War Movies are Hell

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

Only the dead have seen the end of war movies. Americans have always been suckers for red-blooded shoot-'em-ups masquerading as military history, so maybe we shouldn't read too much into the fact that some of our most celebrated celebrities are currently on the cinematic front lines. I mean, that's just Hollywood. Or, as City Pages reader Mike Nilsson recently wrote--with palpable desperation--in response to Matthew Wilder's sociopolitical analysis of Black Hawk Down: "It's entertainment."

Well, gosh, Mike, you said it: Black Hawk Down sure is entertainment--from the glib wisecracks popped under fire to the B-movie tics by which characters are distinguished. The result, for all its realist trappings, is a standard wartime adventure package: Call it Escape From Mogadishu. The two chopper crashes may be lamentable disasters, but they look way cool--just like when that dude's thumb gets shot in half. Wicked. Trouble is that entertainment is in the eye of the you-know-who. And when violent deaths are re-created purely for my personal enjoyment, I sniff a whiff of the snuff film.

We Were Soldiers answers that cavil the old-fashioned way: This patriotic gore fest is a tribute to the men who have fallen, and the men who survived. Mel Gibson is Lt. Col. Hal Moore (or is that vice versa?), the affable yet firm fellow who leads the first U.S. engagement in Vietnam. It doesn't go well, as you might suspect. Moore himself suspects it, too, but he's a prescient guy: The day he receives his orders, he surmises that the U.S. enlistment policy will sap him of his best-trained men and load him down with green recruits. Similarly, the Vietnamese colonel who surveys the battlefield after the Americans leave laments that this apparent U.S. victory will simply embolden his foes in a long, doomed crusade. A bloody U.S. defeat might have saved lives in the long run.

Each word of the title leaps out with emphasis. We...that is: not you, safe at home. Were...that is: not anymore, because the world has changed. Soldiers...that is: not civilians or, God knows, politicians. Though hindsight allows the above doubts to fester, Moore quickly accepts his duty with that ol' do-or-die spirit, which is what separates him and his men from the rest of the world. The late-coming press scavengers who swoop across the battlefield when all is safe seem less than human: They don't know what these soldiers have endured. But we lucky few in the audience are allowed to sit on the side of the heroes. We paid good money for it, after all, and we put in our time (around two hours or so).

In fact, We Were Soldiers is as unflaggingly decent a war picture as you could be asked to endure. Painstakingly, if somewhat clumsily, it humanizes the Vietnamese soldiers. We even see the news of a Vietnamese soldier's death reaching his girl back home. And if the Vietnamese are made human, the Americans are rendered immaculate. Moore's family life is impossibly serene: His relentlessly adorable children seem to have wandered out of a Honey Nut Cheerios commercial. And the soldiers and their wives are made far too gorgeous and upstanding. Do only the most spotless paragons of virtue not deserve to have their left profiles fried to the skull by heavy artillery?

Vietnam vets deserve an epic tearjerker as much as anyone, although they've been through enough without director Randall Wallace's slow-motion sequences and symphonic punctuation ordering them to Feel Deeply. Still, when Madeleine Stowe, as Moore's wife, personally delivers telegrams from the Defense Department to the soldier's wives, the mood is inescapably throat-lumpening. And Gibson smolders with a mournful dignity throughout, radiating an impenetrable decency. This world of responsibility and respect is a nostalgic fantasy, yes. But Gibson and Stowe make you realize why that fantasy retains its pull.


Kandahar is another war movie of sorts, dipping into the effects of state militarism in Afghanistan upon those whom we humanitarian softies still like to think of as civilians. The solar eclipse that opens the film is just the first of many images of concealment to follow--most notably of that heavy, imposed women's veil, the burka. Early on, the camera scans a crowd of girls leaving Iran for Afghanistan, capturing the confusion, fear, and mistrust on their faces--faces that are going to disappear behind heavy cloth. Facial expression--the primary signifier of emotion and character in a film--can no longer be taken for granted.

The film begins with an observational, semi-documentary bent. The Afghanistan-born, Canadian-bred Nafas (Niloufar Pazira), who must get to Kandahar within three days to prevent her sister's suicide, reports soberly into her tape recorder. The full absurdity of Afghan life is only gradually revealed. There's nothing funny about this state of desperation, about girls being taught not to pick up stray dolls because they could be camouflaged landmines, or about boys yammering Koran passages in unison, then rotely but eagerly detailing a Kalashnakov rifle for the mullah as part of their catechism. But as these realities are made to look ridiculous, the movie leaves you in the awkward state of wondering if and when you should laugh.

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.

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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