This year’s most important film is a shocking chronicle of America’s crimes against the Iraqi people — and I’m not referring to the decade of economic sanctions or casualties from sporadic bombings.
The film revolves around four rather corruptible American soldiers just after the end of the Gulf War. They’ve seen no action thus far and are looking for a chance to break the monotony and make themselves a fortune. They come riding in in a Humvee with Bart Simpson mounted on the hood, blasting, “I Get Around” as they cruise through southern Iraq, enjoying the luxuries of a victory that has cost them nothing.
To keep themselves entertained along the way they practice skeet shooting with M-16s and a pack of Nerf footballs.
Taking advantage of the abrupt cease-fire, they realize that their former Iraqi enemies will allow them to do nearly anything they want — including stealing the enormous quantity of gold bars the Iraqis had themselves stolen from Kuwait. Nothing has prepared these liberators-turned-bandits for the willingness of the Iraqis to surrender their ill-gotten gains.
Less pleasantly surprising for the Americans is the discovery that the war isn’t over. The Iraqis are willing to give them whatever they want because Saddam’s forces are busy repressing opposition among their own people in the most savage fashion. The caper comedy gives way to shocking depictions of food supply destruction, torture and summary execution as the soldiers and audience witness the hideous results of Saddam’s war against his own people.
The worst shock, to them and to us, comes with the realization that despite their huge military presence, the U.S. is doing nothing to stop the slaughter. The U.S. has made peace, and in doing so has allowed the people of Iraq to suffer new atrocities at Saddam’s hands.
The transition from black comedy to searing polemic is typical of David O. Russell’s “Three Kings,” the only film everyone should be obligated to see this year. Although it was made in 1999, this hybrid of appalling fact and outrageous comedy has more to say about the Iraqi situation and America’s current international dilemmas than a thousand policy wonks or editorialists.
There has been endless debate on these pages over the question of American military action, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. The debate has been characterized by two consistent fallacies. Judging by the letters and columns that have appeared on this page, people seem to believe that continuing a war always causes more suffering and death than making peace at the first possible opportunity. “Three Kings” exposes this platitude for the pernicious lie that it is.
Fans of the first Bush administration will dismiss such accounts as peacenik hyperbole; critics of the current administration will no doubt decry the film as right-wing propaganda. Unfortunately, journalistic accounts from inside Iraq in the years since the war make it clear that Russell’s version is an understatement. The reality was far worse.
In “Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War,” Michael Kelly’s award-winning account of the war and its aftermath, Kelly interviews the survivors of the mass murder that followed the cease-fire. More disturbing still, he recounts an interview with Doug Broderick, field director of Catholic Relief Services in Baghdad, describing how the government has actually thwarted food distribution efforts.
Starving the population, Broderick explains, “gives Saddam time to get rid of his enemies — while his people are busy pointing their fingers at the U.S. and looking for food.”
Even more haunting are the words of an Iraqi woman interviewed by Kelly shortly after the war. “Saddam and George Bush, together they have tried to defeat us, each in his own way. George Bush could have sent his army to Baghdad and killed this bastard Saddam, and he did not,” she tells Kelly.
Kelly ends his book with her words: “It is as if both sides — the Americans and the criminals of Saddam — are using us to work out their experiments, and they are interesting experiments. It is fascinating to see what it takes to bring about the total degradation of a people.”
These words were spoken nearly 10 years ago, and in that time nothing has changed. Those who opposed war on Saddam the first time as a matter of principle still do. Those who counseled the first Bush administration to leave Saddam in power — most notably National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft — still grace us with their questionable wisdom on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post.
This is not to suggest that invading Iraq today would be an enterprise free of bloodshed, tragedy or problematic geopolitical ramifications. These are the inevitable results of almost any war, and they are not to be belittled.
But, as Russell’s images and Kelly’s words unforgettably demonstrate, a cease-fire can be a harbinger of atrocity as much as any military campaign. Sometimes the worst thing Americans can do to the long-suffering citizens of a murderous dictatorship is to give peace a chance.
Eli Muller is a senior in Silliman College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.