This dissertation examines the anti-war, anti-militarist tradition of American literature and film from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) to the most recent documentaries about the ongoing Iraq War. This dissident, deeply humanist tradition has been, in Western art, a central feature of critical realism since Stendhal and Tolstoy, and it continues in such works as Oliver Stone’s film Salvador (1986) and Anthony Swofford’s memoir Jarhead (2003). Studies of realism have typically emphasized epistemology and methodology, the revaluation or devaluation of canonical authors, and either realism’s obsolescence or continuance in contemporary authors; few studies of realism, however, have argued explicitly and cogently for realism, and none have, to my knowledge, argued for the significance of the realist representation and deromanticization of war. But this is an argument I make. In our time of war, and of the derealization of war—when war is rendered all but invisible and bloodless—I believe it is crucial to revalue and revalorize critical realism.
Since realism was historically a reaction to romanticism, I begin my project by comparing two films that portray World War II, our most romanticized and mythologized war: Steven Spielberg’s romantic and nationalist Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Terrence Malick’s realist riposte The Thin Red Line (1998). By explicating Malick’s critical realization of war—its horror, its senselessness, its insidious propagation—I demonstrate that realism’s anti-romanticism and resolute fidelity to empirical fact make it particularly effective in revealing the reality of war. This imperative of realism is even bolder in Heller’s satiric and subversive novel Catch-22, which is the subject of my next chapter. I then proceed to the Vietnam War and two radical and obscure returned veteran films, Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977) and Cutter’s Way (1981), both of which are doleful reflections on the undemocratic nature of post-war American society. I continue with the U.S. covert war against El Salvador in the 1980s, a noche obscura that Joan Didion (Salvador, 1983), Oliver Stone, Manona Wali and Pamela Cohen (Maria’s Story, 1990) seek to illumine or realize in their respective works. The final war I address is that in Iraq, and I do so through Swofford’s memoir, the short-lived 2005 television series Over There, and Sinan Antoon’s documentary film About Baghdad (2004). Each of these chapters, and texts, manifests a different dimension or additional distinction of critical realism, so that by the end of my study the reader should understand, and appreciate, the special and perduring power of critical realism to lay bare the terrible phenomenon of war. I assert that today the stronghold of critical realism is documentary film, and I close my dissertation with an analysis of this genre by focusing specifically on Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke (2006), Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds (1974), and my own Hidden in Plain Sight (2003).