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War Heroes in Hollywood
Roll out the red carpet for Hollywood's take on Iraq and Afghanistan.


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Hollywood, in its collective wisdom, has decided that now is a good time to make a handful of movies about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They are antiwar movies, of course. Rest assured that they won’t exclusively depict G.I.s and Marines as bestial rapists, murderers, and torturers oppressing populations that were happy and prosperous under Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

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They will also depict good American soldiers, like those refuse to fight in an unjust, imperialist racist war against the Vietnamese — I mean — Iraqi people. Inevitably there will also be tales of veterans driven mad by Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or tormented by guilt. And, there will be portraits of whistleblowers putting their lives on the line to expose all those atrocities so regularly committed by America’s callous, cruel G.I.s and Marines.

Such types exist, and the real-life whistleblowers are worthy of praise. But the ordinary, quiet heroism of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be portrayed at all, let alone celebrated: The antiwar discourse imagines American soldiers only as monsters or victims. So don’t expect to see any movies portraying America’s soldiers building schools, protecting civilians, fighting side-by-side with Iraqi security forces, or giving medical aid.

(If you go to Iraq it’s hard to avoid such sights. But few Hollywood political types had the courage to go to Iraq even when it was relatively safe to visit Baghdad. The newspapers they read are ignorant of and hostile to the military)

For that matter don’t expect to see an on-screen army that remotely resembles the real thing, with its astonishing Benetton-ad ethnic diversity and quiet professionalism — not when there are all those post-Vietnam movie clichés to reheat: drugs, racism, murderous psychopaths, “fragging,” etc. What Hollywood, along with much of liberal America ‘knows’ about the post-cold war military is based on Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Casualties of War.

And as for the amazingly brave Iraqis of all ethnic groups who have risked everything to build democracy in their own country — they won’t be vying for your admiration on the big screen any time soon.

I suppose, in the end, we should be grateful that Hollywood’s war heroes won’t be Taliban murderers of female teachers, or Iraqi insurgents blowing up market places full of civilians… and that Susan Sarandon hasn’t flown to Riyadh, Tehran, or Peshawar to pose — appropriately covered — with suicide-belt wearing jihadis.

Of all of the Iraq films coming down the Tinseltown Pike, the one I most dread is the adaptation by Paul Greengrass of the bestseller Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Paul “Crash” Haggis’s Valley of Elah about a murdered veteran (killed because he knew too much) may make a stir. But Emerald City is the film that is likely to be taken the most seriously, and to establish a conventional and erroneous view of the war for years to come. Greengrass is the talented director of the last two Bourne Identity action flicks, as well as United 93. But he’s also the director of Bloody Sunday, a powerful but grotesquely biased account of a 1972 incident, in which British paratroops opened fire on a crowd in Northern Ireland. You can expect his version of the Iraq war to be similarly steeped in fanciful conspiracy theory. Especially as the source material is a tendentious book by one of the most egregious mainstream media journalists to have reported from Iraq, the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

Even more than his Post colleague Anthony Shadid, Chandrasekaran’s reporting breathes hostility to the entire Coalition Project and objective sympathy for the various insurgents, militiamen and freelance murderers who have opposed it.

One important thing to remember when reading his book or watching the film: Chandrasekaran was a key figure in the Baghdad press corps before the invasion. More than any other Western journalist — except perhaps the BBC correspondent Rageh Omar, he was in tight with the flacks/secret policemen at Saddam’s Ministry of Information. Indeed Chandrasekaran was so careful to avoid unduly offending his hosts by criticizing the regime, that many journalists understandably assumed — without proof it should be said — that he was the un-named U.S. journalist, referred to by the New York Times John Burns, who purportedly courted regime favor by selling out his more honest competitors to the ministry’s spooks.

Chandrasekaran’s apparent regret at the overthrow of Saddam’s tyranny was not hard to detect. In the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s fall, he chose to interview a professor of politics at Baghdad University named Saad Jawad on the supposed destruction of the country’s infrastructure by U.S. bombing. It was a remarkable feat of dishonesty by omission. Though he disingenuously failed to mention the significance of Jawad’s position, Chandrasekaran must have known that to be a professor of politics under Saddam in 2003 you would have to demonstrate solid loyalty to the regime (it was a position analogous to being a professor of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow under Stalin). Moreover, he himself must have known that the claim of infrastructure destruction was nonsense: all he had to do was leave his hotel room to see that the city’s bridges, power stations, highways were all intact and un-bombed.

Since 2003 his coverage has been equally distorted. Much has been made of his criticism in Emerald City of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the lack of qualifications of some of its staffers. I am the last person to defend the CPA or its hiring practices, which often smacked of the cronyism that has been a hallmark of the Bush administration. But Chandrasekaran’s critique was crude and dishonest (he was ably taken to task by Dan Senor, Michael Rubin, and others). Moreover, it’s all too typical of Chandarasekaran’s approach that he went out of his way to smear people like Simone Ledeen, the daughter of commentator Michael Ledeen, in spite of the fact that she was one of the few young CPA officials who regularly left the Green Zone and came under hostile fire (she took similar risks in Afghanistan).

Obviously it would be mad to hope that Hollywood might make a pro-Coalition, or even an agnostic film about the Iraq war. But is it too much to dream of a film with some understanding of the real war and its complexities? There are better books that could be adapted for the screen. Rory Stewart’s fine Prince of the Marshes would make a particularly good candidate.

One real life story from the Iraq war that could make a superb film is that of Steven Vincent, the art critic turned war correspondent (and NRO contributor), who was murdered in Basra after exposing corruption and militia infiltration in the British-trained police force. He was a genuine hero, and his death was a genuine tragedy — one that exemplified the complexity and contradictions of Iraq after its liberation.

Jonathan Foreman, a former film critic for the New York Post, was an embedded reporter with U.S. troops in Iraq in 2003 and 2005.



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