Some scenes are funnier, and sadder, than they were 21/2 years ago: Britney Spears being earnestly interviewed about global politics while she savages some poor piece of gum: “Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision that he makes,” says the Brit. Then there’s the principal of the Executive Chute Corp. on NBC’s “Today” show, gamely struggling to fit a thunder-thighed assistant with the device that--should you find yourself atop a burning skyscraper--you may quickly don and jump to safety, maybe. And I love the shoppers congratulating themselves for braving a terrorist attack by patronizing the strategically vital mall in Saginaw, Mich.
Was it, as Michael Moore asks in his 2004 documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” all just a dream? Alas, no. The American public was just that . . . what? To convey the sense with which we were so easily frightened into waging war in Iraq, only agricultural metaphors will do: Stampeded, cowed, buffaloed, bullshitted. In the 32 months since Moore’s film won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or and went on to be the highest-grossing documentary in cinema, it has--while sitting more or less quietly on the video store shelves--been transmuted from a pop-politics firebomb to a work of rueful prophecy.
As I write this, it’s several days after President Bush’s speech about a troop escalation in Iraq. According to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 47% to 49% of Americans now believe the United States is likely to lose the war in Iraq, and the president’s Iraq approval ratings are hanging in the upper 20s. Estimates of the war’s cost range from about $360 billion to an inconceivable $1 trillion or more, according to Columbia University economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. The American death toll is more than 3,000 and the U.N.'s estimate of Iraqi deaths for 2006 alone exceeds 34,000.
Who could have predicted it would all go so badly? Michael Moore, for one. Not because Moore was such an expert at war and grand-scale history, but because he had a hunch, an intuition, that Bush was a piker. And for whatever faults and prosecutorial shadings of fact he is guilty of in “Fahrenheit 9/11"--these have been ably documented by writer Christopher Hitchens and the quite levelheaded Dave Kopel--Moore’s singular premise has been vindicated by events: An incapable and incurious man with a delinquent sense of history took us to war under false pretenses, with the wrong people, with all the swagger of a warrior who had never been to war. I can’t imagine anyone, no matter how rabidly Republican, who would not wince at the footage of President Bush prancing around the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in a Navy flight suit. In the words of Bugs Bunny, “What a maroon.”
Why does this matter? After all, isn’t “Fahrenheit 9/11" a defunct controversy? It would be except for the strangely familiar reloading of the U.S. government’s propaganda artillery, aimed this time not at Iraq but Iran. We are being told that Iran is lending material support for attacks on American troops. We are told that a nuclear Iran is intolerable. We are told that war with Iran is becoming inevitable, and the reality-making proof of it is a new carrier task force steaming around the Persian Gulf.
To watch “Fahrenheit 9/11" nearly three years later is to take a refresher course in political skepticism. At a minimum, and no matter what your partisan orientation, the film should make you demand clearer evidence and more consequential debate regarding Iran. For example: Wasn’t it inevitable that when we deposed and demilitarized the Sunni minority in Iraq we would create a natural ally for Shia-majority Iran? If so, doesn’t the current chaos in Iraq seem entirely too providential for those who agitated for action against Iran all along? And, finally, the eternal question: What is the exit strategy? Just asking.
Two and a half years later, “Fahrenheit 9/11" is by no means perfect, or perfectly accurate, but it does point to a kind of revelatory power of what might be called “discount bin” history, works of nonfiction that are too old to be current but too new to be history. In a popular consciousness most notable for its amnesia, it’s extremely helpful to read a three- or four-year-old newspaper or magazine once in a while, or watch a dusty documentary that at the time of its release was criticized as wildly irresponsible. How wrong we can be.
What will Al Gore’s 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” look like five years from now? Will criticism of that movie--the flea-biting from global warming skeptics--seem more or less compelling? And what about Gore’s detractors? Will they apologize for getting things wrong? Not to Gore, but to their own children?
I watched Errol Morris’ 2003 documentary “The Fog of War” a couple of weeks ago. The piece is a sober recollection by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War. In it, McNamara ticks off his “Eleven Lessons"--for example, “Proportionality should be a guideline in war,” and “Empathize with your enemy.” The U.S. military was already in Iraq when this film came out, painfully relearning McNamara’s lessons. The irony in the here and now is almost unbearable.