Hollywood to DOD: war Is more than weaponry

Critics like to give Hollywood a hard time for debasing American culture. While some flotsam does make it into theaters, I think moviemakers can pack an astonishing amount of wisdom into their products when they put their minds to it. Look no farther than the current sensation over The Incredibles, an animated film that manages not only to entertain, but to celebrate family solidarity and attack the leveling instinct towrad mediocrity that pervades our society.

In this case, though, I have in mind an older film. Last weekend American Movie Classics presented a marathon of war movies in honor of Veteran's Day. I happened to catch The Enemy Below, a classic submarine flick starring Robert Mitchum. The Enemy Below makes a simple point that often gets lost today, amid fanciful talk of military "transformation," a "revolution in military affairs," "network—centric warfare," and other concepts currently in vogue.

That point: men, not machines, fight wars. Carl von Clausewitz famously proclaimed that war was the province of strong passions, not to mention chance and uncertainty. While technological innovation was important, victory inexorably came down to prevailing in a contest of human wills and intellect. While technological superiority is valuable, no amount of technical wizardry can eliminate the human element of warfare——as the recent struggle for Fallujah shows.

The Enemy Below recounts a chance World War II encounter between an American destroyer skippered by Mitchum's character, Commander Murrell, and a German submarine commanded by von Stolberg, wonderfully played by Curt Jürgens. Murrell is a former merchant mariner who transferred to the active U.S. Navy after his freighter was sunk——and his wife killed——while von Stolberg is a World War I veteran who has grown disillusioned with the Nazi regime.

The U—boat captain sets up a straw man early on, and the rest of the film batters away at it. He reminisces about the Great War, contrasting the relative chivalry and romance of the early days of submarine operations unfavorably with the increasingly automated character of mid—20th—century naval warfare. Machines now calculated courses, speeds, and firing solutions. "They have taken the human out of war," he tells his executive officer dejectedly.

The remainder of the film disproves von Stolberg's thesis. The American warship, the Haynes, detects the U—boat by happenstance as it cruises on the surface in the South Atlantic, bound for a rendezvous with a German raider. The two commanders engage in a sustained battle of wits, each trying to forecast the other's next move and looking for the chance to strike a decisive blow. Military technology shapes the encounter; human ingenuity and will decide the outcome.

Several themes emerge. First, the Haynes's crew worries about the tactical proficiency of their new captain. Some of the crewmen openly deride Murrell as a "feather merchant" unused to the rigors of antisubmarine warfare. Their worries are understandable. Von Stolberg shows himself to be a master tactician, as when he manages to break contact following a depth—charge attack from the U.S. warship and later bottoms out his vessel in deep water to wait out the Haynes.

But the American skipper wins the confidence of his crew as the cat—and—mouse encounter proceeds. One example: Realizing that the Haynes has been detected by the submarine's radar, Murrell maneuvers to maintain the same "relative bearing" behind the U—boat as it makes a series of abrupt course changes. The German skipper concludes that his radar has picked up a false echo in heavy weather. Having fooled its opponent, the American warship maintains contact.

Von Stolberg pays tribute to his enemy's ability. "He's a devil," mutters the German captain at one point.

Second, some of the officers question Murrell's mental fitness. They wonder whether he has managed to get past the horror of seeing his wife go down with his former ship. Murrell alleviates their concerns during the battle, displaying not only tactical skill but also mental toughness and a close knowledge of human nature. The utterances of the Haynes's sailors betray their growing respect——grudging at first——for their captain.

Third, there's the all—important element of leadership. The makers of The Enemy Below declined to demonize the German foe, depicting both captains as gallant, able leaders. Both men prove able to rally their followers in times of extreme peril. Both show compassion, as when Murrell consoles a wounded seaman and von Stolberg calms a shipmate who cracks under the strain of combat, only to return the man to duty as a gesture of faith in the man's ability.

In short, both men deftly wield the technology at their disposal. In the end, however, the Haynes prevails over its foes——this is Hollywood, after all——not because of superior American weaponry, but because Captain Murrell has one final bit of trickery up his sleeve. One hopes our military, like these two fictional warriors, never loses sight of the ineluctable human dimension of warfare.

James R. Holmes, Ph.D. is Senior Research Associate, Center for International Trade and Security, School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia

Critics like to give Hollywood a hard time for debasing American culture. While some flotsam does make it into theaters, I think moviemakers can pack an astonishing amount of wisdom into their products when they put their minds to it. Look no farther than the current sensation over The Incredibles, an animated film that manages not only to entertain, but to celebrate family solidarity and attack the leveling instinct towrad mediocrity that pervades our society.

In this case, though, I have in mind an older film. Last weekend American Movie Classics presented a marathon of war movies in honor of Veteran's Day. I happened to catch The Enemy Below, a classic submarine flick starring Robert Mitchum. The Enemy Below makes a simple point that often gets lost today, amid fanciful talk of military "transformation," a "revolution in military affairs," "network—centric warfare," and other concepts currently in vogue.

That point: men, not machines, fight wars. Carl von Clausewitz famously proclaimed that war was the province of strong passions, not to mention chance and uncertainty. While technological innovation was important, victory inexorably came down to prevailing in a contest of human wills and intellect. While technological superiority is valuable, no amount of technical wizardry can eliminate the human element of warfare——as the recent struggle for Fallujah shows.

The Enemy Below recounts a chance World War II encounter between an American destroyer skippered by Mitchum's character, Commander Murrell, and a German submarine commanded by von Stolberg, wonderfully played by Curt Jürgens. Murrell is a former merchant mariner who transferred to the active U.S. Navy after his freighter was sunk——and his wife killed——while von Stolberg is a World War I veteran who has grown disillusioned with the Nazi regime.

The U—boat captain sets up a straw man early on, and the rest of the film batters away at it. He reminisces about the Great War, contrasting the relative chivalry and romance of the early days of submarine operations unfavorably with the increasingly automated character of mid—20th—century naval warfare. Machines now calculated courses, speeds, and firing solutions. "They have taken the human out of war," he tells his executive officer dejectedly.

The remainder of the film disproves von Stolberg's thesis. The American warship, the Haynes, detects the U—boat by happenstance as it cruises on the surface in the South Atlantic, bound for a rendezvous with a German raider. The two commanders engage in a sustained battle of wits, each trying to forecast the other's next move and looking for the chance to strike a decisive blow. Military technology shapes the encounter; human ingenuity and will decide the outcome.

Several themes emerge. First, the Haynes's crew worries about the tactical proficiency of their new captain. Some of the crewmen openly deride Murrell as a "feather merchant" unused to the rigors of antisubmarine warfare. Their worries are understandable. Von Stolberg shows himself to be a master tactician, as when he manages to break contact following a depth—charge attack from the U.S. warship and later bottoms out his vessel in deep water to wait out the Haynes.

But the American skipper wins the confidence of his crew as the cat—and—mouse encounter proceeds. One example: Realizing that the Haynes has been detected by the submarine's radar, Murrell maneuvers to maintain the same "relative bearing" behind the U—boat as it makes a series of abrupt course changes. The German skipper concludes that his radar has picked up a false echo in heavy weather. Having fooled its opponent, the American warship maintains contact.

Von Stolberg pays tribute to his enemy's ability. "He's a devil," mutters the German captain at one point.

Second, some of the officers question Murrell's mental fitness. They wonder whether he has managed to get past the horror of seeing his wife go down with his former ship. Murrell alleviates their concerns during the battle, displaying not only tactical skill but also mental toughness and a close knowledge of human nature. The utterances of the Haynes's sailors betray their growing respect——grudging at first——for their captain.

Third, there's the all—important element of leadership. The makers of The Enemy Below declined to demonize the German foe, depicting both captains as gallant, able leaders. Both men prove able to rally their followers in times of extreme peril. Both show compassion, as when Murrell consoles a wounded seaman and von Stolberg calms a shipmate who cracks under the strain of combat, only to return the man to duty as a gesture of faith in the man's ability.

In short, both men deftly wield the technology at their disposal. In the end, however, the Haynes prevails over its foes——this is Hollywood, after all——not because of superior American weaponry, but because Captain Murrell has one final bit of trickery up his sleeve. One hopes our military, like these two fictional warriors, never loses sight of the ineluctable human dimension of warfare.

James R. Holmes, Ph.D. is Senior Research Associate, Center for International Trade and Security, School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia