The hue and cry of Hollywood heroes
A few, years ago, my first (and to date, only, though hopefully that will change one day) poetry collection was released by Blouse and Skirt Books. The title is 11/9, an inversion of the accustomed date and perspective on 9/11.
One of the poems in it is, Leave Behind, excerpts of which will run throughout this column. It is about how the history of America's involvement in war is remade in Hollywood, where Uncle Sam always wins, and is especially relevant now as American Sniper comes under scrutiny as much for its being true or not to history as its aesthetics.
The end of Leave Behind reads:
"And years after Iraq
Shall take Najaf
Shall take Fallujah
To make the scrub of history complete
For they will leave no man behind
And take nothing
To remind them of defeat"
Six or seven years later, we know who one of those warriors is. He is the big screen version of Chris Kyle, a real man (Navy SEAL) whose portrayal on film is being questioned by those who should know what really happened. These are not anti-war tree huggers flashing peace signs and asking 'why can't we all just get along', but persons who faced the fire in a silly war started by a silly man, which has had devastating consequences.
And while the US made short work of Iraq's official defences, the objective of direct colonialism was a bust - it ended in defeat, with the focus quickly turning into just how the US could get out of a mess where the people whose hearts and minds they attempted to win, by bombing them to bits, did what people whose enemies come close enough to reach out and touch do.
Reach out and touch them.
However, if these doubts arise in the US, then what is the reaction of people in Iraq? There is a strong possibility that it is much like when Jamaicans saw Steven Seagal whip 'Rasta Screwface' in Marked For Death - hoots and howls of laughter.
There is a way in which Hollywood rewrites the history of wars involving Uncle Sam, in which the image of a heroic American is so strong that even if the battle (or war) is lost, then the soldiers' bravery is so striking that it is the lasting image that we are left with. If I had not read war novels which spoke about how the French, and then the US, were whipped in Vietnam, then I might have actually believed that Rambo was the real big man. Or Chuck Norris, who was always rescuing American prisoners of war, declared Missing In Action.
The poem speaks about them:
"When the last Chinook helicopter
Has hoisted tattered Stars and Stripes
From a Saigon roof
It is time to rewrite
Lights, camera, action
Fit history into the script
Stick in the Ranger creed, stanza five
'We will leave no man behind'
Stallone and Norris won Vietnam
Rescued every camouflaged POW ..."
This rewriting of history is a dangerous thing, for here is the rub. As the lines between news and entertainment blur, where the television makes real war as unreal and inviting as Rambo and company, the temptation for heroic status seems to overtake those who package and present mayhem. America had those famed embedded reporters in Iraq, the second time around.
One of the notorious results of its programme of giving the folk 'back home' a taste of the action in live and living colour, is NBC's Brian Williams, who has been suspended for six months after his tale about coming under gunfire in a helicopter gunship has been exposed as a lie.
But while he was called out after US soldiers who fought in Iraq questioned Williams' tale, the question it raises - and which will never be answered - is how much of the reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan was the television version of Hollywood's rewriting of history, but in real time?
After all, why wait on scriptwriters to make the desired hue and battle cry of heroes when you have Fox News? From Leave Behind:
"Bruce Willis cries
Tears in the Sun
For African conquests
Yet to come..."