War Movies are Hell

Three new films offer grueling tours of duty in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq

Though they're strikingly photographed, Kandahar's dunes are not the glistening, Cinemascope ones that beguiled T.E. Lawrence; rather, they're the dirty, scrubby lands that people call home. And beneath those sands are unseen landmines. The film's absurdist set piece is a visit to a hospital of landmine-hobbled amputees begging the Red Cross for replacement limbs. Instead of playing the scene for humanitarian heart tugging, director Mohsen Makhmalbaf spotlights just how grubby such circumstances make people. One fully ambulatory huckster insists on taking a spare set of prosthetic legs home, supposedly for his mother, and then scrambles off to barter them to landmine victims. Oh, yeah--and although the film doesn't mention it, the United States is one of the few nations that refuses to support international efforts to outlaw landmines. But you already knew that, right?


Moving further along the international Axis of Evil to (boo!) Iraq is In Shifting Sands, a visually bland but informative look at UN weapons inspectors. Long on flat video footage and talking-head commentary, this movie won't be easily mistaken for entertainment. Indeed, unless you've long harbored a secret crush on UNSCOM chief Rolf Ekéus, it's strictly educational programming, hewing closely to a central thesis: Those inspectors got shafted on all sides, and they don't know why. But Scott Ritter, ousted UNSCOM chief inspector, makes a convincing case that Iraq has been defanged, and that the U.S. has denied this in order to provoke a military confrontation.

Concealed weapons: Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 'Kandahar'
Avatar Films
Concealed weapons: Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 'Kandahar'

After the Gulf War, the United Nations Special Committee was formed to monitor Iraq's weapons program, and its members were met with baffling responses from the U.S. government. By 1995, UNSCOM had painstakingly convinced itself that Iraq's war program was dismantled, but the U.S. refused to accept these findings. Eventually UNSCOM was reduced to a de facto branch of U.S. intelligence, and Iraq was squeamishly used as a pretext for the unilateral bombing of Operation Desert Fox. As a result, the harsh sanctions on Iraq, which appear to be punishing civilians (particularly children) far more than Saddam Hussein, cannot now be lifted because no UN inspectors are on the job. And the U.S. seems to want it that way. As Ritter puts it: "They don't want to deal with the reality of a disarmed Iraq."

Though less artfully than Kandahar, In Shifting Sands raises all the questions that a war movie insists should be suspended in the heat of battle--questions about those of us who aren't soldiers. For all the grim punishments they inflict, war movies allow us to fantasize about a world where there are few options, and even fewer baffling, trivial, everyday choices. There's only courage and cowardice, life and death, and one must make a leap into the absurd to fulfill one's duty. Romantic as that might sound from the safety of a multiplex, though, now might be a good time for us noncombatants fortunate enough to live in landmine-free terrain to exercise those few remaining options we have left.

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