Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Terror Alerts

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine Notebook (March 2007)

One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.
-- J M Coetzee

Count the number of movies these days that play to America's fear of losing its way in the world, and it's a wonder that Congress doesn't appoint an Iraq Study Group drawn from the company of studio executives seated poolside in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. The Hollywood field commanders might not know the difference between an Arab and a Turk, or how much to tip the lieutenant for valet parking the tank, but Western civilization they know to be running low on its stores of weapons-grade triumphalism, and dystopia they recognize as a travel destination no farther away than next month's bomb blast in Paris or Wichita Falls. Such at least was the holiday message brought to Manhattan's Cineplex screens last Christmas with the big-ticket movies storming the objective of an Academy Award, among them Babel, Apocalypto, Blood Diamond, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Good Shepherd, and Children of Men. Twinkling with the glitter of box-office celebrity (Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Clint Eastwood, Clive Owen, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mel Gibson, Robert De Niro), the images of disaster came wrapped in the ribbons of critical acclaim - "nervously plausible future", "frighteningly, violently precarious", a "glorious bummer that lifts you to the rafters, transporting you with the greatness of its filmmaking".

The superlatives speak to the art of reformatting news bulletins as fashion statements. The set designs strive to match the CNN broadcasts from Baghdad, Ramallah, and Darfur, the foregrounds decorated with dead children, burning cars, fortified checkpoints, shattered glass, dismembered corpses, pillars of smoke. The cinematography dotes lovingly on the blood-smeared streets envisioned by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as "the face of the early part of the twenty-first century", the Moroccan desert and the jungles of West Africa seen as projections of the not-too-distant future slouching towards the suburbs of San Diego. Intent upon the composition of metaphors deserving a place in the Book of Revelation, the filmmakers don't give much thought to the problems of character and plot, which is just as well because many of the actors speak in strange tongues (Japanese, Yucatec, Berber, Spanish, Krio), their voices heard as sounds indistinguishable from the twittering of birds in a godforsaken wilderness.

In the absence of coherent narrative or intelligible speech, how then to respond to the elevated terrorist alerts? If in Hollywood as in Washington the authors of political pulp fiction shape the product to reassure or entertain as many people as possible, it's safe to assume that the postcards from the frontiers of the apocalypse admit of at least two interpretations, one of them likely to be preferred by audiences that wish to withdraw our troops from Iraq, the other by theatergoers who support the Bush Administration's plan to send more and heavier hired guns.

The first variant offers the gift redemption. The doomed heroes of Blood Diamond and Children of Men appear in the opening sequences marked with the stigmata of cynicism and despair - Leonardo DiCaprio as a heartless, former mercenary soldier engaged in the illegal diamond trade in Sierra Leone during the civil war in 1999, Clive Owen as an alienated intellectual in the city of London fast-forwarded to the year 2027 and there imagined as a pyramid of industrial wreckage and desolation of lost souls. Owen feels "like shit, all day every day"; DiCaprio inhabits a "shit world" in which "killing is a way of life" embraced by the multinational corporations and revolutionary gangs pillaging a country that "God left a long time ago". Neither man believes himself capable of an act of charity or conscience. The movies prove them wrong; against their will and better judgment both men find themselves transformed into imitations of Christ. From the dead moon of England, Owen rescues a young black woman pregnant with what in the year 2027 has become the miracle of a human birth. He attends the delivery of her daughter in a prison camp reminiscent of present day Gaza, brings mother and child through a shroud of machine-gun fire to a small boat that he rows offshore to a mysterious ship named Tomorrow. The movie ends with Owen dying at the oars, the prow of the ship barely visible in the mist but the music floating up into a major key ripe with the promise of civilization reborn.

DiCaprio also gives up his life for the sake of a child, an eight-year-old African boy captured by rebels, programmed to mouth agitprop, and trained to the practice of serial murder. The boy's father, a simple fisherman, stumbles across a diamond so valuable and rare that its price on the market in Amsterdam must admit the seller to the gardens of an earthly Paradise. DiCaprio sets out to steal the stone, but halfway through the film he meets a beautiful American journalist and succumbs to a change of heart. Love blooms, DiCaprio turns his talent for killing against his former associates and arranges the boy's escape from Africa (together with the father and the diamond) in a light plane lifting off into a Norman Rockwell sunset. DiCaprio stays behind to die of his wounds, but the beautiful journalist doesn't let the world forget the meaning of his sacrifice. She writes a magazine article in which she exposes the wickedness of the African resource wars. The movie ends with an exhortation to the buyers of engagement rings at Cartier and Tiffany to remember that it is up to the consumer to insist that the diamond is conflict-free.

Although most clearly stated in Blood Diamond and Children of Men, the theme of redemption wanders through the existential gloom of Babel, infiltrates the headquarters of the CIA in The Good Shepherd, lurks in the forests of Apocalypto, hides in caves in Letters from Iwo Jima. In The Good Shepherd, Matt Damon discovers the capacity for true emotion taken from him during his long years of service in America's bodyguard of lies; Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in Babel come to recognize in the person of a Moroccan villager the presence of a fellow human being, thus stumbling upon the discovery that there's more to life than money. On Iwo Jima in March 1945, the death of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, like the death of Leonidas the Spartan at Thermopylae in 480 BC, invests the horror of war with the meaning of immortal sacrifice; Mel Gibson's noble savage learns from his trials by combat that the time has come for what the subtitles translate as "a new beginning".

In one way or another, the storylines reiterate Hollywood's Christmas message to worried environmentalists and concerned human-rights activists: Yes, maybe it's true that America is busy at the task of devouring the earth, our global financial markets blind to the wretchedness of the naked and undernourished poor, deaf to the cries of drowning polar bears, but all is not lost. We might know that America is doing things that good people shouldn't be doing, but because we feel bad about it, sorry for the luckless victims of unfortunate circumstance, we haven't been robbed of our humanity. We have feelings, feelings as innocent and fine as the ones worn on the sleeves of this year's Democratic presidential candidates, and because we have feelings, our moral perfections remain intact, and our conscience, like the flag at old Fort McHenry, is still there. The guarantee presumably comes as a comfort to theatergoers looking for the cinematic equivalents of a federal witness protection program.

Audiences seated further to the Republican or Christian right don't need to be told that their hearts are pure or that their cause is just. Both propositions they take on faith and know to be a fact. Through no fault of its own, America now finds itself surrounded by sinister enemies as numberless as the names for grief - by communicable diseases and corrupt Russians as well as by angry Muslims and poisoned oceans - and therefore we're justified in the use of any and all means necessary (no matter how brutal or seemingly barbaric) to cleanse the world of its impurities. To theatergoers secure in the righteousness that all Americans inherit at birth, Hollywood's glorious bummers invite interpretation not as assuagings of doubt but as calls to arms. Behold the world for what it is, a raging of beasts and a writhing of serpents. Get used to it; harden thy resolve; defend the homeland against the deadly imports of unlicensed evil. Know that the war on terror will be with us for the next forty years and that the way forward, in Iraq as in Apocalypto and Children of Men, is through the splashing of blood and the trampling out of the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

The stronger line of film appreciation accords with the geopolitical thinking of President George W Bush, also with the enthusiasms of the Washington warrior intellectuals who continue to hold fast, despite the results of last November's election, to the neoconservative doctrines of forward deterrence and preemptive strike - obliterate Iran's nuclear-weapons laboratories before the mullahs can assemble a bomb, intimidate North Korea, punish China, deploy the tactic of targeted assassination. On the latter point, National Review last August published an article entitled "An Arrow in Our Quiver", in which the author, Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that it was foolish on the part of the United States to make unlawful the loosing of the assassin's arrow, so useful a "policy tool", against foreign heads of state clearly identified as the scum of the earth. Rubin conceded that in some quarters of American opinion "there remains a gut-level revulsion to assassination", but he found the squeamishness more prevalent among the country's effete academics than among "ordinary Americans".

The observation has become a commonplace around Dick Cheney's campfires in Wyoming. As often as not it leads to a series of further remarks about how as a people we've become too rich and too comfortable for our own good, that having gone soft in the head as well as the heart, we've misplaced our joie du combat, forgotten how to take casualties, lost touch with our inner barbarian. John Podhoretz, one of the more ferocious apostles of American empire, addressed the problem in a newspaper column published last summer in the New York Post during the weeks when Israel was sending its raiding parties into southern Lebanon. The Israelis were being condemned in the world press for inflicting disproportionate damage on the city of Beirut, also for leaving behind in the Lebanese countryside a plantation of as many as one million unexploded cluster bombs - small objects resembling a child's toy, stuck in the branches of olive trees, buried in the rubble of what once were villages, strewn across farm fields, orchards, roads, school playgrounds. Taking offense at the suggestion that somehow Israel had committed atrocities, Podhoretz asked a number of momentous questions that could as easily have occurred to Lieutenant General Kuribayashi:

"Could World War II have been won by Britain and the United States if the two countries did not have it in them to firebomb Dresden and nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki?"

"What if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point where they can no longer wage war effectively because they have achieved a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any really cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?"

"And as for the United States, what if we have every tool at our disposal to win a war - every weapons system we could want manned by the most superbly trained military in history - except the ability to match or exceed our antagonists in ruthlessness?"

Neither Mr Rubin nor Mr Podhoretz should have much trouble finding work in Hollywood, if not as technical advisers updating the list of America's enemies, then as library scouts looking for doomsday scenarios (the sack of Corinth, the Albigensian Crusade) that haven't already been made into dystopian romance by Steven Spielberg or converted into self-fulfilling prophecies by the military strategists in Washington. During the same week that I was making the rounds of Manhattan's movie screens, the New York Times was reporting a boom in the American arms trades - next year's Pentagon budget pegged at $560 billion, together with an additional $100 billion in supplemental spending that President Bush is likely to seek this spring for Iraq and Afghanistan; gains of thirty and forty percent in last year's stock prices for Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. None of the industry spokesmen foresaw a dwindling of the profit margins as a result of the unhappiness in Congress about the bungling of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The gentleman from Lockheed Martin figured that the Democrats couldn't bear the risk of being seen as disloyal Americans abandoning our troops in time of war: "You certainly cannot deny that there is a lot of uncertainty in the world-North Korea, Iran, Iraq. The Democratic Congress will see the reality of the dangerous world we live in, and will make decisions accordingly".

So strong is the demand for the myth of the apocalypse that the Pentagon is giving away or selling at steep discounts its old, unused, or unwanted weapons (secondhand helicopters, torpedoes, M16 rifles, utility landing craft, missiles, ammunition, patrol boats, jet aircraft, and a wind tunnel) to smaller countries (Pakistan, Jordan, Guatemala, Yemen, Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Portugal) that otherwise might be forced to content themselves with conflict-free merchandise and therefore be unable to stage the blood-smeared spectacles that inspire Hollywood to feats of glorious filmmaking.

Whether made in Washington or California, the images of disaster confirm the presence of a monstrous enemy in opposition to whom or what or which America can define itself both as the Old Testament Father in Heaven and the New Testament Son on the Cross. Both interpretations assume that we're the world's designated good guys, released from the prison of history and therefore free to imagine that our era will never pass, that our day will never die. The delusion constitutes the necessary instrument of power than no self-respecting military empire can afford to be without.

Lewis H Lapham is the National Correspondent for Harper's Magazine.

Bill Totten


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