Without any doubt there will be death and dying in a war movie. As a cultural anthropologist it often struck me how different other cultures handle death. In a society like ours, in which death is a taboo (there seems to be an even greater taboo when it comes to dying) the war movie is one of the rare places where it is shown with such frequency. When it comes to movies in general there is only the action and thriller/crime genre where you can count on death with the same certainty only not in such abundance. Else you are left with rare films about illness, very rarely you’d see an old person dying or, more likely, already dead. A few deal with accidents or rather their consequences like Atom Egoyan does in The Sweet Hereafter.
I did often wonder where my interest in war movies came from, besides from the urge to understand what happened, why it happened and how it felt for those involved. I think that they teach us a lesson in non-attachment. You see characters that you get to know and like and you know that for sure some of them are going to die. And death seems, for our human eye, not to choose very carefully in whom he spares and whom not. In the war movie we see death and dying in a magnified overdrawn way. There is everything you could see in daily life: quick death, painful death, slow and agonising dying. Nothing is left out. If you go one step further it makes you contemplate your own perishability. A further lesson in non-attachment.
In the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche teaches that it is a good exercise to picture ones own death on a daily basis. It is maybe the most fundamental aim in life to have a good death.
I think it is not arbitrary that the late great American journalist Studs Terkel did as well a book on The Good War: An Oral History of World War II as on Death, Will the Circle be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith.
For anyone who would like to pursue his/her own reflections on this topic a few more or less random reading suggestions:
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche, 1992
The Pagan Book of Living and Dying Starhawk, 1997
On Death and Dying Elisabeth Kuebler Ross, 1997
R.I.P. – The complete book of death and dying Constance Jones, 1997
Dancing on the Grave: Encounters with Death Nigel Barley, 1995
Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir David Rieff, 2008
Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death Irvin D. Yalom, 2008
The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion, 2005
Noch eine Runde auf dem Karussel: Vom Leben und Sterben Tiziano Terzani, 2007
Das Ende ist mein Anfang: Ein Vater, ein Sohn und die grosse Reise des Lebens Tiziano Terzani, 2006
Der Tod meiner Mutter Georg Diez, 2009
Das westliche Totenbuch Irene Dalichow, 2001