By Allan Swisher —
Last month, the United States entered its ninth year of combat in Afghanistan, and U.S. public opinion regarding the war has never been more negative. According to a recent poll by CNN and Opinion Research Corporation, “[O]nly 37% of all Americans favor the war. . .[and] 52% say the war in Afghanistan has turned into a Vietnam.”
Reasonable observers can debate whether the comparison between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam is apt. However, in one area the comparison obviously fails: cinema.
In previous generations, the best war films have allowed the American public to engage in a collective moral inventory regarding U.S. military engagement. The most salient examples are commercial and critical successes that explored U.S. involvement in Vietnam, such as Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon. In contrast, the Global War on Terror has inspired a less noteworthy filmography. There has been a number of big-budget flops (Green Zone, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Body of Lies, Lions for Lambs), and critically acclaimed but largely ignored documentaries (Restrepo, The Tillman Story, No End in Sight). The arguable exception is The Hurt Locker, which won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Picture and received accolades from critics but garnered criticism from military professionals and indifference from the general public.
As Tom Streithorst noted in Prospect, the Iraq War “is a tragedy that deserves its Tolstoy. It still awaits its Francis Ford Coppola.” Where is the essential cinema exploring the Global War on Terror? There are three possible answers.
Reason 1. The Decline of Conscription-Based Armed Forces
About a year ago, Judah Grunstein of World Politics Review pondered the relative dearth of influential literature and cinema exploring the U.S. engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. He posited:
I’ve got a hunch that this has to do with the transition to a professional, as opposed to a conscription-based, army. Artists, as a general rule, do not usually fit the military profile. So there’s a self-selection process at work weeding out the kinds of personality types that might, having returned Stateside, produce a significant work of art from their wartime experiences.
Grunstein’s theory is instructive but deserves a caveat. Though the artists of yesteryear might not emerge from today’s armed forces, the proliferation of mobile filmmaking technology allows a unique opportunity for soldiers to create media that captures their authentic experience. Consider The War Tapes, a 2006 documentary culled from 800 hours of video filmed by soldiers themselves, captured on cameras provided to them by the filmmakers. The proliferation of user-oriented media tools represents a largely untapped opportunity for cinematic exploration of the Global War on Terror.
Reason 2. Increasingly Fragmented Media Culture
However, the rise of new media might also hinder this goal. Cass Sunstein has lamented that the United States’ “increasingly fragmented communications universe will reduce the level of shared experiences having salience to a diverse group of Americans.” Media reform advocates point to multiple forces slowly killing the shared public forum: the Internet, the proliferation of cable television, media consolidation and conglomeration, and the demise of American newspapers.
In this environment, even excellent films about the Global War on Terror (the aforementioned Restrepo comes to mind) can only reach a limited and compartmentalized potential audience. According to Sunstein, shared experience is critical for the American public to engage in reasoned democratic deliberation, and this seems particularly true regarding the appropriate use of military, political, and diplomatic power. Popular cinema presents a unique and accessible way to shape public opinion on these issues. Perhaps the lack of strong, popular films exploring the Global War on Terror is a symptom of systemic ills plaguing 21st-century U.S. media in general.
Reason 3. Public Weariness of War
Or it could be even simpler: the American public’s attention to the War on Terror has simply waned. Streithorst’s article quotes a private stationed in Iraq who said in 2007, “We’re a reality show everybody’s bored of.”
In 1979, Roger Ebert noted: “What ‘The Deer Hunter’ insists is that we not forget the war.” Can modern cinema do the same for the Global War on Terror?
Some films have tried but regrettably remain under the radar. Restrepo, in particular, deserves a wider audience for its moving and visceral depiction of life as a soldier in Afghanistan. The Tillman Story has received excellent reviews. Though perhaps not as powerful or iconic as Apocalypse Now, these documentaries provide a stirring and realistic depiction of the Global War on Terror and its impact on those who fight it.
Image from Restrepo, courtesy of National Geographic