Tag Archives: (Anti) War

War is Sell (2004)

 “How and why might a culture take their conflict into an organized form?”

Napoleon once said, “Men will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon,” and considering he talked 1000s of men into an insane assault against Russia, well, we can only assume that Napoleon knew what he was talking about. The documentary film, War is Sell takes a look at how a war is ‘sold’ to the people who have to fight it. Obviously the politicians who come to the decision that war is the only solution to whatever foreign policy problem the country faces are not the ones who put their lives on the line, so the big question becomes, how do those at the top–those making the decisions–persuade the rest of us peons to go along with it?

war-is-sellWar is Sell is divided into three sections. The first section, Tricks of the Trade examines some tried-and-true methods behind whipping a country into a war frenzy, and this takes us to a discussion of propaganda. Propaganda is defined as “attempts to indoctrinate a mass audience” while it “strives to be invisible.” Interviews with several writers and media watchdogs are included, and the film examines propaganda techniques including: Demonizing the Enemy, 3rd Party Endorsement, Staying On the Message, Telling the Big Lie, Using Doublespeak, and Silencing the Opposition. The film uses a historical approach with archival footage to examine these tactics used through WWI up until the present mess in Iraq.

The film’s second section, Teaching Propaganda is the weakest. The filmmakers enter the classroom of high school teacher, Mary Skinner and record her lesson about propaganda and subsequent discussions with her students. While Skinner’s valiant efforts in the classroom are noted, this section of the film is uninteresting. Perhaps if one plans to teach a classroom of students the same sort of lesson, there’s some value here, but apart from that, this second section seems wildly out of place.

The film’s third section, however, was extremely interesting. This section, The Culture of War takes an anthropological approach to examine the phenomenon of violence. Professor Neil Whitehead from the University of Wisconsin presents a rational, thoughtful and intelligent overview of humans and their violent tendencies, and he notes that when it comes to war, there is a political gap between the “intentions of the leaders and the willingness of the followers” that has to be “filled with some sort of narrative.” The narrative, Whitehead argues, might include the “danger of resource loss” and/or the presentation of “aggressive action from another.” This narrative, Whitehead explains “need not be untrue.” Naturally, however, problems arise when national aggression towards another country is unjustified (based on, let’s say, wildly inflated intelligence information) or “presented as the only possible option.”

This final section (and strongest part of the film) includes: The Need for Propaganda, Bred for War, The Cannibal Within, The Terrorist Within (an examination of state terrorism and the Theory of the Intimacy of Violence.)

The 2-DVD disc set places the film on one disc, and the other disc is devoted to extras. Extras include: archival footage, WWI posters, short films: America Goes to War, Divide and Conquer, and Despotism, footage of the US presentation to the UN in 2003, miscellaneous Iraq War propaganda, deleted scenes, John Stauber: Embedded Reporters, Mary Carpenter: Trench Warfare, Robert Fisk: Descending into the Pit, Alexander Cockburn: Very Bad Liars, and Amy Goodman: The Silenced Majority. It’s somewhat uncanny to see propaganda materials from WWI and realise how strikingly similar these materials are to the stuff used to trumpet the Iraqi War. I suppose some things never change. For those interested in reading more about war propaganda, I recommend Mickey Z’s handy-dandy guide: Seven Deadly Spins.

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Filed under (Anti) War, Documentary, Political/social films

Why We Fight (2005)

 “They want to spread democracy around the world on the point of our bayonets.”

Using footage from Eisenhower’s farewell speech to the nation, director Eugene Jarecki’s documentary film Why We Fight includes the departing president’s warning: “we have been compelled to create a permanent armament industry of vast proportions. We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.” Eisenhower, according to interviews with family members, struggled with the growing Military-Industrial Complex, and as an old soldier, he was alarmed by its explosive expansion following WWII. The film examines the roles of all the players in the war food chain–from those who make the bombs, those who design the bombs, those who drop the bombs, those politicians who make the decisions to drop the bombs, and those contractors who profit so well from carnage. On the other side of the coin, the film also includes footage of the results of so-called “precision guided missiles” (and as it turns out, they can be wildly inaccurate), and this includes some fairly gruesome photos of the morgue in Baghdad.

why we fightOn another level, the film examines the background stories of two people touched in different ways by the war in Iraq. There’s a very sincere New Yorker, Wilton Setzer, a retired policeman who lost his son in 9/11. At first, he sought revenge for his son’s death, and like many Americans, he somehow connected the war in Iraq to the bombing of the Twin Towers. Setzer was flabbergasted when he heard Bush admit on television that there was “no connection” and his sense of clear outrage is shattering as he realizes that both his grief and patriotism have been exploited. Another thread follows the story of William Solomon, a young man who decides to enlist in the army following the death of his mother. One of the most interesting observations the film makes about enlisting is that “self-interest” is used to gain recruits, while paradoxically they are then expected to pay the ultimate “self-sacrifice.”

The most powerful statement the film makes, however, is the complete, startling emotional and moral disconnect of those involved with the war-machine of the Military-Industrial Complex. The film interviews humble assembly line bomb makers, and one woman who charmingly says she’s rather be “making toys” for Santa Claus, agrees she’d rather not think about the ultimate goal of the bombs she helps make. Similarly, pilots interviewed gently smile as they recall how proud they felt to be involved in the first air strike in the war on Iraq. Even a weapons designer–a woman forced to flee the debacle in Vietnam, is now ironically employed to design and create weapons that are crafted for maximum destruction. The film follows the war food chain through the huge corporations that benefit from war, the lobbyists, congress and the politicians who need to feed the voters at home with jobs from the Military-Industrial complex.

Undoubtedly, the film is so good because director Jarecki calls upon such a range of participants. Those interviewed include Richard Perle from the so-called New American Century Project, McCain, Gore Vidal, and various military advisors and historians. Lt. Gen Kwiatkowski who resigned from the Pentagon when she could not stomach the disinformation campaign that raged prior to the invasion of Iraq sums it up beautifully: “Why we fight? Because not enough people are standing up and saying I’m not doing this anymore.”

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Dreams of Sparrows (2005)

 “Baghdad is hell.”

The documentary The Dreams of Sparrows is the first film from Iraqi filmmaker Hayder Mousa Daffar. Daffar states, “I wanted to show the world what life was like in Iraq.” Those fortunate enough to stumble across this film certainly gain at least a brief, painful glimpse of daily life in Iraq.

dreams of sparrowsDaffar and his associates interview a number of Iraqis and travel to several locations. Most of those interviewed are optimistic about Saddam’s removal from power–although a few interviewed Iraqis start swearing when they hear the name ‘George Bush’. But as the film wears on, months go by, and optimism changes to despair as the daily conditions worsen. Those standing in long lines for petrol are interviewed, and the mood isn’t pretty. We see glimpses of life in a private girls’ school in Baghdad, a temporary shelter for the homeless, a Sadr City insane asylum, and a Palestinian refugee camp. Palestinian refugees were welcomed by Saddam, but were turfed out of their homes after the U.S. invasion. When the film was made in 2003, these Palestinian refugees had spent 8 pitiful months in tents. One man asks, “Where is the democracy and the freedom?”

Members of the General Union of Writers in Iraq present their philosophical interpretations of the current situation, and one man explains the insurgency as an inevitable consequence, “When you provoke a people against their leader, you will start a revolution.” There are even a few shots of U.S. troops. Some are protecting a petrol station–others are seen storming a home, and still others are seen chatting with Iraqi children.

The Dreams of Sparrows has its amateurish moments, but overall it’s a fascinating glimpse at a tragic situation. The film begins with a cheesy reenactment (just like those appalling history reenactments), and while it’s understood what the filmmaker is trying to say–the film would have been a lot better without the reenactment. A word of warning–there are a few graphic scenes involving humans and animals. The film takes us to the site of mass graves in Fallujah, and dead and starving animals are a common occurrence in the film. In English and Arabic.

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Deserter (2008)

 “I don’t understand this war, but I’ve seen what it’s done to the guys who’ve come back and that scares me. I don’t think I’m a coward, and I don’t want to desert my friends or my unit, but I’m not going to kill for this war, and I’m not going to die for it.”

Deserter from Big Noise Films (www.bignoisefilms.com) is the background story of Ryan Johnson’s decision to go abandon the military and go to Canada. From California’s socio-economically depressed Central Valley region, Ryan joined the army in 2003. When faced with deploying to Iraq, Ryan contacted the GI Rights Hotline and then with his wife Jen, he went AWOL, drove to Canada and slipped into the “modern day underground.” During the Vietnam War approximately 100,000 sought refuge in Canada, and Desertion is a subject that’s largely being ignored by mainstream media at this time.

deserterRyan’s decision is basically the core of the film’s content, and we see Ryan in various stages of his decision-making process–from a phone call to the Hotline and on the road to Canada. Although the film’s focus is Ryan, his situation is emblematic of thousands of young people who find themselves torn between the demands of conscience and military orders. In 2004, the Pentagon admitted that 5500 soldiers had deserted since the beginning of the war in March 2003. While according to some websites in the fiscal year 2007 alone 4,698 soldiers deserted.

Ryan presents arguments for the moral dilemma he faced. Obviously becoming a deserter and seeking asylum in Canada is not an easy decision to make. This is a decision that has permanent irreversible consequences, and those who become deserters leave family, friends and country behind–perhaps never to return. The decision is further complicated by the fact that it’s unclear whether or not U.S. military personnel will be allowed to stay in Canada. Furthermore, there’s no sign that the Iraq War will be ‘over’ any time soon, and it’s perfectly obvious that anyone who deserts from the military will have to stay away until the political climate changes.

Footage makes it clear that this was not an easy decision for Ryan, and the film creates a platform for his arguments. Basically, he felt caught between moral obligation and military duty in an impossibly difficult situation. Knowing that going to Iraq would mean involvement in a war he did not agree with, and the possibility of killing, Ryan understood that with desertion he faced social ostracism and a jail sentence for his act. Clips of interviews from Iraq veterans, including Camilo Mejia, underscore the idea that changed by the experience of war and haunted by Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) “no one ever comes back from Iraq.” The implication is that if you go to war, you are going to come back as a statistic one way or another.

I don’t think anyone makes the decision to become a deserter lightly, and the footage of Ryan’s explanations underscore that he had nowhere to turn. Given the social and familial pressure to conform, let alone all the economic pressures, flag waving and patriotism that get tied up into the argument, it’s much easier just to conform and go along with the madness.

For those detractors who argue that Ryan shouldn’t have signed up in the first place, well …. yes. But once having signed up, what happens when someone experiences a shift in morality? Since this is Ryan’s story, the film doesn’t directly deal with the legal route to leaving the military–gaining Conscientious Objector status. It’s not an easy process. In the five calendar years 2002-2006 425 CO applications were filed with an overall 53% approval. At this time the number of deserters far exceeds the number of CO applications filed for the same period.

The film refers to the idea that military enlistment is influenced by socio-economics, and this is a very touchy subject in some quarters. After all, the implication that the members of the working class are fighting wars while some people are laughing all the way to the bank may dampen all that war-mongering enthusiasm.

Over the last few months, I know three young men who have joined the military for financial reasons after their recruiters swore they wouldn’t have to go to Iraq. Now most of us take it for granted that the recruiters say whatever is necessary to get those signatures on the enlistment papers, and given the current state of affairs, it takes a certain level of naiveté to believe that you’re not going to get sent to Iraq. But that’s just what has happened over and over again. I remember one woman looking me in the eye and telling me the recruiter told her 18-year-old son that he wouldn’t be sent to Iraq because he was needed in ‘Intelligence’ in the U.S. Well guess who got sent to Iraq?

We can expect to see more films on the subject on those military personnel who resist. I hope Ryan’s story causes anyone contemplating a stint in the military to think twice about it. And Ryan & Jen, wherever you are, I wish you the best of luck.

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The Gladiators (1969)

“Basic humanity–that’s what’s wrong with that boy.”

Set in the future, the bleak satire The Gladiators from British director Peter Watkins is a docudrama that televises “the Game,” an international competition of military exercises conducted in the interests of “world peace.” These games were devised as a substitute for war, and are supposed to channel and control man’s natural predilection for violence, so instead of the entire planet being ruined, and millions killed, the violence is confined to a small space with a few dozen participants. Well that’s the theory, at least. The Game is held in Sweden, a neutral country, and the programme, sponsored by a pasta company and complete with advertisements, is broadcast worldwide as teams aim to achieve their goal of reaching the control room. Each team is comprised of a number of soldiers–male and female–who are given numbers only.

GladiatorsWhile The Gladiators is an anti-war film, it’s not an anti-war film in the traditional sense. The Game is, arguably, a viable alternative to war, an arena in which only a handful of people die rather than millions. But at the same time, this is warfare distilled down to its essential elements: a blind acceptance of established hierarchy, the depersonalization of combatants, a willingness to die for abstract ideals, and the attaining of meaningless strategic goals. The team members are representatives of their countries, and when members of the allied team are interviewed prior to the commencement of the Game, they are unable to answer questions about why they are fighting–except to spout platitudes regarding national pride, patriotism, duty and honour (“I’m here to defend the democracy of my country” blah, blah). And as the Game commences, the fraternizing generals of the participating countries dispassionately monitor the teams’ progress, stuffing themselves with various dishes as the ‘lower’ (and subservient) echelons suffer. The soldiers play the Game to win nothing of substance, and they are manipulated at various points to boost the ratings.

A French student enters the Game in an attempt to destroy it, but as he becomes part of the Game, he’s inevitably manipulated by it. And by the introduction of this character, Watkins makes some strong statements regarding revolutionary ethics, about working within the system, and about recuperation by the system. Although the film was made during the Vietnam War, the film seems chillingly prescient given the staging and orchestration of the Iraq war, with key points covered by major news stations in theatrical entertainment fashion. The Gladiators is a deeply subversive, thought-provoking film, and there’s an entire audience out there for this incredible film if people knew about it. Watkins is hardly the darling of mainstream media, and so his films remain largely ignored. Re-released on DVD in 2006, extras include The Diary of an Unknown Soldier–a 17 minute film made by Watkins, a Watkins filmography, and a 12 page booklet which includes a self-interview with this amazing director.

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My Boy Jack (2007)

 “If our brief is to tell the truth but a truth that is bearable to the British people, do we dilute the figures?”

Whenever I watch films concerning WWI, I always find myself wondering what sort of madness gripped the world for this period of time. Not that wars have become more acceptable or less absurd, but the depictions of trench warfare of WWI always bring out the sheer insanity of war, and then, of course, there’s the death toll of around 20 million.

my-boy-jackThe film My Boy Jack is the story of one soldier who was killed in WWI. The soldier is 18-year old Jack, the only son of Nobel Prize winning British writer Rudyard Kipling (David Haig). Directed by Brian Kirk (who also plays the role of Kipling), the film centers on the Kipling family dynamic. Father Rudyard Kipling hobnobber with the King can’t wait for the shooting party to begin in France. His attitude spreads to his only son, Jack (Daniel Radcliffe), and the two of them agree that Jack can’t miss the action.

Jack, however, is rejected by the military for his extremely poor eyesight. While some families would use their position and influence to excuse their children from war, Rudyard Kipling pressures the army to take his son. Jack is as blind as a bat without his spectacles, and military personnel grasp the inherent danger of placing Jack in charge of enlisted men, but Kipling, who was never a military man, coerces and bamboozles his acquaintances until he gets what he wants–his son in a uniform.

My Boy Jack illustrates the peer pressure afoot in wartime. There’s one scene of Kipling speaking and inciting his audience at a war rally, and there’s one great scene when Jack is drinking in a pub with his best friend, Ralph. Although the subject of Jack’s lack of uniform is not addressed directly, Jack obviously feels very uncomfortable and out-of-place surrounded by soldiers while he’s in civilian clothes.

Thanks to his father’s determination and influence, Jack is commissioned in the Irish Guards. There’s a firm hierarchy afoot with 17 year-old Jack in charge of a platoon of Irish volunteers, and we see that ever-popular tradition of the upper classes herding the peasants into war and slaughter. One segment of the film focuses on Jack’s determination to improve his marksmanship, and of course, there’s a bitter irony here as the training these military schools provide (his friend Ralph attends Sandhurst) implies that there’s some special skill required for being a target on the fields of France.

Even though Rudyard Kipling was privy to the horrendous casualties lists (one day leaves 458 officers and 11,161 enlisted dead), he still urges his son on. This, of course, raises the question why do parents feel it’s their ‘duty’ to pressure their beloved children to enlist? What is it about a flag and rabid patriotism that casts the normal aspects of responsible parenting aside as children are urged and pressured to cast sanity to the winds and throw their young lives at hopeless lost causes? The film does an excellent job of portraying Kipling as a saber-rattling, bastion of the British Empire–an armchair warrior who lives subliminally through the imagined future heroic exploits of his son, and of course, Jack, conditioned to live up to his father’s notions of the glories of Empire, doesn’t struggle against his father’s illusions, but instead buys all the patriotic notions of war hook, line and sinker.

The film juxtaposes some great scenes of Kipling’s gorgeous country home in Burwash, East Sussex with the muddy trenches in France along with Jack Kipling’s inglorious death at the Battle of Loos the day after his 18th birthday. When the Kipling family first learn that Jack is missing, they begin an exhaustive search to find him.

With its tight focus on the Kipling family, many issues raised by the film pass unchallenged. While the Kipling family suffered a devastating tragedy, this tragedy was shared by millions of families who did not have the means to search for their lost sons. In light of his son’s death, Kipling doesn’t analyze or confront his role in the War Office where he helped craft propaganda and was indirectly and collectively responsible for sending millions of men–sons, brothers, husbands to their deaths. Kipling’s guilt largely rests on the idea that he facilitated his son’s death by using his influence to get Jack a commission, but then the family veers away from that notion by emphasizing that this was what Jack wanted. However, given his father’s rabid patriotism and thwarted military ambitions, just how much was 17-year old Jack’s choice and how much was conditioning?

While the film treats all of its subjects with poignant sensitivity, the film ends with Kipling reciting his poem, My Boy Jack written for his dead son, and there’s no argument that Kipling loved his only son (at one point he asks: “How could I condemn my son to oblivion?”). But in spite of Kipling’s grief, there’s the idea that he still didn’t really get it. A few accusations fly from Jack’s mother and sister, but they are buried under the poem’s line “Except he did not shame his kind” and the idea remains that Kipling shoved aside the utter senselessness of his son’s death and grieved ultimately with the consolations of ‘noble’ sacrifice and duty to king and country. From director Brian Kirk.

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