War Movies as a Way to Prepare for His Death

'He's burned or gassed, he's shot between the eyes' - Jehanne Dubrow watches her husband die a thousand deaths, fearing that one day it will be real.

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Ari Folman's film 'Waltz with Bashir'.
Ari Folman's film 'Waltz with Bashir'.Credit: Ari Folman

Against War Movies

Jehanne Dubrow

I see my husband shooting in Platoon, 
and there he is again in M*A*S*H  (how weird
to hear him talk like Hawkeye Pierce), and soon
I spot him everywhere, his body smeared
with mud, his face bloodied. He’s now the star
of every ship blockade and battle scene—
The Fighting 69th, A Bridge Too Far,
Three Kings, Das Boot, and Stalag 17.
In Stalingrad he’s killed, and then  
he's killed in Midway and A Few Good Men.   
He’s burned or gassed, he’s shot between the eyes,
or shoots himself when he comes home again.

Each movie is a training exercise,                      
a scenario for how my husband dies.

From Stateside, TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2010

Jehanne Dubrow.Credit: Cedric Terrell

War films will be on view in this year's Jerusalem Film Festival, which starts this Thursday, July 9. Several of the movies being showcased deal directly or indirectly with war – wars in distant places, World War II, Israel’s wars, a war’s effects that persist after it ends. Movies about peace will be hard to find.

Back in 1978 Menachem Begin shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Anwar Sadat. Upon the announcement, Golda Meir was asked if she thought they should win. She replied sardonically: “Both should get the Oscar.” And indeed in the war (or anti-war) movies, Israel has some respectable achievements, if not actual Oscars: Most recently, Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort” and Ari Folman’s animated “Waltz With Bashir” were nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category (2008 and 2009 respectively).

It isn’t always safe to assume that the person speaking in a poem is more or less identical to the poet herself (or himself). However, in this case that would be a reasonable guess, as Dubrow is married to a career officer in the U.S. Navy. Despite the title “Against War Movies,” she apparently watches them avidly, reeling off the catalogue of films. The language flows very naturally and it might take several readings to realize that the form of the poem is a variation of the Shakespearean sonnet, rhymed abab cdcd eefe ee.

In the first four lines, she sees her husband in action in war movies. In the second quatrain, he is the star (no doubt he is handsome and charismatic) and in the third he is killed, or suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and commits suicide.

The couplet sums up the obsession with war movies: She watches them to prepare herself for loss of her husband. 

Of course, the other message, of which some might need reminding, is that in wars people get killed and damaged.

Dubrow, the author of five poetry collections including “The Arranged Marriage” (University of New Mexico Press, 2015) about her German-Jewish-Honduran mother’s life, is director of the Literary House and a professor of creative writing at Washington College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

*Musing: Why do you watch war movies?

*Bonus: In Robert Altman’s Korean War film M*A*S*H (1970), Hawkeye Pierce was played by Donald Sutherland. In the television series (1972-1983), the role was played by Alan Alda.