Sorry for the hiatus. It was unavoidable.
Some thoughts prompted by the news that Warner Brothers has canceled its distribution of David O. Russell's anti-Iraq war documentary made to accompany the re-release of his 1999 film, "Three Kings."
I haven't seen the documentary, but I am curious about it, because Russell is a figure to be reckoned with. "Three Kings" is a flawed but fascinating film about the 1991 Gulf War, which begins with a scene of self-indulgent chaos on the part of American soldiers that is not unlike the opening sequences in "Apocalypse Now."
Amid drunken celebrations of victory in Kuwait, a band of cynical G.I.'s decide to venture into Iraq to steal some gold. But unlike the Americans in "Apocalypse Now," who descend into the heart of their own darkness, these adventurers encounter a group of desperate Shi'ites involved in the thwarted uprising against Saddam Hussein. By helping them to escape, the Americans ascend to a state of surprisingly convincing moral clarity. The film is full of black humor and graphic violence, but at the end it achieves something like a modern vision of democratic honor.
This stands in sharp contrast with more popular and commercially successful war films like "Black Hawk Down" (2002). Directed by Ridley Scott, "Black Hawk Down" is about the Delta Force and Ranger soldiers who battled to save a helicopter crew stranded in the streets of Mogadishu. As sheer spectacle it is ear-splitting and eye-popping, and it brilliantly evokes the physical aspect of modern high-tech warfare. But unfortunately, "Black Hawk Down" goes out of its way to avoid showing WHY its fresh-faced, all-American heroes, who as characters are as interchangeable as avatars in a video game, are in Somalia in the first place.
This is typical of today's war movies. Some attract a loyal following among veterans and other people familiar with the situations they depict. For example, a veteran friend of mine is a great fan of Mel Gibson's revisionist Vietnam movie, "We Were Soldiers" (2002), for the uncontestable reason that he fought in the battle of the Ia Drang Valley back in 1965. At a recent reunion with his unit, he and his former buddies reconstructed the battle with the aid of the film -- an exercise that clearly meant a lot.
Nonetheless, "We Were Soldiers" is a mediocre movie, in part because it, too, avoids saying WHY the battle is being fought. The first American casualty moans, “I am glad to die for my country,” but by the end, even patriotism is muted, as a voice-over attributed to the film's hero, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, says that the men of the Seventh Air Cavalry “went to war because their country asked them to, but in the end they fought not for their country or their flag. They fought for each other."
This is the mantra nowadays: "Forget cause - leave that to the politicians. Real men fight for comradeship, period." It makes a lot of sense, as originally defined by psychologists studying the behavior of men in combat. In the heat of battle, many studies have found, soldiers risk their lives not for the sake of abstract ideals but for their friends. The term for this is "unit cohesion," and story-tellers have long understood it. Ever since Achilles rode into battle to avenge his beloved Patroclus, comradeship, not cause, has been the source of drama in all war stories worth telling.
But great story-tellers also understand that cause must be addressed. Yes, comradeship rules while the bullets (or flaming arrows) are flying. But at some point the shooting stops, soldiers ponder why they fight, and if no adequate reason presents itself, they grow less willing to re-enter hell. This is what happened in Vietnam, and this could happen in Iraq.
So what are we left with? Incredibly vivid war movies that drift away from meaning and toward violence for its own sake. "Black Hawk Down" mounts a mighty assault on the senses, but because the thrill is vicarious, it makes war look more exciting than horrible, closer to a video game than to a deadly serious undertaking. Such richly produced, poorly scripted spectacles ignore the bitterest but most important lesson of war – namely, that the willingness of one soldier to sacrifice for another, however potent in the short run, depends in the long run on his knowing why he fights. When the cause is perceived as meaningless or unjust, unit cohesion dissolves and battle spirals into a dishonorable nightmare of every man for himself. Surely that is not a movie that any human being wishes to see.