Footnotes to the Conquest: Iraq War Novels and Movies

The media is full of articles stating that Iraq war movies and films (the fiction features) have not done well at the box office, but compared to the relative lack of, say, Hurricane Katrina movies, or, say, the ongoing national slaughter of the impoverished by the impoverishers movies, the growing numbers of Iraq war movies, by their very existence alone, are doing extremely well.

Far more such movies have been made now than were remotely ever made about the Vietnam war at a comparable time. And far more people see most any of these movies than see most any such documentary. But it’s no cause for celebration, far from it, because these movies are very careful not to be too “antiwar,” too revealing of the basic illegality and immorality of the US conquest of Iraq.

Of course all wars are brutalizing in their everyday and peripheral realities (true of even justifiable wars), which is about as far as any of the movies go, which typically isn’t even as far into the fundamentals as Michael Moore’s relatively circumscribed documentaries go with the various issues he examines. The central reality of the US conquest of Iraq and beyond is distorted or falsified, or goes rather studiously ignored, let alone detailed, the fact that the US has committed the supreme crime of aggression, “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself all the accumulated evil of the whole,” in the words of the judgment of Nuremberg. None of the dozens of Iraq war movies, shows, and novels I’m aware of renders this reality explicit and central.

I’ve seen quite a few of the movies, and read in quite a few of the novels, along with taking in reviews or articles on each. Very few of these various works of fiction even begin to approach that central framing context, and consequently they either greatly falsify or evade the crucial central reality. On those grounds, those grounds that are central to the whole calamity, the movies and novels don’t deserve a large audience, even if they do on other grounds. Until this “major and crucial point overlooked” is made clear in relation to the US role in the aggression against Iraq, as Noam Chomsky notes, “until at least this is recognized, all other discussion is merely footnotes, and shameful ones.” And that’s the shame of the Iraq war movies, and novels too; they are essentially about the “footnotes,” however monstrous, rather than the “major and crucial point overlooked.” Plus, overlooking the central point means that even the best intentioned films may more likely “act as cultural ‘softeners’ before the bombing starts again for real” (or continues without end), as John Pilger notes of films like Black Hawk Down, in “Hollywood Hurrah” (2002). Pilger adds:

Even in finely crafted films like The Deer Hunter and Platoon that look as if they might break ranks, there is an implicit oath of loyalty to imperial culture. This was true of Three Kings, a movie that seemed to take issue with the Gulf war, but instead produced a familiar “bad apple” tale, exonerating the militarism that is now rampant. So dominant is Hollywood in our lives, and so collusive are its camp-following critics, that the films that ought to have been made are unmentionable. Name the mainstream movies that have shone light on to the vast shadow thrown by the American secret state, and the mayhem for which it is responsible. I can think of only a few: Costa-Gavras’s Missing, which was about the destruction of the elected government in Chile by General Pinochet’s puppet masters in Washington, and Oliver Stone’s Salvador, which made the connection between Reagan’s Washington and El Salvador’s death squads. Both these films were quirks of the system, funded with great difficulty and, in the case of Missing, dogged by vengeful court actions.

Reviewed only at Counterpunch, my novel Homefront (also the novella Glory, and the long story Washburn that complete what is essentially a three book novel) addresses the overlooked central reality. You can’t see it in the theaters. Hundreds of publishing houses and journals wouldn’t touch any part of it. If not for affordable print on demand publishing technology I doubt it would be available.

In sum, seen as a Hollywood meal ticket (make that, yacht ticket) the Iraq war movies are a commercial disappointment, while otherwise an extreme and growing success compared to their (virtually nonexistent) Vietnam war counterparts. But to call these movies a cultural success is an extreme overstatement, except as footnote.

That said, most of the films I’ve seen have some limited worthwhile qualities, even though you see the films for the relative footnotes they are, and you get the antagonizing and sometimes intolerable sense that goes along with it. Be that as it may, currently in my view three of the most worthwhile are In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, and probably the most worthwhile of all, the relatively low budget G.I. Jesus, for what it accomplishes and attempts. Even slimmer pickings exist among the novels, seems to me.

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