The War(s) at Home: the Iraq War in movies

Posted November 3, 2008

I teach in a working class suburb, not too far from Oakland, whose political character is very, very different from that in the city itself. Many of my current students have relatives who are in the military (which, despite the economic draft, had not been true in West Oakland, while I worked there). My school says the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, which sends shudders up my spine, and I am grateful that I’ve never yet been observed not leading it. Few of my fellow teachers have any trouble with the Pledge, for example. Some of them are Republican, even, which is fairly unusual in the greater Bay Area, and among teachers.

This Fall, I read one book and watched four films and discussed them with fellow teachers in some cases, and one or two students, in others. I watched, in order: Jarhead, In the Valley of Elah, Control Room, and Stop-Loss. I read The Road to Ar Ramadi by Camilo Mejia.


Jarhead is the movie adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s memoir of his involvement with the Gulf War in 1991. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the main character who joins the Marines and is pretty much the equivalent of Charlie Sheen’s character in Platoon, or Tim O’Brien’s literary self in The Things They Carried, by which I mean he is an Intellectual, and a Sensitive, Thinking soldier who does not fit into the gung ho tradition of the Marines but suffers through a dehumanizing boot camp à la Full Metal Jacket to emerge as a trained killer whose rifle is “part of him”.

One thing the movie does extremely well is record the very strange history of Desert Storm; I’d forgotten that the troop build-up in Saudi Arabia took so very long, and that units were there for months and months, more and more of them, before the actual, brief and overwhelming air war of January 1991.

Thus, the movie concentrates on the creation of killing specialists and their unreleased tension, where a better movie, Three Kings focuses on the absurdist aftermath of these brief, completely out-of-scale hostilities, where American military might dwarfed anything in the region, and reduced most Americans’ perception of the war to an elaborate video game.

The lack of a political pronouncement on the war was quoted in lots of reviews in one line: “Fuck politics. We’re here. The rest is bullshit.” Weirdly, that was the sentiment I ran into over and over again in 2003, once the war began despite the global protests of millions. Teacher after teacher told me: “Well, I was against the war before it began; I demonstrated… but now we’re there, and we have to do it right and get the job done.” The pathos and tragedy in that phrase is tremendous, five years later.

In the Valley of Elah

The second movie I watched was about this Iraq War, though it concentrated on the brutalizing effect of the war on a regular infantry soldier. In the Valley of Elah was recommended to me by one of my fellow teachers who has multiple family members in the military, whose family is Republican, whose cultural context is one in which the military is an honorable choice. But she told me about the film with her voice shaking, almost in tears. The simple symbolism of the American flag in the movie, charted through how Tommy Lee Jones explains how an immigrant custodian should never let it touch the ground, and raise it right side up — that reversing it has a very specific meaning — that symbolism affected her deeply, as well as other people I talked to who saw the movie.

Roger Ebert says that In the Valley of Elah is not a movie against the war in Iraq. I respect him all to hell, but I disagree. It’s more a movie against WAR, period, and against the dehumanizing and brutally gender-linked effects of war, but it is also a movie whose brutalities are based in the war we are currently in, and that’s the war in Iraq. Also the war in Afghanistan, but more on that in a minute. If you haven’t seen In the Valley of Elah, you really, really should. Apart from anything else, it could spark a discussion about how war and gender roles are related.

Control Room

After those two movies, I needed something that was very, very different. No one recommended this documentary to me, but I remembered my former student’s faith in the news, and decided to rent Control Room. It’s a long series of linked interviews with employees — technicians and journalists and the managers and proxy owners — of Al Jazeera, the independent 24 hour Arabic news channel based in Qatar. Rumsfeld decried this station as lying pro-Iraqi propaganda, but one of the central moments in the film is when Al Jazeera’s cameras pull back in downtown Baghdad to show the staged fakery of a small group of Arab men (“who don’t even have Iraqi accents” one journalist explains furiously) pulling down that famed statue of Saddam Hussein. No one else is present in the square. It is an entirely falsified bit of “history”, created by the American military.

One of the fascinating parts of this documentary was the transformation in one of CentCom’s (Central Command; the unified western military command in Iraq) main press liaisons, Lt. Josh Rushing. At first, he clearly believes his mission, and his clear-eyed full-faith honest responses to Al Jazeera interviews is something amazing to see. Over the course of the documentary, it is somewhat astonishing that he is able to listen to what these Arab journalists say to him — they make no pretense at being “objective”, instead insisting that there are different perspectives and all should be heard, not just the American point of view — and that he begins to doubt. After the completion of the film, Rushing was ordered by the Marines not to comment, ever. He abandoned a sixteen year military career and became an English-language reporter for Al Jazeera.

Stop Loss and The Road to Ar Ramadi

Finally, I watched Stop-Loss, which seems a bit like a dramatized and fictionalized movie version of the reality documented so movingly by Camilo Mejia in his memoir The Road to Ar Ramadi. The two are very different — Mejia was political from the start; his parents were Sandinistas and he had doubts early on — but the protagonists in both stories are caught in this dreadful political and military reality which is the Stop-Loss provision passed by Congress once it became clear that an all-volunteer military with limited enlistments could not provide enough bodies for the war.

When soldiers join any branch of the military now, their enlistment of four or six years is not the actual term they commit to, contractually. Because of “stop-loss”, they are liable to be recalled to service, against their will. It is entirely unclear what the limitations are to the length of time one can be involuntarily retained in active service. I know personally at least two servicemen who separated from service — whose enlistment periods were completed — who have been called up for further tours of duty to Iraq and/or Afghanistan. It is an extremely common maneuver, along with the use abroad of National Guards units more normally serving only in the United States, to shore up the exhausted and depleted numbers of military personnel on active duty in combat zones. Iraq Veterans Against the War has been very active in protesting these policies, which amount to the reimposition of the Draft under another name, but a Draft which disproportionately affects underemployed youth of color.

Students in my school engage with this movie the most. Many of them have older brothers and sisters or cousins who are in the military now. Many of them are terrified of what could happen to their relatives. Four years ago when I first started working there, I saw car after car with yellow ribbon sticker decals, saying Support Our Troops. I couldn’t go into a local coffee shop without hearing mothers discussing their children’s military careers. Talking about the war at school was a chancy subject, one that I had to approach very tentatively. Now families seem worn out. They want their children back.

My students are ardent Obama supporters — we have a Student Council election this coming Tuesday, November 4th, and there is a mock Presidential election on the ballot as well, though only featuring the Democratic and Republican candidates, along with two of the major California propositions: Prop 8, Yes on which will ban gay marriage, and Prop 4, Yes on which will require parental notification for abortion. I have no doubt about the outcome of the mock presidential ballot, but consciousness is uneven to say the least, so I am very curious about how the propositions will come out — IF the administration does not intervene to quash the ballots. The teacher who organized this did it somewhat in stealth mode.

Over all, what I think is useful and important with these films and others is to watch them and engage with people about them, where they are. Someone who is affected by the transformation in In the Valley of Elah is someone whose politics are in motion. Someone outraged by Stop-Loss is someone who may be able to move towards anti-war activism. Organizing tactics like house meetings centered on a movie showing can be very effective — not too demanding to start with, but mobilizing nevertheless.

(I hesitated about titling this review of four movies. First of all, I’m not a well-versed film critic or anything. Second of all, I feel that the plural “wars” OUGHT to include Afghanistan, but the titles I plan to concentrate on do not. Therefore the plural refers to the first Gulf War, and this one. I also be detoured into a few other films and books. There, caveats duly noted.)


One response to “The War(s) at Home: the Iraq War in movies”

  1. bmcampb Avatar

    thank you for your reviews! i have not seen three of the films you review, but whole heartedly agree with you about _in the valley of elah_. in addition to making explicit the way in which homespun patriarchy = training wheels for imperialism abroad (i like the slogan “regime change begins at home” very much for this reason), _elah_ (with the very title) summons the old testament. so doing, the film invites spectators to taste the fruit of the roots of a religious tradition of special concern to vampires: “In hoc signo vinces.”