Imperial Symptoms: In the Valley of Elah and the Cinematic Response to the "War on Terror"

By Burris, Gregory A. | CineAction, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Imperial Symptoms: In the Valley of Elah and the Cinematic Response to the "War on Terror"


Burris, Gregory A., CineAction


"A mother sings a lullaby to a child; Sometime in the future the boy goes wild."

--Porcupine Tree, "Blackest Eyes"

Hollywood has not typically addressed US military actions abroad while they are still ongoing. Indeed, one might recall that the cinema's answer to the last prolonged, decade-defining conflict--the Vietnam War--came in the form of a deafening silence, one which lasted well into the Carter years. While the frustrations of that era undoubtedly left a mark on the silver screen with countercultural films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), the Vietnam War itself was, with few exceptions, not addressed directly. By the time war-related films like Coming Home (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979) finally appeared, US incursions on Vietnam had already passed into history, the distance of time acting as a buffer safely separating the audience from their own culpability in perpetuating that atrocious conflict. In other words, the immediacy had been lost.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It is thus remarkable that the post-9/11 era has already produced a number of films that deal directly with various aspects of the so-called "war on terror." Homeland security, Middle Eastern terrorism, torture, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even the September 11 attacks themselves have all been made the focus of several mass-marketed Hollywood products. What, if anything, does the appearance of these films tell us about US society and how it has changed since the sixties, that decade when the cinema remained steadfastly silent even as napalm rained down upon the Vietnamese countryside?

At first glance, one is tempted to interpret the emergence of the "war on terror" genre as an indication that the US populace is more favorably disposed to subjecting the government's foreign policy decisions to critical scrutiny than it had been in previous decades. Indeed, a comparison of the public's response to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq might also suggest such a conclusion. While we tend to romanticize the flower children's pacifist protests today, one should not forget that their calls for peace did not reach a fever pitch until untold thousands of Vietnamese had already been slaughtered. In contrast to that generation's stalled protests, the buildup to the Iraq War was accompanied instead by a significant degree of popular opposition. Indeed, public outcry against the invasion actually preceded the war itself. In his book Hegemony or Survival, Noam Chomsky makes this very point.

  In 1962, public protest was nonexistent, despite the announcement
  that year that the Kennedy administration was sending the US Air
  Force to bomb South Vietnam, as well as initiating plans to drive
  millions of people into what amounted to concentration camps and
  launching chemical warfare programs to destroy food crops and ground
  cover. Protest did not reach any meaningful level until years later,
  after hundreds of thousands of US troops had been dispatched, densely
  populated areas had been demolished by saturation bombing, and the
  aggression had spread to the rest of Indochina. [...] In 2002, forty
  years later, in striking contrast, there was large-scale, committed,
  and principled popular protest before the [Iraq W]ar had been
  officially launched. (1)

Leaving aside the fact that many (though not all) "war on terror" films have been met with jeers from critics and audiences alike, let us ponder the following question; does the appearance of films like Lions for Lambs (2007), Stop-Loss (2008), and The Hurt Locker (2009) suggest a certain amount of political maturity on the part of US society?

In contemplating the contemporary "war on terror" film, it would be pertinent to turn to Andrew Britton's 1981 essay "Sideshows" in which he discussed the war genre and reflected on those films dealing specifically with the conflict in Vietnam. …

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