Hollywood and the “Forever War.”

In his book length journalistic accounts of the Iraq war (2003-2011) and the Afghanistan war (2001-the present) Dexter Filkins, who covered those conflicts for the New York Times and now writes for The New Yorker, referred to them in his title as the “Forever War (2008)” Clearly, that is how those wars must feel to the American public, which in various polls have overwhelmingly shown a desire to be free of those foreign entanglements. But there seems little likelihood at this horrific moment, when ISIS has spread their terror into the streets of Paris that this will happen. The wars will continue and probably intensify, and refugees will proliferate without an end point.


Unlike Filkins and the American public opinion polls, our popular culture, especially our films have not caught up to those feelings in term of representing those wars. And like the era of the Vietnam War, Hollywood, perhaps because of the divisive feelings arouse by those wars, (See our How the War Was Remembered: Hollywood and Vietnam [1988]) have ventured very few efforts to depict those wars. However, in recent years there have been a few films such as Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Lone Survivor (2013), and American Sniper (2014) that have begun to portray the “Forever War.”

The team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, who directed and wrote the Academy Award winning Iraq war film Hurt Locker (2009), produced Zero Dark Thirty (Special Ops speak for 12:30 AM). They begin their film with an especially chilling moment of a totally dark screen over which we hear the desperate calls for help of people trapped in the inferno (some making final cellphone calls to their loved ones) of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. The film then moves ahead years to a scene in which a CIA agent, whose name is Dan (Jason Clarke), is seen torturing a captured Muslim, Amir (Reda Kateb). Seated in the room is Maya (Jessica Chastain) a CIA rookie, who has come to train at this CIA black site, somewhere in the Middle East. Uneasy but deeply involved, the red haired, alabaster-skinned, beautiful Maya sits with arms folded and attention riveted on the scene and ignores Dan’s admonition that “There is no shame if you want to watch from the monitor.”

Yet shame is exactly what many critics of the film felt when they denounced the film’s putative support of torture. Dan proceeds to water-board and confine the sleep deprived, cowering prisoner to a small box and taunt him by saying, “I own you, you belong to me.”

This kind of film critique, however, only confuses dramatization with endorsement. As a matter of fact throughout the film there are numerous examples of arguments that torture does not work. And even the hardened, torturer extraordinaire Dan, who has no reservations about what he does, says to Maya, “You don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes.”

Clearly, left-leaning documentarian Michael Moore, no apologist, for American policy and tactics in Iraq, saw the film very differently from those who condemned it’s seeming collusion with torture: “It will make you hate torture. And it will make you happy you voted for a man (Obama) who stopped all that barbarity.”  He also quotes Bigelow as calling torture “reprehensible.” Though Moore is aware the average person still may take the film wrong, seeing it as an endorsement of CIA tactics.

But the film, centers on Maya, who is monomaniacal in her relentless quest to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden. Unlike other Hollywood thrillers, the film doesn’t grant the tough-talking, severe, utterly professional Maya the least bit of a backstory or even the remotest hint of romance—nothing to mute her doggedness.  As a matter of fact the only relationship the socially awkward Maya has in the film is a friendship with a fellow female CIA operative Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), whose death in a terrorist attack (a seamlessly constructed, tension-ridden scene) only increases Maya’s desire to realize the goal of getting Osama Bin Laden.

Since, the film’s focus is both on Maya’s quest and on the successful assault on Bin Laden’s hideout—shot from the point of view of the Navy Seals— it would take an audience member who was already skeptical about the CIA to look critically at the film’s use of torture. What makes that more difficult is that the final section of the film is a striking set piece where we watch through the Seal’s green night vision glasses the unfolding attack (a hand held camera giving us a genuine feel of their entering the compound) and killing of Bin Laden. It’s a sequence that leaves you sitting anxiously on the edge of your seat, and provides audiences with a real payoff—the death of Bin Laden.

This narrative has become the official version of the death of Bin Laden. Recently it has been challenged by celebrated investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in an article in the London Review of Books (May 21,2015) and the issues raised by him in a review article that recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine  (October 18, 2015)

Zero Dark Thirty does not explicitly endorse torture, but it doesn’t denounce it either. Still, there is no avoiding being repelled by the powerful mages of the CIA’s use of torture that open the film. However, Bigelow has made a film whose political perspective is totally subordinated to the primacy of its narrative; action taking precedence over reflection. and analysis.

The film’s politics on the deepest level may rest with the fact that it’s directed by a woman (Kathryn Bigelow), produced by a woman (Megan Ellison), distributed by a woman (Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures), and starring one.  The narrative is ultimately about an agency dominated mostly by men, who tend to be dismissive of women, where one driven, uncomfortable woman brings about one of its greatest triumphs.

In contrast to Zero Dark Thirty Peter Berg’s (Friday Night Lights) film Lone Survivor (2013) is about another manhunt that goes disastrously and tragically wrong. Based on Marcus Lutrell’s book of the same title, Berg’s account depicts a raid by Seals in Afghanistan, to capture or kill a Taliban leader, Ahmed Shah. Of the 19 men sent out in the operation, as the title of Luttrell’s book tells us, only one survived.

Berg’s film is not about politics but about how men deal with battle. At the beginning of the film we are introduced to the four main characters, Matthew “Axe” Avelson (Ben Foster), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), and Marcus Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg), as they banter casually before the mission. They are never really individuated—though Lutrell is depicted as the most morally sensitive of the group–unwilling to kill prisoners who if let go would inform the Taliban. The men are just fearless, committed soldiers that inhabit an all-male universe built on a sense of loyalty–“my brothers.”

Once the attacks begin the men demonstrate their courage and professionalism. Surrounded by the Taliban, they keep fighting despite grievous wounds and a forbidding, mountainous terrain. As one by one the team succumbs to their wounds, despite repeated assurances to the question, “Can you still fight?” the film gives off of a sense of tragic inevitability. For despite their bravery, and the film’s generally patriotic vision, it emphasizes the suffering of the men as much as their heroism.

It’s a film where non-stop action is central, and dialogue is secondary. Lone Survivor is an extremely visceral work, with sound effects tracing a bullet’s impact on flesh and bone and bullets ricocheting off rocks, blood spurting from wounds, and fluid cutting capturing the Seals falling down a rocky, jagged mountainside.

The film’s most sentimental sequence is when a sympathetic Pashtun villager—handsome and noble– finds the severely wounded Lutrell, and protects him from the Taliban. It may have happened that way, but throwing the man’s liquid-eyed, watchful, totally sympathetic young son into the mix—he helps save Lutrell from a Taliban killer— is all too much. (Lutrell embraces and even kisses him on the head to offer thanks.) One of the film’s final scenes where the American troops and helicopters come to save the day—reminds one of films where the cavalry arrived just in the nick of time to save the settlers from the Indians.

If the film has no overt political point, it does tell us despite obvious technological advantages (though the film criticizes the operation planning involved) the Americans were ill equipped to confront an implacable enemy amidst an alien culture that inhabited a harsh environment. It also repeats what is self-evident, ordinary soldiers fight much less for ideology than because of their bond to their comrades.

One of the biggest grossers of 2014, in addition to receiving six Oscar nominations, Clint Eastwood‘s controversial American Sniper (2015) took a stab at depicting the human costs of war — psychological and physical — while still leaving us cheering its war-loving hero. Eastwood follows a long tradition of American war films that gave us Sergeant York (1941), the story of the Tennessean who killed 38 Germans and captured 132 in World War One, and To Hell and Back (1955) the story of Medal of Honor winner and future movie star, Audie Murphy, who killed hundreds of Germans in World War Two.

Eastwood’s central figure and hero is the emotionally low key, tightly wrapped Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the Navy Seal whose 160 confirmed kills over four tours of duty in Iraq made him a “legend” to American troops–the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history.

In the film Kyle is a Texas rodeo cowboy raised by his macho father to love guns, and to be in his father’s words a ‘sheepdog”—a warrior and a hero who can use guns to protect his fellow citizens—instead of one of the non-violent sheep who need protection from the predatory murderous wolves that must be defeated. These are simplistic categories to define life by, but Eastwood’s Kyle is neither a complex thinker nor at all self-reflective, and once in Iraq fully embraces his role as sheepdog.

Kyle goes through an arduous training that shapes men into fearless, indomitable fighting machines. Once “in country” Kyle becomes engaged in urban warfare in Fallujah by lying prone with a rifle on a rooftop providing cover for troops on the ground that are involved in house –to-house fighting. He is unerring in his marksmanship, but he still must decide whether the people he shoots are either terrorists or innocents. He pauses especially when children are involved, but he usually follows orders without hesitation. Kyle has no doubt that he is fighting for his country, his notion of God and for protecting his brother soldiers. He manifests almost no guilt about what he has done, though one knows that among his victims there are innocents as well as genuine terrorists.

Kyle is clearly worn down by the relentless combat he engages in, but is not capable of understanding what he feels. It is left for a fellow soldier Marc Lee (Luke Grimes), to express skepticism about the war, which an ideologically rigid Kyle has no time for, and in response reflexively asks: ”Do you want them to attack San Diego or New York?”

But Eastwood still gives Lee’s skepticism a significant place in the film. At Lee’s funeral his mother reads the last letter that Lee sent home expressing criticism of the war: “Glory is something that some men chase and others find themselves stumbling upon, not expecting it to find them. Either way it is a noble gesture that one finds bestowed upon them. My question is when does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade, or an unjustified means which consumes one completely?”

However, these are sentiments that Kyle has no room for. And Eastwood himself never raises questions about why we invaded Iraq and destroyed so many lives, including our own, in the process. It is a given in this ahistorical film that the war is a just and necessary one, and the enemy are “savages.” In fact, shooting the film from the point of view of Kyle and the other Americans convinces us that the enemy is barely human. In fact, there are no innocent Iraqis depicted in the film (except interpreters) — they are either murderous insurgents or collaborators.

Eastwood nevertheless avoids totally sanitizing Kyle and his fellow soldiers experience in Iraq. He conveys what the war does to Kyle, who on his return to civilian life is totally disoriented and depressed. The sounds and images of war consume him, and he finds it hard getting back to being a father and husband.

Nevertheless, Eastwood’s film views Kyle as a hero. His alienation from civilian life is seen only as temporary, and he finds his way back by helping in the rehabilitation of other vets who lost limbs or were emotionally scarred by the war. His return to normality and to being a caring father comes too easily, the film never probing too deeply into Kyle’s disorientated state.

Still American Sniper does convey that the Iraq war has its horrors and that no one come out unscathed (Kyle’s being shot and killed by a disturbed veteran, who he is trying to help, exemplifies what the war did to many soldiers). However, the dark side of the war that Eastwood touches on is subsumed by his paean to the heroic and intensely patriotic Chris Kyle, and the film’s uncritical take on the political basis of the Iraq War. There is no mention in the film of the Bush administration’s big lie about the weapons of mass destruction that got us involved, or the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. For whatever inner price Kyle suffered in Iraq, what’s indelible for Eastwood is the heroism of this warrior with a rifle.

However, Eastwood’s film also reminds of the proverb that, “In war all suffer defeat even the victors.” And except for the brief victory of the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, the “Forever War “films provide little to give us any comfort or insight. Most significantly except for the brief evocation of 9/11, also in Zero Dark Thirty, there is very little to tell us about why we have engaged in this continuous struggle. This is hardly uncommon in films that try to portray unpopular wars while those wars are ongoing. But with the “Forever Wars” one wonders if the end will ever come. There are moments that the quagmire seems eternal. Or if as a woman dressed in a burka in Afghanistan once said to Dexter Filkins, “We are stuck here in this cursed place.


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