Film: war’s foot soldier?
“Lots of people talking about the coming war,
Some of them rich and some of them poor.
Talk about it like a blackjack game,
But win or lose you can’t play again.”
-- Mark Spoelstra, “The Times I’ve Had”
You are reading a piece I never wanted to write. A piece whose idea has so unnerved me that I’ve put it off even though I’ve been compulsively making notes for weeks. A piece about movies and the American mind, about the inevitability of the coming war and its potentially cataclysmic aftermath. For my fear is we are floating toward terribly dangerous waters and that the movies have a share of the blame.
What initially captured my attention was not so much the pros and cons of an Iraqi invasion but how unconcerned, how blase most Americans seem to be about that impending event. “As things stand,” wrote a concerned commentator, “if the president goes to war, then he is likely to go without eliciting either the consent or the dissent, the support or the opposition, of the storied American majority, more silent today than ever before.”
As many political writers have noted, Americans are treating the invasion of Iraq as what one columnist characterized as “a walk in the park,” an attitude our legislators seem to share. This despite the fact that there does seem to be a whole lot to be worried about.
News reports indicate that even our friends in the Middle East fear an attack would bring chaos to the area, encouraging future generations of terrorists and possibly destabilizing Pakistan and allowing its nuclear weapons to fall into Al Qaeda’s hands.
Even if the war in Iraq goes well, John W. Dower, the leading authority on our post-World War II occupation of Japan, cautions that most of the factors that led to success there “would be absent in an Iraq militarily defeated by the United States.... To rush to war without seriously imagining all its consequences, including its aftermath, is not realism but a terrible hubris.”
Where did our cockiness, our breezy confidence in the face of all this come from? Why are we treating going into Iraq as an adventure similar to what historian Byron Farwell has called “Queen Victoria’s Little Wars,” small skirmishes in obscure locales considered at the time as “the price of empire, of world leadership, and of national pride -- and it was paid, usually without qualms or regrets or very much thought.”
The source of our unworried attitude, our sureness that Iraq will be no more than a blip on our glorious march toward the future, is, I very much fear, that we have been brainwashed by history and, more to the point, by the movies into thinking we cannot lose.
We are the Americans, the good guys, and the good guys by definition cannot be defeated. An entire century of westerns, crime dramas and, of course, war movies has driven home that point so many times that instead of viewing it as an assumption, we now accept it, without thinking, as undeniable truth.
Ironically, given the enormous superiority with which we will go into Iraq, the Hollywood solider is always the underdog. “Sergeant York” single-handedly rounding up more than 100 Germans, or the Marine raiders in 1943’s “Gung Ho!,” told by their commander, the American Film Institute Catalog summarizes, that “though they will be severely outnumbered by the enemy, through careful planning, teamwork and surprise, they will be victorious.”
Of course we know, or we think we know, that there will be a cost for our ascendancy. As George C. Scott’s Gen. Buck Turgidson memorably says when discussing nuclear disaster in “Dr. Strangelove,” “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed.” Even John Wayne may have to die, as he did at the end of “Sands of Iwo Jima,” but not before the American way has been preserved.
Our troops might be unconventional and avaricious, as in “Three Kings,” but they still are part of a victorious army. Even a nominally pessimistic film like “Apocalypse Now” ends with Kurtz, the major threat, eliminated.
This is especially true in the current spate of films (and books) about the undeniable heroism of the combat soldiers of World War II. Though the opening section of “Saving Private Ryan” was as savage a depiction of the pitiless nature of combat as has ever been put on film, the picture finally delivered quite a different, more uplifting message about the virtues of heroism. And the fuss over the Emmy-winning “Band of Brothers,” complete with deserved bows by the real veterans, also feeds the notion that our triumph in wars is preordained.
Eternal prominence or pipe dream?
In truth, this inevitable American hegemony is written nowhere but the movies. As Oscar Wilde memorably put it, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” Other globe-straddling cultures, from the Romans to the British to the Arabs who once upon a time conquered Europe as far as Spain, had similar illusions of eternal domination, but it was not to be.
Even the Nazis, as recorded in the films made for domestic consumption during World War II, felt themselves to be just as much the invincible favorites of fortune as we do. While films like “Jud Suss” were notoriously anti-Semitic, much of Nazi cinema was strictly escapist, and movies like “Request Concert” are unnerving and disturbing to watch because they so closely mirror images of American films of the period. In fact, they so echo Hollywood norms that only the differences in uniform and language mark them as coming from the Reich.
Clearly, the history of today shows the Germans to have been deluded. How do we know the history of tomorrow, if there is a tomorrow, won’t say the same about us?
I say “if” because, though the human race hasn’t changed, though people are as weak and fallible as they ever were, the weapons in our control have gotten scarier. We have gotten smarter, but not wiser, and now we have a catastrophic device in our charge.
Scarier than looking silly in history is the notion that the hair mussing we are in for might be even worse than the tens of millions Gen. Turgidson was willing to concede. For it is also not written anywhere, and this is the truly scary part, that the world itself has to survive in a form we recognize, and who is to say that the threat of an already existing Pakistani bomb falling into terrorist hands isn’t as likely, if not more so, than Saddam Hussein developing one on his own.
Perhaps you’re thinking: How could all these terrible things come from a small military adventure? But World War I, which some historians argue was a greater global catastrophe than anything that followed, started from a finite event in a small country, an event that a series of interlocking alliances and falling dominos turned into a civilization-crushing cataclysm.
If you’re thinking that God’s strong hand will keep us safe, you can’t be proved wrong, but it’s important to remember that no one believed more fervently and absolutely that the Lord would protect them than the millions of pious Jews who did not survive the Holocaust.
Surprisingly, it was a movie that nurtured this fearful pessimism in me. Not a studio blockbuster, obviously, but Jon Else’s unnerving 1980 documentary “The Day After Trinity,” the story of how scientists working in Los Alamos during World War II came to construct the first atomic bomb (initially tested at New Mexico’s Trinity Site) and what they felt about what they had done.
What shocks me most every time I see Else’s interviews is the nature of the people who created the bomb. I’d always assumed -- foolishly, obviously -- that they were Dr. Strangelove types, coldblooded and heartless. Who else would put the entire planet at risk? To my surprise, the top Los Alamos scientists were revealed as quintessential humanists -- warm, gregarious, cultured people, lovers of nature and the classics, readers of Proust in the original French.
If the best and the brightest, for what surely were the best possible reasons, could create the worst, most destructive weapon the world has ever seen, what are the reasons to be optimistic about the actions of the hubristic few who are now in charge of its use? Truly, as Walt Kelly had Pogo say, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Perhaps it is asking too much of the movies to explore these dark and pessimistic thoughts, to do other than be an unthinking cheerleader for the eternal domination of the American way. Perhaps this wish is a hangover from the 1960s and ‘70s, when so many American and foreign films explored so many dark corners of the human condition, spoke out about so much that had previously been unspoken. But even if it’s not Hollywood’s place to do anything differently, our safety, even our survival, may depend on our being aware of what, in all good faith, has been done to us for so many years. If we’re not aware, World War IV, as a wise man once said, will end up being fought with sticks and stones.
Kenneth Turan is a Times movie critic.