When your cowardice causes the death of one of your buddies, you’re definitely a shitbag. Screengrab from Saving Private Ryan.
Nearly every unit in the military has one, and you’ve likely had to pick up his slack — that guy who is kind of a shitbag. Even in the harsh suffering and carnage of war, the human psyche still makes time for petty rivalries. It may be a leader whose personal characteristics are lacking for the position or just another Joe trying to survive while failing to live up to his soldierly duties.
And since shitbags exist in real life, we also see them in military movies. These characters inspire loathing and hatred amongst those who serve with them — and those of us watching at home — as they harness a unique ability to make an already sucky situation suck more.
The amount that we love to hate these shitbags is a testament to the talents of the actors who portrayed them. Fiction imitates reality, and we’ve all encountered a soldier (or maybe we were that soldier) whose actions once made us exclaim, “What a fucking shitbag.”
“It is very queer that the unhappiness in the world is so often brought on by small men,” Private Paul Bäumer, the main protagonist, notes in the original World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque. In the civilian world, Himmelstoss was a postman, such a low position in that society that he was mocked by Bäumer and his classmates as high schoolers. When they enlisted in the Imperial German Army, they found the postman was their new drill instructor.
“My name is Himmelstoss … Corporal Himmelstoss. I am your trainer,” he says to his new recruits. “You find that I will be a very good teacher to you. You know why? Because what I teach you, you will never forget. Never.”
While the training is hard, muddy, and frankly sucks, Himmelstoss is doing his job: toughening up these young men and making proud German soldiers out of them. But his pettiness begins to show as his intense dislike for Bäumer grows. During an inspection, an overweight recruit sneezes on Himmelstoss and is swiftly punished by being made to run up a hill. When he falls on his face, Bäumer runs to help him — a gesture Himmelstoss sees as a direct threat to his authority.
That night, while the rest of the recruits are sleeping, Bäumer is forced to run the stairs of the barracks until Himmelstoss is tired. Later, during a bayonet drill, Bäumer beats Himmelstoss’ defense and knocks him down. That night, Himmelstoss awakens Bäumer and has him run the stairs barefoot, stepping on his toes at each floor.
However, the night before graduation, the recruits get their revenge on Himmelstoss. After a night drinking at the bar, Himmelstoss stumbles home. Bäumer and pals are waiting for him; they wrap him up in a blanket and spank his ass. They are barely able to contain their laughter at the graduation ceremony the next day.
Months later, the men, now salty frontline soldiers, encounter Corporal Himmelstoss again. Fired from his danger-free drill instructor position after nearly hazing a couple of recruits to death, Himmelstoss is now in combat for the first time. Upon seeing his old recruits, Himmelstoss attempts to reestablish his authority over them, but his orders are ignored and he is openly and brutally mocked for being the little cherry bitch he is.
Himmelstoss’ first baptism by fire is a massive German counteroffensive against the French. As Bäumer runs across no-man’s land, he spots a squad of new soldiers hiding in a bomb crater. “What the hell is this! Come on, let’s go!” he urges them to press forward. One soldier, who turns out to be Himmelstoss, refuses to budge. Bäumer smacks him across the helmet to get him to move out. Only when an officer orders does Himmelstoss gather up the gumption to go on the attack.
After he earns the Iron Cross, the men ease up on ol’ Himmelstoss and accept him as a comrade. Like so many of his generation, Himmelstoss, too, will perish in the trenches.
After the brutal landings of the D-Day invasion, Captain John Miller of Charlie Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion lost many of his men, including his German and French translators. Upon being tasked with the mission of finding Private James Ryan, whose three brothers had been killed, Miller is forced to find a new translator from the Civil Affairs Battalion.
Corporal Timothy Upham is a military intelligence analyst whose job it is to make maps and translate. He’s a bit of a dork, klutz, and an unimpressive-looking soldier. He clumsily gathers his equipment when Miller informs him that he is being reassigned. Miller’s squad of Rangers initially didn’t care for Upham. Eventually, though, through shared combat experiences, he is accepted.
In the climactic battle of the movie, we witness Upham’s character falter. He is now linked up with remnants of Ryan’s unit from the 101st Airborne Division in Ramelle. They are tasked with holding the bridge and setting up an ambush for what is sure to be an overwhelming German offensive on their position. Upham is tasked as the ammo runner.
The terrifying screeching of the tracks of a German SS Tiger tank echoes through the city. Upham is scrambling to find his spot on the battlefield, and Miller directs him go with Private Mellish, who has the .30 caliber. He drops off the ammo to Mellish and is sent to get more as they furiously counter over 30 Germans attempting to flank them. After grabbing more ammo, Upham has a panic attack and freezes. He hides behind a wall as the chaos of war occurs all around.
Mellish runs out of ammo and screams for Upham — but is instead greeted by a German assault team. Mellish kills the first couple of Germans, resorting to hand-to-hand combat as he has no ammo. Upham hears the screams of Mellish as he tussles and tumbles with the German soldier. This is his pivotal moment, where he can prove how much of a soldier he truly is, to find the intestinal fortitude to save Mellish’s life. Upham slowly walks up the stairs and collapses to his knees, feeling sorry for himself, as he cries like a little bitch into his rifle. The German soldier kills Mellish with a knife through the chest.
As the German soldier leaves the building, he runs into a quivering Upham. Disgusted at this pathetic excuse of a soldier, the German soldier leaves Upham untouched. Corporal Upham would be one of the few soldiers to survive the battle. When your cowardice causes the death of one of your buddies, you’re definitely a shitbag.
Upon arriving in Stalingrad with his platoon, Lieutenant Witzland witnesses a fellow German soldier abusing a Russian prisoner of war (POW) as they’re being loaded onto a train. The Russian is shoved to the ground, and Witzland is knocked down as he tries to interfere. The Russian is then beaten to death. Drenched in water and mud, Witzland locates the military police commander, Captain Haller.
“Captain, I must protest about the behavior of your men!” pleads Witzland.
“You want to protest? Tell the Führer,” Haller retorts with a sinister laugh.
When introducing himself to his new company commander, Witzland attempts to report the incident but is told to forget about it. Witzland’s duty is to lead a platoon of battle-hardened storm troopers through the rat-warfare that is the Battle of Stalingrad. After weeks of intense combat, his platoon of 50 has been torn down to about a dozen. Witzland and a few of his men are attempting to flush Russians out of the sewers near their position when his radioman, Lance Corporal Emigholz, sets off a booby-trap that rips apart his leg.
The men carry an injured Emigholz to a grossly overburdened aid station. Unable to get any medical help, one of the soldiers pulls his rifle on an orderly and forces him to help Emigholz, yet Emigholz still dies.
An unflinching and uncompromising Nazi, Haller is unwilling to listen to Witzland defend his men. Intent on punishing any dissent, Haller has the men arrested. They are sent to penal battalion to sweep out land mines.
Haller’s true evil comes out in a heart wrenching scene. After they’ve re-earned their rights as German soldiers when they volunteered to help repel a Russian tank offensive, Witzland’s men are then tasked with the most immoral of details. Haller has rounded up a dozen suspected Russian saboteurs and partisans, amongst them a young boy who helped them earlier.
They are the firing squad. Witzland and his men are horrified, disgusted, and enraged about what they’re about to be forced to do. When they protest for the boy’s life, Haller would hear none of it. Haller calls out Corporal Reiser, who he sees has a special endearment for the boy. “If you miss. You’ll be up there next,” he warns coldly.
Haller gets his comeuppance — and his true shitbaggery is exposed — when attempting to arrest Witzland’s starving men for looting air-dropped supplies. They’ve had enough of Haller’s shit. They beat his ass down, and as he pleads for his life, he reveals that he has a house full of supplies he’s kept for himself. Fucking buddy fucker. Witzland’s men then shoot Haller through the chest. Some semblance of justice is served when this vile vermin of a shitbag is left dead in the snow.
If you were to judge Sergeant Major Phillip Dickerson by the medals he wears on his chest, you’d think he’s one hell of a soldier. He’s a grizzled Special Forces noncommissioned officer, except he’s working as the NCO in charge of Armed Forces Radio because of some prostate problems. “Or maybe he got shot in the ass,” muses Private First Class Garlick.
When Airman Second Class Adrian Cronauer is assigned as a disc jockey to the same radio station in Saigon, Vietnam, Dickerson is less than pleased. Demonstrating right away why he has Dick in his name, he remarks upon meeting Cronauer:
“You’re in Southeast Asia now, pal, you got your cushy little assignment. In time, you’ll make me forget it. You stay out of my way, there will be no problem. But if you toy with me, I’ll burn you so bad you’re going to wish you died as a child.”
Dickerson’s stick-up-his-ass and humorless sense of military professionalism is in direct contrast to Cronauer’s sarcastic, carefree, and satiric radio antics. A believer of strictly enforcing style and guidelines set by military intelligence, Dickerson loathes the content of Cronauer’s radio show. But since General Taylor thinks Cronauer is hilarious and the troops in the field love him, Dickerson is forced to accept it.
After surviving a bombing that occurred at the restaurant he frequents, Cronauer is frustrated and dismayed that the Army censors won’t allow him to talk about the attack on the radio. He locks the doors to his sound studio and emotionally breaks down as he talks about the attack. Upon hearing this, Dickerson unleashes his sergeant major fury and shuts down the program. He then convinces Taylor to suspend his show.
After a ton of adoring fan mail from the troops and hatred for the new DJ that replaces him, Cronauer is brought back on the air. When Taylor asks for interviews of troops out in the field in An Lac by Cronauer, Dickerson checks the status of the only road there, Route 1A. He’s informed that it’s currently in Viet Cong hands, and it’s unsecured. Seeing an opportunity to allow the Viet Cong to do his dirty work, Dickerson recommends that Cronauer be given a 24-hour pass.
Cronauer’s jeep is blown off the road, but one of his South Vietnamese friends, Tuan, finds him in the woods and helps guide them. While walking through a scorched village, a Huey helicopter rescues them.
When Cronauer reports back to Dickerson, Dickerson is gleeful to share that Tuan is a wanted Viet Cong terrorist and Cronauer will be on a bird leaving the next day. The Army can’t have their troops associating with the enemy.
Dickerson justifies his behavior with this comment: “I don’t like your style, your politics, or your sense of humor. I don’t like what you say or how you say it. From now on, the fighting men of Vietnam will hear exactly what they’re supposed to hear.”
After booting Cronauer out of the service, Dickerson is informed by Taylor that he’s being reassigned to Guam. Taylor sums up Dickerson by saying, “Dick, I’ve covered for you a lot of times because I thought you were a little crazy. But you’re not crazy, you’re mean. This is just radio.”
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Shallow. Petty. Cheap. Cowardly. Ferret Faced. Shyster. All these words accurately describe Major Frank Burns. Assigned to the 4077 MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) as a surgeon during the Korean War, he is second in command of the unit. What Burns lacks in basic decent humanity, he fails to make up for with his mediocre surgical skills.
A pure micro-managing power tripper, Burns uses his rank as major to push around the enlisted men underneath him. The commander of the unit, and his fellow doctors, often keep him from going overboard with his antics. Burns is furious that Captain Hawkeye Pierce is named Chief Surgeon over him, even though Pierce has superior surgical skills, competence, and real leadership ability.
Burns is held in contempt by nearly all the members of the MASH except for the head nurse, Major Margret Houlihan. She is also his lover with whom he’s cheating on his wife. Burns, who loves the slightest taste of authority, is tasked as the officer in charge only of the menial tasks that need to be conducted for the camp’s upkeep.
He is also a sub-standard soldier with an unearned sense of braggadocio. When a tank is stationed at the MASH unit to scare away a sniper that’s been harassing them, Burns takes it upon himself to show off his tanker skills to Houlihan. Once he fires their tank up, he immediately begins to lose control of it and ends up destroying the female’s latrine. Further demonstrating his incompetence, he negligently discharges and shoots himself on TWO different occasions.
Burns is often used as the show’s comedic foil — a shitbag whose schemes often fail and a prime example on how rank can get to one’s head. Living in his own warped sense of reality, he makes the hell of war a lot more annoying for everyone. After losing Houlihan when she decides to marry another Army officer, Burns goes mad and causes such a ruckus while on leave that he’s arrested by the military police. As a punishment, in its infinite wisdom, the Army promotes him to lieutenant colonel and sends him back home to Indiana to work at a Veterans Affairs Hospital.
Raul Felix is a 32-year-old Mexican-American from Huntington Beach, California. He currently lives in Long Beach. He served in the United States Army from 2005-2009. Raul writes about sex, dating, women, military life, manhood, Mexican-American culture, motorcycle travel, and anything else he pleases. He currently attends college, bartends, and writes. He has been a featured writer on Thought Catalog. You can find all his written work at RaulFelix.com. He’s on a quest to be one of the greatest writers of our era. You can reach him at [email protected].
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