With an American invasion of Iraq hours away, I watched a bunch of semi-recent war movies. They were, in order of both release date and date of war depicted, Saving Private Ryan (1998, WWII), Three Kings (1999, Gulf War I), and Black Hawk Down (2001, Somalia).

The first and last of these were so similar in thrust that the time spent watching one of them was basically wasted — I'll call Black Hawk Down the waste of time, since it had even less content and was crappier overall. Both have two main goals: to play up the gory aspect of war and to make the point that once a war is underway, camaraderie takes precedence over the war's actual objective in the soldiers' minds. The first of these is probably valuable, in that the military recruitment commercials show people test-driving tanks and watching planes take off from aircraft carriers and (in the case of the Marines) fighting CGI lava monsters, but they don't show soldiers getting shredded by machine-gun fire with a helpful yellow arrow saying "YOU", which is something would-be recruits should take into account. Saving Private Ryan was lauded for the flying limbs of its D-Day sequence, but I thought the more gruesome bits actually had less impact than the simple fact that after the build-up as the boats approach the Normandy shore and the soldiers in them prepare for battle, the gates open and the first few rows of soldiers are immediately riddled with bullets. All that preparation — not to mention the twenty-odd years from their birth to this moment — and their battle lasted 0.3 seconds.

But the other bit... both films cast it as heroic that once the fightin' starts, yer jes in it t' help yer buddy make it back in one piece knowin' that he's doin' th' same fer yew and all the rest of it. This may be true, but gyah, it's not GOOD! Rather, it's a handy way to reframe military aggression as self-defense: just split up the responsibility. Why are the Americans killing all those Somalis? Because the Somalis were trying to kill them first! It's self-defense! Not explored is the question what previous hostilities the Somalis were responding to. The same phenomenon is at play in war films' liberal use of terms like "skinnies," "towelheads," "gooks" and so forth. Could you get away with referring to people like that under normal circumstances? (Sadly, it occurs to me that out in the so-called red states the answer is probably yes.) But war films helpfully start off with the targets of these slurs shooting at the protagonists, which suddenly makes it okay. Never mind the fact that said protagonists had to fly halfway around the world, with weapons, in order to find themselves in a position to get shot at.

Speaking of these protagonists: both Private Ryan and Black Hawk have been hailed for featuring "ordinary" soldiers rather than the godlike heroes in uniform of previous decades. Not that either film seems all that interested in its protagonists: while the enemy is absolutely faceless, even the home team isn't exactly faceful. Private Ryan does make a plot point out of contrasting the Tom Hanks character's peacetime life with his wartime one, but Black Hawk Down skips over the fact that most of these people joined up because it's one of the only ways the poor can get some health insurance in this country. (I don't have any. Can't afford it.) This American Life had a program about this issue featuring a recruit who said, "I'm basically a make-love-not-war type person but I needed to get my life together." I myself received an email from a soldier stationed in Kuwait who'd read my book... and what had led him to risk his life (and likely take some) in the desert? Phone bills.

But no, we don't get any such characterization here... why waste time on such concerns when the viewers are naturally going to pull for "our boys"? The problem is, the military trains "our boys" to be as reprehensible as any enemy they might be facing: just in the past few days there's been a slew of articles documenting how the Air Force Academy is a de facto rape camp. It's disgusting, but at the same time it makes perfect sense: the military trains people to kill. It deliberately breaks down the barriers that would keep people from performing acts that, outside of a combat situation, would land them in prison. And after encouraging this mindset, we're supposed to expect that these newly minted killers aren't going to turn out to be rapists as well? Even the whitewashed soldiers we get in the films are people I wouldn't want to be in the same room with in real life, with their hoo-ahs and their abusive locker-room patter.

Of course, there's the A Few Good Men argument that it's these same callow war machines who give us the luxury not to become like them. Black Hawk Down is too mechanical to be concerned with this issue, but Saving Private Ryan is: it concludes with the title soldier asking whether he (and by extension, America in general) is worthy of the sacrifice of so many. "Am I a good man?" (Are we a good country?) A weighty question for us to ponder on the way home from the thea— oh, but wait, the film immediately answers it for us! "Yes, you are," says Ryan's wife. Cool, glad that's settled! America rulez! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Three Kings is a little more thoughtful. It's not concerned with winning or losing the war, starting after the ceasefire has already been signed; as with the current war, it's not the military outcome that's in doubt but the shape the peace will take. It's not afraid to point out that bombing people is not a good way to make them your friends, that the "happy Iraqis" Colin Powell promises are unlikely to be sporting grins as they cradle the charred bodies of their children. And it's also bold enough to make central to its premise the fact that America promised to support uprisings against Saddam Hussein and then did nothing as the rebels were massacred. Unfortunately, the film's response to this is to pull a Rambo on it — do we get to win this time? — and hey, check it out, here are some Americans helping the Iraqi rebels to the border! We're not going to let them get tortured and killed after all! U-S-A! U-S-A!

So if it was wrong not to follow through and back the rebels against Saddam Hussein's forces, then surely this coming war is good news, right? Better late than never, etc. Except there's a difference between stopping a slaughter, as would have been the case in March 1991, and initiating one. I've come across a lot of war commentary which reads "I'm no pacifist, but we should give diplomacy more time to work" and "No one would ever accuse me of being a pacifist, but this war seems ill-advised" — reminiscent of apologetic preambles like, "I'm certainly not a feminist, but I do think women should get equal pay for equal work." Oh, heaven forfend that you be mistakenly confused with pacifists and feminists, commentators! I'm sure that in the nineteenth century you'd all have been very careful to specify that "I'm no abolitionist! Long live slavery! But maybe the whipping could be toned down a little?" Yeesh. "I'm no pacifist." Yeah, sure wouldn't want people getting the impression you think it's wrong to kill, just because it's, y'know, wrong to kill.

Obviously, sometimes the alternative is worse. George Bush has argued that it is better to kill a bunch of people now than to risk even more people being killed later. He might be right. But I'd like to see how far his convictions extend. I mean, this is no hypothetical. Thousands and thousands and thousands of innocent people who are alive as I type this, eating breakfast, getting ready for work and school, will be killed by American bombs before the week is over. Thousands and thousands and thousands of children will never see their mothers and fathers again; thousands and thousands and thousands of parents will never see their children again. George Bush thinks this is for the best. Fine. Maybe these lives need to be torn apart so that others can be improved. But if you can make that decision, you should be able to make that sacrifice. You should be able to order a bombing of a city only if you then put a bullet in your own brain.

And this is even taking as given the notion that this war is in fact to create a free Iraq! A beacon to the rest of the Muslim world, they say. Y'know, we had a chance at this before. No, I'm not talking about marching on Baghdad in 1991 and "finishing the job," as so many have put it. As Bush the Elder still points out, our coalition was assembled to liberate Kuwait. So here's the question: is Kuwait free? It's capitalist, sure, but free? In Kuwait, women can't vote! We could have insisted on any reforms we wanted in return for freeing Kuwait... and apparently we weren't sufficiently concerned with democracy to care about this little detail. Or that Kuwait has under a million citizens, the wealthiest per capita in the world, supported by a virtual slave class of a million and a half foreigners. Think this'll change once Iraq is that shiny American-style beacon o' liberty?

As if that's how this war is going to end. Though that's probably how they'll tell the ending in the movies.

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