“We shouldn’t send heroes over there.” This quote clung to me long after the “In the Valley of Elah” credits, and clings to me still. This powerful movie dramatically depicts some lesser-known human fallout from the Iraq War – the chilling effects on the young men and women who are actually doing the fighting, under conditions guaranteed to create serious emotional trauma.
The movie focuses on a military family, and so is especially meaningful to people connected to military service. The pieced-together experience of a missing young soldier starkly contrasts Iraq to his father’s past military experience, in terms of values, culture and above all clarity and sense of mission.
The movie helped me clarify a deep discomfort, perhaps also others, about this Iraq War fiasco. During the film I found myself feeling angry that this horrible situation was brought about, seemingly without the profound and serious thought that such decisions warrant.
We can’t know the hearts of the administration officials who made the decisions that launched the war and carried it out so ineffectively. We get a hint of what’s been in their minds, which has not decreased our discomfort.
As the many un-truths, half-truths and oversights in planning and their terrible impact add up, our sense increases that crucial decisions were taken in a rather thoughtless manner. The word “flip” comes to mind, but I’m sure that would not be a fair characterization. These folks have children also, though none that are in Iraq, as far as I am aware.
The fact that most main players did not themselves serve in the military adds to this uneasy feeling. Not that they discount the value of the lives of young Americans in any conscious way. But it seems that war is really one of those “you had to be there” parts of life. Not all of us have, but if we haven’t, we need to consider that limitation in making decisions about it.
Many war veterans won’t talk about their experience, except perhaps with military buddies who are still around. It is also not coincidental that the more experienced military people on the political scene – Colin Powell, Sen. Chuck Hagel and others – were often the ones urging restraint.
Explanations for the war have had a strong theoretical dimension, applying a world-view, more than addressing a serious situation on the ground – a little like the field day for the same neocons at the end of the Soviet Union, after years of searching for a willing or helpless subject for their theories. We all know how that experiment turned out.
Ironically, conservatives often criticized this about Marxists – that they would allow thousands of people to die in support of a social theory. I believe this aspect of Marxist thinking particularly turned off Americans – practical people that we are. We solve problems, we don’t use people to test social theories.
There is a sense of certainty about applying philosophical theories that can never match the ambiguity of reality on the ground – but a very thin certainty. It creates a kind of ideological “swagger” – not only because of the term’s Texas or tough-guy image. Swagger suggests projecting a persona out, without taking data in. It conveys a sense that everything that anyone needs to know can be seen in the body language of the swaggerer.
Our Iraq adventure is international swagger, that makes it unnecessary to worry about details, like troop levels, political and social complexities of an unknown place, necessary equipment and training for our soldiers, disbandment of the Iraqi army, lack of provision for post-Saddam street security, lack of systems for tracking billions of dollars and weapons, that have now ended up who knows where, and most of all, the effects on our young soldiers. The swagger’s strength is persevering in the face of whatever. Any questioning is a direct assault. “We don’t need to know nothin’ more than we know.” We just need to keep swaggering. Doubts (and perhaps details) embolden the enemy. Do they not?
This movie focuses our attention on perhaps the most heinous of these oversights, that we would be putting some of our most patriotic, most heroic young people into a situation that provides no way to win and apparently no way out. Where natural heroic instincts get them or their comrades killed, and for no apparent benefit. Where they are asked to break rules of humanity they had been taught all their lives. Something is very wrong with this picture.
© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.