Sunday, July 27, 2008
Endless War and Total Incomprehension
In the Valley of Elah, where David, the boy who would later become king, killed Goliath, good clearly triumphed over evil, and virtue overcame brute corruption. For the retired master sergeant played by Tommy Lee Jones in Paul Haggis's "In the Valley of Elah," the simple lessons of the Bible story summarized all his values and beliefs, which centered on loyalty, courage, and duty to one's country.
But when his son is murdered near the military base where he is stationed shortly after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq, Sgt. Deerfield holes up in a motel near the scene of the crime to run his own investigation (he's ex-CID), and as he begins to find out more about both his son and the war than he wants to know his universe begans to unravel.
Assisted by a local civilian detective (Charlize Theron), Sgt. Deerfield watches video of his son's tour of duty retrieved from his cell phone, and descends into the anarchy and senselessness of the damaged lives and psyches of the Iraq veterans he must deal with as he and Detective Sanders haltingly solve the murder through a painful process of elimination.
In the end Deerfield's view of the world lies in ruins, demolished by the realization that the mindless and meaningless violence of Iraq has mortally wounded even the war's survivors. These men are identical with those to whom Erich Maria Remarque dedicated his great World War I novel, "All Quiet on the Western Front" with the simple notation that the book was for "the men, who even if they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war".
This is a complex and subtle film because it deals with complex subjects. The script and Haggis's direction are equal to the difficulties of the topic, and avoid simplifying the issues under examination, and never descend into stereotyping or sloganeering. This is also a patriotic film, for as citizens in a democracy, we are, after all, going to have to deal with these very issues if this country is to survive in anything like its past and present form.
And what these issues boil down to is war for its own sake. The United States today has become a military empire which collects billions in taxes annually, and half those dollars, plus an equal amount of borrowed money, fund a war machine which can only exist by constantly manufacturing new enemies, and pursuing a policy of endless war.
The young, semi-educated and unsophisticated recruits called upon to do war's dirty, dangerous work don't know this however, and when they're thrown into the violent and bloody crucible of modern war, they discover that the reasons they were given for having to endure such sacrifice, and to possibly surrender their very lives, are meaningless lies and excuses. They know what's happening, but they don't know why, and their internal lives, their systems of value and belief, the structures on which their lives are organized, are more often than not demolished, and descend into chaos.
"In the Valley of Elah" makes all this clear without stating it. It starts as a murder mystery and becomes a profound condemnation of the war state, and of a militarized, fearful society which has become incapable of comprehending either itself or its rulers.
Back in the late '60's we faced an identical set of circumstances. Attempting to explain Vietnam and the nuclear arms race, those of us classified as "radicals" or "hippies" or worse, told each other that "The system has become a machine, and the machine is out of control."
We were right. And the machine is still out of control. Nothing has changed.
Notice: I will be traveling the next three days and probably will not post here again until Thursday, July 31.