America at a Crossroads

[16 April 2007]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

All About Gray

Who dreams that they’re gonna be a rifle company commander in Iraq?
—Mike Fortenberry, Warriors

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
—Bryan Turner, “Here, Bullet”

Fear does not bring out the best in us.
—Tobias Wolff, Operation Homecoming

For U.S. soldiers in Baghdad, surviving is good. National Guard lieutenant Ron Maloney describes something like a routine: “We go about our business,” he says, “In a way, pretending everything’s fine. But we all know in the back of our head, ‘Hey, this is Iraq and anything can happen, anytime.’ But you never think it can happen to you.”

One of five troops who form the focus of Warriors, Maloney is at once earnest and weary, willing and frustrated, depressed and dedicated. He leads one 16-man squad on daily patrols, part of a squadron commanded by Lt. Ross Brown. As vehicles roll along a dusty road, the narrator describes their commute from their base to “work these streets, like cops on the beat.” As Brown puts it, his soldiers’ “piece of the war” is premised on uncertainty. “My enemy drives around in a car that looks like everybody else,” he says.

They wear a man dress like other men wearing man dresses, only this one’s got an AK underneath it and I don’t know it until he’s pulling it out of his dress. So it’s a very stressful fight. There’s nothing I’ve found that’s black and white. It’s all about gray.

Warriors, which airs tonight, is one of 11 independently produced documentaries assembled by CPB and WETA, under the title America at a Crossroads. A $20 million effort to examine a variety of experiences for “America” after 9/11, this ambitious project was launched in March 2004, garnering some 440 proposals, granted development grants to 34, and sent 20 into production. The resulting series offers a range of films—smart, tough, perceptive, and sad, sometimes uneven and often quite brilliant. 

America at a Crossroads began Sunday 15 April, with JIHAD: The Men and Ideas behind Al Qaeda, focused on the emergence of Osama bin Laden and the evolution of the jihadist movement. For bin Laden, according to this film, gray is a function of tactics and effects. In an archival interview from 1998, he asserts, “Terror can either be bad or good.” Asked by ABC News correspondent John Miller whether he considers attacks on innocent populations legitimate warfare, he points to the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, whose victims included noncombatants. “We are merely taking the rules of engagement that you invented and turning them back upon you.” If bin Laden’s thinking here is no longer surprising, his reading of the reporter—as a member of the “you” to be confronted—is striking. Not only is it a reminder of the persistently complex relationship between the West and Al-Qaeda, obviously adversarial, but also built on assumptions that can never, apparently, be undone.

While JIHAD offers a fairly familiar account of this history, and presents it in a conventional way (talking heads, testimonies and interpretations, archival footage), the two documentaries airing tonight, 16 April, provide specifics and even, in the case of Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, some aesthetic edge, as writers’ recollections are intercut with dramatic readings of their work, and context provided by scholar Paul Fussell (“War is desperately sincere: you are scared and the enemy is scared and you’re doing the same thing to each other”), as well as Vietnam war veterans like Yusef Komenyaka, Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, and Joe Haldeman (whose brilliant The Forever War remains crucial reading), as well as Jarhead author Tony Swofford.

The documentary that has received the most “buzz” may be The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom (which airs 10pm on 17 April), which follows Richard Perle as he travels to make the titular “case.” The documentary has been cited as an illustration of the ideological crisis that almost sank America at a Crossroads, as it was initially conceived by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, whose dealings with or for the administration have come under scrutiny (chairman Ken Tomlinson, a Bush appointee, undertook to make PBS more “balanced” by investigating Bill Moyers’ NOW for liberal bias). He and the initial Crossroads supervisor, Michael Pack left CPB in early 2006, and the series was handed over to MacNeil-Lehrer Productions. Controversy followed this change as well, when the company decided against airing Frank Gaffney’s Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center. (The filmmaker says the cancellation indicates the ongoing “tyranny of the public airwaves by the left.”)

PBS guidelines maintain that Crossroads producers had no editorial control, though they apparently made “suggestions” regarding the pursuit of balance. This appears in The Case for War, as well as Faith Without Fear, a profile of Canadian activist Irshad Manji, as counter-arguments made within the films: for instance, Pat Buchanan and Stacy Bannerman, member of Military Families Speak Out, argue with Perle (Abdel Bari Atwan, editor in chief of Al-Quds Al Arabi, calls the occupation a disaster: “You are expert in destruction not construction,” he tells Perle, whose response will convince no one of his grasp of the situation). In Manji’s case, her mother, among others, counters her decidedly non-traditional representation of Islam.

All these documentaries manifest some form of bias (really, as all documentaries do, subtly or patently). This is not to say they are not effective, provocative, and complex. Tonight’s documentaries about U.S. troops, Warriors and Operation Homecoming, beautifully demonstrate such complexity. As Lt. Brown tries “to find common ground with the local Iraqis,” he must be concerned with the 30 or so IEDs that detonate daily, while for shopkeepers, “the main problem is just trying to make a living.” Most often working through translators, the U.S. troops capture suspects, argue with or try to placate their relatives, seek to stave off attacks before they happen. As Maloney says, “It’s not Saving Private Ryan, it’s not Band of Brothers shoot ‘em out.” Rather, it’s the search for a routine that is not ominous. The film shows soldiers interacting playfully with children (father of three Fortenberry says, “The kids are the secret to our success”), rolling their eyes at protests by women defending their captured sons and brothers (“Someday we’re gonna ask and they’re gonna tell us”), wondering how to read a particularly tall and “mannish” woman (how to search her without violating local customs?). 

The perpetual dread and difficulty in assessing “progress” are wearing. For first lieutenant Matt Sumrall, only three months into his deployment, and already a veteran of hundreds of patrols, describes his frustration. Most of the time, he says, “Nothing’s happening. You feel like you’re in a really bad neighborhood in America, where everybody happens to speak Arabic. But you gotta stay focused, because if you don’t all of a sudden, boom, you know.” And with that, Warriors helpfully illustrates, with a boom on screen, and ensuing chaos: the camerawork turns jaggedy, a green night vision lens suggests limits of seeing, and the cuts come faster. Still photos show the effects of explosions and mortar or artillery attacks, at once poignant and stunning.

Operation Homecoming provides a more “experimental” set of images, illustrating each writer’s text differently: photos, reenactment, and in the case of Colby Buzzell’s “Men in Black,” a series of graphic-novelish animations.  “I observed a man,” he writes, “dressed in all black with a terrorist beard, jump out all of the sudden from the side of a building. He pointed his AK47 barrel right at my fucking pupils.” After a shootout, the young protagonist finds himself “smoking like a chimney, one right after another,” contemplating the incredible fact of his own survival. “People just don’t get it,” says Buzzell in interview, “What do you say to someone who hasn’t been there?”

This is the soldiers’ dilemma, how to tell their stories, to make clear the awfulness of war, and yet make sense of it somehow as well. Their experiences are like and unlike that of other wars’ veterans (as Haldeman notes, “None of them was drafted,” but still, the situation is what it is: “It’s about killing the enemy: get ‘em hard and get ‘em fast and then go home”). While Jack Lewis examines the racism that sustains differentiation and fear (“There’s a lot of hajii this and hajii that”), Sangjoon Han says he wants, in his writing, to “try to humanize the decisions of the soldiers.” 

Ed Hrivnak, author of Medevac Missions and professional firefighter and registered nurse in Washington state, describes efforts to keep people alive after they’ve been injured. In his book, he recalls telling one troop, “There is a lot of swelling in your feet and the blood circulation is not so good because of the swelling. It is way too early in the game to tell how well you are going to heal. The swelling is going to affect your senses and ability to move.” Better to be honest, he reasons, to recognize that “war is not this glorious thing. When you break it down to the human level, it’s actually quite disgusting.”

O’Brien, who wrote Going After Cacciato and The Things We Carried, among other books about the Vietnam war, asserts the imperative to remember the horrors. “There’s this false notion that we all oughta get over everything,” he says, “There’s something to be said for remembering and not healing.” That is, to help those who come after you not to experience the same sorts of horrors, to name the fictions that allow war to continue, and to encourage real changes in the politics, media coverage, and business of war.

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PBS’ America at a Crossroads began Sunday night and continues at 9pm nightly through Friday. Tuesday’s films are Gangs of Iraq, a look at how sectarian violence is hampering and enhanced by U.S. presence, and The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom, follows Richard Perle, former assistant secretary of defense, as he faces critics while making the titular “case.” On Wednesday, Europe’s 9/11 looks at “homegrown terrorism,” exemplified by the 2004 Madrid bombings; and The Muslim Americans contrasts life for U.S. Muslims with that of Muslims in Britain and in Europe. Airing on Thursday, Faith Without Fear profiles Canadian activist Irshad Manji, author of Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in her Faith; and Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia considers this majority Muslim democracy, especially its relation to Islamic militants. Friday’s Security Versus Liberty: The Other War examines U.S. anti-terrorism tactics, including the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping and the FBI’s National Security Letter; and The Brotherhood profiles the Muslim Brotherhood, an international group dedicated to spreading fundamentalist Islam.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/america-at-a-crossroads/