"Are We Shooting People
As of Thursday, March 20, 2003, we are. The United States'
second foray into Iraq has begun, ostensibly to stabilize
a war-torn Middle East and to liberate the Iraqi people. Diplomacy
has run its course; nations that had been united behind American
forces in both Kuwait and Afghanistan are now deeply estranged.
For fear of fracturing President George Herbert Walker Bush's
unprecedented coalition and "destabalizing" the
region, Gulf War I stopped short of changing the Iraqi regime.
The first President Bush, as
he admits in Newsweek, "miscalculated"
the resilience of Saddam Hussein; he and "every single
Arab leader, every leader in the Gulf felt he'd be gone."
A goal of Gulf War II is to correct this miscalculation, to
change the regime and liberate the Iraqi peoplewhich
begs the question: If Iraqi liberation were not feasible in
1991, then is it feasible now, and if so, are the current
American occupation strategies viable? From an American perspective,
this seems an elementary question: Of course the Iraqi people
would welcome Americans unshackling them from the rule of
a murderous tyrant. Yet America's leaders have miscalculated
Iraqi predilections before, and, witnessing the "underestimation"
of staunch opposition "driven by a hatred of the United
States," they may have again. A potential quagmire
lies in whether reform is possible under current occupation
strategies. This is where art is useful in providing a local
human perspective, especially when American leaders display
such a perfunctory understanding of an infinitely complex
situation. I think back to the line that opens David O. Russell's
1999 Gulf War adventure Three Kings, the best opening
line of any war movieit captures the confusion and naiveté
of its protagonists as they embroil themselves in the complex
issues surrounding the Iraqi people.
Three Kings stars George Clooney (Major Archie Gates)
as a cynical Special Forces commander; Ice Cube (Staff Sergeant
Chief Elgin), a fire-baptized baggage handler "on six week
paid leave from Detroit"; Mark Wahlberg (Sergeant First Class
Troy Barlow), a party guy-turned-family man called up from
the reserves; and his weaker satellite Private First Class
Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), a redneck "with no high school"
who takes a keen interest in shooting "sand niggers" and "dune
coons." The first three are the "Three Kings" who use
a treasure map found in an Iraqi's ass to track down some
stolen "Kuwaiti bullion" for their personal retirement accounts,
inadvertently leading them to the heart of the post-ceasefire
conflict between Saddam's Republican Guard and Iraqi dissidents.
Couched as a Hawksian World War II adventure, Three Kings
is, in essence, an essay on the failures of Gulf War I, foreshadowing
why the current post-Saddam American occupation plan has been
grossly miscalculated by the current Bush Administration.
Three Kings offers mainstream Americans a human context
of American military intervention through Iraqi eyes, the
deep sense of betrayal felt by anti-Saddam dissident groups,
Iraqi resentment of perceived American interests, and an idea
of how to reconcile these differences. In short, world events
have ordained Three Kings as the most important American
movie of the past decade.
Three Kings opens with Sergeant Barlow deciding what
to do about an Iraqi soldier in the distance. The rest of
the troops, however, are battling their own boredomone
has sand in his eye, one is trying to figure out how to use
his gun. Barlow shoots the Iraqi in the neck. The men rush
to investigate, prompting Conrad to comment "Bad Ass!",
though Barlow himself is unsure of what he's done. He puts
this doubt aside long enough to be the life of the tent party
celebrating the ceasefire that evening. The boys, after spending
months in the desert, wrap flags on their heads, tip back
some tequila, and sing along to Lee Greenwood. The movies
have shown us an undisciplined military in the past, but rarely
has being in the army been portrayed as an intercontinental
frat partywhich is not to say that the Gulf War was
a party by any means, but the point is that, as Seymour
Hersch writes in the May 22, 2000 The New Yorker, "In
some cases, the end of the war led to an erosion of discipline."
Three Kings' plot is set in motion by this sort of
"erosion of discipline," the discovery of the treasure
map found while the boys are shaking down surrendered Iraqis.
After some negotiations, Gates, Barlow, Chief, and Conrad
set out across a desert minefield in search of Saddam's hidden
bunkers. Gates drives while the rest shoot footballs off the
back of the jeep. Conrad attaches an explosive to one, which
causes Gates to stop the jeep. "You want to see some
action?" he asks. Gates responds by showing the boys
several scorched bodies, which surprises and horrifies them.
Many of the Gulf War soldiers never saw the actual combat
for which they had trained, so they were spared the danger
of combat but were disappointed by not performing. Thankfully,
most Iraqis willingly surrendered at the first sight of American
tanks, many hoping that the fall of Saddam was near. But the
largely unreported "erosion of discipline" and subsequent
abandonment in Gulf War I has, according to the leaders of
Iraqi dissident groups, only deepened mistrust. This is where
Three Kings is its most powerful: Describing an Iraqi
viewpoint of American military intervention, which threatens
to undermine an American occupation of the country and the
Bush Administration's vision of a post-Saddam Middle East.
"I'm Confused With All This Pro-Saudi,
Nicholas Lehmann's article "After Iraq" in the February
17 issue of The New Yorker, he argues that the
most compelling argument for war is "that removing Saddam
could help bring about a wholesale change for the better in
the political, cultural, and economic climate of the Arab
Middle East." "Unlike other justifications,"
he writes, "it is both a reason for war and a plan for
the future." This
idea has also been proposed in a recent issue of Foreign
Affairs by Fouad Ajami, a "highly respected"
voice within the Bush Administration. He sees a "reformist
project that seeks to modernize and transform the Arab landscape,"
with Iraq as a starting point. The Bush Administration's Deputy
Secretary of Defense and co-architect of the United States'
current foreign policy, Paul Wolfowitz, proposes that war
with Iraq could spark a current of democracy to flow through
the Middle East. Richard Perle, one of the loudest voices
for war within the Administration, proposes the Syria and
even Iran should be the next targets of "regime change"
in the Middle East, with the goal of reforming these countries
into "civil societies."
Even for skeptics of the Bush Administration, this is an
idea too attractive to ignorecertainly it's more ambitious
and imaginative than what the Democrats have offered as "foreign
policy" in many years. Most visions of this goal include
what Lehman calls "a crisp series of post-Saddam moves
across the chessboard of the Middle East," involving
the fall of Tehran to moderate mullahs, a democracy-enlocked
Syria succumbing to diplomatic pressure, and a weakening of
Saudi Arabia's influence over American policy because of the
liberation of Iraqi oil. These moves would eventually force
the Palestinian Authority to renounce Hamas and Islamic Jihad
because terrorists would be without state sponsors. This vision,
proposed in various forms by hawkish Bush Administration officials,
accomplishes the goal of attaching a strategy and definitive
goal to "winning" the war on terrorism. Yet it must
be noted that none of the above moves are possible without
first achieving victory in Iraq. To define "victory",
the chessboard analogy is useful: Defeating Saddam Hussein
would only be capturing the Queen; the endgame is establishing
an autonomous, in the words of Richard Perle, "civil
society" in Iraq.
The most curious aspect of these visions of a post-Saddam
Middle East is the Americanized perspective. It assumes that
democracy is infectious: that once a nation rubs elbows with
soldiers of a free nation, then it will embrace democracy
itself. Yet this perspective seems jejune: On Wednesday, March
26, 2003, a Pentagon spokes described the humanitarian campaign
in Safwan as Iraqis' "first taste of freedom," though
British reporters described the scene as "chaotic"
and that Iraqis "cheered for Saddam Hussein" and
"the death of Bush" after scrambling desperately
for food. Of course these people are still fearful of Saddam,
but they are also skeptical of American soldiers, whose hopeful
appearance and subsequent abandonment twelve years ago led
to the murder of thousands of Iraqi dissidents. Hopefully,
these attitudes will change after the people are assured of
Saddam's fall, perhaps giving opportunity for democratic reforms.
Turkey and Israel are the obvious models, but neither of these
developed into moderate states through American enforcement.
Now that the war has begun and Saddam's fall seems assured,
the most essential question becomes: Will the Iraqi people
embrace American-enforced reform, especially under the current
Bush Administration plan of occupying Iraq with a military
governor and American officers in the main ministries, under
the command of the Pentagon?
Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil once declared, "All
politics is local." So what of the local politics of
Kirkuk, Basra, and Baghdad? According to the Bush Administration,
the "local" makes little difference in their politics.
The February 15, 2003 edition of the The Economist reports
that Iraq's opposition "is dismayed at plans for an American
occupation in Iraq." The leaders of six influential dissident
groups met with American officials late last year to learn
that "America intended to turn Iraq over to an American
military governor for a year or so, and to put American officers
in the main ministries." The Iraqis expressed "a
sense of betrayal" at "the unworkable plan."
One opposition leader said that Iraqis will "regard America
as an occupying force," rejecting "occupation, foreign
or local military rule, external trusteeship or regional intervention."
Of course, "unsupervised democracy" could have widespread
negative consequences, but the Iraqis' request for a federalized
Iraq administered by Iraqis, supervised by coalition forces,
has been rejected by the American envoy. "Their own democratic
credentials may be pretty dubious," The Economist
states, "but the opposition groups now increasingly question
the sincerity behind America's stated desire to shine a beacon
of democracy into their benighted corner." This is where
art like Three Kings becomes especially useful: It
takes a perspective apart from policymakers', describing the
human issues surrounding abstract proposals, thus investigating
the real workability of these ideas.
The Shock and Awe of a Bullet Entering
Three Kings helps us interpret this position by describing
the little reported consequences of Gulf War I: The irreparable
harm brought about by perceived American betrayal of Iraqis
and pirating of Kuwaiti oil during the first Gulf War. When
Archie, Barlow, Chief, and Conrad approach the bunker hiding
the Kuwaiti bullion, they encounter no resistance from the
Republican Guard. In fact, they offer to help the Americans
by setting up a fire brigade to load the gold bricks onto
the truck. While Archie, Barlow, and Chief are looting the
gold, Conrad stands guard from behind his machine gun above
ground. "We are here for your safety and protection,"
he tells them. After they get the gold, the boys try to leave,
but Iraqi peasants cling to them: "We love the United
States of Freedom!" The use of the word "freedom"
is telling in this context: The scene's political undercurrent
is that there is cruelty in American troops in Iraq offering
hope that Saddam would be overthrown, then leaving after the
Kuwaiti oil fields, not the Iraqi people, were liberated.
Of course, the reasons for the first President Bush not advancing
to Baghdad are far more complex (it would fracture the coalition,
there was good reason to believe that Saddam would not survive
a coup), but what these CNN-deprived people see is the arrival
of Americans, whom they welcome as freedom-fighters, and their
exit, forsaking them to cruelty of the Iraqi regime.
As the boys try to escape from the village, they encounter
a large tanker truck, which the audience initially believes
is an oil rig. Saddam's men fire at it, provoking something
far worse than burning oil: The tanker is carrying milk for
the Iraqis, which tidal waves across the sand. The peasants
suck the milk from the sand, revealing the true crisis: Saddam's
men are going to starve the people to keep them from revolting.
As Hersh's article says, Saddam's troops wouldn't engage Americans
after the war because their main objective was to quell the
uprising. The first time I saw the film, I braced for a Bruckheimerian
explosion from the tanker, and when the milk came spilling
out, I laughed. Only after seeing the Iraqis slurping the
sand did I realize the implications. This becomes a theme
of the film: Director David O. Russell toys with our expectations
of the action film genre to show that our perceptions of war
don't always mesh with the real implications of war.
The milk truck incident also shows precisely what happened
in the wake of coalition exodus from the region. Saddam indeed
starved the citizens, exploiting the United Nations oil-for-food
program for his own profit. To punish Saddam, economic sanctions
were levied against Iraq, which didn't punish Saddam at allthe
price trickled down to the peasantry. All of this, according
to dissident groups, have contributed to a very deep sense
of betrayal on the part of Iraqis. Yes, they hate Saddam,
but what of the Americans who stood by while Saddam blew up
their milk trucks, the Americans to whom they begged for freedom
and were forced to ignore them? This, I stress, is not an
anti-American statement (as I said before, the issue is infinitely
more complex), but merely describing the perception of the
situation through others' eyes.
Caught in the crossfire were the Iraqi peasants, like the
Iraqi woman who is killed in the next scene. The Kings and
the Republican Guard square off over an argument not about
the gold, but about the treatment of the people. A bullet
is fired that kills an innocent woman while her family looks
on. The Iraqi leader is also killed in the skirmish, and Gates
is wounded. The scene is remarkable in how it, again, toys
with perceptions of conflict. In most Hollywood action movies,
waves of bullets fly without consequence; nameless, faceless
bad guys throw up their weapons and flail to the ground. Here,
David O. Russell shows each bullet in super-slow-motion; we
hear each bullet fired; we hear the thud resonate as the bullet
enters the body. Some critics accuse Russell of trickery,
but the point is very clear: In real battle, each bullet has
a consequence, each death is the end of a life, be they friendly
forces, enemy forces, or innocent civilians. We experience
the shock and awe of even a small skirmish.
Russell's point extends beyond empathetic humanism. Earlier
in the film, Conrad talks about wanting to see some action
and kill some "camel jockeys." Gates then describes
to Conrad what physiologically happens when a bullet enters
the body. Later, during the above scene, Gates persuades Conrad
not to fire: "No unnecessary shots, Conrad, 'cause we
know what they do."
"Make infected pockets full of bile, sir."
"That's right, Conrad, that's what they do."
This is more than the usual artistic statement against violence;
it's a direct response to the antiseptic perception of Gulf
War I. We consumed the war from television, treated to Nintendo
images of precision guided missiles launched at hard, not
"soft", targets. There were less than three hundred
American casualties in the Gulf War, prompting the Pentagon
to advertise a new kind of technological warfare that spares
lives. Yet, estimates of Iraqi casualties reach about three
hundred thousandnumbers so high that casualties become
statistics and not lives. Russell directly rebukes this perception
by showing us not only blood, but bile and, later, Barlow's
At this point, Chief and Barlow disagree about the mission.
Barlow, who caused a death when he shot an Iraqi in the neck
during the opening scene, is much less enthusiastic about
being entangled in conflict:
"Hey, I don't know if I can do this. I got a family.
If I'm gonna shit in a bag for the rest of my life because
I got shot after the war was over, that'd be pretty fuckin'
stupid, wouldn't it?"
As they get ready to leave, Barlow says, "Let's just
stick to the plan. The plan is for the gold, right."
Chief, who believes that Jesus put the treasure map in their
path, changes his mind: "Hold on, we can help these people
first. Then we'll be on our way." They load the civilians
onto the truck and take out across the desert. The Republican
Guard fires chemical weapons at them, the truck nearly slams
into a mine, and Gates ends up herding everyone into an underground
bunker. An educated Iraqi, Amir Abdullah (Cliff Curtis), sees
through what's going on: "We are fighting Saddam and
dying, and you're stealing the gold." Gates, clearly
caught in a compromising position, offers them a share of
the gold. Amir responds:
"What good is it if you leave us here to be slaughtered.
Huh? The big army of democracy beats the ugly dictator and
saves the rich Kuwaitis, but you will go to jail if you help
us escape the same dictator?"
Whether you agree with Russell's political statement or not,
Amir's statement echoes the sentiment of many modern, progressive
Arabs in the Middle East. It's not American ideals, products,
or wealth they reject, but American double standards set according
to its interests in wealth. The Washington Post has
done several articles recently on the topic: Even Western
educated Arabs have turned against the United States because
they perceive that the United States no long represents "American"
ideals. The peasants refer not to the "United States
of America," but the "United States of Freedom"it's
not "America" they need, it's freedom. Iraqis, educated
or not, will not accept "America" if they cannot
equate it with "freedom," which, in the current
context, apparently many cannot. The idea is developed several
times in Three Kings: As Amir tells Conrad "Well,
we just want to get rid of Saddam...live life...make business."
That's precisely what many in a generation of wealthier,
progressive Iraqis came to the West to learn and bring back
to their homeland. Even American products have been embraced:
There's also a running debate between Chief and Barlow about
whether Lexus makes a convertible. The answer is supplied
by a leading Iraqi dissident who procured a fleet of luxury
cars from the Kuwaitis. He is not only versed in Western automobiles,
but a shrewd business man. Gates tries to let them use the
cars to help get the families across the border:
"George Bush wants you! Many nations! United! Kick Saddam's
ass! Fight for your freedom, and we will follow! God bless
America! And God bless a free Iraq!"
This is so transparent that he sees through it immediately:
Gates: "Ok, we'll buy them."
The irony plays as a swift joke, but darkness lurks underneath:
How can the Iraqi people accept America's sincerity of "liberation"
when its conduct provides so much evidence to the contrary?
Or, in the language of Three Kings, how can American
liberation be sincere when the country is being looted of
its riches? Noam Chomsky has argued that if it not for American-led
economic sanctions on Iraq, the people might have had the
resources to rise up against Saddam. That position is rather
tenuous, but it's more difficult to defend the American government's
undisclosed contracts offered to Halliburton (the oil company
in which Vice President Cheney was recently the CEO), Richard
Perle's resignation over a conflict of business and government
interests in the Middle East, and other such incidents. Even
if Bush Administration intentions are sincere, the conduct
of its officials gives fuel to anti-American sentiment and
feeds the cynicism of its skeptics. Their conduct is as transparent
as Gates' plea that "George Bush Wants You...God Bless
a Free Iraq!"
Again, the vast complexity of the conflict might, for some,
render this view reductionist. But from the perspective of
others, this sort of conduct galvanizes anti-American sentiment,
especially for those whose cooperation is necessary to win
the war and rebuild a "civil society." Many reports
from the current war indicate that Iraqi resistance to the
American forces has been severely underestimated on most fronts.
Part of this is fed by lingering fears of Saddam (as in Three
Kings when the Republican Guard flees after a fleet of
limos pulls up and an Iraqi yells "Saddam is very disappointed
in all of you! He has come to kill you!"), but reports
from inside Baghdad indicate that the "Shock and Awe"
tactics have only emboldened the people to resist "invasion,"
no matter their hatred of Saddam. As
a stationary supply seller in Baghdad told Jon Lee Anderson
in a recent New Yorker article,
and Blair...They said this would be a clean war...This is
not clean. This is dirtya dirty war...Don't be sorry,
it's not the American people. Most of them are against this
war. We know this."
How did this Iraqi miscalculate recent polls indicating seventy
percent approval for the war?
"I saw the director Michael Moore on TV yesterday."
This sort of incongruence is reminescent of the scene in
which Sergeant Barlow calls home from an Iraqi bunker from
a cell phone. He's trying to escape Iraqi captors; she's talking
about changing diapers. He's trying to give her military coordinates;
she's writing them down on a Post-It. If anything else proves
the ease of misperception across continents, even in the era
of instant media, it's the thought that Michael Moore represents
American opinion. True understanding requires broader perspective.
Again, Three Kings provides a perspective apart from
apparent Administration miscalculation, showing that people
will accept a local, known evil to an unknown foreign one.
As Gates, Chief, and Conrad try to organize a reconnaissance
mission to bring back Sergeant Barlow, Barlow is being tortured
by one of Saddam's loyal troops. Hooked up to electrodes,
Captain Said (Said Taghmaoui) interrogates Barlow about his
mission in the Persian Gulf, with a surprising acumen for
American pop culture:
"What's the problem with Michael Jackson? You make the
black man hate himself like you hate the Arabs, and the children
you bomb over here...Do you army care about the children in
Iraq? Do you army come back to help them?...My wife is bombed,
legs cut off by big block of concrete...My son is killed in
his bed...Can you think inside your heart how it feel if I
bomb your daughter"
"Worse than death"
Russell not only suggests it, but he shows it to us in dream
sequences. He shows us the poor Iraqi child being crushed
by concrete, following it with the same image, only with Barlow's
wife and baby. He's intent on putting us through a guilt trip,
for sure, the point is powerful enough to warrant it. Again,
this isn't necessarily "right", but how an Iraq
loyalist views the situation. By showing us this viewpoint,
complete with crib-busting bombs, we are drawn into moral
conflict. No matter the intentions of the bombing raids on
Baghdad, no matter the care taken to protect civilians, is
America not culpability for those deaths, especially in the
eyes of those citizensespecially considering America's
role in creating the regime? Said continues:
"I got weapon and training from America. Where do you
think I learned my English? Americans come here to train us
when we fight Iran...You are here for save Kuwaiti people?
Really? A lot of people in trouble in the world, my man, and
you don't fight no fucking war for them."
"You invaded another country. You can't do that."
"Why not do it?"
"'Cause it makes the world crazy. You need to make it
"For what? For your pickup truck?"
"For stability. To stabilize the region"
"This is you fucking stability, my main man." and
he uses a CD to pour motor oil down Barlow's throat. Rick
Ferguson called this "the most audacious political statement
in American film since JFK," but the moment could
have been embarrassing had the two actors not given each other
so much in the scene. Taghmaoui tortures Wahlberg, but retains
his humanity in the speech about his daughter. They even reach
common ground on why they joined their respective armies.
Said joined because he had a family and Saddam rewarded him
with home and a carconfirmed by recent intelligence
reports on why Republican Guard generals refuse to surrender.
"Yeah, I joined for the extra cash, too. I had a child
on the way," replies Barlow. Wahlberg invests enough
humanity, even while sweaty with fright, that his act when
freed (not shooting Said when he has the chance) doesn't seem
like a token gesture of the screenplay. And yes, to reduce
the argument solely to oil is reductionist, but the persuasiveness
of this viewpoint must be considered when dealing with the
Iraqi people. The Bush Administration has done little to dissuade
this view, which is why movies like Three Kings are
essential to the public consciousness.
"You Do The Thing You're Scared Shitless
Of, And You Get the Courage After You Do It, Not Before You
From here, Three Kings, as Charlie Kaufman might say,
adapts to itself by adhering to the conventions of the action
genre: Bullets flow more freely, a helicopter is blown up
by an explosive attached to a football, and the boys decide
to do the heroic thing. When I first saw the movie in the
theater, I was very disappointed when I left: How could a
film that takes so many chances have taken such an easy way
out? In the end, Gates, Barlow, and Chief decide to help the
Iraqis to the Iranian border so they can escape Saddam. The
American military catches up to them, threatening to court-martial
them for "violating American policy." They are handcuffed,
including Barlow, who needs an inflating device to breathe.
The Iraqi peasants are desperate to get to the border; they
know if they don't get through, they'll be killed by Saddam.
The only way for them to get through is to be escorted by
Americans, who are under orders not to get involved in the
This is when we see the importance of a free and independent
media covering military conflict. During Gulf War I, the media
only had access to the battlefield when escorted by the military,
and thus reported mostly official military record. When we
first see Commander Archie Gates, he's boning a newsbunny
in exchange for a storya crude but apt description of
the relationship between the military and the media during
the Gulf War. They are rudely interrupted by a general and
Adrianna Cruz (Nora Dunn), a reporter clearly modeled after
Christine Amanpour, though bitter after being crowned runner
up at the Emmys. The general rebukes Gates for his actions
("This is a media war, and you better get on board!"),
to which Gates responds, "I don't even know what we did
here." Pressing the point, the General asks, "Do
you want another Vietnam?" The underlying point is that
the opposition to Vietnam was in part fed by front-line reporting
to mainstream American media, and for Gulf War commanders
to present anything less than a unified front would jeopardize
the hyperbolic accolades bestowed upon them by the media,
thus diminishing the nearly unanimous support for American
In the movie's resolution, however, Cruz, after being led
on a wild goose chase by a military underling (Jamie Kennedy),
catches up to Gates. She reports on the real consequences
of American policy, which for the sake of the narrative rescues
our heroes. But underneath the Hollywood ending is the idea
that the American public needs an unconstrained media if it
is ever to have a complete, complex portrait of events half
a world away. The major American media outlets accepted the
escort-only rule under protest, but seemed all-too-willing
to accept an untainted, yellow-ribboned victory. The deep
divisions over this conflict necessitate precisely what Three
Kings calls for: Media free of unreasonable military intervention,
which buried the most unsavory aspects of the last Gulf War.
So why else defend a Hollywood ending to a movie that is
otherwise M*A*S*H in the sand? Former internet film
critic Rick Ferguson often said that art functions to entertain,
to question, to provoke debate, and to teach. Three Kings
obviously fulfills the first three obligations, but what
of the fourth? Three Kings teaches us that if Americans
are to win the trust and support of the Iraqi people, then
they have to believe that our intentions are sincere. There
are many stories of individual American troops acting selflessly
in both wars, offering starving civilians their own MRE's
and giving medical care when possible, but what happens when
policy is enforced by a American military governor under the
orders of the Bush Administration? If the people feel exploited,
or in the language of the film, feel as if we're stealing
the gold, how long can we expect this trust to last?
In the end of the film, the boys sacrifice the gold after
sharing it with the poor Iraqis. The idea is that we will
have to sacrifice our own interests of wealth to win the people's
trust, that we care about them as a people, as a nationnot
just as an uprising that needs to be mollified so that the
American kings can steal their gold. Educated and non-educated
Iraqis are too smart for that. We know that Saddam withheld
profits from the oil-for-food program, but are American oil
companies any better if too little of their profits from Iraqi
oil are sacrificed to feed the people and rebuild their cities?
A movie like Three Kings, functioning as Roger Ebert's
"empathy machine," answers the question by drawing
us emotionally into the plight of the Iraqi peasants: For
Gates, Chief, and Barlow to abandon them is unconscionable.
Likewise, any occupation plan that hampers humanitarian efforts
or disregards Iraqi dissidents who have fought Saddam is itself
The characters are developed to make this change of heart
believable. Barlow is the heart of the film: His regret over
shooting is the first indication that he wants to avoid conflict:
A new father, having just brought life into the world, he's
hesitant to take it away. Gates is the film's conscious; his
cynicism erodes into empathy when faced with the real consequences
of the policy he's there to enforce. Gates' character arc
begins with detached disillusionment, to which he attaches
morality as he is faced with real Iraqis, rather than mere
"soft targets." But the soul of the film is Chief
Elgin, baptized in a ring of the Jesus fire, who adopts a
Muslim headdress and prays with the Iraqis before the reconnaissance
mission. After proclaiming that "God put this (the treasure
map) in our path," Chief finds inner peace in the bustle
of conflict because the prophecy is fulfilled: God indeed
put the map in their path, for reasons that at first weren't
clear, and the Three Kings can sleep well knowing they did
the moral thing.
After the fall of Saddam, will the Bush Administration be
able to sleep so soundly? One of the most touching scenes
in recent movies is the humility and sadness felt by the Three
Kings as they wave to the Iraqis they helped liberate. Sergeant
Barlow can always tell his daughter that he did the moral,
humble thing, such as when, according
to Newsweek, "Bush the Elder wrote a letter
to his children. Ordering troops into combat, he wrote, 'tears
at my heart.'" But have we seen the same sort of empathetic
humanism from a recipient of that letter? The
same Newsweek article provides the answer: "Aides
said that Bush the Younger has written no such letter to his
own twin daughters." By using the government to promote
his arch-conservative Christian agenda, by using the word
"crusade" to describe military interventions, does
the President show himself to be as religiously enlightened
the news that Secretary Rumsfeld has efforted to ensure that
the Pentagon controls "every aspect of reconstructing
the country and forming a new government," we can
only hope that the Pentagon conducts itself with the conscious
of Major Archie Gates, who sacrifices his gold and ambition
for the good of the people. But
the Pentagon has dismissed the State Department and Tony Blair's
position that the United Nations should be the center of postwar
Iraq, and Rumsfeld has also rejected Colin Powell's plan for
civilian-based humanitarian efforts. As it stands now,
the Pentagon threatens not only an internationally-based rebuilding
strategy, but has rejected Iraqi input, in addition to jeopardizing
humanitarian assistance. Every day, more and more complaints
about the Pentagon emerge from both the State Department and
the military field commanders who have encountered Iraqis
face-to-face. The mass surrenders seen in Gulf War I have
not happened, "appear(ing)
to reflect a miscalculation by the Pentagon and CIA of the
willingness or ability of Iraq's political and military leaders
to overthrow Saddam." Will the Iraqi people peacefully
submit themselves to this heavy hand? Perhaps, but evidence
from the first fortnight of war suggests otherwise. As does
Three Kings, a map that leads as near to the Iraqi
heart as we can find in American movies.