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Screenings, Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


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



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

What about the treatment of war in Canadian cinema? Obviously Canadians are heavily influenced by Hollywood movies which consistently outdraw homegrown films. But Canada has its own traditions — including an image of being a peaceable country at home and a “peacekeeper” abroad — which one would think would temper any warlike instincts. For decades after the Korean War there were no Canadian combat deployments. Being for peace and against war was almost the default Canadian position. Then came peacekeeping tragedies in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda followed by a dwindling in Canada’s contributions to UN peace operations. One can also question how the national mood has been affected by successive aggressive military interventions from the First Gulf War, to Kosovo, to Afghanistan, Libya, and now Iraq.

In an important 2012 book What We Talk About When We Talk About War, author Noah Richler argues that a lot has changed, including a revival of an image of Canada as a righteous “warrior nation” doing its part in the fight to defend freedom and democracy. He talks about the “Vimy effect” as “that most enduring of English Canada’s creation myths.” So even if the First World War was a preventable catastrophe, the role of Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge in 1917 is held up as a glorious victory that helped forge Canada’s sense of itself as an independent nation. Particularly under the Harper Government, other military milestone anniversaries in Canadian history, including that of the pre-Confederation War of 1812, are deemed worthy of expensive official celebratory commemorations. No Canadian peace initiative gets that kind of attention.

Richler sees this mythmaking at work in how war is portrayed in recent Canadian film and television. In contrast to the very disturbing terrain of Robin Phillips’s 1983 First World War movie The Wars (based on the Timothy Findley novel), take a look at Paul Gross’s 2008 epic Passchendaele, one of the most expensive Canadian movies ever made. It is an unabashed tribute to heroic wartime noble sacrifice and was extensively promoted as such. I recall seeing the premiere at the Toronto film festival when a number of Afghanistan veterans were invited special guests. Gross said at the time: “Who we are was forged on those battlefields. . . . we were ferocious fighters, the most feared of Allied troops.”

The selling of the war in Afghanistan as a necessary and virtuous one has affected how it is portrayed in the mainstream media. There have been almost no Canadian dramas about the conflict, though Paul Gross is directing one, titled Hyena Road, scheduled for release later this year. Afghan Luke from 2011 was a weird story about Canadian snipers who may have committed war crimes but it got a critical thumbs down and disappeared from view after a very limited theatrical release. Canadian documentaries, including those by the CBC and NFB, have tended to “support the troops” as engaged in an honourable mission. In Richler’s view they “have consistently focused, with the sort of patriotic obsequiousness that is the mark of civilian society’s willing complicity with state-generated messages, on the tough work of Canadian troops and the emotional circumstances that they and their families must tolerate.”

An interesting example of how Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan has been projected in a positive light is the 2009 documentary by 3 World Media entitled Waging Peace: Canada in Afghanistan ( As the “waging peace” descriptor clearly suggests, the film is at pains to distinguish Canada’s Afghan combat mission from the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq. It follows Canadian war photographer Richard Fitoussi on journeys in the violent southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar while embedded with Canadian troops.

Fitoussi is initially somewhat skeptical of Canada’s intentions, and he wonders how differently Canadian soldiers actually operate from their American counterparts. So he delves into the soldiers’ point of view of the complex task in which they are engaged. What comes across is a sincere belief that much more is involved in terms of stabilizing the country than just going after terrorists. Fitoussi rightly concludes that: “Without the support of the Afghan people this mission is unwinnable.” The Canadians don’t want to be perceived as “invaders” or “occupiers.” But they are clearly in a war situation. One of the commanders interviewed in the field is a cousin’s son-in-law, Major Bill Fletcher, commenting on the death of a soldier which may have been as a result of “friendly fire.” And the film also includes a tribute to the four soldiers killed by a roadside IED (improvised explosive device) in April 2006.

What I find dubious is how Canada’s involvement in the conflict is portrayed by several of the academics interviewed for the film. Historian Jack Granatstein calls it a “peace support operation.” Political scientist Duane Bratt calls it a “peace enforcement mission” that includes “war-like elements.” This seems to be an attempt to soften the uglier reality of the Afghan war in order to make it more acceptable to a doubting Canadian public. It’s as though Canada is the benign “warrior nation,” as interested in protecting civilians and building schools for girls as it is in defeating the Taliban. But here we are, years after the withdrawal of our combat troops, and the Afghan war continues to rage. Already largely forgotten in Canada, it’s hard to see what lessons if any have been learned.

Returning to Noah Richler’s analysis of how most films and television portray war, he argues that the narratives of wartime violence have become more explicit since Vietnam brought its horrors directly into Americans’ living rooms. He refers to what novelist John Rae called “the pornography of war.” Today through a variety of social media we can be instantly exposed to shocking scenes of conflict from around the world. In a sense war movies have to keep pace with what you can find on the Internet if they are to provide enough vicarious thrills to satisfy an increasingly visually oriented population.

As Richler observes:

What were once thought to be “indescribable” and “unspeakable” events of wartime are, today, entirely visible pieces of information uploaded to YouTube and social networks . . . that television networks competing with Tweets are compelled to mount in turn and that Hollywood features and television dramas then recreate and seek, for effect, to surpass. The time we take to pay dues to war’s brutality and senselessness, typically in the safe confines of the home or cinema . . . constitute an ersatz moral act that excuses actually having to do anything more proactive about a subject that is innately horrific.

In other words, the mass consumption of war’s horrors may do nothing by itself to motivate a search for alternatives to war. Indeed, when people become accustomed to passively watching shocking images, these may have the opposite effect.

The experience of war is sometimes portrayed in movies as almost a drug-like addiction — with combat providing an adrenalin rush. One sees this in dramas like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper in which soldiers become intoxicated by wartime exploits, finding it difficult if not impossible to return to a normal civilian and family life. There is also the “band of brothers” effect which one finds among young male recruits as explored in documentaries that aim for a gritty hyper-realism such as Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Oscar-nominated Restrepo, about a U.S. army outpost in Afghanistan, which won a Sundance grand jury prize in 2010. (The following year Hetherington was killed covering the war in Libya.)

Restrepo offers a visceral sense of what war does to young men without getting into analysis or alternatives. Other Afghanistan documentaries go further to show how a collective psychology of war can warp individuals and lead to coverups and intimidation. This is the case with the harrowing Danish film Armadillo (2010), The Tillman Story (2010) about the coverup of an infamous American “friendly fire” fatality, and 2013’s The Kill Team in which a young American soldier fears for his life and is singled out for punishment when he exposes war crimes committed by his commanding officer and other members of his unit. Thank goodness for these documentaries that bring to light acts of war that the military brass would like to keep quiet.

When and how the movies go to war suggests several concluding comments. First, as long as there are wars, and wartime atrocities, there are going to be movies about these. Indeed documentaries that dig into their causes and consequences can be very important in mobilizing public concern and provoking antiwar activism including seeking justice for the victims of war.

Second, the power of the camera is a double-edged sword. It can be used to expose, to bring inconvenient truths to light. It can also be used to manipulate, to propagandize, to pander to popular passions and prejudices. All war movies need to be approached with a critical eye. Frankly I don’t think Hollywood has any ideology or view of war other than making money from it. But that expediency has sometimes led film productions to partner with the Pentagon which has an obvious interest in exploiting the cultural influence of mass entertainment.

My fear is that a saturation of images of war, terrorism and other forms of violence across multiple media can both decrease sensitivity to them — how many times a day can we be shocked? — and perversely contribute to a climate of fear that can be exploited to justify aggressive responses — the urge to fight back, to retaliate — rather than to do the hard work of finding long-term peaceful solutions.

We all have an obligation to be vigilant informed viewers and to strive to give peace a chance, especially when our movies and media so seldom rise to that challenge.