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Screenings, Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


When movies go to war, and seldom give peace a chance



Gerald SchmitzThe following is from a presentation to be delivered at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon March 20, sponsored by the Saskatoon Peace Council. This is the first of two parts.

Tomorrow is an important anniversary, both my mother Denise’s 102nd birthday and 12 years since we returned from her birthday dinner to television images of missiles raining down on Baghdad. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had begun with the so-called “shock and awe” campaign.

Here we are in March 2015 and Canada, which resisted being drawn into the 2003 quagmire, is technically at war in Iraq, dropping bombs on forces of the terroristic so-called “Islamic State” which controls significant parts of Iraq, Syria, and potentially Libya as well. Canada no longer has any military involvement in Afghanistan. But it’s hardly mission accomplished. Levels of violence against civilians in Afghanistan increased last year to over 10,500 casualties, the highest since 2009. Going on 14 years, the so-called “global war on terror” has had staggering costs in blood and treasure. On current evidence it has to be judged an enormous failure even if western governments are loath to admit it.

What does any of this have to do with the movies? More than you might think. From the beginning Hollywood, with its global cultural influence, has been in love with making war movies celebrating patriotic American virtues. As a form of mass entertainment par excellence, movies help to shape popular attitudes toward war. Yes, “war is hell,” but being on the victorious right side of history in the world wars helped to make it justifiable. So we have Second World War movies like Saving Private Ryan which memorialize an ideal of righteous heroic sacrifice as does Brad Pitt’s Fury released last year.

Of course a different narrative emerged in the 1960s with the debacle of Vietnam. You still had some bravado of the John Wayne “Green Berets” type. But as the war went badly, became increasingly unpopular and then unwinnable, the movies piled on. Not only were powerful antiwar documentaries like Hearts and Minds made, but a series of dramatic features focused on the war’s traumas and tragedies, culminating in movies like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. These weren’t so much antiwar statements as they were operatic epics about the horrors of war. In the 1980s, Vietnam movies like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Casualties of War offered further visions of hell without redemption.

Hollywood has no interest in revisiting that very bad memory — the nightmare depicted in Rory Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam. Vietnam is so problematic because the kinds of war movies Hollywood prefers to make are those that embrace the idea that America is a superior power and that American might makes right.

War stories as popular entertainment can have huge propaganda value, which is a key reason why Hollywood studios and the Pentagon have often used each other to bring such stories to the screen. Obviously that relationship of “mutual exploitation” doesn’t work if the story involves failure, defeat or other critical fallout.

A lot of commercial war movies get made because, like violence (and sex) in general, it’s dramatically intense and exciting. (Think of how many movies have been made about the First World War. Yet there’s never been a drama about the post-armistice negotiations that led to the flawed Treaty of Versailles. The art of peacemaking offers fewer vicarious thrills than the art of war.) Moreover, the action heroics that accompany most war movies appeal most strongly to a prime movie-going demographic: teenage and young-adult males. Boys in America’s gun-toting culture have grown up with a “G.I. Joe” mythology. That’s reinforced by the amount of violence they see on television, in films and video games, resulting in a kind of “arousal addiction.” Here’s a striking statistic from a Sundance festival documentary I saw in January called The Mask You Live In which examines the consequences of that masculine ethos: The average 18-year old American male has been exposed to 200,000 visual images depicting acts of violence, including 40,000 murders. Every year guns kill 30,000 Americans.

The prevalence of visual violence leads to desensitization that can also make it easier to dehumanize any opponent perceived as the enemy. It’s hard to have any sympathy for those portrayed simplistically as evildoers or terrorists.
I think the current box-office smash American Sniper (the most commercially successful war movie and “R”-rated movie ever) is a very interesting phenomenon to look at. It’s pulling in a huge male audience that has eluded all previous Iraq war films.

There are reasons for that. Despite the claims of Bush and Cheney, the Iraq invasion quite quickly turned sour for American aims. By the mid-2000s there was a full-scale insurgency. As the war turned into an increasingly unpopular disaster, most Americans couldn’t wait for the troops to come home. Shades of the Vietnam syndrome again. A number of sometimes very good movies were made involving the war — Stop Loss, The Messenger, Battle for Haditha, Lions for Lambs, Green Zone. These tended to show the casualties of war, including truth, and the physical and psychological damages to the troops. The best was Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Although The Hurt Locker hardly did justice to the motivations for Iraqi resistance to American occupation, its American soldier protagonist is emotionally crippled by his role in the conflict. Despite winning the 2010 best picture Oscar, the movie never did well at the box office. Viewed from Hollywood board rooms, Iraq was box-office poison.

By 2014 American soldiers were no longer dying in Iraq and were leaving Afghanistan as well. At the same time the U.S. was ramping up drone strikes against alleged terrorists, killing the “bad guys” from a safe distance. This is high-altitude remote-controlled warfare. A new movie, Good Kill, as yet unreleased, explores the dilemmas faced by stateside drone operators when risking civilian “collateral damage.” The drone escalation has coincided with a new coalition of the willing using air power to confront the ravages of the Islamic State. Although the rise of ISIS underlines the manifest failure of the previous war on terror, its extremism makes it an easy target for renewed rhetoric about the necessary heroic struggle between our values and those of the terrorists. And so far the war against ISIS has gained public support.

American Sniper, which was preceded in 2014 by Lone Survivor, a movie about a “heroic” firefight in Afghanistan, is clearly the beneficiary of this changed climate. It’s about Texan Navy SEAL Chris Kyle credited with 160 official “kills” during four tours of duty in Iraq. As portrayed by Bradley Cooper, Kyle suffers some family stresses. He was also ironically shot to death in 2013 on a Texas shooting range by a veteran afflicted by PTSD. In those senses alone there is a potentially antiwar element. But Kyle was a super-patriot true believer in the trinity of “God, Country, Family.” He never questioned the Iraq war. He was proud of his lethal record. He called the Iraqis he killed evil “savages.” In the film he is lionized as the “Legend” whereas the fictional Iraqi sniper he pursues is called the “Butcher.”

Former war correspondent Chris Hedges, author of the seminal 2002 book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, has written a scathing commentary on American Sniper, titled “Killing Ragheads for Jesus,” in which he associates it with “the most despicable aspects of U.S. society — the gun culture, the blind adoration of the military, the belief that we have an innate right as a ‘Christian’ nation to exterminate the ‘lesser breeds’ of the earth, a grotesque hypermasculinity that banishes compassion and pity, a denial of inconvenient facts and historical truth, and a belittling of critical thinking and artistic expression” (

As a longtime fan of director Clint Eastwood I think that’s a bit harsh even if the movie is being championed by the conservative right. For one thing, Eastwood, although a Republican, was opposed to the invasion of Iraq. He sees his movie as being “antiwar”; indeed, another way of looking at Chris Kyle is as a human tragedy — someone who became a killing machine and a casualty of the very pervasive American militarism that Hedges decries. Of course the Hollywood marketing of Sniper downplays that angle. Hence Kyle becomes the mythic dead hero taking out terrorists — somehow redeeming the sacrifices of an unpopular war.

Eastwood is an interesting case, having made a lot of violent movies — westerns, crime stories, war stories. In most of them there’s something dark and morally dubious. Borrowing from the classic spaghetti western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Eastwood’s movies tend to have a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly in their depiction of violence. Sometimes there’s a sense of profound regret at the ways of a violent world. That’s true of his Oscar-winning western Unforgiven from 1992 and 2008’s Gran Torino in which he plays a Korean War veteran whose guilt over a war crime leads to a fatal atonement.

In 2006 Eastwood made two remarkable Second World War movies that deviate from the patriotic script. The first was Flags of Our Fathers, which begins with the iconic image of Marines raising the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima Island in 1945. The movie is about how a trio of survivors are brought back and made to tour the country promoting war bonds in a cynical exploitation of “heroism” that feels false. Eastwood followed that with Letters from Iwo Jima, told entirely from the Japanese point of view as they made a suicidal stand against the invading Americans. Here was the “enemy” portrayed with intense human empathy. The movie was an Oscar best picture nominee and won the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film.

Before proceeding further I should emphasize the difference between wartime dramas, especially those of Hollywood, and documentary treatments of war that cannot honestly avoid showing its negative effects. If any war can be characterized as “good” or “just” it’s the Second World War’s defeat of Hitler’s Germany. But it has comforting mythologies too, which is why Max Ophuls’ great 1969 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity detailing Vichy France’s willing collaboration with Nazism was so devastating.

Given that the realities of war are universally awful, there is a long history of antiwar documentaries. Examples from recent conflicts included Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) and Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure (2008) about the abuse and torture of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively. Some antiwar documentaries may reach a significant audience through television broadcast. Some documentaries also have explicit peace objectives such as those on the antinuclear movement (e.g. the National Film Board’s If You Love This Planet), on ending the exploitation of child soldiers or on dealing with war crimes as part of a just resolution to conflicts.

However, documentaries very rarely get a big theatrical release. (An exception was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 which won the 2004 palme d’or at Cannes for its expose of the deceptions behind the rush to war in Iraq.) In general, antiwar documentaries are no match for the kind of mass media hype that accompanies Hollywood blockbuster war movies.


On Friday, March 20, 2015, at 7:00 p.m., Gerald Schmitz will discuss "When the movies go to war." The event will be held at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, Fr. O'Donnell Auditorium.