By Jack Mandaville
We have a tendency to craft our own narratives of war. We decide the importance of the conflicts, which often determines how we view the people who fought in them. This ultimately creates a perspective based more in popular opinion than grounded in historical fact. Good vs. Evil becomes a lot clearer as those who experienced certain wars pass on and their voices with it.
The American Civil War was fought solely in an effort to free slaves, or so we’ve been told. Ask your average American and they may easily mistake The Great War for WWII, as there has been little exposure to WWI in American pop culture. WWII, on the other hand, is regarded as something where the notion of Good vs. Evil is as easily explainable as the fight between The Rebel Alliance and The Empire.
Vietnam is widely regarded as a tumultuous conflict (both at home and in country) where those who fought in it are to be more pitied than revered. Desert Storm, a heroic ultra-victory that redeemed the US military and our foreign policy in general. Then there was Iraq and the ongoing Afghanistan effort. I will refrain from commentary simply because I’m clinging to the hope that popular history will give the fighting men and women of that generation a better account than those who fought in Vietnam.
Somewhere in the 20th Century, sandwiched between our most popular and unpopular wars (according to pop history), the United States was involved in a conflict that has almost been forgotten by the Western World. But if there was ever a doubt about the positive long-term impacts of America’s past wars, it is clearly shown at the 38th Parallel on a tiny peninsula in East Asia.
It was the Korean War—and the men who fought it have some of the most remarkable, unique stories in American military history.
This story is beautifully told in Conor Timmis’s new Korean War documentary, Finnigan’s War.
Named after his late grandfather, John Finnigan (who is the leadoff subject in the film), Finnigan’s War weaves the untold personal—and often heartbreaking—stories of the men who fought the Korean War through personal interviews with them and, in a few segments, the widows and children of the fallen.
What truly makes Finnigan’s War such a remarkable film are the unique backgrounds of each subject—causing the film to morph from a simple war documentary into a microcosm of the American experience. We not only meet the people who fought the war, but those—both loved ones and strangers—who were impacted by it.
The story is indicative of the post-WWII cultural changes America experienced—highlighting the unique military experience where people from every conceivable aspect of American culture came together and formed a bond that only conflict breeds, a rare occurrence prior to it.
I must refrain from spoiling the film. But the long list of stories include members of an all-black Ranger company, the first Chinese-American Infantry officer, a Hungarian-born Jew who survived both the Holocaust and a Chinese POW camp as a US soldier, the son of a missing Air Force pilot who discussed the lingering toll of growing up without a father, and other extremely personal stories that tug at the core of our American consciousness.
I presume Timmis intentionally went this route in order to avoid your typical blood and guts, “hooah” chronicle. Instead, he chose unique subjects and linked numerous demographics in order to highlight the overall American experience of war.
One of aesthetic elements of the film was the use of comic book images when narrator Mark Hamill (Star Wars) read medal citations. It was a well-placed tie-in to the interviews, and film and photographic depictions in the film.
Being that I had a pretty sound historical understanding of the Korean War beforehand, I didn’t feel like I walked away with a better grasp of the war in general. What Finnigan’s War does offer is direct to the heart glimpses of the human experience in war. It serves as a reminder of the warriors who fought before and after Korea, giving us a better view of the impact of war and those—of all generations—who fight them.