Thursday, November 17, 2005

GOP Deathwatch, Virginia Edition: With friends like these ...

Ever since Jerry Kilgore suffered the most humiliating defeat of any statewide GOP candidate in the past two decades (including the disastrous 1994 Senate campaign of Oliver North), his campaign manager Ken Hutcheson has been understandably high-strung. But when Virginia Club for Growth president Phil Rodokanakis chastised him for waffling on taxes, Hutcheson finally snapped.

Hutcheson's failure to rally the party faithful for Jerry Kilgore should warn the national GOP that America's faith in them may have just run out. Unless Republicans can meaningfully reaffirm their commitment to lower taxes and smaller government, they can expect to suffer many more defeats in 2006 and 2008.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Jarhead: The Few, the Proud, the Slandered

The great paradox of any civilized democracy, is that the primary organization which protects its interests and promotes its values -- its military -- is fundamentally anti-democratic. American society as a whole recognizes neither rank nor privilege; the American military must do both. American society permits the individual to do as he or she pleases, more or less; the American military cannot. Sam Mendes's new film Jarhead trades on this seeming contradiction, though it cannot understand why it is necessary. That Jarhead is also a brilliant piece of anti-American propaganda compounds the problem.

Anthony Swofford's memoir Jarhead is less than a literary masterpiece, and I suspect that people who claim to admire it for its prose style will lie about other things too. But like other leftist staples, the delivery is less important than the message; the reason leftists admire Swofford is that his memoir attacks the entire American military system. For Swofford, our Armed Forces have developed and perpetuated an enormous culture of abuse, where paternalistic superior officers batter and humiliate young recruits, and where those "abused children" manage to abuse or degrade not just each other, but anyone unlucky enough to cross their path. Swofford has claimed, quite famously, that the affectionate Marine epithet "jarhead" (a reference to the short regulation haircut) is an existential state: The recruit is an empty vessel, which will shortly be filled with a lethal brew of hatred and contempt.

Perhaps a better metaphor, as far as this film is concerned, would be a cesspool: The Marines in Jarhead seethe with racism, misogyny, homophobia, and every other anti-social attitude known to humankind. They post photos of girlfriends who have deserted them on a "Wall of Shame," and belittle each other with sexual humiliations, mostly of the "homo-" variety. In one inspired scene, young recruits watch Coppola's Apocalypse Now and cheer wildly as Vietnamese villages are destroyed: Even Swofford, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, joins in the orgiastic spectable, whooping with ecstasy at cinematic carnage. It's just one of many signals Mendes gives that these are not normal human beings. Something in their natural development -- their capacity for empathy, love for their fellow man -- has been stunted. The most stunted of these characters, Staff Sergeant Sykes, is played by Jamie Foxx: He loves the Marine Corps, and tells Gyllenhaal that he'd rather serve his country in the Marines than support his family with a lucrative corporate job (which in this film is unquestionably a nobler goal). These angry frat boys won't -- or can't -- grow up.

Swofford served in the First Gulf War as a Marine sniper, and claims never to have fired a shot an the enemy during that time. The film follows the non-exploits of "Swoff" -- played by Jake Gyllenhaal -- more or less as described in the memoir, with one important difference: Mendes sublimates the fury in his prose, relegating it to the visual level. Gyllenhaal's voiceover narration -- the only real clue we have about the protagonist's inner life -- is delivered in a flat monotone. This polemical strategy worked well for Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine, and works even better for Mendes, who can craft images to fit his thesis instead of relying on selective montage.

And what images they are. True, the film has some of Mendes's trademark airlessness, with moments that seem art-directed to death. When Jamie Foxx and Gyllenhaal have a heart-to-heart talk by the flickering light of flaming Iraqi oil wells (a blatant send-up of that oldest of Western and military-movie cliches, the "campfire scene"), it looks as if the actors are sitting in front of a blue screen with CGI effects in the background. But on the whole, the film feels cinematically alive, with jittery hand-held photography, color which is alternately bleached and saturated, an unpredictable narrative, and performances fresher than anything in American Beauty or Road to Perdition.

In some respects, the relentless brutality of Swofford's source material seems to have limbered Mendes up a bit; sometimes Jarhead feels almost spontaneous. Part of the credit has to go to the supporting actors, most of them playing stock characters from WWII platoon movies (and working their tired old stereotypes to the proverbial wall). Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx (who finally earns the Oscar he won for the tepid Ray) have received the lion's share of praise, but the actor who most consistently drew my attention was Lucas Black, of Sling Blade and the TV series American Gothic. As the requisite hick-who-ain't-as-dumb-as-he-looks, Black steals every scene he's in, deploying offhand charisma and boyish energy like a Weapon of Mass Distraction. Black also has the thankless task of delivering the film's more overt political messages -- that the Gulf War is all about oil, that military tactics are fundamentally unjustified when deployed to strictly economic ends, and that (gasp!) the American military does not appear to respect basic freedoms within its own ranks.

However, the true message of Jarhead -- the one conveyed on an imagistic, subrational level -- and is unmistakable: According to Mendes and Swofford, American soldiers are nothing but bloodthirsty savages. Mendes indelibly evokes the infamous "Mile of Death," with its caravan of bombed-out traffic along an Iraqi highway. Here, among dozens of "carbonized" civilians (read: burned to a crispy black under US air strikes), the film shows the unmitigated horror of our "splendid little war" in the Gulf. As played by Gyllenhaal, Swofford vomits at the sight of all the civilian carnage: One Marine in the film remarks that these people "just wanted to get away." But according to another Marine, retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, the film hasn't quite gotten its facts straight:

Number one, we had the bombing of those units, those Iraqi units, coming out of Kuwait City, the so-called Mile of Death. I walked that ground. There was a lot of destruction, not much death, because what actually happened is the Iraqis abandoned the equipment and ran away. I walked the whole thing. I don't think I counted more than maybe 13, 14 dead Iraqis. So yes, there was a lot of destruction in that so-called Mile of Death, but not a lot of death.

Any viewer of Jarhead will promptly dispute Van Riper's account, because Mendes takes us inside that "Mile of Death" and shows us not a few, but dozens of charred corpses, almost all civilian. Still, it wouldn't be the first time that cinema has successfully rewritten history. Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin invented the Odessa Steps Massacre out of whole cloth, and yet for decades historians of the USSR treated the event as if it were actually true. Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will documented a Nazi rally that in every respect was staged for the cameras, and presented it as a spontaneous outpouring of public support. Mendes has similarly distorted the Gulf War, staging it as a display of inherent American cruelty.

In Mendes's eyes (and to a lesser extent Swofford's), the First Gulf War is a racist war, ordered by big-business tycoons to protect American oil interests. Iraqis and Saudis in this film are always portrayed as innocent victims or carbonized corpses: They never even have a chance to shoot back as American aggressors bomb them from the air. (When Americans are shot at, it's always "friendly fire.") In one scene, the soldiers of Swoff's platoon make crude sexual advances at a Saudi woman riding in an automobile; she peers from behind her veil with deeply wounded eyes. The film makes her a victim of the American soldiers, whose racism and misogyny, the film implicitly claims, are far worse than anything she might encounter in the Muslim world.

The film's climax occurs when Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard, two Marine snipers, try to "take out" an Iraqi officer with one well-placed shot. As a Marine officer (played by Chris Cooper) explains in an earlier scene, this action could save the lives of Iraqi troops under Iraqi command: Without a leader, they are more likely to surrender with minimal loss of life. But an Air Force officer (played by Dennis Haysbert of 24 fame) stops the snipers at the last minute, sets up a lawn chair in their nest, and watches with demented glee as American planes bomb the Iraqis' position and kill them by the hundreds. Sarsgaard gets his "Oscar moment" here, breaking down in tears because he is not permitted to "take the shot." At the same time, viewers grow sickened at the American military's apparent ruthlessness: Why kill a single officer (a legitimate target) and break the enemy's resistance, when one can bomb from the air and kill hundreds or thousands of troops and civilians at one fell swoop?

This portrait of the American military as a culture of abuse, a place where human life (especially the life of the Other) is utterly without value, and where American freedoms cannot be respected, couldn't come at a more opportune time: With reports of Abu Ghraib flooding the evening news, and John McCain's anti-torture amendment set to pass in the Senate, American confidence in our troops is at an all-time low. This film attempts to drive it even lower, and it works. By the end, I found myself loathing the very existence of our troops, these evil fiends who somehow still walk among us. (The final montage of the soldiers in Swoff's platoon leading ostensibly normal lives becomes deeply chilling, especially in terms of what has gone before.) If I didn't know better, I'd have sworn by film's end that I wouldn't want to live near a US veteran, and certainly wouldn't have wanted someone in my family to marry one. I wouldn't want Gays and Lesbians to join (or even touch) an institution devoted solely to brutalizing its own and exterminating the enemy in endless, racist wars.

Frankly, I'm ashamed that I was so thoroughly conned. It's a risk one takes when one remains aesthetically receptive to a film as relentlessly and cannily manipulative as this one. On a more rational level (where deprogramming must always begin), the film's claims are easily enough rebutted. American soldiers are trained under a strict regimen of physical training and punishment, because strict discipline has been vital to a successful military since Sparta's heyday. Our soldiers seem to have little human sympathy and compassion when they are in the field, because in combat those qualities make them easier to kill. War zones are unusual, extreme situations, and it follows that people who train to operate in these situations need to operate under a different, more restrictive set of rules. One need not be a military scholar to understand that in the midst of armed combat, classical-liberal freedoms and humanist values are irrelevant at best, and lethally counterproductive at worst.

Jarhead never really delves into the horror of war, but it is no less powerful for that. It makes an end run around viewers' reason, undermining support for the US military though its skillful deployment of image, montage and narrative. If Islamofascist terrorists had created a movie with the express purpose of demeaning our troops, reducing American confidence, and hastening a coalition surrender in Iraq and Afghanistan, they could not have done a better job than Sam Mendes has. For this little service to the cause, perhaps someday -- assuming these terrorists attain the victory they seek -- a few of them will deign to spare the director's life. But I rather doubt they will.

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