Saving Cpl. Shalit

Posted: Jul 03, 2006 12:01 AM

However much I loathe Steven Spielberg -- now, there's a hook -- his "Saving Private Ryan" comes to mind on hearing that the Israeli army has launched a major offensive into Gaza to secure the release of 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit, recently seized by the Palestinian group Hamas.

"Private Ryan," of course, is only a movie and tells a very kind of different story. It's about a made-up mission, not to rescue a soldier from the all-too-likely savage depredations of Islamic jihadists, but to remove him from combat in Normandy. Viewers are supposed to buy the notion that the War Department, in the chaotic midst of the momentous Allied invasion of Europe, ordered up a platoon to save Private Ryan as an act of mercy for the soldier's mother, whose other sons have died as soldiers in battle. Which is a preposterous notion. Incidentally, most of the rescuers are killed in the course of the mercy mission. Clearly, saving Private Ryan is hell.

But there's more to it than a historical derring-do. For me, the 1998 epic lives on not for its famous 35-minute recreation of the landing at Omaha Beach, but for its odious message. As one GI puts it, saving Private Ryan may well be the only worthwhile thing to come out of this whole, awful "mess."

The "mess" in question, of course, is World War II. Defeating Hitler, for example, ending fascism in Europe, even liberating the remnant of European Jewry from Nazi death camps -- all fail to garner for the U.S. Army the mega-director's cinematic approval. The fantasy rescue of a single GI from combat, however, becomes not just a cause celebre, but the Spielbergian causus belli.

Such '60s-infused revisionism in a movie that has been weirdly and wildly revered as The Real Thing drove my late father into what are quite accurately described as paroxysms of rage -- the memory of which I cherish as a particularly vibrant part of his legacy. As a veteran of the Normandy campaign (D-Day plus two), he realized that, through Spielberg's lens, the climactic invasion of Europe had been sundered from its historical context, serving instead as an arbitrary backdrop for a panoply of behaviors and attitudes more common to the Vietnam generation than to the men with whom he fought across Europe. No wonder my Dad also rejected what he once acidly described in a letter as "the peculiar beam of celestial light suddenly conferred on Spielberg" for the "great service ... in revealing to the world that there was actually a real-life event called World War II."

But from Spielberg's ersatz vision of the past emerges a disturbing clarity about the present. In divorcing the climactic events of D-Day from their grand goals and significant accomplishments, Spielberg staged a fictional war story without a historical point -- seemingly without any conception of military victory. In the context of World War II, such a vision of war is blind. But in our own time, this same vision of war, seemingly without any conception of military victory, has become a grim reality. Which is where Cpl. Shalit, unfortunately, comes back in.

Israeli soldiers (and also, given the beheading, mutilation and booby-trapping of two soldiers in Iraq, American soldiers) do not fare well in the hands of Islamic jihadists. Who, for example, can forget the 2000 lynchings of two Israeli reservists -- truck drivers, as it happened -- who were beaten beyond recognition, their eyes gouged out and their bodies dismembered by a Ramallah mob? No wonder the Israeli army is on the march to try to save Cpl. Shalit from, yes, a fate worse than death that may well be followed by death. But this military mission, even with the destruction of Palestinian arms caches, has an extremely limited objective.

Just as the fictional story of saving Private Ryan had nothing to do with the effort to win the war for the Allies, the real-life invasion of Gaza to save Cpl. Shalit has nothing to do with the effort to win the war for the Israelis. Indeed, such an objective has long been out of the question. Having effectively rendered Total War beyond the pale, the Western world, of which Israel, by shared tradition, is a part, has also placed Total Victory beyond grasp. That means that even if, God willing, the Israelis save Cpl. Shalit, it doesn't augur a happy ending -- or, indeed, any ending at all.