When friends used to come to ask for my guidance on whether or not it was a good idea for them to join the military, I invariably asked why they wanted to join. Since both Marines and former Marines are representatives of the Corps, I’d like to think that we hardly desire to recommend unqualified people to help defend the lives of our brothers. Among some of the counseling I would give, I’d recommend they see “Full Metal Jacket” for a good dose of boot camp, and “Saving Private Ryan,” when it finally came out in 1998, for a realistic depiction of the carnage of battle. Even though that groundbreaking film, with its special effects and lowered inhibitions about brutality was sufficiently gruesome, “Ryan” read like a well-planned script. Its fictional characters embarked on the only “noble” mission one could gather from such a bloody war—to send 8 soldiers to save a lone individual from the torrents of war for his dear mother. “Black Hawk Down,” and “We Were Soldiers,” however, do not suffer from any such flaw. I’ve since decided to recommend the movies based on actual battles rather than the romanticized fiction of “Saving Private Ryan.” If they still want to join after watching those films, they’re probably the sort of people and future leaders our military needs.

In both “Black Hawk” and “Soldiers,” the American military faced a distinctly different type of Warfare. In “Soldiers,” it was air calvary, and in “Black Hawk,” it was urban warfare. Each was sent in an area with one hand tied behind its back since the civillian leadership decided it was politically risky to give the soldiers the support they needed. Lt. Col. Moore had to do without a third of his most experienced men, and Maj. Gen. Garrison had to do without the armored support he had requested. A lack of military intelligence left Moore and his men without knowledge of how many enemy soldiers his Calvary unit would be facing, and perhaps faulty intelligence information may have led the Americans into an ambush orchestrated and financed, according to at least one book (Yossef Bodansky’s Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America) by none other than Osama bin Laden. Once the missions got underway, in both cases, something didn’t go according to plan, and mayhem erupted. The only cohesion and order on the American side came from a chosen few battle-hardened veterans.

In each movie, some soldiers were more experienced than others, and some learned the hard way how to lead men in combat. The leadership doesn’t appear scripted like “Saving Private Ryan,” but as a trait born out of the necessity only incoming fire can instill. How such strife can change one’s disposition permanently is apparent, if not overt in the film. However, the way each film portrays their characters are starkly different, and the difference represents each film’s respective strength. The characters in “Black Hawk Down,” remain fairly anonymous. The film isn’t about the participants of the battle, but the battle itself. Therefore the soldiers are comprised of the boys next door. There’s the idealist, the class clown who would impersonate everyone for laughs, and the hotshot who everyone wanted to emulate. The last one was brave, dashing, and resistant to authority. It is important to note that the only reason that it appears this way is because it was this way. Battles aren’t fought by glittery or gruff characters such as Mel Gibson, John Wayne, or Tom Hanks. They are fought by our friends and neighbors. Some are boastful, others humble, but always someone we can approach and trust if need be. This is what makes the relative anonymity of the actors in “Black Hawk Down” one of its most redeeming traits.

In contrast, “We Were Soldiers” tells the story of the families left behind, as well. It’s always a risk, as any military member knows, that he won’t come home on any given mission. With an obvious penchant for evoking sympathy, Randall Wallace does a fantastic job of painting a picture of the character of the men as individuals and as a unit. It serves to remind us that behind the anonymity, soldiers on both our side and the side of the enemy are real people with real emotions and a steadfast devotion to their deepest beliefs. All too often in war, wives are widowed, children are orphaned, and lives are shattered by the quick and fatal wisp of a tiny shard of metal. No other movie tells both sides, the battleground and the homefront, with such zeal, insight, and compassion. One team leader from “Black Hawk Down”, a D-boy whose courage and experience helps preserve the lives of many of the men on that mission in Mogadishu, offers a bit of advice to the recently promoted leader of Chalk Four. “Once the first bullet flies past your head, all that politics flies right out the window.” Just so. However, both films manage to magnificently straddle the fence of mildly condemning either the political mission or those who initiated it, while vindicating those who were charged with fulfilling it. We would do well to learn the lesson both of these movies teach, that we need not condemn the military to protest a war. Nor should a protest of the war be morphed into an assault on those who were ordered to conduct it.

Two different generations of soldiers prove that history does, in fact, repeat itself if we fail to learn from past mistakes.

With the introduction of “Saving Private Ryan,” Hollywood announced the beginning of the end of the euphemistic war movie. While the fictional characters in that landmark piece were sent on the “noble” mission of saving a mother’s only living son from the perils of an admittedly gruesome war, we knew it was only a matter of time before Tinseltown started producing similarly realistic depictions of actual conflicts where soldiers were put on the ground to fulfill their one legitimate and brutal mission: Destroy whatever and whoever gets in their way of attaining whatever objective they’ve been given. “Black Hawk Down,” and “We Were Soldiers,” portray brave American soldiers in what ultimately were deemed ill-advised political missions. Two different generations of soldiers prove that history does, in fact, repeat itself if we fail to learn from past mistakes. Similarly, both movies also portray the ingrained resolve of our servicemen to fanatically and self-sacrificially defend and fight with his American brothers-in-arms.

Semper Fi!