by Justin Vicari
With increased numbers of servicemen and women returning to U.S. society from war zones in the Middle East and elsewhere, the problem of the veteran’s re-assimilation to civilian life has become the stuff of timely cinematic drama. There has been a spate of recent Hollywood films about Iraq, including Jarhead (2004), Rendition (2007), In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Stop-Loss (2008). Most of these films take the somewhat equivocal stance of being “pro-soldier/anti-war.” One either believes in the Iraq war or one doesn’t, and it’s only humane to be “pro-soldier” when considering the enormous risk these fighting men and women have placed themselves in under the name of a dubious agenda so ill-defined and often mismanaged by the Bush/Cheney administration. But are these films really helping any kind of cause? Or are they symptomatic of a tendency, already becoming deeply ingrained in our media culture, to fictionalize the real and turn it into a kind of escapism that assuages guilt while changing nothing?
Unlike Vietnam cinema, whose first important exemplars — The Deer Hunter (1978), Coming Home (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979) — were not made until several years after the U.S. pullout from Saigon, Iraq war cinema has kept pace with the war itself. This mania for being current, which characterizes our present time, often leads to muddled, undigested statements that mirror the distracted/distracting way in which the real war has been prosecuted and covered. From day one, the invasion and occupation of Iraq have already been promoted, shamefully, as a kind of mass-escapist entertainment (escapism from fears of 9/11 and doubts about U.S. world dominance) and milked for opportunities for jingoistic political spectacle. In a conflict where reporters have been embedded and more or less de-fanged, and where photographs of potentially demoralizing U.S. casualties were criminalized by fiat in the Bush era, we probably need more documentary, and less fictional, evidence about the Iraq experience.
To a great degree Iraq differs from all other “official” wars that the United States has waged, in that many of the coalition soldiers are well-paid contractors who have signed up, not with the army, but with private military firms. In his landmark study, Corporate Warriors (2003), P. W. Singer asks whether the recent proliferation of these private firms, with their tendency to exploit warfare for profit and stock-option speculation, is eroding our trust in social institutions. He writes,
“Politics are now directly and openly linked with economic interests (in normative terms, a return to a tymocratic or money-based system of governance), which can lead to breakdown of respect for governmental authority, and also delegitimizes its right to rule. Or, as one analyst described [it] in more strident terms, ‘These khaki and Brooks Brothers clad mercenaries endorse the idea that power belongs to those who can afford it.’”
Privately contracted armies are like Pandora’s box: once sprung upon us, they are unlikely to go away. Singer’s only real conclusion to the thorny problem of how to provide international security in a complicated globalized marketplace is that changing times require changing ingenuities. But whatever we might think of wars themselves or the people who inevitably profit by them, one constant remains — that the combat veteran continues to have a difficult and traumatic experience. A figurehead of barely commensurable contradictions, trained both to unquestioningly obey all orders from above and also to kill at will, the veteran can become a painful misfit when he must re-learn how to function beyond the military’s strict disciplinary codes. Sometimes he can never re-learn this.
“An employee of a London-based PMF [private military firm] described the motivations that led him to join the [privatized military] industry: ‘I joined the Army at 18 and left at 42. What else could I do but be a soldier? . . . What choice do I have?’”
If the nineteenth was the century of industrial capitalism and the twentieth the century of advanced, post-industrial capitalism, then the twenty-first century (or at least its first eight years) seem to be an era of “psychotic capitalism,” lacking moral restraint or social conscience. Now single big-grab payoffs are favored over long-term investments, insider trading and illegal deals flourish under cover of respectability, and burnt bridges preempt cultivated business opportunities. The implosion of Wall Street and the investment banking system in the United States (even vaster in implication, perhaps, than the 1929 crash and the ensuing Great Depression) indicate psychotic capitalism writ large, leaving scorched earth rather than arable soil. It is as if the country assumes that whatever crime one can get away with amounts to sound business practice. And again, the effects of gambling with enormous sums of capital, as well as using extreme and potentially criminal methods of reaping and protecting further sums, characterize the privatized military sector, where any multi-millionaire can theoretically buy an army or armed conflict anywhere in the world. As Singer writes,
“In game-theory terms, each interaction with a private actor in the international securities market is sui generis, that is unique, or constituting a class alone. Exchanges take the form of 1-shot games, rather than guaranteed repeated plays.”
No longer beholden to the rational, psychotic capitalism runs amok, loses touch with right and wrong, and mortgages a steady, solid future for the adrenalin-rushing ups and downs of today.
And when the larger society suffers from a kind of mental instability, its individual citizens cannot be far behind, particularly those most burdened by having to do the “dirty work,” so to speak. We know all too well that combat veterans are subject to lingering psychological after-effects, perhaps most notably post-traumatic stress disorder. This diagnosis came to light in the wake of Vietnam but for all intents and purposes is probably no different than the “shell shock” that afflicted veterans of World War I. Because he can be seen as both an Everyman and an iconoclastic individual set apart from others, the war veteran has had a long history of being both hero and anti-hero in Hollywood cinema. The jaded, vengeful posse in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) are Civil War vets, as is the weary infantryman, Inman (Jude Law), who returns from the front only to sacrifice himself for the good of his community and the woman he loves, Ada (Nicole Kidman), in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003). Cagney’s vicious gangster in The Roaring Twenties (1939) is a World War I doughboy who comes home to an America where he is reviled and denied honest work, while the amoral, emotionally vacant, cold-blooded men who slouch and swagger through the films noirs of the 1940s and 1950s are often veterans of World War II.
Many films argue that a penchant for killing, learned on the battlefield, cannot be unlearned in civilian life; in fact, killing is often the alienated veteran hero’s only entrée into civilian society, as a hired gun. Rainer Werner Fassbinder deconstructed this trope explicitly in The American Soldier (1970), in which a Vietnam vet is hired by a Munich police department to covertly assassinate its public enemies. He mainly kills women and one effeminate homosexual, so that the entire film reads as a surreal statement on how a hyper-macho (sub)culture, inculcated by war but extended into peacetime, seeks to relentlessly purge from itself all vestiges of the detested feminine element. At that film's end, by way of symbolic retribution, the U.S. soldier’s own mother and gay brother inadvertently bring about his doom.
It was World War II that produced what is perhaps the quintessential veteran saga, William Wyler’s ironically titled The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The recipient of numerous Academy Awards, this well-known male-melodrama kaleidoscopes the stories of three returning veterans as they deal with alcoholism, depression, disabilities, and their inability to relate to their families. The film's driving theme is that the soldier’s experience of war is one which he cannot share with civilians who have never “been there.” This overwhelming feeling of isolation threatens the veterans’ stability, sanity, and future potential. The movie is painfully authentic: Harold Russell, one of the lead actors in The Best Years of Our Lives, was a real-life veteran who had lost his hands.
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