Bill Farley lost his innocence, not in battle like the hero of Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage, but rather in a movie theater watching a war film. He was not yet a teenager. “I had a few relatives who died when I was a kid, but their deaths didn’t touch me in a deeply emotional way,” he says while sipping chai tea in a cafe in San Francisco, where he lives and works. “When I saw John Wayne get shot in the back in the World War II pic The Sands of Iwo Jima, I couldn’t get out of my seat. I experienced a profound sense of death and loss.” The documentary filmmaker adds, as though shocked all over again, “Wayne was supposed to be immortal.”
Seventy-eight years after the end of the war in Europe on May 8, 1945—since celebrated as “Victory in Europe” or “VE” Day—the real, rather than the celluloid conflagration, still haunts Farley. Twenty-first century Europe, specifically Ukraine, wasn’t supposed to be the site of bombings, attacks on civilians, and the kind of brutal industrialized warfare depicted in Farley’s sobering, 88-minute documentary, I Wanted to Be a Man With a Gun. But that’s what Ukraine is today, as shown in the graphic images from Kyiv to Donetsk. Appropriately, Farley’s doc begins with a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he become a monster.”
The film—which was first released last year and will be available to stream in June— tells the stories of three American soldiers, Paul Mico, Harold Kozloff, and Leo Litwak, who talk candidly and in their own words about fighting and killing Germans on the battlefields of Europe in the 1940s. Bruce Jenkins, the former curator of the Harvard Film Archives, conducts the interview with Farley and rekindles his memories.
For years, Farley met veterans of WWII who said they couldn’t remember the war, or didn’t want to. Then he found his star subjects, who seemed as though they’d been waiting all their lives to relive their experience in uniform.
Farley begins the doc as the three soldiers are drafted into the army and go through basic training. He follows them as they’re sent to Europe, march toward Berlin, engage in house-to-house combat, take part in the liberation of Paris, and the liberation of prisoners in concentration camps. In Paris, they drink champagne, smoke cigarettes, and connect with French women.
Farley punctuates his documentary with newsreel footage from the 1940s, and also with U.S. army propaganda from the time in which not a single American soldier on screen is a person of color. Yes, Blacks fought in World War II, but in segregated regiments. If antisemitism was rife in the army, as all three of Farley’s subjects attest, so too was racism. Not until 1948, when Truman ordered the integration of the military, did Black and white GIs fight side by side.
Farley ends the doc with the last days of the war, peace and homecoming; everything has changed and yet nothing has. Lives return to a semblance of normality.
The doc shows that two of the soldiers, Paul Mico and Harold Kozloff, didn’t hesitate to aim, shoot, and kill, thanks to their basic training. Mico even received a Bronze Star for destroying a 54-ton German tank with a bazooka.
Leo Litwak, the third soldier in Farley’s trio, served as a medic, and, by the conventions of war, was not allowed to carry or fire a weapon. “Leo saw the German soldiers as ordinary people,” Farley says, and “not unlike himself and his fellow GIs.” During his time on the battlefields of Europe, Litwak, the medic, didn’t fire a single shot, though enemy soldiers fired at him.
One of the American soldiers in Farley’s film describes shooting a German prisoner in the back. “I’m not killing a man,” he says. “I’m killing a killing machine.” When another GI captures three enemy soldiers and asks his commanding officer what to do with them, he’s told, “Shoot ‘em.” The German prisoners of war were marched into the woods, but they were not shot. The Americans in the regiment clubbed them to death. By today’s standards, that would probably make them war criminals.
The stars of Farley’s movie, all former Bay Area residents, are no longer alive. Curiously, they never met one another in person. Not until they watched the doc did they learn about one another. All of them were amazed by Farley’s ability to stitch together separate stories into a seamless whole, and to mix humor and tenderness with the grim realities of combat.
The three men saw and heard things they wished they hadn’t, including what Kozloff describes as the “rampant” antisemitic remarks made by fellow GIs. Mico, Kozloff, and Litwak fought two wars at the same time: one against German fascism, the other against American antisemitism. Kozloff and Litwak identified themselves publicly as Jews when it was sometimes dangerous to do so. Mico, who was Catholic, also abhorred antisemitism.
One mail clerk in charge of distributing correspondence from home referred to an American soldier as “the Jew,” and tossed his mail into the mud. Kozloff objected to the name calling. “Fuck you Kozloff,” the clerk said. Kozloff beat the clerk so badly he had to go to the hospital. But for the most part, as Farley explains, Jewish soldiers “unleashed whatever rage they felt about the antisemitism in their own ranks against the Germans.”
Nazi SS troops slaughtered 84 American prisoners of war in Malmedy, Belgium. That slaughter of Americans came to be known as the “Malmedy massacre.” At the end of the war, Joachim Peiper, who ordered it, was convicted of war crimes by a military tribunal and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Mico and his comrades sought revenge. They went on what Farley describes as a “killing spree,” slaughtering as many German prisoners of war as they could.
As teenagers growing up in the 1940s, Mico, Kozloff, and Litwak didn’t have the opportunity to watch a John Wayne war picture. All the big war films arrived in American movie theaters after the Germans, Italians, and Japanese surrendered. As patriotic Americans, they never thought about resisting the draft, and never considered deserting, throwing down their rifles, refusing to serve or disobeying orders. Mico and Kozloff wanted to be men with guns; hence the title of the film. Farley thought about calling his doc “Thou Shalt Kill” and decided to shelve that idea.
“War is hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman famously said. The Union general who marched his troops through Georgia, where they burned, looted, and wreaked havoc, knew war first hand. Bill Farley did not. He served in the military in the 1960s, and in basic training he learned to crawl on his belly while bullets sailed above his head, but he worked in the military as an artist and never saw combat. At the back of his mind, however, he always knew that he’d made a war picture.
When Farley met Mico, Kozloff, and Litwak, one-by-one and when they opened up and talked to him, he knew instantly that he had the makings of a film that was fresh and original and that needed to be viewed as widely as possible. The result has been called a “masterpiece” by Sean Kilcoyne, a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam, and “a searing reminiscence” by Peter Coyote, the voice for Ken Burns’ documentaries. Watch it at your peril.
Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman.