What will we see through the distant window when America's longest and most arrogantly insane war fades into the gleeful archives of history? In the last century, it was cinema, film (more than any other art-form) that captured the images, sculpted our memories, and provided a lowest-common-denominator of security that allowed us to sleep more peacefully with our nightmares, to march more resolutely into the brave new future. But it's now the next century... and times have changed. We are flooded with audio-visual imagery of actions as they happen, the instant they happen, the instant before and the instant after. They come like raindrops on the hot sand: cold and sharp for a moment and then evaporated in the heat of the next moment. Light years of digital streams, a virtual Tower of Video-Game Babel.
After World War I, during the early days of movies, films poured out of America and Europe, capturing, exploring, distorting, glamorizing, educating, trying to make sense of the "Great War To End All Wars." This world-war-one genre continued for over 50 years. By World War II, film had emerged as the 20th century art-form, the mirror of our worst self-image. During the war, pre-television. pre-internet, along with radio, Hollywood flooded the streets with images good and bad, propaganda and art (and good box-office as well). After the war, Europe joined in, followed shortly by Japan and China and India. The whole world looked, listened, and filled its memory. This world-war-two genre continues to this day because it tells such a simple story, because it was such a simple war. The good guys were unquestionably and self-righteously good, and the bad guys were unquestionably and self-righteously bad. The Holocaust was beyond what even Dante could describe, what is still unfathomable today.
The next American war was in Korea; it was called a "police action." It was small and it was unclear what the issues were because America was unclear what its own issues were. This during the beginning of the glibly-titled "cold war" period, a gray, bland time in America filled with doubts and paranoia. Few relevant films about this war appeared except, incredibly, one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made: Robert Aldrich's Attack.
The next nightmare was in Vietnam. Like the current Afghanistan zombie-movie, a unilateral effort by America to do unquestionable good. Sex, drugs and rock&roll with a largely under-class populated army meeting a mysterious, oppressed people who want to be free and are willing to oppress themselves to do it (or so it seemed). Only two films truly captured the sleeper's nightmare and the insanity of waking up to it: Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. But our collective memory refused to be carved by these images, so we just let it go: the millions of dead and injured Vietnamese, the thousands of dead and injured Americans. And, amen, let us "not remember" the Cambodian genocide that followed, a microcosm of the Holocaust genocide in Europe, prompted by the Vietnamese war. Let us "not remember" the images of Roland Joffé's Killing Fields. Precious little else for our memories.
Then the Gulf War... not really a war at all. A deadly football/rugby match between the Western All-Stars and the sand-dune homies. I don't know of any films worth mentioning from that Sunday afternoon foray.
Followed by the Iraq war, also not really a war, a military occupation, a massive business transaction, a video-game come to life amidst broad "suspension of disbelief" fed to the American public like a drug in its water supply. A bundle of some good, some bad films from this war. Understandable because it wasn't really a war. The only better-than-good film to appear: Lee Tamahori's The Devil's Double.
There are others, distant-from-America wars in Algeria, Israel, Tibet, Africa: all captured in films, some good, some bad, mostly forgotten.
Many film historians and critics believe that all war films are both pro- and anti-war at the same time. I don't think so. Many people on this planet (not all) hate war and want to be rid of it, want to banish violence as an acceptable method to solve problems. There are many films that focus on this desperate, collective human desire, and there are three that are the are the most powerful, stridently anti-war films ever made: Aldrich's Attack (1956), Kubrick's Paths Of Glory (1957), and David Lean's The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957). Notice when they were created, all about the same time, all after World War II and Korea, all before Vietnam. It is Lean's masterpiece that brings me to the present. At the end of the film, the prison-camp doctor stands on the river bank surveying the littered dead bodies below and the blown bridge in the background; the entire saga imaged before him. And he says: "Madness... madness!"
Some believe (including me) that all wars especially American wars are about one primary thing: business. It was true of the American Revolution and the Civil War and all that followed. Profit-making, profiteering, for companies and corporations and the individuals who represent them. Tell me different and I'll show you the ledgers, the accounting sheets, the profit&loss statements.
So what are the images, the poignancies, the meanings of war extracted from the flood of media and captured on film for our collective consciousness? Will there be a close-up of someone standing on a hill overlooking a devastated city, and will he... or she whisper: "... madness!" It won't be me, and it won't be you. Who will it be?
It should have been John F. Kennedy. In 1963, he had begun to realize that for the past 30 years the American society and its political system had slowly uncovered a divergent path away from literally thousands of years of horrific, oppressive problem-solving violence. There is even now documentary evidence that he was changing his view about the growing engagement in Vietnam which his predecessor, Eisenhower, had created and promoted; that he may have even ended it. But on November 22, he was murdered. Everything stopped. All was paralyzed. And then everything started again, back on the historic path, back to business. To ensure the reboot, the restart, Martin Luther King was murdered and so was Robert Kennedy, and others. It was ensured.
The remainder of the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, the '90s, the 2000s... for nearly 50 years, the business of war, the war of business has rolled the American civilization on top of itself and floated it out on an ever-expanding sea of bewildering issues, conflicting dreams, blood-sucking insecurities, over-stimulated and under-stimulated comforts. 50 years... a historic blink of the eye, and the eye is blinded.
The question remains: What are the images, the poignancies, the meanings of war extracted from the flood of media and captured on film in data streams for our collective consciousness? Will there be a close-up of someone standing on a hill overlooking a devastated city, and will he... or she... whisper: "... madness!" It won't be me, and it certainly won't be you. Who will it be?