Posts in: January 24th, 2016

150 Films #12: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

In a 1973 interview with Gene Siskel, François Truffaut famously said, “I don’t think I’ve really seen an antiwar movie. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” He’s not wrong. Even an ardently antiwar film, like Oliver Stone’s Platoon or Stanley Kubrick’s future 150 Films entry Paths of Glory, tends to shy away from actually making the case that war, across the board, is futile. The war in Vietnam was terrible, pointless, and monstrous, says Oliver Stone—and I agree, but would he say the same about the Civil War? Would Kubrick argue that war, itself, is the problem, or would he merely claim that bureaucracy and incompetence lead to unnecessary deaths in otherwise justifiable wars?

Until recently, I don’t think I could have called myself “pro-war” or “antiwar”; my interest in war has always had more to do with an inability to understand why wars happen, what constitutes “war” (as opposed to “police action” or “skirmish”), and whether or not they cause more harm than good (even in the case of so-called “just” wars). As we get deeper into this list, I think my stance will grow clearer. The “war films” that I admire tend to focus more on the psychological consequences of battles than the spectacle of explosions. Now, don’t get me wrong—I love action movies, I love explosions, I love combining the thrill of gymnastics with the kill of karate. But action movies, even ones with spectacular battles, don’t aim for the same thing as a “war movie.” Generally speaking, war movies take sides: World War II was the greatest, Vietnam was the worst, the Civil War was noble, the Hundred Years’ War was not…

The inherently political nature of war means, of course, that I inherently distrust them. As I see it, wars should only happen in clear-cut cases of self-defense. If someone attacks the U.S.—as opposed to, say, ineffectual saber-rattling by leaders playing to the cheap seats—we respond by decimating them. End of story. Political pressures encroach on that logic. If the government knew an attack was imminent, how could they let it happen? If the government didn’t know about an attack, why didn’t they? Isn’t it their job to protect us?! If a President says, “We’ve been attacked, but we won’t respond until we’ve done a thorough investigation,” he’s criticized for ineffectual leadership; yet, if he jumps on the first scraps of intelligence, we end up playing Whac-a-Mole® in the mountains of Tora Bora while the mastermind slips away to our “friend” Pakistan.

Another aspect of my ambivalence toward war is the moral cowardice of American politicians. I grew up with a military that picked fights like cowards, against enemies they knew they could beat, while backing away from (and often allying with) countries with abominable human rights records spitting in the face of American values. When was it ever necessary and just to use the U.S. military to secretly back Latin American coups (trading a dictator we don’t like for one we do)? Why was it just for Saudi Arabia to face no consequences for attacks perpetrated mostly by Saudis (because of what Saudis are taught to believe), or for Pakistan to face no consequences for housing the mastermind and financier of the September 11th attacks, when we blew up Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of a “War on Terror”?

To me, the answer is simple: American politicians are pussies. Neo-cons, especially, have an obsession with “nation-building”—reshaping jerkwater dumps in the image of ‘Murica—but whenever we’ve had neo-cons at the helm, we’ve gone after weak countries we could beat so handily, we often did it in secret. It looks really, really bad to boldly declare we’ve sent American troops to dumps like El Salvador, Chile, and Bolivia, taking sides in their political strife. None of them did anything to us, so why were we even there? Because we want their stuff, and we want a friendly leader to sell their stuff and exploit their labor. That’s not a good enough reason to back somebody else’s war.

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