Giving good war

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Here, then, is the second (and last) of my Memorial Day weekend offerings. Two days ago Chris Appy considered the casualties of war, then and now. What follows are my provisional thoughts on a subject I once wrote a book about, American triumphalism and the ways we’ve told stories about war. Should you want my views (through Gulf War I) in more detail, I suggest you take a look at The End of Victory Culture. Tom

Giving Good War
By Tom Engelhardt

Can’t you feel the war already slipping away, just like Saddam Hussein or Mullah Omar or Osama Bin Laden? How briefly triumphal it was, the Iraqis falling before our forces, our tanks heading north, our missiles hitting home, much of it in real time on our own private screens. There was the heroic rescue of Jessica Lynch, the toppling of Saddam’s statue, our generals grinning behind that marble table in one of Saddam’s palaces. How victorious we were — and then came the looting and shooting, the feckless first occupation administration, the gas lines, the angry Shiites, and the missing weapons of mass destruction. The embedded reporters departed for who knows where; the cameras turned away; bombs began going off in Riyadh and Casablanca and Jerusalem, and husbands were murdering wives and wives killing their babies right here in the USA.

For almost thirty years the Pentagon has worked its tail off organizing the media to give us good war, the sort of “Good War” the “greatest generation” gave us on-screen year after year, film after film; the sort of good war American-style that George W, and Don R, and Paul W, and I once, in our distant childhoods, sat in the dark and thrilled to, as American children had long thrilled to American images of triumph and victory. It’s funny, back then on-screen it seemed so easy. It seemed like it would never go away.

Sayonara, John Wayne

Sometime in the early 1990s, I took my son, then perhaps seven, to see The Charge at Feather River, a 3-D cowboy-and-Indian (and cavalry) film from 1953. Mine was a nostalgic journey. Would I still duck, I wondered, when that crude 3-D form, the high-tech special effects of its era, did the one thing it was capable of — throw something at me. At my first 3-D film, Fort Ti, back in 1953, I had dropped below the seat in front as the first flaming arrow, the one with my name burned into it, headed off-screen; and forty years later, as arrows but also, in one amusing moment, snake venom (that is, spit) winged its way toward me, I still found myself flinching.

As a movie, though, Charge turned out to be retro even for 1953: the Indians were especially evil, and the plot was based on the oldest pop hook in our cultural pantheon, the capture of white women by savages and their subsequent rescue. If it worked for Mary Rowlandson, who in 1682 published what became the first American bestseller based on her own captivity experience, then why shouldn’t it still work almost three centuries later?

And indeed, with the help of dime novels, medicine shows, theatricals, Wild West shows, and then, of course, the movies, there had developed over those centuries a glorious warstory, a tale of American armed triumphalism that, by my childhood, put you thrillingly, behind the sights of a gun staring out from the dark of a movie theater seat at the horizon. Sooner or later, you always knew that “they” — incomprehensible, fanatic savages somewhere on that savage, untamed frontier — would launch an unprovoked attack and be mowed down.

It was from this perspective, too, that kids like me learned about the war our dads — as silent on the subject as those tight-lipped screen giants John Wayne and Gary Cooper — fought and won. And then, like generations of American kids before us, we went out in backyards or local parks and with sticks and maybe some Army-Navy store cast-offs and our own special effects played out the scenes ourselves, mowing down the enemy. This was the real history we learned, not the one in school textbooks, and it all made sense to us. Like any living mythology, it was a belief system that satisfied. It’s not fashionable to admit to this anymore, but it’s important to understand it: War on screen, in the parks, and with toy soldiers on the floor was, for many in my childhood years, the sunniest part of growing up.

Anyway, sitting in that dark movie theater a decade or so ago, I had more or less forgotten about my son, perched beside me in silence, until, that is, he tugged on my sleeve. “Dad,” he said in a stage whisper that filled the theater, “I’m confused. I thought the Indians were the good guys.”

So there we were, just post-Gulf War I, way post-Star Wars and Rambo and Platoon, post-Dances with Wolves, the Transformers and He-Man, post early versions of Dungeons and Dragons and the first video games, and I realized that the most essential, most American story of my childhood was gone. It was the story that sent chills up my spine when the cavalry bugle sounded or the Marine Hymn welled up as our soldiers advanced, the one that explained (without even seeming to) why they lost and we won, why they fell by their scores and we didn’t.

My son played on his floor with Ninja Turtles and Skeletor, but there were no cowboys, no Apache chiefs, no Grey Coats or Blue Coats, no green plastic World War Two units ready to land on the beaches of Okinawa, no GI Joes to take on the Nazis at Normandy. In the wake of Vietnam, a style of American storytelling had evaporated. For my son, watching The Charge at Feather River was like me watching a Samurai soap opera late at night in a Tokyo hotel room. Lots of action, but who knew what was happening. To ask why the Indians were the bad guys was to suggest only one thing — that an American triumphalist tradition had bitten the dust. Sayonara, John Wayne.

Now, post-Iraq War II, we’re in the midst of another American triumphalist moment, and here’s the strange thing, this time I feel like my disbelieving son in that movie theater. I’ve been thinking about his decade-old comment ever since our president hit that carrier deck for his global photo-op/victory lap and the Jessica Lynch movie oops, story was aired in something close to real time — that same old American tale of a captured white woman rescued from the savages. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I realized that a classic movie scene of my childhood — the settlers at screen center inside their circle of wagons, high-tech weapons at the ready, awaiting an assault by unknown fanatics — was the very perspective the “embedded” TV reporters offered us day after day and, in a lurid greenish hue, night after night, again in something close to real time in those weeks of war.

Living room wars

During World War II it would take weeks for newsreels to make it from the battlefield to the movie theater and a year or more for government-controlled and sanitized Hollywood films to appear. Even during Vietnam, that “living room war” (in New Yorker reporter Michael Arlen’s felicitous phrase), virtually all news footage aired at least twenty-four hours after it was shot. But the gap between war and war-on-screen has since been erased — or, put another way, it has been frontloaded. It took Pentagon officials almost a year to prepare for and position troops and equipment for the latest Iraq war and hardly less time to prepare for and position men and equipment for the living-room war that it was planning to launch simultaneously and in something like real time.

Governmental war propaganda and government-sponsored war imagery have a long history, and the Pentagon has also long had a hand in the making and shaping of war films (trading script approval with movie studios for the loan of military consultants, whole military units, and expensive military equipment). But the recent planning for both the shooting and the “shooting” represents, I believe, something new. The Pentagon has managed to conflate war, American-style, and the mythification of war, American-style, and is now intent on making war and “war” at one and the same moment. Its officials want to create images that, like global domination, will be forever. But our new colonial wars and the stories being told about them seem to have remarkably brief half-lives; while in progress both feel triumphant and triumphalist, yet neither proves satisfying for very long. Neither will have anything like the staying power of the old warstory. Both raise the question: exactly what sort of age of instant triumphalism have we entered?

Of course, the Pentagon has hardly given up the desire to control war in movie theaters. For Disney’s Pearl Harbor (2001), for instance, the Pentagon provided much equipment and advice, had script oversight, and even mobilized an aircraft carrier, with giant screen and specially built-in bleachers, for the film’s premier. But here was the curious thing. Even producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the Top Gun man himself, couldn’t bring home the bacon. The film was not the domestic or global smash expected.

In fact, if you think about it for a minute, only two war movies about our post-Vietnam conflicts have been successes — Black Hawk Down (2001) about a disastrous military venture in Somalia in the Clinton era (produced by the same Jerry Bruckheimer), and David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999), an acerbic take on Gulf War I. The last war consistently to bring people into the multiplexes was our defeat in Vietnam and the last Vietnam hit was — I know this sounds odd — Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), a movie that refought Vietnam under the guise of World War II. (Or hadn’t you noticed that the theme of a small patrol let loose just after D-Day to look for a single MIA was a World War II absurdity, but an essential theme of post-Vietnam Vietnam films?) Otherwise recent war films have all, to one degree or another, been box office disappointments: World War II retakes like Hart’s War (2002) and Wind Talkers (2002) flopped; Mel Gibson’s heroic Vietnam battle flick We Were Soldiers (2002) disappeared; the Bruce Willis Special Forces flick Tears of the Sun (2003), even with that old chestnut, the rescue of the white woman, at its heart, died a quick death, and the rest of them, who can even remember?

These days, it turns out, we enter the darkness of the movie theater to escape history, triumphalist or otherwise. We disappear by the multimillions into mythic worlds in outer space or under our feet, into fantasy moments or comic book settings. When we watch “battle,” it’s Sauron’s Uruk-Hai facing off against the Rohan at the edge of Mordor, or Spiderman swinging toward the Green Goblin over a comic book New York, or Neo doing Jackie Chan in quintuple time somewhere in the Matrix, or bands of gladiators hacking and hewing in a computer-generated Coliseum. There’s a dizzying array of action, but none of it recognizably connected to our own world. War, swept out of our culture in the Vietnam era as a glorious entertainment and first brought thrillingly back via Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away, has yet to settle comfortably back onto planet Earth.

War as entertainment seems to have lost — and let’s thank the gods for small post-Vietnam favors — its staying power. Instead, appropriately enough given the Bush administration, it’s been plunged into the culture’s jostling free market of entertainment along with the X-Men and the survivors of Survivor, Stephen King and Laci Peterson, the latest terrorist attacks, the NBA finals, and Seinfeld reruns. As a cultural creation, it’s now a strangely fragile creature, jointly cobbled together on the fly by the Pentagon and the media, in real time, and, despite all the planning, by the seat of everyone’s pants. Yes, it catches our attention for a few weeks, but then it’s swept away by the next 24/7 event, by but think about it, how well do you remember the glorious moments of our last war even now? What will send that chill up your spine tomorrow?

Plundering war

It turns out to be no small trick to create a warstory that will stick to the public’s ribs. Despite three decades of well planned, well financed efforts, the Pentagon is running hard with no end in sight. In 1982, still licking their Vietnam wounds, convinced that the war had been lost largely thanks to traitorous media coverage, Pentagon officials watched the British military win a one-sided victory over Argentina in the isolated South Atlantic and defeat the press at the same time. With reporters largely confined to a naval vessel and unsympathetic journalists left behind, the British military (their eyes on our Vietnam experience) almost completely controlled the flow of war news. Inspired, our military began to plan to give better war.

It has been said that each of our many wars and interventions since the Reagan administration ordered the invasion of the tiny island of Grenada in 1983 has proved yet another living laboratory for the military-industrial complex; for, that is, the testing of ever newer, ever more powerful, ever more technologically sophisticated generations of weaponry. In our most recent war, for instance, the practically sub-nuclear MOAB (known familiarly as the “Mother of All Bombs”) was rushed from its testing grounds in Florida to the Persian Gulf region just days too late for use. Its first battle tests will have to await our next frontier war. It’s seldom noted, however, that a similar testing-out process has been underway, war by war, in terms of controlling media coverage — or, more accurately, in terms of the on-the-spot production of war as a news and screen event.

The Pentagon’s first impulse, following the British example, was simply to deny war to the media, and so in a sense to the public. As the British had sidelined the press in the Falkland Islands, so for the invasion of Grenada, the Pentagon “pooled” reporters — a first — then placed them offshore and did not allow them to watch, film, or cover events for several days. This was but the crude beginning of an attempt to wipe out all memory of defeat in Vietnam and rebuild the imagery of war as something thrilling in the American mind, but it also had elements of anger and revenge against the media embedded in it. War coverage was being managed as a form of punishment. Though refined in each war to follow from Panama to Afghanistan, this approach was at heart defensive, based on a set of negative, near-Biblical injunctions. Thou shalt not, for instance, show “body bags” on television (since American casualties turn off the public and hence might lead to a lessening of support at home). In the process, body bags were renamed and taken off the air. The dead of war ceased to exist for a while on either side of the battle.

This process of news management reached its apogee with Gulf War I, a Pentagon/media co-production that went swimmingly. The reporters were again pooled and largely kept from the “action,” while the public at home saw plenty of glorious sunsets against desert landscapes and fabulous images of rockets taking off into blue skies, as well as nose cone shots, edited and released by the Pentagon, of the destruction of chosen Iraqi targets. To this the media added, what has now become second nature: logos (“Showdown in the Gulf”), theme music, retired generals from our most recent wars explaining the actions of their former troops, and elaborate animated maps, Star-Warsian visuals (which had their origins in the Falklands War when the media had nothing to show). The Pentagon even managed to launch the war at home in prime time as a Disney-esque light show, a televisual spectacular of fireworks over Baghdad.

But there was, you might say, a hole at the center of such coverage — and this was still a crippling legacy of Vietnam. Where, after all, was the “war,” the action? Where were all those thrillingly heroic moments officials in the Pentagon and White House could surely remember from their own childhoods in darkened theaters? Except for the nose cone shots, the production was strangely inert. Reporters had again been sidelined and action visuals were lacking. The war was taking place, as planned, largely out of sight.

Twelve years later, Iraq War II was organized not as the sequel to but as a better remake of our first Iraq War. This time, the tyrant would go down for the count and Americans would be able to glory in our own victory as it occurred. The second time around, we had an administration of gamblers in the White House and the Pentagon, men ready to roll the dice on the global game board, and with the media too. Their new approach was to “embed” reporters in military units, bond them through pre-war “camps,” and send them off to relay the war back to us, unit by unit, from those convoys of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Abrams tanks (which bore a strange resemblance to the long lines of pioneer wagons heading west in countless movies). This was undoubtedly a sign of how confident they were of victory over Saddam Hussein’s punchless military; confident enough to take a chance on creating a steady flow of images in real time. Movie-making and war-making would be intertwined. The location of this production would be Iraq. The director would be the Pentagon. The production staff would be located at Centcom headquarters in Doha, Qatar, where a quarter-million dollar movie set for planned briefings was built, and we would see our troops advance in triumph.

Though the Pentagon had a few bad moments — when the Iraqis refused to welcome their liberators and, briefly, when the war threatened to bog down in the South — all this came true. Perhaps the height of such instant movie-making was the rescue of Jessica Lynch by American Special Forces who arrived at the hospital where she was being held armed with night-vision cameras, shot film of the rescue, and transmitted it in real time to Centcom headquarters in Doha, where it was edited and released. The result was a dreamy media frenzy of patriotism back home, complete with a wave of Jessica T-shirts and other paraphernalia and an NBC movie of the week, evidently already in production. And yet Jessica Lynch’s story, like the story of that toppled statue in Baghdad, like the story of Saddam’s vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, may not make it to the summer in anything but tatters. Already the BBC has investigated and offered a very different, distinctly unheroic version of the rescue — no gun or knife wounds, no mistreatment, no Iraqi defenders to be rescued from, and so on.

But if Jessica Lynch’s story may not make it in full glory much past tomorrow, unlike Mary Rowlandson’s which lasted through lifetimes of reprints (and still can be purchased), it’s only an example of the problems involved in creating mythology on the fly, however high-tech your cameras or dramatic your sets. In Gulf War I, the Pentagon met a new phenomenon head-on — 24/7 television, then being used by CNN to grab viewers from the networks. Now, it’s thoroughly embedded in our entertainment lives, which is increasingly like saying “our lives.” In their initial meeting, the Pentagon may have looked like the victor, but as we know images can be deceptive.

It is, I suspect, not just the memory of the rise and collapse of the single-term presidency of George H. W. Bush — frightening though it may be — that drives this administration. In our noisy cultural universe, amid what Todd Gitlin has called “the torrent” of the media, sooner or later (usually sooner) everything, wars and administrations included, is swept away. Like the National Museum in Baghdad, our world is repeatedly looted — for topics and images, plots that grab the eyeballs and stories that rivet us to the screens and sound systems of our lives. As we’re finding out in Iraq, it’s not easy to build something permanent in an atmosphere of looting (look what happened to ABC with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire) — or in a situation where those being assigned to do the rebuilding are themselves plunderers. In the cultural free market of the moment, which is a wealthy looter’s paradise, you can’t create a mythology out of war. You can hardly make it to the next event.

And that’s just the media. In a world where we increasingly sense that the “Indians” aren’t the bad guys, that whole regions can’t simply be conquered and rearranged to our tastes, that control of any place on the planet is provisional at best, that war generates enemies, and that those we deem savages aren’t going away any time soon, fear rather than a sense of triumph is the reigning emotion of the day. Fear was the first reaction of the president and his administration after the attacks of September 11th, and fear drove the American people to support the war in Iraq. Fear can be fun in the safety of a movie theater when the shark lunges or the dinosaur leaps or the alien lands but it’s no way to build a tradition or even a long-term state of mind.

Given a system that eats itself for breakfast, the second coming of America’s victory culture should prove an ephemeral affair. I wouldn’t bet that a year from now, no less a decade from now, kids anywhere in America will be playing GIs and Iraqis, or Delta Force and Afghanis in their backyards or streets. And maybe we should all thank our lucky stars for that.

Copyright C 2003 Tom Engelhardt