Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Mission Accomplished

Ten years ago, the Iraq War ended.

No really, it did! We'd smashed through to Baghdad after all. Even President "Let's Forget What A Failure I Am" declared major combat operations to have ceased. If you've since lost a loved one to an IED, be assured that at least they didn't die in an actual war.

So to commemorate the end of that long ago war, I thought I'd check in on how popular entertainment has been trying to cope with it. I did that once before with The Hurt Locker, a dull work of navel-gazing more interested in the sort of pontificating on War In General that you'd hear from stoned undergrads.

In sharp contrast to that is Green Zone, a Damon and Greengrass effort that puts the lie of Iraqi WMDs at the center of the story. Damon
plays the leader of an Army chemical weapons team - the disposal sort - on the hunt for all the scary weapons we were supposed to find in Iraq. And every site he visits comes up empty. Naturally he asks questions and naturally it turns into this great big crime thriller as he scrambles to find the one Iraqi general who can tell him the big secret even children at the time knew - "What WMDs?"

"How dumb are you?"

The main Damon plot is really that bog-standard but it has some lovely set dressing. There's a career CIA officer played by Brendan Gleeson who gets it, a smarmy Bremer stand-in played by Greg Kinnear who doesn't, and an all too credulous reporter based on an all too sympathetic idea of Judith Miller. The reporter is just a plot point, like any woman in a manly war film, but the interplay between Gleeson and Kinnear is both fun and a sharp critique of the whole imperial misadventure -

Gleeson: "You cannot just hand this country over to an exile no one's ever heard of, and a bunch of interns from Washington." [In reference to the Chalabi stand-in Kinnear and Co. have decided will be the new Iraqi president.]

Kinnear: "Democracy is messy!"

You'll recall Rumsfeld said much the same when his skeleton of an invasion force couldn't stop all the looting...

Green Zone is even more concerned with giving agency to the Iraqis. Their self-determination is really the dominant theme, despite the film trying to be a conspiracy thriller. Freddy, a one-legged veteran of the Iran-Iraq war who goes out of his way to help Mighty Whitey Damon solve the mystery, delivers the best line of the whole film explaining the dilemma of an occupied country -

"I see what's happening. You don't think I see what's happening? And all the people now, they have no water, they have no electricity - you think I do this for reward? You don't think I do this for me? For my future? For my country? For all these things? Whatever you want here, I want more than you want! I want to help my country!"

But strangely the biggest misstep is this earnestness. There's really no way to be honest about the Iraq War without making it the blackest of black comedy. Generation Kill gets closer to the horror that was and still is Iraq. It follows the Marines of the 1st Recon Battalion as they charge into Iraq in 2003, which was less grand conquest and more slapstick road trip. They engage the enemy only rarely and then only with their own small arms and mounted weapons, air power and artillery being too focused on civilians. And the Marines themselves are a motley bunch of reprobates and "whiskey tango" racists, lead by officers who are - with few exceptions - utterly clueless and more concerned with looking gung ho to their own superiors, no matter how much that stupidly threatens their own men.

And then there's Fruity Rudy, played by himself.

But that's okay! You don't expect Marines to be renaissance men and you don't really want them to be. Their job is to kill for the American Empire and they're damn good at that. The right-wing political correctness of this country doesn't allow for such honesty so it's both an artistic triumph and more respectful of the guys who do all the fighting and bleeding. Too respectful in fact - if Green Zone's heart bleeds for Iraqis, Generation Kill doesn't want to admit they exist unless they're part of a set piece. Though this avoidance accurately reflects how different American and Iraqi culture is in a way Green Zone - and millions of Americans - don't want to admit.

There's a brilliant scene to illustrate this near the end - 1st Recon has been tasked with patrolling "liberated" Baghdad during the day, hearing requests and complaints from all the civilians, along with canned declarations of love and fealty to George W. Bush. As their new and better translator explains - their first was a Saudi pothead instructed by command to translate everything as "They are grateful to be liberated!" - Iraqis have no concept of a president who isn't a despot and just assume that all the grovelling they did to Saddam to keep their heads attached should now be directed at their conquerors. This passage from the brilliant Full Spectrum Disorder by Stan Goff comes to mind -

"The troops carrying out these occupations are carrying out seemingly contradictory directives...[They feel] confusion, [which] develops into frustration, then an indescribable psychic fatigue, and finally into hatred of the place and its people. Those who have no desire to collaborate with the occupiers will keep their distance.or more.attack them... Those who did approach the American troops had agendas. Lots of agendas... after every revolution, there is a scam period. It was a time to settle scores. A time to brown nose the new rulers. To maneuver for jobs and positions. And every time there is a conflict of interest between occupation grifters, they compete for the attention and credulity of the occupying troops. This begins to leave the impression among the troops that the whole society is a pack of scheming, pathological liars. They are, after all, being approached by the most unethical sectors of that society."

In contrast, Green Zone's argument for Iraqi self-determination can't shake it's own cultural blinders. As silly as it is for Kinnear's Bremer stand-in to dismiss the chaos he's created by declaring democracy to be messy, it's the truest thing in the film. Iraqi democracy will never and can never be like American democracy - there are plenty who wouldn't mind a Sharia state, morphing into a de facto province of Iran, and for everyone who'd love to cast a vote for their preferred tribal strongman there are a dozen others in the next tribe who don't see why they should let the other guy's vote be the deciding factor when they have more guns.

They ain't like us. It's such a simple fact but one that Americans, even ten years on, just cannot grasp.

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