North Korea is home to a sclerotic regime that loves to pretend the world lives in fear of its might. Its leaders feed on the military exercises and bold public statements of American and South Korean policymakers, eagerly delivering reports to its people of imminent doom from American warplanes and missiles.
…The unending state of emergency keeps the elites from the ruling Korean Workers’ Party in power, painting its autocrats as the only hope for the nation’s survival. While rural villagers survive on meager rice rations, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un pours resources into the country’s nuclear and missile programs. Don’t complain, his government tells the peasants. Nukes are the ultimate defense against the coming American invasion, and you would be wise to support them.
It is a desperate strategy of self-preservation ever since the collapse of Soviet food and fuel subsidies hurled the country into a famine in the mid-1990s—leaving up to a million people dead and bringing the regime close to disintegration. Even with nuclear weapons and a million-man army, the so-called “hermit state” is in fact a paper tiger seeking to prolong its existence. So why does Washington keep feeding into North Korea’s war machine?
“The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.” - Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty
There is no such thing, as far as I can tell, as an apolitical or judgment-free war film. Despite claims to journalistic objectivity (also a nonexistent concept), Bigelow’s last film, The Hurt Locker, was political in its own way, as was Bigelow herself when she praised all members of the military in her Oscar acceptance speeches. Such a blanket statement reveals an agenda to honor the service of American soldiers, regardless, perhaps, of the worthiness of their mission or their personal conduct. This is an agenda that contrasts strongly with, for instance, Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which portrays essentially two factions of American soldiers in Vietnam: one that has explicitly racist views of the Vietnamese and feels little shame in burning villages or killing and raping civilians, and another that fights valiantly but is sickened by their comrades’ war crimes and feels that the war itself is likely a fruitless endeavor. Bigelow’s agenda also contrasts with Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone, which emphasizes the lack of WMDs in Iraq and a soldiers’ sense of betrayal by those who swore those weapons would be discovered. Both Platoon and Green Zone are based on “boots-on-the-ground” testimonies and factual reports, yet both contain different agendas than Bigelow’s films.
But it’s not just the broad messages of war films that give them their agenda. It’s also what is included or not included in the film. The decision to portray a war from the perspective of one belligerent and not another is part of an agenda. So too is the depiction of the characters. Are they brave? Are they cowardly? Are they sympathetic to the plight of civilians in the country they’ve invaded? Indeed, nearly every creative choice in a film, from casting actors popularly associated with “good guy” roles, to the selection of the film’s score, to the manner in which the film is shot, all contribute to a film’s agenda or bias.
Imagine for instance if the titular character in Spielberg’s Lincoln entered every scene ranting about the superiority of the white race while Darth Vader’s Imperial March played in the background. This would turn Lincoln into a villain and the entire film would be interpreted differently even though this re-imagined version of Lincoln could lay claim to factual accuracy (Lincoln was, in fact, a white supremacist, declaring “I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race”).
Before Zero Dark Thirty has even premiered before wide audiences, there is already fervor developing over the depiction of a man being waterboarded and subsequently revealing the hiding place of Osama bin Laden. Such a scene would have obvious political implications by portraying torture as an effective method for gathering intel. It may also be, as both Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald argued earlier today, completely untrue. This developing controversy helps prove my point: all war films are, at least to some degree, political. It’s ridiculous to claim that a film dealing with explicitly political topics, such as torture, war, and terrorism, is purely objective or free of agenda.
[Halabja’s] 70,000 or so inhabitants, many of whom were refugees from outlying areas, had already been pounded for two days from the surrounding mountain heights by conventional artillery, mortars and rockets. Many families had spent the night in their basements to escape the bombs. When the gas came, however, that was the worst place to be since the toxic chemicals, heavier than air, concentrated in low-lying areas. Between and 4,000 and 5,000 people, almost all civilians, died either at the time or shortly thereafter.
Hewa, a university student, survived by covering his face with a wet cloth and taking to the mountains around the city. He says that Iraqi warplanes followed, dropping more chemical bombs. “I got some gas in my eyes and had trouble breathing. You always wanted to vomit and when you did, the vomit was green. He says he passed “hundreds” of dead bodies. Those around him died in a number of ways, suggesting a combination of toxic chemicals. Some “just dropped dead.” Others “died of laughing.” Others took a few minutes to die, first “burning and blistering” or “coughing up green vomit.” Journalists noted that the lips of many corpses had turned blue.
Sarin, an “extraordinarily lethal” nerve gas, was used in the Halabja attack. According to a recent report, Syrian President Bashar Assad has loaded sarin into aerial bombs “that could be dropped onto the Syrian people from dozens of fighter-bombers.”
Petraeus’ crash is more significant than the latest nonsense sex scandal. As President Obama says, our decade of war is coming to an end. The reputations of the men who were intimately involved in these years of foreign misadventure, where we tortured and supported torture, armed death squads, conducted nightly assassinations, killed innocents, and enabled corruption on an unbelievable scale, lie in tatters. McChrystal, Caldwell, and now Petraeus — the era of the celebrity general is over. Everyone is paying for their sins. (And before we should shed too many tears for the plight of King David and his men, remember, they’ll be taken care of with speaking fees and corporate board memberships, rewarded as instant millionaires by the same defense establishment they served so well.)
Before Dave fell for Paula, we fell for Dave. He tried to convince us that heroes aren’t human. They are human, like us, and sometimes worse.