Reviewed in this essay:
Hal Ashby, Coming Home (United Artists, 1978)
Lori Grinker, Afterwar: Veterans from a World in Conflict (de.Mo, 2004)
Christian Parenti, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (New Press, 2004)
Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, Occupation: Dreamland (Greenhouse Pictures, 2005)
It’s by now a commonplace that the mission has not been accomplished. More than a year and a half after W.’s less than prophetic statement, U.S. troop levels in Iraq top 150,000, including many well past their prime fighting years, the city of Fallujah lays in ruins, and the national elections slated for late January hold little promise of turning the tide. Instead of Top Gun, an 80s action movie, the Iraq war is looking more and more like a 70s disaster flick, and we can only dread the sequel.
If Iraq does become another Vietnam, the possible consequence that the warmongers most fear is another “Vietnam Syndrome,” that dreadful affliction in which Americans became reluctant to commit troops to wars without compelling rationales or convincing plans. To go into Iran—which, according to Seymour Hersh, is indeed on the agenda—requires that there be no “Iraq syndrome,” especially since a new front would likely require reviving the draft. How the current occupation of Iraq is perceived thus may literally shape the fate of a generation.
The current war has begun to yield a spate of works focused on the actual terrain of the conflict, rather than simply its ideological foundations. And in this war, as in any other, the question for anyone seeking to record it—in either a positive, negative, or neutral light—is how to tell stories about it. How, in other words, does one capture the “truth” of an ongoing conflict? From whose eyes does one see the battle? Narrative nonfiction and documentary film and photography are clearly the methods of the moment, and I’m only going to cover just a few good examples. Given time, fiction—as in stories, as opposed to lies—may also yield truths about the war as well.
One of the many strengths of Christian Parenti’s The Freedom is its portrayal of the people actually on the ground in Iraq, meaning soldiers, insurgents, citizens, journalists, NGOers, and even a wandering tourist or two. As implied by the book’s subtitle, Parenti sees the experience as more or less a bad acid trip, one with no clear end on the horizon. After reading these harrowing ventures into the many hearts and minds of darkness, like me you probably won’t be ready to join the show, but will be very glad to let Parenti tell you all about it.
Amidst the rubble, Parenti finds multiple vantage points. In Baghdad, Ibrahim Kadum, “squatter and father of nine,” tells how “he lost his foot in the Iran-Iraq war, and then he lost his home and kebab shop to some of Uday Hussein’s boys.” While Kadum “says he loves George Bush,” Parenti explains that his family’s welfare is now in the dubious hands of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which dispenses the “magic of the market.” Later, in Adhamiyah, a suburb of Baghdad, the author meets a resistance fighter who issues a quite ominous warning: “We will kill American soldiers until the people in America get tired and bring them home.”
Parenti’s sympathies—perhaps uniquely—lie with both the Iraqi civilians in Fallujah whose houses are being searched and with the American foot soldiers ordered to kick down the doors. “If we did this in eastern Tennessee, where I am from,” a staff sergeant tells him, “they’d just as soon shoot you as look at you.” With Army reservists in Baghdad, Parenti captures the contradictory anger of the grunts: “They hate Iraqis for trying to kill them. They hate the country for its dust, heat and sewage-clogged streets. They hate having killed people.” As the war drags on, such hate is likely to increase exponentially, and to nobody’s benefit.
In Occupation: Dreamland, a chilling new documentary by Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, the conflicted humanity of the American soldiers receives full scrutiny. As in Scott’s earlier doc, Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story (2002), which tells the story of a military vet who drove a tank through the streets of San Diego in the mid-1990s, the lives of those often dismissed as “white trash” reveal multiple layers of complexity. “Camp Dreamland” is what the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne call their base at Fallujah. Here we meet a former leader of a heavy metal band, an aspiring art school student who got more than he bargained for at a recruiting office, a narcissist who likes to primp in front of a mirror, a vocal Democrat, and many more. At the same time you grow to like these guys, you realize that they are becoming increasingly frazzled amidst a dangerous situation with no apparent end in sight. And when their commanding officer can’t even explain the reasons they’re there, the deeply depressing reality of the Iraq war becomes painfully clear.
As Lori Grinker’s Afterwar steps back and documents the lives of veterans from the many wars of the 20th century, one likely aftermath for many of the current soldiers emerges: irrevocable wounds, both physical and mental, from the violence they experienced. Beside her utterly excruciating photographs of the veterans of conflicts ranging from the Falklands to Sri Lanka, and from Northern Ireland to the Middle East, Grinker includes brief, often moving testimonials from her subjects. “I didn’t mind taking a life,” Shirin Banu Mitil, a female Bengali Freedom Fighter says regarding the conflict with Pakistan. “We are not killing people, we are killing the enemy—that was my feeling.” In his "Introduction," Chris Hedges observes that since they generally focus on combat, “Most war images meant to denounce war fail. They still impart the thrill of violence and power.” But by showing veterans laid up forever at a hospital, alone in the graveyards of their peers, or simply unable to return to anything resembling their “normal” life, Grinker’s photos vividly capture the universal horror of war.
There’s an undeniably powerful immediacy to war reporting as well as war documentary film and photography, but all by definition show moments in time. What fiction provides—in both novels and films—is the opportunity to create composite characters and complete stories that ideally capture the essential and broader truths of the situation.
In my view, Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978) is the best film about Vietnam, in large part because it makes a statement that applies to other wars. While Apocalypse Now is more entertaining, it’s not nearly as moving. At the end of Coppola’s picture, Brando comes across as such a singularly bizarre figure that any antiwar statement he’s supposed to embody is pretty muddled; it’s not so much that wars create people like Kurtz as it is Brando, the actor, showing how far he can go with Kurtz’s character. Ashby’s film, conversely, is entirely naturalistic, a type of drama clearly not in vogue in the current era of meta and other self-aware cinematic storytelling.
But what a fine and complete story it is. Jon Voight gives a brilliant performance as Luke Martin, a paraplegic Marine returned home from the war to San Diego in 1968. Screenwriter Waldo Salt based Martin’s character on a combination of Ron Kovic (of Born on the Fourth of July fame) and the 100-plus interviews he did with Vietnam vets; Max Cleland, the triple amputee Vietnam vet—and former senator from Georgia whom the Bush gang ran out of office, branding him as more or less a traitor—also served as a technical adviser on the film. Angry about his disability, Voight’s Martin is soon comforted by Sally Hyde, played with equal brilliance by Jane Fonda. While her Marine husband, Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), is off fighting the war, Fonda is volunteering at the veterans hospital where Martin, along with many other disabled vets, is laid up.
The story is simultaneously about Martin’s transformation into an activist against the war and Sally Hyde’s feminist awakening—or the 60s told through the lens of the 70s. As the film ends, Martin is speaking to high school students about the war, a setup which may sound a little preachy but works in context. “Y’know, you want to be a part of it, be patriotic, and get your licks in for the USA,” Martin says. “But when you get over there, it’s a totally different situation. I mean, you grow up real quick, because all you’re seeing is a lot of death.” Interspersed with the painful culmination of Bob Hyde’s coming home, and overlaid with Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” as soundtrack, the ending scenes speak to more than just the aftermath of this particular war. At the same time, watching it also provides a salient reminder of why there was indeed such a thing as the Vietnam Syndrome.
It’s much too early to tell what the longstanding impact of the Iraq War will be on the American soldiers who are fighting it—just the other day, Donald Rumsfeld said the troops would be there another four years, which likely means many more than that. I don’t think it’s alarmist to point out that even though the Persian Gulf War of 1991 lasted only a couple of months, two of the deadliest figures in recent American memory, Timothy McVeigh and John Muhammad, were both veterans of it. It’s simplistic to say that the Gulf War caused their violence; but it’s equally simplistic to say that it had nothing to do with it. In any case, those are only the most extreme examples of the impact war can have. Eventually, there will be at least a couple hundred thousand veterans coming home from Iraq, all with stories to tell. Let’s hope that future McVeighs and Muhammads become only the stuff of fiction.