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Quagmire
Fredrick Barton

It is puzzling that the American film industry took so long to address our nation’s disastrous misadventure in Vietnam, especially given that Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara were able to extract Congressional authorization for expanding America’s operations there only through the trumped up allegation of a North Vietnamese attack on a US naval vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin.  John Wayne sought to defend the Vietnam War with The Green Berets in 1968, but with the exception of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H in 1970, which, though set in Korea, offered a withering critique of Vietnam, filmmakers largely steered clear of the subject while the war still raged. The great Vietnam films, Hal Ashby’s Coming Home in 1978, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter that same year, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in 1979 appeared well after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Oliver Stone’s Platoon wasn’t released until 1986.

I think we can account for this delay as a product of the slow dissolution of America’s Cold War consensus. The Vietnam War was promoted to the American public as a required democratic defense against world-wide monolithic communist expansionism. Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev had famously sneered "We will bury you" and put missiles in Cuba only ninety miles from American soil. The enemy was real, belligerent, and indisputably powerful. And better to fight him, we were assured, in the jungles of Vietnam than on the beaches of California. It took a long time for us to see the folly of sending soldiers into harm’s way on the basis of shallow platitudes.

Our cultural response to the Bush administration’s War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan has come about much more rapidly and while our military men and women are still in the field. Mchael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 attacked our operations in Iraq little more than a year after they’d begun. Since then, filmmakers have addressed our Middle East policies in a variety of ways both direct and indirect. We couldn’t help but think of troubling analogues to Iraq as we watched The Fog of War, Errol Morris’s documentary about Robert McNamara. Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate is set during Gulf War I, as is Sam Mendes’s Jarhead, but both with pointed implications for our current Middle East War. As does Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana worries extensively that the Bush administration’s preoccupation with oil marched us to a war we should have avoided. In Gunner Palace, docmentary filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein take a look at current Iraq War soldiers in their daily duties, mixing hours of boredom with minutes of blood-curdling terror. And Paul Haggis’s searing In the Valley of Elah looks at the war’s enduring impact on those asked to fight it. Hereunder we will look at three other Iraq-War-era films that offer reflections pertinent to what our leaders put in motion when they declared a campaign of "Shock and Awe" in March of 2003.

Blood Begets Blood

While watching Steven Spielberg>’s brilliantly honest and searching Munich, one cannot help but reach for proverbs. "An eye for an eye," of course, "a tooth for a tooth." But much more: "Blood begets blood." And though we hear no plea for divine intervention, we nonetheless think of "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord." Perhaps best, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth." And though it dramatizes events from three decades ago, Munich could not be more relevant for our own day. Over and over again, American activities in Iraq provoke the dismay, the indignation, and the fury of the people we are ostensibly there to help. Blackwater guards shoot down innocent people. An air strike targeting an insurgent leader’s hiding place instead kills a Muslim family, including its women and children. Our soldiers humiliate and torture the inmates at Abu Ghraib prison. A war that President Bush justified because of the weapons of mass destruction it turned out Saddam Hussein did not have, he now justifies as essential to his broader War on Terror. Yet even inside the Bush administration, many authorities believe the war in Iraq has created more terrorists than it has eliminated. Such issues are the very ones with which Munich grapples.

Written for the screen by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Munich is the story of the hostage-taking and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics by a Palestinian organization calling itself Black September and the subsequent pursuit of eleven individuals who planned, supported, and financed this landmark terrorist operation. The goal of the responsive retribution campaign is clear: track down the eleven targets and assassinate them. Teach those who would shed innocent Israeli blood that they will pay with their own lives.

For reasons not made entirely clear, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) decides to stage its campaign of vengeance under a cloak of deniability. To lead the operation, Meir selects a young Mossad agent named Avner (Eric Bana) who once served as her bodyguard. But elaborate precautions are undertaken to conceal Avner’s role as a government operative. He is outfitted with false identification and denied contact with visible Mossad officials. On rare occasions, he receives information and directives from a handler called Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), but mostly he is on his own. His team consists of only four other men. Steve (Daniel Craig) is a dedicated soldier and true believer whose job is to assist Avner with direct killings. But Avner’s charge is to use explosives whenever possible because they attract so much more attention than knifings or shootings. The mission’s objective is to be noticed. None of the deaths should be mistaken for anything other than assassinations. So Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) has been assigned to the operation as a bomb maker. A sensitive toy designer by profession, Robert was trained in the Israeli army to defuse bombs, but his skills as an explosives expert are less than ideal. The other two team members are the philosophical Carl (Ciarán Hands), who acts as cleaner, and the cynical Hans (Hanns Zischler), who forges documents and identification papers.

In structure Munichplays as a straightforward thriller. Avner’s assassination squad zeroes in on a target, develops a careful plan to execute their hit, and improvises on the fly when complications develop. But from the very beginning, Spielberg delivers a discomfiting twist. He refuses to treat the men Avner is assigned to kill as unalloyed villains. In fact, viewed outside any political context, the men on Avner’s hit list seem normal, peaceful, decent, likable, and even admirable. The first man Avner is to kill is a scholar who has translated The Arabian Nights into modern Italian. Living in Rome, giving public readings and lectures to small, appreciative audiences, this seemingly gentle intellectual appears unlikely to have plotted the murder of innocent athletes. Probably he is guilty, but maybe a mistake has been made. We never learn for sure. But together with Steve, Avner does his duty and guns the man down, shooting him through a bag of groceries as he waits for the elevator in the foyer of his apartment.

Avner’s second target is a middle-class businessman running a company from the apartment he shares with his family. Robert plants a bomb in the family phone. But this operation has to be aborted on breathtakingly short notice when the man’s beautiful eight-year-old daughter answers the phone instead of her father. Avner actually engages in a friendly conversation with his third target, a polite, ironic, and self-deprecating man who seems lonely and emotionally vulnerable. Robert succeeds in planting a bomb underneath this man’s mattress and kills him instantly when the man gets into bed. But the bomb is so powerful, it blows out three hotel rooms, seriously wounding and perhaps blinding a honeymooning couple we have seen earlier on their balcony in a giddily happy moment of passion.

Spielberg’s point is that this business of righteous murder is complicated and fraught with danger for any innocent in the vicinity of the target. He drives his concern home in the next sequence when Avner’s team attacks three targets at once, loses control of the situation, and ends up killing one target’s wife by accident. Avner clearly has endeavored to spare innocent life in his pursuit of the guilty, but the more he kills, the more hardened to killing and the less concerned with the lives of bystanders he becomes. This is the price, he thinks, of dealing with a ruthless enemy.

As Avner and his men work their way down their target list, they read of other attacks by Arab terrorist organizations, the hijacking of an airplane, the murder of tourists. “We have their attention,” Carl observes. “They are talking back to us.” At first glance this seems good news because it means that the terrorists recognize they are being hunted, that they will not be allowed to kill Jews with impunity. But first Carl, then Robert, and ultimately even Avner realize they perhaps have played into the terrorists’ hands. As they kill the men on their list, other, more violent men arise in their place to commit still new acts of horror on a new array of innocents.

The netherworld into which Avner has been cast by his assignment as the agent of vengeance requires him to do business with people of appalling amorality. Spending up to $200,000 per name, he purchases the locations of his targets and secures safe houses from which to operate from a Frenchman named Louis (Mathieu Amalric) and his father (Michael Lonsdale), a former hero of the World War II French resistance, now an anarchist. In a scene rife with symbolic implications, Avner and his men end up sharing a house for a time with other clients of Louis. Avner might have been asked to bunk with someone from the IRA or members of a left-wing European revolutionary cell, but on this night he is housed with an Arab terrorist, another man with fierce feelings about his cause, another man with blood on his hands.

Because this film so openly worries about the strategy Israel has taken in dealing with a violent and resolute enemy, Spielberg has been criticized as naïve or even hostile to the interests of Israel. But he is very careful in this regard. Israel was created as a state in direct response to the Holocaust. Israel was designed for a people who long ago had been driven from their homeland, rounded up in the communities where they alit and their descendants put down roots, crowded into concentration camps, and heartlessly murdered. Israel provided a place of refuge for the survivors. And Spielberg gives Avner’s mother (Gila Almagor) the occasion to state the importance of Israel with succinct power: “In Israel we have a place on earth at last.” Moreover, Spielberg makes clear that Muslim terrorism is a cruel and unrelenting enemy. In replaying the events at the Munich Olympics, he emphasizes that the athletes were slaughtered after the mission to secure the release of so-called political prisoners clearly had failed as had any possibility of escape. The gunman who kills them knows he has but seconds to live, knows that the athletes are individually innocent, and kills them anyway because the strategy of terrorism implores him to do so.

In the years since 1972, the situation in the Middle East has gotten worse yet. Palestinian (and other Muslim) fanatics have convinced their young people to act as suicide bombers. And in response, for the most part, Israel has tried to meet force with force, repay blood with blood. A Palestinian girl blows herself up on a bus and a score of innocent Israeli riders die. Thus the Israeli military tries to identify the leader who sent the suicide bomber and fires a missile into a Gaza apartment trying to kill him, in the process killing innocent people who lived in the complex around him. Three decades pass, and the cycle goes round and round. And Spielberg asks if the time has not come for a different strategy. In Munich, Robert wonders if in becoming the agent of vengeance he hasn’t sacrificed his soul. Avner becomes so disillusioned he abandons Israel entirely and turns away from that for which he previously was ­prepared to give his life.

The human instinct for vengeance is so strong. It is hard to control and can tempt even someone in other ways as wise as Golda Meir. But recent world history has suggested that even those with the most entrenched grudges can make peace if one side will not seek its deserved vengeance. The politics of Apartheid kept Nelson Mandela in prison for advocating civil rights for his nation’s black majority. His enemies slew his friends and robbed him of his youth. But when he came to power, he dared to reconcile with those who did not deserve his embrace. Spielberg does not point to Mandela as a model, but throughout, what Munich is saying is that surely the time has come to give peace a chance.

Arrogance and Ignorance

Unfortunately, achieving a sustainable peace is no easy matter. And, remarkable as the proposition seems, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians might actually be easier to orchestrate than peace between the warring factions in Iraq. Territorial issues in Israel are gradually clarifying themselves, and the exhausted antagonists may sooner agree that a stalemated peace, a resolution to coexist, is superior to endless hostilities. Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites may be years and much bloodshed from a comparable situation. The violent animosity between these two groups is a millennium and more old. But the situation in which they find themselves at each other’s throats at the moment proceeds directly from policies developed by the Bush administration.

And as President George W. Bush’s current low standing in national opinion polls attests, opposition to the Iraq War is no longer a partisan issue. The war is a horrifying mess. The people of Iraq are miserable. And the brave men and women of our military are being asked to sacrifice their lives and their limbs for a murky, always ill-defined cause that appears lost long ago. That is the exact point of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, an almost despairing documentary about disastrous mismanagement.

A former fellow at the Brookings Institute, Ferguson started out as a proponent of the Iraq invasion but gradually has withdrawn his support because of how the Bush administration has conducted the war. A more liberal documentarian, like Michael Moore, for instance, might focus on the shifting justifications that have been advanced for launching the invasion: the missing weapons of mass destruction, the purported link between Sadam and al-Qaeda that has been widely debunked, etc. But Ferguson barely brings up these troubling issues. His attitude toward the war is closer to that of New York Times writer Thomas L. Friedman and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, who though ambivalent about a strategy of “preemptive” invasion, both openly expressed hopes that a functioning, democratic Iraq could become a stabilizing force at the heart of the Middle East. The opposite, of course, is what has come about.

To tell this tale, Ferguson has assembled a lineup of witnesses who not only supported the idea of the invasion but served the Bush administration in trying to make it work. Conservative, Republican, and/or career military, the stars of No End in Sight are an imposing lot. They were the initial people on the ground after Baghdad fell. And they were the first to discover that whereas Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had a clear enough grasp of what kind of force the United States military would require to take Iraq, he and his advisors hadn’t the foggiest idea what it would need to hold and rule Iraq while some kind of indigenous, democratic, pluralistic government was installed. As footage in the film establishes, while Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki testified before Congress that several hundred thousand troops would be necessary to control a religiously divided Iraq after Saddam Hussein was deposed, Rumsfeld thought he could do the job with 90,000 or fewer. He ultimately dispatched 140,000 only after being pressured to do so by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had grave private misgivings about the Iraq invasion from the beginning.

Rumsfeld’s profound miscalculation led him further to direct that American troops stand aside when the country erupted into widespread looting. No End in Sight replays footage of Rumsfeld sneering at press concerns about the tolerated lawlessness, claiming that television exaggerated what was going on by showing the same footage repeatedly. “Are there really that many vases to be stolen in Baghdad?” he jibed notoriously. But at the end of the riot, Iraq’s national library and museum, the latter housing priceless antiquities dating back 2,500 years, were both almost totally destroyed. Our flagrant indifference to this desecration quickly corroded the confidence of the Iraqi people that they were in the hands of liberators.

Career diplomat Barbara Bodine, who was dispatched to Baghdad after service as Ambassador to Yemen, complains that she arrived in Iraq with general instructions to lead a recovery but was housed in offices without computers or even telephones. The longer she was on the ground, the more she realized that no true plan for an occupation was ever drawn up. The US army was instructed to guard Iraq’s oil fields but not its armories where insurgents helped themselves to the weapons and the explosives that are still killing our troops to this day. General Jay Garner, who was in charge on the ground in the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s flight, quickly developed a strategy to reinstitute law and order by reconstituting the Iraq army. But then Garner was replaced by Paul Bremer who countermanded Garner’s plans, disbanded the army, and instituted deBathification, which purged the country of its teachers, technocrats, and bureaucrats. The result was the pandemonium that we have yet to get under control.

The consequences of the Bush administration’s confidence that it could conquer a complicated country quickly and on the cheap are nauseating. The number of American dead is approaching 4,000, and the number of American wounded is nearing 30,000. Three million Iraqis have fled their homes in terror. Estimates suggest as many as one million civilians have died. Why? Ferguson doesn’t venture a guess. A president and those around him thought they could do what they wanted in a part of the world about which they remained stubbornly uninformed. And with the blood of our children and $10 billion a month in our tax dollars, the rest of us are paying the price for his deadly combination of arrogance and ignorance.

Speaking of the War on Terror

President Bush has responded to the outrageous failure of the decision for which he will be known as long as American histories are written by, finally, firing Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, replacing general after general, and vaguely conceding at press conferences with a notably missing first person pronoun that “mistakes have been made.” In recent months, the administration unleashed a “surge” and sent in 30,000 additional troops. Since then, military press releases repeatedly pronounce that the “surge” is working. But the dying, of course, by Americans and Iraqis both, has hardly stopped. So it is hardly unreasonable to wonder if the “surge” is more wishful thinking than long-term promising strategy.

And though calling it something else entirely, that is exactly what director Robert Redford wonders in Lions for Lambs. Redford takes his title from an observation that German soldiers are said to have made about the British during World War I. The lions were the grunts in the trenches across from them whom the Germans admired very much. The lambs were the British commanders forever sending their men “over the top” into withering machinegun fire that cut them to ribbons. Bravery in the service of folly. That is how Redford would typify the “War on Terror.” Brave men and women displaying their patriotism in the sticky, deadly morass of Bush’s folly.

Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Lions for Lambs intertwines three stories taking place simultaneously. In Washington, veteran television reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) interviews rising Republican star Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), a West Point graduate who has captured President Bush’s ear on military policy. Across the country on a leafy California college campus, Political Science Professor Stephen Malley (Redford) confronts undergraduate Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) for lackadaisical academic performance. And halfway around the world, two American soldiers, former Malley students Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), fight for their lives against the Taliban on an icy Afghanistan mountain peak.

The narrative gradually reveals the connection between these three events. Though he denies it, Irving is gearing up for a presidential run based on a prospective victory in Afghanistan resulting from a new strategy he has convinced the Bush administration to deploy immediately. Because Roth has given Irving favorable coverage in the past, he reveals the broad outlines of his new military plan to her, in hopes that she will make it a top network story. Though visibly at the edge of professional exhaustion—she’s obviously heard a lot of political posturing in her career—Roth doesn’t buy Irving’s plan for a second and openly compares it to a comparable strategy in Vietnam that was supposed to lure the Vietcong into firefights they couldn’t win, but did.

Rodriguez and Finch, it turns out, are in the spearhead of Irving’s strategy, and things begin to go wrong before the plan even gets underway. Rodriguez and Finch, an Hispanic and an African-American, and as such emblematic of the disproportionate number of minorities in the military, fight valiantly for their country and more immediately for each other. But they are mere pawns in the service of an idea that is not their own. And they are doomed.

Lions for Lambs is talkier than most moviegoers can tolerate. Rodriguez and Finch function better as symbols than as characters. And the windy exchanges between Malley and Hayes remain vexingly vague as to either narrative or thematic intent. But exchanges between Irving and Roth are executed with considerable skill and at least a feint in the direction of balance. Irving is charismatic and passionate. Unlike the unholy trinity of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, he is willing to admit the many mistakes America has made since the terrorist attacks on 9/11. And with infectious zeal, he presses the idea that victory can still be snatched from defeat jaws dripping with the blood of our conceit and incompetence. He concedes that we have created a thorny mess in Afghanistan and Iraq. But no clear path out presents itself that doesn’t also deliver a worrisome blow to America’s international stature and influence, and result in sustained bloodshed between the opposing indigenous factions. Victory, he argues, is our only option. And one can easily imagine his appeal to people urgent to believe that an appalling mistake can still be erased with bold action. But, through the plight of Rodriguez and Finch, the film submits that—like all the strategies that have so far been employed in the Middle East—victory strategies are more easily proclaimed than are victorious missions genuinely accomplished.

I wish I believed that all we need do is give peacea chance. I wish I believed that we could awaken from the nightmare in Iraq by simply electing a new President. I wish we could, as Vermont Senator George Aiken suggested about Vietnam, “Declare victory and go home.” But like a lot of Americans deeply offended by this war, I am not sure we are within our moral rights to withdraw now. Colin Powell is said to have warned President Bush about Iraq that “if you break it, you own it.” We broke it, so it seems now we own it. And the cost of this kind of quagmire in blood and money and national character is incalculable, daunting, and dispiriting and may haunt us for years to come.

 

Fredrick Barton has won nearly two dozen awards for his film column in Gambit Weekly. He is the author of the novels The El Cholo Feeling Passes,Courting Pandemonium,With Extreme Prejudice, and A House Divided. He is Professor of English and Provost at the University of New Orleans.

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