But of course I would say that, since I favored the Iraq War, beginning to doubt its wisdom only once the invasion was underway, whereas Daniel Larison opposed it unhesitatingly from the start. So it makes sense that I would be drawn to accounts of the war that emphasize how complicated everything was, whereas Larison would say no, things were always perfectly clear, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. When I look at the disastrous period from 2003 till 2006, I see a series of tragedies for which Americans, and in particular the American elite, bear a collective responsibility. When Larison looks at that era, he sees a disastrous policy, with disastrous consequences, that was foisted on America by the Bush administration and its supporters and enablers — which is to say, by people like me. And all my talk about the need for art that admits of nuance, that allows for good intentions, and that leaves room for real tragedy sounds to him like so much self-justification.
This is understandable, and fair enough. But I’d still challenge Larison to sit through a movie marathon composed of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Rendition,” “Syriana,” “Redacted,” “Lions for Lambs,” “W.,” “In The Valley of Elah,” and “Green Zone” and not walk out admitting that I have at least something of a point.
As I later tried to make clear in the comments to the original post, I do think Ross has “something of a point” as far as his critique of the films is concerned. Happily, I think I will be able to skip the marathon. However, what appeared to me as the most glaring oversight and mistake that Ross made was the neglect of any mention that the flaws that mar these movies are some of the same flaws that helped create the disaster that the movies are inadequately portraying. As I wrote yesterday:
If Paul Greengrass makes a heavy-handed tendentious film filled with caricatures, maybe his reputation as a director takes a hit and some people waste their money on a mediocre movie. If people in government and the media have the same flaws, it results in the launch of an unnecessary war that wrecks an entire country, kills thousands and adversely affects the lives of millions. Which seems like the bigger problem that deserves more criticism? Which one is more responsible for the state of our political debate?
Ross might say that we have been over and over the disastrous consequences of the war, and we have heard all about the ideological blindness and recklessness of the war’s architects, so it is not up to him to rehearse these things in a column devoted to film criticism. Maybe it wouldn’t have been up to him to do this if he had just been writing a general review of Green Zone, but it becomes necessary for him to acknowledge some part of this when he provides a description of the story of the Iraq war “properly told” that only a die-hard war supporter would accept. It becomes necessary to give some indication that he knows he is doing something something strange and provocative when he calls for more sympathetic and nuanced understanding of the war’s architects while discussing a war that the previous administration sold to the public by rejecting and openly mocking concern for complexity, nuance and shades of gray before the war started. As I wrote in my comment section:
Ross objects to terrible simplifiers when it comes to storytelling, and that’s fine as far as it goes, but he really needs to take account of the much greater damage the terrible simplifiers did in actually waging the war.
What Ross’ post from today does not address is the period from early 2002 until the invasion in March 2003. It was during the year leading up to the war that much of what I am talking about took place. It was during this critical period when advocates for invasion and regime change were the last ones in the world arguing “how complicated everything was.” Everything was quite simple, straightforward and obvious for them. That was the era when ostensibly serious people talked about “the Arab mind” (“all these people understand is force!”), “draining the swamp” and creating a democratic beacon for the rest of the region. That was when we heard about the ease of Iraqi reconstruction, how “we did it in Germany and Japan and we can do it again!” and, yes, how we would be greeted as liberators. Iraq would be the model leading to regional transformation, and the destruction of Hussein’s regime would serve as a “demonstration effect.” All of this was fantasy unmoored from reality. It was not complicated by all the pesky details of Iraq’s history, culture and politics.
Working from profound misunderstandings that told them that Iraq would be like eastern Europe c. 1989, war planners apparently believed Iraq’s transition to democracy would be quick and easy and would facilitate an early exit. War supporters did not want to hear about the complexities of Iraqi society with its ethno-sectarian tensions, nor did they seem to be all that interested in the strategic problem of empowering the political forces most sympathetic to Iran. The inconvenient truth that Hussein hated the salafi jihadists he was supposedly sheltering was ignored or mocked as naive, and suddenly a regime’s support for one kind of terrorist group necessarily implied support for all kinds of terrorist groups. Doubts, questions and contrary evidence that opponents assembled against the case for war were largely just brushed aside as annoying impediments to the the war that was going to happen no matter how bad the arguments for it were.
Then the war that the administration and its allies wanted came, they have all moved on to other things, none of them (except maybe Scooter Libby) has paid any penalty personally or professionally, and the war still goes on. On the whole, they remain unrepentant, because they do not believe there was anything wrong in what they did. The more shameless among them have even taken to lecturing the rest of us on how truly noble the entire disaster was. It was not very long after the latest exercises in pro-war celebration that Ross’ column appeared, and it seemed to be a product of the same impulse for revisionism in a bad cause and an attempt to rehabilitate people who have not yet even been fully and properly disgraced. It would have helped Ross’ argument and made the column much better if he made clear that this was not what he was trying to do.
Do we gain anything from these movies? Probably not much. After all, they are ultimately just movies. Do they reinforce polarization that the actual disastrous policies created? To some extent, they must, and the more time that passes while the war’s architects remain unaccountable the deeper that polarization in some circles will be. It would be better if this were not so, but this is so far down the list of causes of the state of our political discourse that I have a hard time being concerned about it. Indeed, I have been trying to think of examples when a government embarked on a profoundly flawed and outrageously destructive policy and that policy received sympathetic contemporary artistic treatment from artists who were obviously aligned with the government’s staunchest critics. I have not yet come up with one. It could be that Ross is expecting something from filmmakers and movie studios that they are never going to provide, because it is exceedingly rare for artists to paint a sympathetic portrait of their fundamentally unsympathetic political opponents.
We may have to settle for our inadequate stories about Iraq, but that doesn’t mean that they are good stories. Even so, I cannot stress enough how the refusal of most remaining war supporters to acknowledge error and to accept responsibility for the tremendous human costs of a war our government started with their backing make such storytelling inevitable. “Art as revenge” does not tell us much about the human condition, but if there is no real accountability that may be all we are going to get.