Surveying The Ruins of War Cinema

First published on Little White Lies (March 31 2010) //

The seemingly well-timed Best Picture Oscar for The Hurt Locker could either demonstrate film’s genuine power or its promotion of a skewed vision where, as Robert Fisk notes, “the sanctions that smothered Iraq for almost thirteen years have largely dropped from the story of our Middle East adventures. Our invasion of Iraq in March 2003 closed the page – or so we hoped – on our treatment of the Iraqi people before that date, removed the stigma attached to the imprisonment of an entire nation and their steady debilitation and death under the UN sanctions regime.”

Edward Bernays’ seminal work, Propaganda, published in 1928, is a source of meaningful insight for the film industry today. Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, pioneered a revolution in the methods of engineering consent. Where before there were only public relations specialists, Bernays led the establishment of an entire industry. His ideas saw him hailed as the founding father of modern public relations.

The minds of the masses, he says, are there to be moulded and directed, making it possible to “regiment the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments their bodies.” Fed through the media of news and entertainment, established messages reach audiences on scales inconceivable to Bernays in the 1920s. This commercial system dictates that only a war film marketable to a convergent audience would be likely to get made – casting the net wide to catch the fish. This would tend to explain the establishment-supporting views of the recent US-involved war films that have made it onto our screens, often whitewashing the image of the American soldier. Nothing too subversive is ever discussed in detail, it all works within tight frameworks. Take, for example, Home of the Brave, where the film opens with a ‘humanitarian mission’. They are forced to fight; they are not a willing or violent force. The Americans are there to liberate, to promote democracy, not occupy and control. It is all the more convenient that these views align with counter-arguments put forward by coalition governments when the WMDs didn’t show.

Now consider Brian De Palma’s 2006 Iraq War film Redacted. It deals with a fictional account of the real-life Mahmudiyah killings in which a 14-year-old girl was gang-raped and murdered by US soldiers, along with her family – just one of many similar crimes. Expectedly, right-wing commentators vehemently attacked the film for anti-American sentiments, with some Fox News readers urging on a full-scale boycott. De Palma committed the crime of raising the mirror to America’s own actions. To those ideological managers there are no war crimes. The widespread outrage simply demonstrates the pack mentality of the commercial elite, studio producers and parts of the press, following the government line, operating as the voices of spin.

Still, more gets churned out. Weak fodder like The Kingdom or Brothers, that base stories solely around the invading soldiers, making them out to be the tragic victims of ‘insurgent’ gunfire or eventual post-traumatic stress disorder. These ideas often, if not always, function as the basis for American invasion films, continually feeding audiences with the same stories and perspectives. The analogy that Bernays uses is the boy dropping stones in a half-full pail of water: “At first nothing much happens. But gradually the water level rises, and finally the bucket overflows – provided, that is, the boy keeps dropping stones long enough.” This is the dangerous manufacture of consent that Lippmann also spoke of and Chomsky warns us. The elitist view that the ‘intelligent’ minorities must regiment the minds of men is worrying and sinister.

Those films are the easy targets, of course. A war film with Fiddy Cent can’t really be taken seriously, can it? But in this trend there persists the classic myth of sacrifice without question, a tenet as old as the earliest propaganda films that make romantic heroes out of war. These ideas still hold ground here as they did with films like Casablanca.

Yet propaganda is not always defined by what is shown but defined also by what is hidden. It may be argued that Green Zone is the most honest portrayal of the Iraq war to date, dealing with the lies of government officials and the false claims of weapons of mass destruction. But it’s arguable this film doesn’t go far enough in breaking expectations.

Set around the dates of the initial invasion it also commits the crime of ignorance. It refuses to discuss regime change as an illegal pretext for invasion under international law, even when the removal of Saddam Hussein had been agreed upon long before the 45-minute-to-launch WMD claims. And what of the well-documented information published by inspectors between 1991 and 1998 that showed WMDs were non-existent? For Matt Damon’s Captain Miller, the problem is a matter of intelligence from questionable sources. It’s a matter of Americans being lied to, Westerners being betrayed, rather than the mass murder of countless Iraqis. These are fundamentals forgotten in the heat of hatred for Saddam. This brand of liberal interventionism is perhaps the most rational the Hollywood system allows, no further.

The release of a film like Green Zone simply echoes the feistiness that the press have shown since the end of the war, contrasted with their timidity before it, something some studios are exploring but still not taking far enough. But at least the point is raised. Yet where is the same criticism of escalating atrocities in Afghanistan under Obama? Conveniently, dissent becomes popular, even marketable, when it’s too little and too late. Films like these should be taking the argument to the audience in a challenging way, not pandering to their pocket and their accepted limitations, but this is the actuality of the Hollywood system. The reality is that inconvenient facts must be overlooked when it comes to filming the crimes of the West.

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