Initially, the U.S. didn’t declare war on Germany. In December 1941 America officially entered WWII by declaring war against Japan after the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. Subsequently, Germany declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, thus obliging America to officially enter WWII. As far as Germany was concerned, for several years the U.S. had maintained relative neutrality, even though it aided the Allies with supplies. Although President Roosevelt had wanted to get involved in the war earlier on the side of the Allies, he met some initial resistance. While public opinion in the U.S. was, generally speaking, antagonistic to Hilter and the Nazi regime, many Americans nevertheless supported isolationist policies.
By the end of WWII, however, the U.S. was not only fully engaged in the war, but also played a leading role in the Allied victory. While American losses were not as great (proportionately) as those of Russia and European countries involved in the war, about 16 million Americans served in the Armed Forces and nearly 300,000 of them were killed in combat. Even Stalin–no friend of the West or of democracy–admitted, at a dinner at the Tehran Conference in 1943, “Without American production the United Nations could never have won the war.”
The movie Fury (2014), directed by David Ayer and staring Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman, follows the final push of the American forces into the heart of Nazi Germany. It focuses on the activities of the 2nd Armored Division of the 66th Armored Regiment, manning a tank named “Fury”, under the command of Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt). By the end of the film, this five man crew fights heroically against an entire SS battalion of three hundred Waffen SS soldiers, inflicting serious damage upon the Germans and fighting against them to the last man.
This plot may seem like a typical military heroism movie. However, the film’s real strength lies in depicting the psychological dynamics among the five men and in offering a more historically realistic portrayal of soldiers’ behavior. The drama hinges upon the transformation of the youngest member of the group—the Army typist Norman “Machine” Ellison—who knows nothing about combat and hesitates to kill fellow human beings (particularly the young German fighters of the Hitler Youth). His battle-hardened, older companions make fun of his scruples and pressure him to kill. Wardaddy goes so far as to thrust a gun into his hand and force the young man to kill a German prisoner who’s begging for his life. Repeatedly, Wardaddy drives home the lesson that war is about killing your enemy or being killed by them.
Although Norman never fully accepts this simple “us” versus “them” mentality, he shows heroism with a heart. In one of the most telling scenes of the movie, Wardaddy pressures him to have sex with a young and beautiful German girl, Emma, whose house they invaded in order to eat. The movie doesn’t glamorize the rape, even though Emma “chooses” to sleep with the relatively sensitive and innocent Norman over his rougher companions. The film clearly illustrates that the young woman had no real choice, since choosing who will rape you isn’t a true choice.
While Norman may abandon some of his moral principles in order to become fully engaged in the war, he develops from a naïve young man into a hero that his tank companions—and the viewers—can admire. One of the fellow soldiers calls him “a good man,” acknowledging that their behavior has been corrupted in the war. Fury showcases a moral complexity that I’ve rarely seen in American war movies. It shows that in war—even a war as necessary as WWII was—heroism can become inseparable from heartlessness, just as saving countries from oppression can become tainted by claiming the “spoils” of victory (looting and rape).