remembered either of my grandfathers – both World War II veterans – getting so riled up from a movie. But when I think back, we never watched any war movies together. In fact, I don't remember them talking much about the war at all.
Did I ever ask them about it? I can't recall. But if I did, I'm sure my questions fell into the "sentimental plot" category – questions about their girlfriends or fallen comrades that would have offered me little glimpse into the true meaning of their sacrifices.
And now, living as the wife of a soldier in a time of war, I find that I have all too many questions I wish I had asked them when I had the opportunity.
But a few weeks ago, on our way to Brussels for the weekend, my family stopped in the city of Bastogne, the site of the famous Battle of the Bulge, to visit the American monument and the new historical center. After touring the center, we climbed to the top of the Mardasson monument overlooking the lush, green valley. Once we reached the top, I heard Nick telling our 18-month-old son about the battle.
"Over by those trees were the German lines. They surrounded the Americans...." And he went on to tell our son all about this decisive battle, giving our son answers to the questions that I had never thought to ask my own grandfathers.
I listened carefully to my husband, learning a thing or two about the conditions of Bastogne and the bravery of the soldiers who fought there, and I thought how wonderful it was that Nick was able to pass on these details. Now that so many of our World War II veterans have died – my own grandfathers among them – and newer, different wars confront us, it seems that the important lessons we learned in these age-old battles are being forgotten when we might need them the most.
My son listened intently to his father – the kind of attention that most toddlers allocate only for cars and blocks – and looked out into the distance as if he understood every word Nick said.
But even if he didn't, I'm not worried. I know that when the time comes – whether it is about the types of vehicles used or the ideals that compelled our grandfathers across an ocean to fight – my husband will be there to answer all of his questions. It makes me optimistic that perhaps we aren't condemned to make the same mistakes again. We did learn something from the fights of our forefathers: Time may march on, but so does hope.
But I, myself, will keep repeating one mistake. Even knowing that each viewing may end with my husband lecturing the television, I will continue watching war movies with him.
And when our son is old enough, I will invite him to watch with us. I want to give him the opportunity to ask all the questions that I now wish I had asked my grandfathers so many years ago. I know that my husband – his eye always on the important details of these battles that transformed our world – will provide him with the right answers.