In the nine years since the launch of George W Bush’s ‘War Against Terror’ in Afghanistan, a number of war movies have been made in and out of the Hollywood system, from the little-known 2006 film Home of the Brave, directed by Henry Winkler and starring Samuel L Jackson, to the 2009 Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker by Point Break director Katherine Bigelow. But despite the various storylines and locations, there’s something that almost every recent American war film has in common – a virtual absence of politics and/or propaganda. With the exception of a handful of documentaries (like 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side), few of these films have been overtly critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or on the flip side, pro-war; they have instead focused their lenses entirely on the lives of American soldiers, often excluding the ‘enemy’ from the picture altogether. Some, like In the Valley of Elah (2007), The Messenger (2009) and Brothers (2009) are melodramas that have dramatised the often-traumatic return home. But others have focused more squarely on the troops, with directors almost battling each other to present the truest, most honest depiction of life in a war zone, elevating the soldier to mythical status while avoiding any thorny foreign policy issues (soldiers barely seem to know or care why they’re over there), or any accurate depiction of life in wartime for civilians.
It’s a far cry from the Vietnam days, when returning soldiers were met at airbases by protesters demanding an end to the war; controversial films like Winter Soldier (1972) documented hearings where soldiers denounced their participation in the war and confessed to war crimes, and Hanoi Jane hung out with communists in North Vietnam. Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick and Brian De Palma (whose 2007 film Redacted is perhaps an exception to the new rule) made films about the horrors of war; soldiers were dehumanised, unleashing pain on civilians under orders from the American government; war was hell; the US had no business being there.
The current fashion seems to have started in another desert arena with Black Hawk Down (2001), based on the book by the journalist Mark Bowden and set in Somalia during the disastrous UN humanitarian mission in 1992. In October of that year, a botched mission by elite soldiers in Delta Force and Rangers resulted in the downing of a Black Hawk helicopter over Mogadishu, prompting a disastrous rescue attempt (‘we will leave no man behind’) that led to the deaths of 19 troops and about 1000 Somalis. But produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Ridley Scott, Black Hawk Down is not tragedy, but war as adrenaline-fuelled action adventure: two hours of almost non-stop videogame-style warfare as the troops fight for their survival in the crowded slums of the Somali capital. There’s a cursory explanation about why the troops were there in the first place (war-induced famine), but little in the way of politics. Instead, the film is all about honouring the cult of the soldier – it’s about the men’s bravery, their heroism, their respect and love for one another. As a character played by Eric Bana says: ‘Once that first bullet goes flying past your head, politics and all that shit goes out the window… We fight because there’s a guy next to us.’
A thriller with a smaller budget and fewer troops, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which was the lowest-grossing film ever to win the Oscar for best picture, drops the audience straight into Iraq, with little in the way of introduction. A bomb disposal unit sends a robot to check out a pile of rubble believed to be hiding an IED (Improvised Explosive Device); when the robot takes a tumble and loses a wheel, the team leader approaches to set it back on track – but an insurgent is ready and waiting. A violent, slow-motion explosion, an easily missed smattering of blood as the force hits the fleeing team leader, and his life is extinguished. His replacement is reckless, egotistical, arrogant; he endangers the lives of his two team mates, but he gets the job done, defusing bombs with an obsessive passion. There are plenty of confrontations between Sergeant First Class William James and the more responsible Sergeant Sanborn, who doesn’t enjoy needlessly putting his life on the line, and the obligatory, drunken homoerotic wrestling match, to prove who’s craziest and toughest. But apart from a gruesome scene when a young boy is used as a body-bomb, there’s little in the way of blood, or politics, or Iraqis. When the team stumbles upon gunmen in the desert, they are seen only in the sights of a sniper rifle. Later, a car bomb explodes in the middle of the night, the horrific aftermath completely obscured from view by smoke and darkness; the team flee the scene in a mad chase to track down the insurgents responsible, and the audience is spared from having to witness a semblance of reality. Again, it’s the relationship between the men in the unit that’s important; the war is little more than a sideshow.
Although not made for the big screen, HBO Film’s seven-part Generation Kill (2008), written by David Simon and Ed Burns, is possibly one of the most intense pieces of drama made about the war in Iraq. But like Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker, its focus is on the troops. Based on the book by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, who was embedded with the 1st Recon Marines during the initial assault on Iraq in 2003, the film’s story ends after the first three months of the invasion, before the suicide bombings, insurgency and sectarian warfare plunged the country into the abyss. Admittedly more politically aware than either Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker (Sgt Antonio Espero rails against the White Man and imperialism, and at least the Geneva Convention gets a mention, while the troops are in the middle of breaking it), it’s first a drama about life in the Marine Corps, and secondly a drama about the war itself (it’s only really in the final episode, when they reach Baghdad, that the Marines fully realise the impact that the invasion is going to have on civilians).
A lot of the talk surrounding Generation Kill is about how realistic it is; about how real Marines can identify with what they see on screen; about how the drama captures war as it is, untouched by propaganda (for examples, see the comments on IMDB). The marines are desperate to ‘get some’, frustrated by the lack of supplies, frustrated by the lack of combat, frustrated by the chain of command; some are rednecks, racists; some are bright, intelligent, sensitive, dismayed by the deaths of civilians. And while it might be war as it is, and in a lot of ways Generation Kill is a truly great television series, with a lot of the sharp writing that made The Wire such an excellent series, it’s war as it is for Marines, not for civilians or anyone else (and certainly not for women, who aren’t allowed to serve in Recon – in fact, women are nowhere to be seen in any of these films).
Meanwhile, the latest talked-about film, out now in the US and awaiting a UK release, is the documentary Restrepo. The journalist Sebastien Junger and the photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington spent months embedded with a platoon in a remote outpost in Afghanistan. Their ‘Directors’ Statement’ is worth quoting: ‘The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates. Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs can be a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.’ Well, it’s one version of reality anyway. It certainly typifies the current trend: explore the lives of soldiers, in as realistic a way as possible; ignore the rights and wrongs; ignore the civilians, ignore everything but the men.
There seems to be an ambivalence on the part of both filmmakers and audiences towards the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq; audiences have largely stayed away, and filmmakers have mostly kept away from the politics (with sometimes surprising exceptions from Hollywood directors, like Paul Greengrass’s thriller Green Zone, 2010) and the George Clooney-produced Syriana (2005). Even Standard Operating Procedure (2008), by the esteemed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, refused to judge either the conflict or the soldiers at the heart of the Abu Ghraib scandal, dissecting the controversial and downright disturbing photographs in a clinical, almost scientific manner.
There are no conclusions in these films, no judgements – just soldiers living and dying out on the battlefield. Naturally, it is easier to focus on the (all masculine, all American) experience of war than to engage with its grey moral and political areas. But this general reluctance among filmmakers to adopt a strong standpoint is troubling. Have directors been paralysed by the fear of being accused of ‘anti-patriotism’? Or is it simply indifference?