Saturday, September 12, 2009

War Movies

Via Sullivan, Kenneth Payne and Judah Grunstein are both wondering about works of art generated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both think that there's something unusual about what they see as a lack of great literature, movies, etc.; Payne has a theory to explain it, which is the shift from a draft to a volunteer military.

I'm not convinced. Grunstein cites Mailer, Heller, and Vonnegut, but The Naked and the Dead was published in 1948, Catch 22 in 1961, and Slaughterhouse Five in 1969. His Vietnam movies are Deer Hunter (1978), Boys in Company C (1978), Apocalypse Now (1978), and Platoon (1986). MASH is earlier (1970), but of course that is set in Korea, not Vietnam. All Quiet on the Western Front was published a decade after WWI ended. Something like Mr. Roberts (1955 movie, 1948 play -- hey, I didn't know it was based on a 1946 novel) just doesn't play well until the hostilities are over.

Payne probably has a point about Vietnam and war correspondents, but Vietnam was particularly famous for its war correspondents. Iraq hasn't produced a Dispatches as far as I know, but there's a lot of excellent long-form journalism. Payne mentions George Packer and Tom Ricks, and I'd at least add Jane Mayer, plus Fred Kaplan's pieces in Slate. We also have blogging, beginning with Andrew Sullivan on torture. My guess is that Vietnam journalism was better at helping people understand what was happening, but I think the current crop is pretty solid on investigative and analytical reporting.

Back to movies...I haven't watched any of the Iraq-era war movies (I'm often years behind on new movies, alas), but it seems to me that there have been quite a few of them, and my guess is that several will wind up well-regarded. In addition to Hurt Locker, which Payne mentions (and, like me, hasn't seen) there was Valley of Elah, Rendition, Redacted, War Inc., Grace is Gone...each of those has its champions, and that's not a complete list. I can't speak to novels, but I do think that there have been several well-regarded plays about Iraq, although none, as far as I know, destined to have long lives.

During popular wars, you get propaganda movies, and while they can be great (Casablanca is the obvious example), they aren't really going to force us to confront the hard issues that no one wants to confront. During controversial wars, movies are a tough sell -- the pro-war group doesn't want to watch premature Catch-22s or Mister Robertses (Misters Roberts?), while the anti-war crowd doesn't want to see Casablanca or To Have and Have Not, so there goes your mass audience.

Oh, and the best movie (so far) about the first Iraq War, or at least set there, was Three Kings (1999).

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