Sleepless and video-shell-shocked in the CNN newsroom during the 1991 Gulf War, I marveled at how much like a movie it all seemeda theater of>"/>
Sleepless and video-shell-shocked in the CNN newsroom during the 1991 Gulf War, I marveled at how much like a movie it all seemeda theater of war. Why else would Entertainment Weekly have sent me there? Only CNN had cameras in Baghdad, and theirs was the only blockbuster movie in the global cineplex, the second-most-watched TV event in history (after JFKs funeral). Wandering around interviewing CNN newsies, I thought I glimpsed myself on camera at one point, flanked by monitors blazing with telegenic mayhem, and had a hallucinatory, unprofessional thought: What if I grabbed a microphone and seized control of the movie in progress?
But Gulf War I was a film directed by the White House and Pentagon, dominated by ridiculously unrepresentative images of smart bombs and Top Gun acro-ballets and heroic warriors recapping the battle. Time film critic Richard Corliss reviewed the Great Performance of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, our real-life Schwarzenegger, as if he were a movie star displaying all the seductiveness of the performers art despite resembling Jonathan Winters crossed with Willard Scott. Practically everyone with gung-ho footageeven the National Football Leagueput out a Gulf War video, and there was a CD-ROM of government footage, USA Wars: Desert Storm. (The game portion of the package, complained one reviewer, is both hard to install and neither easy nor fun to use.) With action like this, who needed Hollywood?
When a few regular movies finally got around to covering the war after years of avoiding the subject altogether (the same pattern of societal denial we saw after Vietnam), what came was way under the popular radar: Courage Under Fire, Three Kings, and Lessons of Darkness, a virtually unseen indie film by Werner Herzog. These idiosyncratic films lost out to Pentagon-style reality programming because they lacked the blockbuster aesthetics it takes to capture the popular imagination. They failed to reduce complex real events into simple visual symbols and formulaic narratives that slake our thirst for heroic wish fulfillment, fables of victorious virtue and vanquished villains, and happy or nobly tragic endings that flatter and reassure. Who needs first-rate movies that face the facts, as each of these three films tried to do? We need third-rate fantasies. What really sold on-screen was the reassuring image of Saddam as a harmless clown: Satans boyfriend in South Park, the Saddam look-alike actor in blockbuster farces like Hot Shots. Such entertainments offered us a cinematic version of the Gulf War that was, like the upbeat news footage, easy and fun to use.
The Gulf War II movie is not upbeat, easy, nor fun. Its no longer shocking that war comes across in cinematic terms. In 1991, it was a bit naughty of Corliss to review Schwarzkopf-as-matinee-idol; in 2003, no one finds it odd that the war is chronicled on Access Hollywood, or that Gen. Tommy Franks performs briefings from Qatar on a $250,000 set built by a designer from Disney and MGM, or that the producer of Top Gun (whose film inspired one of Gulf War IIs first U.S. flyboy casualties to enlist) is producing Gulf War news specials. Two-fisted Yale professor Donald Kagan, co-chair of the 2000 Project for the New American Century manifesto that laid out the case for the new American puissance, is entirely up-front about what were living through: You saw the movie High Noon? Were Gary Cooper. Of course the war is a movie; thats no longer news to anyone.
THE NEWS IS that its no longer one movie, but many. Instead of being force-fed one image stream from Baghdad via CNN, we face an unprecedented flood of video from all over the map. Its a free-for-all. Everybodys a director, each insisting on the right of final cut. Despite the best efforts of the White House to direct the entire war drama, not even the Pentagon will stick to the script: Commanders in the field contradict the clean, high-concept-movie message Rumsfeld and Bush strive to sell with the single-mindedness of the Weinstein brothers attempting to orchestrate the Oscars. Reality can break loose from the cocoon of orchestrated buffoonery, growled an editorial in Cairos Al-Ahram Weekly, the Arab worlds oldest newspaper. We are getting a pretty good notion about the smartness of those who think that highly complicated military operations [are] little more than a Rambo film, where the protagonist is often capable of downing enemy helicopters with the gun he has just snatched from one of the five troops he earlier stabbed with a knife, after having stormed their camp alone. Almost simultaneously with the publication of this article, Arab TV trumpeted the dubious Rambo-esque tale of the Iraqi farmer who downed a U.S. Apache helicopter with an ancient, primitive rifle.
The question of the hour is not whether the war is a formula film. The question is: Whose movie is it? Instead of CNN, this wars game-changing media entity is Al-Jazeera, beaming scenes from Iraq the most embedded Western journalist never sees, editing it into a Gulf War movie with an angry Islamic spin. In 1991, CNN showed us what Gulf War I looked like from the point of view of a camera in the nose of a smart bomb landing on an Iraqi building; in 2003 Al-Jazeera puts cameramen almost directly under the falling bombs for the Iraqi-eye view. CNNs Aaron Brown cautiously reports the smallest of hints of an uprising inside Basra; inside Basra, an Al-Jazeera reporter says, nope, no uprising. The first President Bush almost got away with hoodwinking the world about Iraqi soldiers who supposedly dumped newborn Kuwaiti babies out of their incubators until it was exposed as a hoax concocted by the spinmeister PR firm Hill & Knowlton. The second Bush must deal with unconcocted Al-Jazeera footage of an Iraqi baby with the top of his head blown off, the skin collapsing like a popped balloon. Indeed, effects-based technology causes less collateral damage than ever before possiblebut how can the dry facts compete with movielike special effects of actual butchery? Especially when the entire Iraqi strategy seems to be to stage such emotionally stunning scenes of butchery?
Whats really unprecedented about Gulf War II is that the military situation is secondary. The outcome may very well be determined by who succeeds in turning that barrage of imagery into the definitive blockbuster film about the conflict. Shock and awe turned out to be a sequel to Dumb and Dumber. So far, the Islamic movie is winning the weekend. If the American Gulf War movie is jingoistic, with news sources and even reporters echoing the mindset and jargon of the Bushmen (taking out targets, etc.), the Islamic Gulf War movie is beyond shame, because its a shrieking reaction to the humiliation of living in a failed culture of dreams. Fox News may be unfair and jeering (their idea of covering war protests is to put these words on their electronic news ticker above the crowd: ATTENTION PROTESTERS: MICHAEL MOORE FAN CLUB MEETS THURSDAY AT A PHONE BOOTH AT SIXTH AVENUE AND 50TH STREET). But Al-Jazeera outjeers Fox, with a still foxier grasp of what it takes to sell news like a simple-minded movie.
Abdel Bari Atwan, an Al-Jazeera regular, knows that his viewers arent exactly after the news, but a purgative psychological experience: Baghdad is burning and our brother Arabs shift from one channel to another searching for the most terrible images, those that best express the crime of George W. Bush. The only movie that could counter the effect of that dead Iraqi baby would be the snuff flick starring Saddams corpse. And even Saddams death would not erase the mass memory of that babys death. If they were pure journalists, Al-Jazeeras ultimate scoop would be to broadcast images of bloody, dead Iraqi babies held as human shields by Iraqi men firing at coalition troops. But their movie wouldnt be sweeping the Islamic world if it told people stories they dont want to see.
THE U.S. GULF WAR MOVIE isnt exactly pure journalism, either. We who would impose freedom of speech on Iraqis howl in outrage when Islam dares to show images we dont want anyone to see: our dead and POWs, their babies brained by our bombs. Hackers replace Al-Jazeeras Web site with the American flag, echoing the GIs who replaced the Iraqi flag with ours. When Peter Arnett, the veteran reporter of both Gulf Wars, gave an interview to Iraqi newsmen whod granted him dozens of interviews, he was fired for saying Iraqs startling will to fight forced a rewrite of our war plan and pictures of maimed civilians were fanning the anti-war flames. Of course it was pretty much true, but how dare he say it! In their movie! Haughty and high-minded, our press condemned him. But he wasnt sacked for blurring the already blurry distinction between reporter and pundit, nor for being obnoxiously ingratiating to a contemptible news source that is shackled beyond Ashcrofts wettest dreams. It was for uttering lines not in the patriotic script. His employers dont want their Gulf War movie to lose to Foxs and the rest of the Hooah, sir! press. As Jonathan Turley wrote in The Los Angeles Times, NBC would dress Tom Brokaw as a bald eagle if it would secure a better Nielsen share.
Bush complained that Saddams lying defiance of inspections was like a rerun of a bad movie, but in fact, Saddam is producing a whole new movie, and he is proving a better filmmaker than Bush. A famous fan of Coppolas The Godfather and The Conversation, Saddam hired Dr. No and Thunderball auteur Terence Young to edit The Long Days, the Iraqi blockbuster movie about the incompetent youthful assassination attempt that launched Saddams career. (Ironically, the target of the flopped assassination was played by Saddams cousinand, later, brother-in-lawwhom Saddam had killed in real life.) Saddam consolidated his dictatorship via a scripted and filmed 1979 purge: As he read out their names, each of his potential rivals on the Revolutionary Command Council was marched out, followed by an Oscarish spotlight, while he smoked a Darryl Zanuck-esque cigar. The movies finale was a mass execution. The live crowd applauded wildly.
Even many who dont fear Saddam will kill them are applauding him now, thanks to the abject failure of the American movie of the war, the movie-mad nature of the Al-Jazeera audience, and a strange pride in seeing Islamic fantasies hit the big time. As L.A. Times correspondent Sam Herhovek wrote in an e-mail to friends last week: Somehow this war has managed to turn Saddam Hussein into the O.J. Simpson of the Middle East. Even the Iraqis who know hes a bad guy kind of find themselves cheering for him to get away in the white Bronco and show up the Man. Noted scholar Fouad Ajami says Islams poisonous rage toward us is because of our success, of our secularism, of our movies. Yet, as Arnett, testifies, They love our movies. U.S. Army specialist Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, taken prisoner in Gulf War I, said what her Iraqi captors most wanted to know was whether she was personally acquainted with Brooke Shields and Sylvester Stallone.
Movie-mindedness has become central to the expression of Islamic rage. What audiocassette tapes were to Khomeinis Iranian revolution, video is to Osamas. The two World Trade Center towers were attacked in succession so as to guarantee worldwide video coverage of the second towers burning. Suicide bombers get to star in their own last-testament videos, certain of the paradise that awaits: coverage on the ongoing movie that is Islamic news broadcasting. Daniel Pearl thought the Islamists would want to use his power as a journalist to get their ideas across to the world. But they didnt want journalism, or ideas, or the world as it is. They wanted him to co-star as a symbol of political power humiliated in their movie alongside Islamic victims of violence, in a work of emotion, not ideas, as a protest against reality and a flight into fantasy.
Last week, one Arab diplomat complained to Londons Financial Times, What [the Arabs] say has nothing to do with reality. Theyve had no role in a drama in which Arabs are victims; theyve had no say in a war which will have an impact even on the air they breathe. Instead, they celebrate imaginary triumphs akin to those of Butch Cassidy and Sundance. We will fight to the end and everywhere. History will record how well Iraqis performed in defense of their capital, said Iraqs defense minister last week. Like so many despairing Islamic people, hes not looking at immediate reality. Hes staring madly into the distance and getting ready for his close-up, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
Movie dreams, if theyre grand enough, have a horrible way of becoming reality. In America, where there is so much less to foment terrorist thinking, there was once a film in development called Ten Soldiers, a Lord of the Flieslike cautionary fable about children reverting to violence. The studio handed the project over to Gen. Al Haig, who made the screenwriter rewrite it according to the crazed notions of right-wing think tanks very like the fringe-dwelling loonies who later wrote the 2000 Project for the New American Century (the blueprint these loonies are using to bend the world to their mad, visionary will, now that theyve corrupted the Supreme Court, seized control of the U.S. government, hypnotized the public, and exploited the opportunity Osama and Saddam have handed them). The movie became Red Dawn, a fantasy about a small band of fanatics defending their home soil against the enemy: back then, Russia, Cuba, and pinkos in Mexico. It will be a surefire international blockbuster, the right-wingers said. It wasnt; just a $40 million mediocrity.
But it did succeed in serving as the chief career inspiration for at least one young visionary: Timothy McVeigh, until 9/11 the most destructive terrorist in U.S. history.
How many young Islamic terrorists do you suppose the movie Gulf War II will inspire?