Review of Patricia Keeton and Peter Scheckner's "American War Cinema & Media Since Vietnam"

tags: Iraq, Vietnam, WWII, War films

Andrew Feffer is professor of history and co-director of film studies at Union College in Schenectady, NY

In this first comprehensive survey of films about war in the post-Vietnam era, Patricia Keeton and Peter Scheckner identify a significant shift in Hollywood away from the celebration of military prowess and pseudo-democratic values.  No longer do films simply embrace the familiar combat stories of the “band of brothers” triumphing against arrogant and authoritarian enemies. American cinema instead has begun to treat war more critically, incorporating the perspectives of the poor and marginalized, who in the era of the volunteer army increasingly fight our wars of choice.  Since the strategic, political and social catastrophe of Vietnam, Keeton and Scheckner tell us, “American war cinema has changed, possibly forever, from mindless flag waving to juggling and making sense of a complex patchwork of social and political contradictions.”

Yet, as the authors also argue, Hollywood has hardly taken a radical left turn, especially when it comes to connecting foreign policy failures to the structural inequities of American empire building.  Although it has become “nearly impossible…not to see the worker behind the warrior” in American film narratives, Hollywood’s class perspective is still rather limited. No surprise.  Little has changed in the relationships of power and authority that, on the one hand, send working-class Americans to fight overseas and, on the other, control the production and distribution of the war films that show that fighting to the rest of us.

At best, contemporary films merely displace “class tensions and doubts about contemporary wars” onto stories of past conflicts or into futuristic narratives of interstellar strife.  Thus, Steven Spielberg can give a “nod to the worker behind the warrior” in a World War II flick like Saving Private Ryan (1998), but such class identities largely would be avoided in films about contemporary conflicts such as the war in Iraq.  Or James Cameron can pay tribute in Avatar (2009) to anti-imperialist rebellion, so long as it is by the inhabitants of a moon light-years distant.  Moreover, when Hollywood cinema of the post-Vietnam era occasionally questions the motives and competence of specific American foreign policies, as do films like The Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010) and Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999), it generally has avoided addressing the corporate empire-building that the authors argue lies behind the United States’ seemingly endless drive toward war.  Hollywood can indeed tolerate some level of dissent about the “military-industrial complex,” however it cannot see through mere political malfeasance (lying to the public about WMDs for instance) to the larger questions of who rules that system and why they need ordinary Americans to fight and die for it.

Only a few films meet Keeton and Scheckner’s expectations, and as they dispense with one war story and anti-war documentary after another, one may begin to think that they expect too much.  What after all could film achieve in a political environment such as ours, in which left-wing social movements sputter and compromise so regularly, and class analysis is so derided?  To be sure, the lords of war and Tinsel Town don’t especially like such stories and thus bear the brunt of blame for their suppression, as Keeton and Scheckner contend; but it would appear that their customers don’t either.  The three documentaries that Keeton and Scheckner endorse as true cinematic alternatives, Afghan Women (Kathleen Forster, 2007), Sir, No Sir! (David Zeiger, 2005) and Meeting Resistance (Molly Bingham and Steve Connors, 2007), may indeed depict war from the rarely seen perspectives of the ordinary grunt, on the one hand, or America’s alleged enemies, on the other.  But, as the authors themselves admit, these documentaries draw only a tiny fraction of the audiences that view even relatively unpopular films like Stop Loss (Kimberly Peirce, 2008) or In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis, 2007), movies that are boldly anti-war but not quite up to the highest anti-imperialist standard either. And their weak box office is not merely due to limited distribution.

Scheckner and Keeton additionally cover some television, Internet and video-game renderings of the two Gulf Wars, the war in Afghanistan and the Pentagon’s myriad “minor” interventions – for instance, the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu (Somalia), the subject of the film Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001).  The book suggests that many recent war films share formal characteristics with other electronic media of what they wryly dub “militainment,” notably video games that foster a “first-person shooter” perspective.  One can see this particular affinity in films like Black Hawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012).  Each may script the war story quite differently, but both send much the same visual message as one looks down the sights of an AR15 at the cinematographically dehumanized hordes of attacking Somalis or as one is treated to the night-vision-goggled perspective of Seal Team Six ruthlessly hunting down Osama bin Laden.  These points of view are reprised and reinforced in companion video games.  This is a promising line of analysis of a disturbing narrative convention that forces audiences to target opponents of American foreign policy from the hostile perspective of the most heavily armed soldiers in the history of warfare. Even self-produced GI YouTube videos, which seem to practice an inherently democratic filmmaking by bringing the camera down to ground level into the daily routines and perils of a soldier’s life at the front, still tend to promote the individualized perspective of the imperial warrior.  Moreover, such DIY war stories “privilege the experience of the GI as the authentic experience of war and…imply that those who have not participated in war have no right to question or criticize ‘the troops.’”

Readers will find this a useful book, especially as a catalog of recently produced dramatic and documentary films about war, but they may find its periodic digressions on the injustices of empire and the growth of the military-industrial complex distracting, even if offered as an honest disclosure of the authors’ radical anti-war perspective. Nonetheless, it provides a workmanlike contribution to the growing literature in media studies on the grip of corporate power and empire building over our daily entertainments.

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