Skip to content

The Iraq War Documentary Review Essays

Gunner Palace, one of the first major documentaries on the Iraq war, stakes a claim on the reality of the war.

In the Year of the Pig offers a critical world-historical perspective on the Vietnam War beyond U.S. solipsism.

Apocalypse Now narrates the pleasurable spectacle of war, with Wagnerian accompaniment.

By the time of the Persian Gulf War, Apocalypse Now will be appropriated by soldiers as a “pro-war” stimulant, according to Jarhead: “The supposedly anti-war films have failed.”

Hearts and Minds works to re-contextualize and critique Hollywood’s contribution to the Good Fight of WWII.

Gunner Palace bears the traces of cultural mediation in its attempt to represent the Iraq war, MTV-style.

The First Gulf War and the First President Bush: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

Hearts and Minds: LBJ widens the Vietnam War by appealing to the entire population: “Victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.”

Hearts and Minds: U.S. anti-communist propaganda contributes to the pervasive culture of fear in the 1950s.

Hearts and Minds: On the home front, capturing a celebration of U.S. chauvanism during the Vietnam War.

Hearts and Minds:A benediction before the big game: “There are going to be men made tonight and that’s religious and God cares about that.”

Hearts and Minds: The cultural reproduction of sanctioned violence is engendered by a high school football coach who beseeches his players: “Don’t let ‘em beat us!”

Hearts and Minds:Cheering on the home team: The U.S. compulsion to win at all costs and to insist that, “We’re number one!”

In the Year of the Pig historicizes the Vietnam War through documents that display the colonizer and the colonized.

The Battle of San Pietro: presents a view of war from the perspective of the “foot soldier.”

The Battle of San Pietro’s voice-over narration expresses sentiment for the fallen: “The lives lost were precious lives…to their country, to their loved ones, and to the men themselves.”

The Anderson Platoon provides a glimpse of military life in-country: “The body of Christ,” intones a chaplain, who gives holy communion in the killing fields of Vietnam.

The Anderson Platoon abstains from depicting the “big picture” of the Vietnam War, which instead is treated as individuated tragedy.

The Anderson Platoon seeks to personalize the otherwise anonymous common soldier as a way of forging viewer identification.

The Anderson Platoon deploys a freeze-frame device, here on a face that will soon perish, that effectively arrests the temporal flow.

The Anderson Platoon conveys the emotional work of surviving combat experience.

The Anderson Platoon scores footage of soldiers on patrol to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”

 

The winning and losing of hearts and minds:
Vietnam, Iraq, and the claims of the war documentary

by Tony Grajeda

By summer 2003, with the Iraq war mutating from “mission accomplished” to urban guerrilla warfare and counter-insurgency, the “ghost” of Vietnam, believed to have been “exorcised” in the Persian Gulf War by Bush the First, had returned to haunt the political and cultural landscape. Talk of endless “quagmire” and the winning of “hearts and minds” had summoned the traumatic memory of the Vietnam War, even as its historical memory proved to be so elusive during the 2004 presidential election. Although comparisons between the two wars have entered the arena of political discourse, bound up with the struggle to yoke the “war on terror” to the Good Fight of World War II, such comparisons initially drawn upon the rhetorical level of a disputed discursive field have more recently been augmented by documentary films on the Iraq war.

Such feature-length independent documentaries as Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland offer intriguing accounts of how the war is being represented as it is still taking place and, therefore, how it is likely to be remembered; these audio-visual texts already stand, then, as evidentiary documents contributing to a history of the present. The limits and possibilities of their historicity will be taken up in this essay, which will examine their formal and rhetorical framing of truth claims, in part by contrasting them with such Vietnam-era documentaries as the early in-country films The Anderson Platoon (1966-67) and A Face of War (1967), as well as the more well-known In the Year of the Pig (1968) and Hearts and Minds (1974), films noted for their historical contextualization of the Vietnam War and now recognized as documents of the past themselves. These Vietnam documentaries serve to forestall the act of forgetting the war as a national trauma, the consequences of which include to this day the guilt-ridden treatment throughout U.S. society of the common soldier as pre-eminent victim of war, lionized recipient of a nationalistic devotion to forever “support the troops.”

What is at stake then in the Iraq war documentaries, as I hope to demonstrate, is precisely the representation of the U.S. soldier as a figure of overflowing empathy, a figure whose personal experience of war as portrayed by these films tends to override or even cancel out any political or historical consideration of what the war might mean, beyond individual stories of suffering and tragedy. The challenge, finally, posed by these films to students and scholars of media and culture during the current crisis is one that demands an engagement with both the social and political questions of our time and theoretical and textual ones regarding cultural production. More specifically, given the degree to which the documentary form generally still carries an ethical burden of veracity, often promising spectators with seemingly direct access to an otherwise unknowable world, it is vital if not necessary — especially at a moment when the real itself has never been more in doubt — to continue scrutinizing documentary means and methods for conveying that very same world.

In what follows, I position this first generation of documentaries on the Iraq war in relation not only to these earlier documentaries on Vietnam but also to narrative films from the war film genre such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon, cultural texts which acutely act as frames of reference for both the documentarists and the participants to war themselves. Michael Herr’s landmark account of the Vietnam War, Dispatches, was not the first — and unfortunately not the last — to recognize the extent to which young soldiers on the battlefield seem to be acting out fantasies acquired especially from the combat genre. More recently, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, which chronicles his experience as a Marine during the Persian Gulf War, reveals that even the “antiwar” Vietnam films, such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket, have been re-functioned, appropriated as “pro-war” stimulants by U.S. soldiers who, writes Swofford,

"watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; …The supposedly anti-war films have failed. Now is my time to step into the newest combat zone. And as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers" (6-7).

The subsequent “band of brothers” bears the traces of yet further mediation, now riddled with a wider array of cultural influences that shape and structure experience of the real itself. In his account of the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003, journalist Evan Wright points to a generational difference in 21st Century soldiers, many of whom “are on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and Internet porn than they are with their own parents.” Wright describes one 19-year-old Marine who is “beside himself” with excitement while in action:

“I was just thinking one thing when we drove into that ambush, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I felt like I was living it when I seen the flames coming out of windows, the blown-up car in the street, guys crawling around shooting at us. It was fucking cool.” (5)

Although nothing quite so “fucking cool” as the (male) fantasy of de-realization — a psychic process of perceptual dissociation, here of inhabiting a video game and encountering the real through a prism of simulation — will occur in the documentaries under consideration, the question of cultural mediation nonetheless remains for both filmmakers and their subjects.

My more specific purpose here is to offer a close analysis of Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland in order both to track the work of history, as well as to gauge the evolution of formal techniques and practices endemic to the documentation of war and atrocity. A brief comparison at the level of film form suggests that while a 1970s work like Hearts and Minds seems lodged in the familiar tradition of the realist documentary, one some 30 years later like Gunner Palace— with its highly stylized logic of fragmentation and disorientation evidently indebted to the music video—appears to fall within the generic domain of the “postmodern.” Yet this strict dichotomy in a “politics” of documentary form breaks down when we recall that Hearts and Minds made liberal (and ironic) use of Hollywood movies, while Gunner Palace’s digital video feel of immediacy could be aligned with at least the U.S. variant of direct cinema.

What I will argue then is that, in light of its precedents in the war documentary, Gunner Palace’s formal strategy of “MTV-style” construction to capture the media-saturated participants of modern war (pop culture references, rap music, self-conscious performances playing to the camera) implies less an innovative approach to the form than, ironically, a reflection model of the real, in which the accretion of referentiality in our thoroughly mediated world suffuses phenomenal existence, even and especially in wartime.

Historicizing the Vietnam War through documentary film: Hearts and Minds

“The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula,” declared President George H. W. Bush, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. “It’s a proud day for America,” he trumpeted, adding, “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”[1] [open notes in new window] Yet the “specter” of Vietnam has seemingly risen from those very same desert sands. A year into the Iraq war, Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, stated that, “slowly but surely, the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people are being won over as they see security increase in their area.”[2] With this war for winning the “hearts and minds” of Iraqis dragging on into its fifth year, a protracted conflict half-way around the world has triggered increased use in a national debate of such loaded metaphors as “quagmire” and the “Vietnam syndrome.”[3] The return of such politically-charged language signifies the uneasy presence of the past in the present, a condition that symptomatically reveals both the fraught historical memory of the Vietnam War and the potential trauma of realizing that, as one current bumper sticker puts it, “Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam.”

One way of imagining how the present is likely to be remembered or misremembered, whether the history of the Iraq war will be written in the prose of the Good Fight or that of a “syndrome,” especially with regard to the representation of the U.S. soldier, is to take note of how the Vietnam War itself was represented at the time and then subsequently re-written by both the political establishment of the 1980s and the culture industries of television and Hollywood. I want to begin reflecting on the potential historicity of the present by briefly recalling one of the definitive, and more controversial, documentaries on what the Vietnamese call the American War — Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 1974 and was re-released on DVD in 2002. Adopting the model of the “document-dossier” established by Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig, Hearts and Minds mixes newsreel and archival footage, talking-heads and in-country interviews, and, perhaps most surprisingly (at least to those who somehow believed that Michael Moore had invented the form), short clips from such Hollywood movies as Objective Burma, My Son John, and This Is the Army, Michael Curtiz’s 1943 musical celebrating the United States military, a war-time production from the Busby Berkeley school of spectacle featuring hundreds of singing and dancing troops.

Becoming something of a social text right from the start, the reception of Hearts and Minds at the time and its subsequent place in the body of literature on historical documentaries warrants re-evaluation precisely at a moment when the meaning of Vietnam is at stake. Predictably met by largely “hostile reviewers in the national media,” according to Peter Biskind, it didn’t seem to fair much better in other quarters. Biskind’s Cineaste 1975 review, for one, takes issue with the film’s critique of U.S. culture — at least for Biskind “the arrogant, violent, hypocritical side” —that contributed to the war.[4] This position has been reinforced over the years in some academic circles as well. David Grosser, for example, finds the film exhibiting contempt for the working class, while Thomas Slater faults it for what he considers “blatant manipulation.”[5] Finally, Thomas Waugh compares it unfavorably to de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig for falling into a “moralistic, bourgeois-humanist perspective of history.”[6] De Antonio himself, in a 1974 review of Hearts and Minds, condemns the film for “political emptiness” and “an inability to understand either the United States or Vietnam.” “Patronizing attitudes,” writes the filmmaker, beset the work at every turn, as “it sneers with a japing, middle-class liberal superiority.” Cutting to the bone, it is, according to de Antonio, “both heartless and mindless.”[7]

Such historically specific criticisms notwithstanding, revisiting Hearts and Minds during another time of war is indeed instructive, given the somewhat uneven and so far relatively ahistorical media representations of the current crisis.[8] While not as rigorously historical as In the Year of the Pig, Hearts and Minds still provides a quite thorough social context for understanding the Vietnam War, primarily by incorporating a range of perspectives, including combat veterans (both pro-war and disenchanted), a slew of political and military figures (from architects of the war to dissidents), and, most significantly, a number of Vietnamese voices.

The film’s specific argument on the war itself is augmented by a set of observations and textual materials on the more general cultural conditions of fear, racism and violence that, it is suggested, give rise to a militaristic society (Ryan and Kellner, 197). For example, the post-war, McCarthy-era structure of feeling dominated by fear and paranoia is illustrated through clips from both the mass culture of Hollywood features fueling the Cold War, as well as the government’s shrill anti-communist propaganda films. Another sampling of Hollywood clips exhibit an array of racist representations, from the Orientalism of Bob Hope road comedies to the vicious racism of WWII combat pictures set in the Pacific Theater.

Yet the documentary’s most provocative statement on U.S. culture issues from original footage of a nearly-rabid football coach whipping up his high school charges into a frenzy for the big game. The implication of socially-sanctioned masculinity compounded by everyday violence as the breeding ground for the cultural reproduction of militarism was, apparently, an unreasonable proposition to critics at the time, as Biskind’s review insinuates. From our own vantage point of the present, however — one marked by a popular culture of pervasive violent imagery that Vivian Sobchack has termed “the Postmorbid Condition” — Hearts and Minds viewed retrospectively suggests an argument still in formation, the incipient realization of which will garner only more evidence (and credibility) in the ensuing years.

As the current battle over the meaning of the Vietnam War and any “lessons” accruing around the Iraq war rages on, both In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds continue to remind us not only of the vital contribution made by critical documentary filmmaking to the work of history; they also reveal, given the substance of their specific arguments, the ideological structuring of the war itself by Cold War liberals who sought to obscure Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle for independence. Moreover, with the neo-conservative re-writing of the war since the Reagan era that has aimed to secure it within a revivified Cold War paradigm (see Martin, “Narratives,” 111), one that conveniently aligns with a post-9/11 Manichean worldview, these documentaries have never been more necessary to challenging reactionary interpretations — both past and present — of the Vietnam War.

Documenting a soldier’s perspective:
The Anderson Platoon

While In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds utilized the formal model of the “document-dossier” — compilation documentaries weaving archival footage and still images with counterpoint testimony through rhetorical editing — the in-country Vietnam documentaries The Anderson Platoon (1966-67) and A Face of War (1967) were comprised entirely of “raw” footage shot among the troops, in the field and, sometimes shockingly, in the midst of battle. And unlike In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds, which offer a fairly extensive political and historical context for apprehending the Vietnam War, The Anderson Platoon and A Face of War present the war exclusively from the point of view of the “foot soldier,” a formal positioning that extends back at least to John Huston’s WWII documentary The Battle of San Pietro (1945). As precedents then to the truth claims and experiential perspective on war underwriting the recent documentaries on Iraq, these Vietnam films fall on the putatively “apolitical” side of this artificially bifurcated approach to the representation of war, in which attempts to historicize events are set in opposition to accounts taken from the trenches.

Yet even such accounts from the same side of this divide—those that seem to share a similar disdain for history — require further differentiation in order to parse their claims on the reality of war. By referencing the typology of what Bill Nichols has theorized as the major modes of representation in documentary film, we can begin to distinguish the various ways in which the formal conventions and narrative strategies from the documentary tradition structure these interpretations of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

Roughly corresponding to what Nichols terms the expository mode, in which voice-over narration (the “voice of God” device) serves to organize the images and secure meaning (37), The Anderson Platoon (and to some extent Gunner Palace) relies on the “voice of authority” of the filmmaker that, along with a soundtrack mix of diegetic and post-production music, rhetorically arranges what is seen and heard within a seemingly “objective” view of soldiering. A Face of War (as well as Occupation: Dreamland), on the other hand, generally aligns with what Nichols poses as the observational mode (itself akin to direct cinema), which eschews voice-over commentary and non-diegetic music as a way of conveying, according to Nichols, “the sense of unmediated and unfettered access to the world” (43).

The French writer and filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer, a veteran of the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, produced The Anderson Platoon for French television, which first aired the film before an English version was broadcast on the highly-regarded and popular program The CBS News Hour in July 1967. The Anderson Platoon went on to win the Oscar for best documentary that year, and also had a brief theatrical run. Accompanying a U.S. Army platoon for several weeks in the fall of 1966, Schoendoerffer’s black and white footage is shot almost entirely in the field, with the exception of one sequence following a lone GI on leave in Saigon. The primary focus on the soldiers themselves both confirms expectations of military life (mail call, a field Mass replete with communion, fairly quiet patrols through the jungle), and arrests viewer attention, since the abrupt burst of gunfire or explosions always arrives without warning. Location sound is frequently laced with Schoendoerffer’s voice-over narration, delivered in his heavily French-accented English, which opens by stating:

“The Vietnam War is a tragedy, especially for us French who feel partially responsible.”

Aside from this rather loaded introduction, the narration confines itself to basically conveying events matter-of-factly in a terse, blunt tone, providing little in the way of political or even contextual commentary. At one point, however, in reporting the general outlines of a particular mission, Schoendoerffer elicits sympathy for his subjects by suddenly lamenting:

“But the Anderson Platoon knows little about the tactical plans. The platoon is only a small pawn in a big game.”

Excluded from knowledge that decides their fate, these “pawns” are treated here not as heroic actors but as unfortunate clients subjected to larger forces. While such forces go largely unexamined in the documentary, the soldiers themselves are afforded a modicum of individualization. Several times throughout the film Schoendoerffer identifies the troops by name as they appear on camera; without benefit of interview segments, these simple introductions manage to personalize the no less anonymous soldiers, a few of whom are wounded or killed within the period of filming. We learn as much when, on occasion, the film freeze-frames on a face as the voice-over flatly states, for instance, “wounded two weeks later,” or, in a less truncated way:

“Owens, sergeant. He will be wounded in an attack in a village.”

Such moments of freezing the narrative flow effectively lift the proceedings out of its “present-tense” temporality (Nichols, 40), thus also breaking with the observational mode as the documentary piteously divulges privileged information to viewers, whose powerlessness to affect circumstances mirrors that which will befall the soldier-pawns.

Apart from these jarring yet casual pronouncements (“Shannon—killed two weeks later. 18 years old.”), The Anderson Platoon presents its material in a relatively unadorned manner, still hewing to the observational as much as expository mode of merely recording events as they unfold before the camera. Yet other aspects of the soundtrack beyond these verbal revelations of impending calamity suggest more is at work. In particular, music plays a significant role (as it does in other genres) in creating an affective state of reception for spectators. For example, during one segment where soldiers tend to a wounded Vietnamese girl, Schoendoerffer’s voice-over states that one member of the platoon, identified earlier as a blues singer from Alabama, “sings some blues for his buddies.” The off-screen sound of a mournful voice with plaintive acoustic guitar accompanies a subsequent shot of soldiers standing around the body of a fallen comrade. Along with two distinct a cappella moments on camera by one of the GIs, Schoendoerffer incorporates music at several turns, perhaps most dramatically when this off-screen (and likely post-production or extra-diegetic) blues song is reprised near the end of the film. In the aftermath of a ferocious battle, a series of close-ups on weary, bloodied faces and on hands clasped of those who survived is given an aural rendering, as we hear once more the soft strumming of solo guitar and a voice sing out:

“I try so hard to keep from crying,
but my heart feels just like lead
She was all I had to live for,
I was just wishing it was me instead
She’s gone….”

A decidedly less mournful “score” appears early in the film when, following a scene of the soldiers on patrol, the film cuts to the platoon’s military base with a sound bridge of a broadcast from Armed Forces Radio. A shot from within the cramped broadcast booth hovers just over the shoulder of the DJ who, on the air, introduces Nancy Sinatra’s pop hit of the season, “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” As the song plays, a shot of reel-to-reel tape cuts to a medium close-up on army boots slugging through a muddy field. Two full verses accompany GIs on the march through streams, over the ground and into the jungle. This playful attempt at a light moment early on in an otherwise somber film could very well have given Stanley Kubrick ideas for the critical transitional figure crossing the two narrative halves of Full Metal Jacket 20 years later.

To page 2

Source

Pinker, Steven. "The Moral Instinct."Robbins, Bruce. "The Sweatshop Sublime."

Assignment

Research: Review

Edition

2010/2011

Lincoln Center is the cultural mecca of New York City.  It’s clear just stepping off the 66th Street subway stop, where it’s not uncommon to find a musician hauling his or her cello onto the train or seeing men finely dressed in tuxedos heading to or returning from a formal evening concert. The fanciful, choreographed water fountain is the heart of Lincoln Center, surrounded by iconic institutions such as the New York City Ballet, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Julliard School, among others.  So it seemed to me a little out of the ordinary that my first trip there would be to see not a ballet, but a war documentary: Restrepo, part of the Human Rights Watch film festival at the Lincoln Center Film Society. It is a study of an American outpost in Afghanistan named after Juan Restrepoa fallen medic in the soldiers’ battle company. This is a serious documentary—not some ordinary war drama.  It does not have the complex cinematic camera movements or the soaring music of Saving Private Ryan, or a love story such as the ones portrayed in Pearl Harbor and Forrest Gump. No, the genre of documentary does not invent such things, for the camera tells the unscripted story of real soldiers and their experiences. Restrepo is a powerful portrayal of war that I will never forget.

The setting of the film is the Korengal Valley. The “Korengal,” as it is often referred to in the movie, lies in the border region dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan, sandwiched between the Afghan capital city of Kabul on the southwest and the Pakistani capital of Islamabad on the southeast. It is widely believed that many of the insurgents fighting the U.S. and NATO forces take refuge in this border region. As the movie opens, video footage from military helicopters takes the viewer on an aerial tour of Afghanistan’s rugged terrain. We see the sharp mountains and desolate landscape. It looks so different from the busy cosmopolitan urban landscape outside the theater, and this contrast creates  tension. We know what awaits us and that we cannot turn back. We are there as a roadside bomb explodes under an armored vehicle. We are there as soldiers respond to an incoming attack on their outpost. With barely enough time to throw on their armored vests and wearing only boxers and combat boots, they shoot back as bullets swirl around them. We are there for lighthearted moments of downtime too, and the painful moments when death and loss come to the soldiers.

And so this documentary is far more powerful than a long news report or a composed history lesson. It is a human drama, a human story, about real people who might otherwise be forgotten. In making this film, independent journalist Sebastian Junger visited the battle company five times between 2007 and 2008.  In his accompanying book War, he recounts a combat scene where two soldiers, Private First Class Timothy Vimoto and Private Tad Donoho, come under machine gun and grenade attack. Junger recounts that “Both men began returning fire, bullets kicking up dirt all around them, and at one point Donoho saw Vimoto open his mouth as if he were about to yell something. No sound came out, though; instead, his head jerked back and then tipped forward. He didn’t move again” (18). The death of Vimoto is tragic and by associating a name to a death, it becomes personal for the reader like the viewer.

We see the aftermath of another U.S. soldier’s death in Restrepo. In the scene, soldiers quickly cover his body while others come closer to inquire what happened as the chaos continues around them. One soldier lets out a wailing scream and sobs, lamenting the loss of a friend and fellow comrade-in-arms. His grief pierces the theater. I am crying and see that others around me are too. We are gripped, drawn in by this human trauma. Soldiers are typically portrayed as tough and resilient and to see this moment of pain and frailty is overwhelming. There is a moment of collective emotion in the theater; we are mourning the loss along with the soldier, and perhaps too, lamenting the absurdity of war. We are now partly connected to the soldiers from a distance; the war begins to come home.

Yes, we are partly connected, but only partly. We could see glimpses of war and hear what combat is like, but we could not smell the war, or touch it, or make it real and tangible. For as much as I took in what I saw and my emotional reaction to it, it was still not a full sensory experience. At the same time there was a huge disconnect as I sat in the air-conditioned comfort of a New York City theater. Many in the audience were likely being introduced to this war for the first time, even though it was approaching its tenth year. Why was there such a disconnect? What about everyone else who hadn’t seen this film and didn’t give even this short amount of time to think about what’s happening in Afghanistan? I would be remiss not to give credit to the audience in the theater and all those who have seen the movie or have attempted to learn about Afghanistan by reading about the war or having a conversation with a veteran. Indeed, any of this is better than not having any consciousness of what is happening over there.

As an illustration of how disconnected some may be to the war in Afghanistan, it is useful to look at empirical evidence. In 2009, the Pew Research Center found that 38 percent of Americans who do not follow the news from Afghanistan “feel the news can be so depressing they would rather not hear about it,” and “27 percent say they feel guilty for not following the news from Afghanistan more closely” (“Most Say”). To tap the pulse of Americans and their views on war, Christian Science Monitor reporter Michael Ollove, who labels Afghanistan an “invisible” war, visited York, Pennsylvania, and drew sharp contrasts with how the town views this war compared to World War II. He found that during the 1940s World War II was “inescapably Topic A—and probably every other letter of the alphabet as well—in York as it was in every other small town or big city in America” (Ollove). By contrast, he found that Leada Dietz, a York resident and activist, described Afghanistan as a “forgotten” war. “It’s almost as though there is no war,” she said (qtd. in Ollove). Dietz’s remarks expose a blind spot in the American psyche.

Ollove offers an explanation as to why Americans are not as engaged as they once were. He cites the lack of a draft, and the Bush Administration’s decision to prevent the public from seeing the flag-draped coffins arriving back in the United States (Ollove). Even after the Obama Administration overturned this prohibition, the media still does not show these images on a regular basis, if at all. Ollove also lists the economic downturn and “war fatigue” as other causal factors for American ambivalence, or rather, blunt indifference.

Ollove also cites a Bush-era tax cut as evidence that even during war time Americans are not sharing any sort of financial burden. Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, a Vietnam veteran, and the father of a soldier killed in Iraq, agrees. “The policies of holding Americans harmless renders the war remote and unreal for most,” he says. “Americans are not asked to participate, and only minimally experience the various effects of one of the longest wars in our history” (qtd. in Ollove). It is useful to look back at our history and remember Vietnam. Though many university students weren’t even born during this era, it should be recalled that the draft was in place at this time. The future then for so many Americans was uncertain, not knowing whether they would be called up and sent to fight. Today, with an all-volunteer force, that uncertainty and immediacy has all but disappeared.

While the lack of a draft and the absence of images of the dead seem to be major causes of indifference, they are not the only ones. Some argue it is television and the dominance of pop culture that keeps Americans from paying more attention to the war. Army Reservist Craig Trebilcock says, “I don’t think the average person thinks about these wars at all. They’re more concerned about what’s going on in ‘Lost’ or who’s winning ‘American Idol’ than what the country is doing overseas” (qtd. in Ollove). It is quite possible that some Americans prefer to be preoccupied with entertainment and reality television than the reality of what’s happening in Afghanistan. It is much more cheerful and uplifting to watch a drama or comedy than it is to see war footage or a video of coffins and soldiers dying. David Carr, a flim critic for The New York Times, makes a similar point in his review of Restrepo. As he says, “for the most part public interest and understanding of what American soldiers do on our behalf remains remarkably limited in wars that go mostly untelevised and undernoticed.  American men and women fight, die and kill a long ways from home, and many want it to stay that way” (Carr).

Columbia University professor Bruce Robbins, who specializes in cultural theory, helps to explain this phenomenon of humans distancing themselves from suffering in his essay “The Sweatshop Sublime.” He describes the average lay person’s attitude as : “It’s fine if I know it’s happening, as long as it’s not happening right here” (Robbins 91). All are arguing essentially the same thing, that we tend to prefer to keep a space between the evils and suffering of the world and our blissful spheres of existence. Physical distance is a factor related to war indifference, as the experience of watching Restrepo in Lincoln Center clearly reveals. Viewers are far removed from the terrain and combat environment of Afghanistan. Yet the medium of film and the subsequent reviews of the film, exposes the public to subjects that once may have seemed distant, but now are more accessible.

While visual reminders can provoke awareness, our instinct is to shrug off that awareness. In his essay, Robbins recounts a cartoon from the The New Yorker in which a person examines the label on a shirt collar, something many of us may have done ourselves. Robbins writes that we may or may not think about which country it came from and consider the potentially horrible conditions under which it was created. Whether we are committed to fighting global inequality or changing our buying habits, Robbins says the outcome is the same: in that instant, “you put on the shirt and forget about it” (85). He continues:

Yet at the same time this insight is also strangely powerless. Your sudden, heady access to the global scale is not access to a commensurate power of action on the global scale. You have a cup of tea or coffee. You get dressed.  Just as suddenly, just as shockingly, you are returned to yourself in all your everyday smallness.” (3)

While Robbins is examining this behavior through the lens of sweatshop labor, it can be applied to our awareness about war. While watching Restrepo, the viewer may get angered, emotional, vow to take action, vow to care more, but once we leave the theater or turn off the movie, we may forget about it, and, like Robbins says, return to our “everyday smallness.”

Why do we stay in our “everyday smallness”? Are we afraid to allow anything uncomfortable to penetrate our bubbles, shake our foundations, erode our veils of safety and security? Stepping outside of the smallness of ourselves can be a good thing. If we fail to shrug off our indifference, we are choosing to be left in the dark. So much is at stake. We may be headed back into complacency and pre-9/11 thinking. A seemingly foreboding article published in the journal Foreign Affairs in 2000 by James M. Lindsay, an expert on the domestic response to American foreign policy, noted that “Americans ignore much of what happens overseas because they see little at stake” (4).

What were Lindsay’s thoughts in 2000 on how to make Americans less apathetic about what happens overseas? “A renewed threat to American security would clearly do the trick,” he says. “So might a recession” (Lindsay 7). Obviously, Lindsay’s predictions were realized. In his International Politics article “Distant Suffering and Cosmopolitan Obligations,” scholar Andrew Linklater notes how interconnected the world is today. “Globalization has made affluent societies more aware of distant suffering than ever before,” he writes (24). He drives home his view that we, in developed and advanced societies, have the moral obligation to care about what is happening in other parts of the world. I agree, we do have that obligation. Do we always act on it? Linklater says no: “For many, compassion alone can produce cosmopolitan behavior. But one must ask how far efforts to promote identification with ‘distant strangers’ can also encourage emotions such as shame and guilt” (27).  Like faraway victims of a tsunami, or refugees fleeing a civil war, it is not too far of a stretch to say that U.S. and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan are also considered “distant strangers.” I find this uncomfortably perplexing. We so remove ourselves from war by distance and apathy that other Americans, young men and women fighting a war, become distant to us.

In his review of Restrepo, Carr implicates us all in making the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines the “distant strangers” that Linklater discusses. Carr, a member of the mainstream media establishment, appears almost shocked and surprised at his profession’s limited war coverage. The film, again, seems to make up where the news media has fallen short. The time and effort the film makers invested has paid off. Carr interviewed Sergeant Brendan C. O’Byrne, who completed a tour in Afghanistan, who explained that Restrepo has served as a vehicle to help others see what soldiers go through in war. “I’ve received all sorts of e-mails from families and wives of soldiers who say the book and the movie helps them understand why their fathers or their brothers or husbands don’t like to talk about what happened over there” (qtd. in Carr)  In much the same way, the film fosters reconciliation between the soldier and the film viewer.

Surely, it would be foolish to think that by watching one film all the problems of indifference will be solved. Bringing back the draft and airing nightly news video of coffins will not solve this problem either. It is hard to raise consciousness about a war without treading into divisive views on war, policy, and ethics. Everyone comes to the subject with a different perspective and set of beliefs. Some reject the idea of war entirely. So how does one account for an appropriate amount of consciousness? Perhaps asking that question is absurd in itself. There is no litmus test, one does not reach a certain level of consciousness where one is no longer indifferent. There is no level, there is no judge, and there is no right or wrong course of action. Sure, it would be great if someone was so moved as to inquire about a local veteran’s organization, volunteer with the USO to send care packages to soldiers in Afghanistan, or join a local peace movement. Perhaps watching the film will motivate someone to pay more attention to the news or pick up that free copy of the The New York Times in Columbia’s student center in Lerner Hall or attend a panel discussion on Afghanistan at the School of International and Public Affairs. Even more, as uncomfortably patriotic as it may sound to some, even walking by the American flag pole can trigger a few seconds of thought, that while you are heading to class, a war is going on and people are dying.

If these suggestions seem like a stretch or are asking too much, I understand. Being close to death and war is very uncomfortable. I maintained my own distance when I was in the military. In 2008, I was an active duty Sailor in the United States Navy assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), where I worked as a video journalist in media and public affairs. Our ship was a floating airport, a launching pad for fighter jets that dropped bombs on Iraq and Afghanistan. This was my first taste of war after being stationed in Japan and southern California earlier in my military life. I remember our captain and commanding officer telling the entire ship about the first mission. He told us how many insurgents we killed and congratulated everyone—from the sailors who loaded the weapons onto the planes to the pilots who flew the missions—on a “job well done.” We were all complicit and it was disgusting to me, but what should I have expected? Perhaps I was too caught up in my “everyday smallness” or was too naïve to believe I could be in the military and escape a deployment to a danger zone. Yet the moment had arrived. I felt a sick feeling in my stomach: war was real now and I did not like it. It was hard to process and hard to swallow that we had just taken the lives of other human beings. I wondered who they were; did they have families? Why did they hate us? Through all my naïve notions and novice understanding of war, I was glad I was sitting in an office, even if it was miles off the coast on a warship. I was glad I did not have to drop those bombs. Was it cowardice? Did it make me less patriotic? I think not. Did I realize then a future in the military was probably not for me? Yes.

Yet, in order to prosecute a war, someone must step up, someone has to drop those bombs. Like the soldiers in Restrepo, someone has to be willing to risk everything, leave his life behind, go off to war, and yes, be confronted with the reality of killing and taking life and be okay with it. In “The Moral Instinct,” Harvard professor Steven Pinker explores not merely what is and is not moral in society, but the process of how we determine the difference. According to Pinker, “Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral (‘killing is wrong’), rather than merely disagreeable” (34). Pinker points out the distinctions we make between “killing is wrong” (a universal norm) and “killing in war is not wrong” (34). We vote for the leaders who send men and women to war and funnel our tax dollars to fund this war. As distanced and distracted from the implications of our actions as we may be, are we not complicit?

Afghanistan may not be entirely forgotten, but the daily deaths of American soldiers has long ceased being front page news.  How can we not care to think about others who are doing our killing for us, serving in a war many of us will never see, and picking up the arms many of us refuse to touch? Linklater offers insight into why we, people who believe that killing is wrong, let others do our killing for us in war. As he explains, “Taboos against harming others can disintegrate rapidly when individuals and communities fear for their survival” (26). The events of 9/11 and the continued threat of terrorism seem to be at the root of this fear. The mechanism that allows us to go about our daily lives without thinking about the war and soldiers dying is the same one that offers us a buffer from daily fear or concern.

I do not wish to cast moral judgment or blindly advise students to consider a career in the military, nor do I advocate an unwavering support of the war in Afghanistan. It is not my place. I am not trying to convince peace activists to change their minds, nor am I affirming that people are more or less patriotic if they have served in the armed forces. I am merely attempting to raise the public’s consciousness about a war that fails to pervade our daily lives. I am trying to bring home a war and its soldiers so they won’t be forgotten. And I believe that seeing Restrepo can be a starting point.

I remember how the movie audience reacted to a soldier’s death on screen with audible sobs. They got it; this moment of collective grief was rare and seemed profoundly significant. As philosopher Judith Butler noted in a French documentary on AIDS

[p]ublic mourning is not something we do because we have personal needs to grieve. We do have those, I’m sure, but I think public mourning gives value to lives, brings us into a kind of heightened awareness of the precariousness of lives and the necessity to protect them and perhaps to understand that that precariousness is shared across national borders.” (Butler)

Butler’s implication that this “public mourning” gives validation to those lost, can be extended to give validation to all those who have served, such as those portrayed in Restrepo, and to those who will die in this war and in future conflicts. Perhaps we sob because on some level we understand that they fight and die in war so that we don’t have to.

The time has come for full awareness of this morbid reality. As Steven Pinker says, “it’s hard to imagine any aspect of public life where ignorance or delusion is better than an awareness of the truth, even an unpleasant one. . . maintaining walls of ignorance around some topic, can corrupt all of intellectual life, proliferating error far and wide” (“In Defense of Dangerous Ideas”).  Like Pinker, Robbins encourages us to step out of our ignorance. As Robbins says, maybe sometimes we need “a provocation intended to shock us out of lethargy” (6). I believe the film Restrepo can be just that shock we require. As Sebastian Junger said during a panel discussion featured on the movie’s website, “How society deals with war morally is really, really important . . . I want people to walk out of the cinemas thinking ‘my god, I didn’t know war was like that” (“Restrepo”). In the same discussion, the late Restrepo photographer Tim Herrington said, “What they go through needs to be seen and needs to be digested by the American public” (“Restrepo”). If anything, my hope is that you see this film and decide for yourself. Go on the adventure that is Restrepo. Let the soldiers into your lives for that hour, hear their stories, experience the war, and bring it home. Perhaps in time they will no longer be the distant and forgotten.

Carr, David. “Valley of Death: One Platoon’s Tour of Duty.” nytimes.com. The New York Times16 June 2010. Web. 22 Nov. 2010.

Judith Butler: Philosophe et tout genre. Dir. Paule Zajdermann. ARTE France, 2006. Web. 27 Nov. 2010.

Junger, Sebastian. War. Toronto: Harper Collins, 2010. Print.

Lindsay, James M. “The New Apathy: How an Uninterested Public Is Reshaping Foreign Policy.” Foreign Affairs: Council on Foreign Relations 79.5 (2000): 2-8 JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.

Linklater, Andrew. “Distant Suffering and Cosmopolitan Obligations.” International Politics 44. 1 (2007): 19-36. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.

“Most Say They Lack Background to Follow Afghan News.” people-press.org. Pew Research Center for People and the Press. 22 Oct. 2009. Web. 19 Nov. 2010.

Ollove, Michael. “Iraq and Afghanistan: America’s Invisible Wars.” csmonitor.com. The Christian Science Monitor. 20 Mar. 2010. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.

Pinker, Steven. “In Defense of Dangerous Ideas.” Chicago Sun-Times. 15 Jul. 2007. Web. 21 Nov. 2010

– – -. “The Moral Instinct.” New York Times Magazine. 13 Jan 2008: 32+. Print.

Robbins, Bruce.  “The Sweatshop Sublime.” PMLA 117.1 (2002): 84-97. Print.

Restrepo. Dirs. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. Outpost Films and National Geographic, 2009. Film.