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Rough Notes on the Iraq War in TV & Film

Confluence of two cultural moments this week: First, while watching the reruns from last season’s Smallville and Supernatural on Thursday, I realized that both shows ended on a plot that featured soldiers who had recently been in war. In Smallville the soldier had been mortally wounded only to be resuscitated and transmogrified into a satellite-linked bionic hitman by Lex Luthor. In Supernatural, the soldier was a lunkhead who otherwise had the demonic powers of super strength. He had fallen asleep in a warzone only to wake up and find himself in a weird ghost town. There was a catch, though: for both programs, the soldiers had been serving in Afghanistan and not Iraq. The writers—though the more I think about it, since it occurred on both shows simultaneously, more likely the network—elided the Iraq war entirely, in spite of the fact that it has for five years commanded the lion’s share of resources both human and capital. Given that the CW is a bubblegum network, I read that avoidance as a testament of 1) the war’s unpopularity, 2) the war’s perpetually unstable rhetorical grounding in the culture at large, and 3) its ugly face as a baldly imperialist move.

Second, 3:10 to Yuma. I realized while I was watching it that PBS’s House series has ruined me forever to genre fiction. There’s a scene early on where Christian Bale, a poor rancher in Arizona, and his wife are arguing, and she says, “We were supposed to make decisions together.” Immediately, I thought: “Damn! The cowboys will never listen to Christian Bale now!” Then I remembered I wasn’t watching Texas Ranch House and settled down a bit. It has other flaws—one of the more obvious, which Stephanie Zacharek points out in her Salon review is that none of the character actors know how to act in a Western: no one even tries to affect a rural accent; they’re also all way too clean, especially the kid who plays Christian Bale’s son—so it isn’t by any means a flawless movie. As everyone else has said, Christian Bale and Russell Crowe are great. (I became a big fan of Bale when I saw The Machinist, and he hasn’t disappointed me in anything since. Speaking of, he’s good in The Prestige too.) Anyhoo, back to the theme: Bale plays a soldier who was wounded defending Washington, DC, in the Civil War. It’s assumed he was a war hero: he fought for the north for which he has a medal. In the film he stays silent about his injury, presumably out of modesty; then, at the climax it turns out he was shot ignominiously by one of his own men. His reason for doing all he’s done isn’t because he’s a hero at heart, but because he never had a chance to be one until now, while his son is watching. Bale’s character is situated in this awkward space where everyone perceives him as someone implicitly honorable because of his service—which is, it need hardly be added, a thoroughly modern insensibility about American soldiers. Yet his character is stuck trying to be a man in a world that both treats him as less- (he owes money, and his debtor burns down his barn) and more-than a man (the other characters gawk at his military service). In the film Bale’s character’s honor isn’t implicit in him, it’s rather there because he decides he wants to be honorable, and even then he never really becomes such. It’s a remarkably human character, one that I think is thoroughly intended to be a reflection of the difference between our contemporary idealization of The Troops and the soldiers who try to live up to what being The Troops represents.