Saturday, October 22, 2005

Turning victory into defeat

Anyone who has gone to the movies or watched TV for the past 40 years knows that Hollywood has a single, overriding template they use whenever they make movies or TV shows about war. The unwritten law is you will not make any movie that makes the US Military look patriotic, brave, or competent.

There are exceptions to this rule. It is generally still acceptable to have patriotic World War II movies (Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers) largely because the Commander in Chief during WWII was the Sainted FDR. Also, movies that show US troops being defeated and demoralized are still celebrated (Black Hawk Down). Otherwise, every conflict must be viewed through the Apocalypse Now/Platoon prism: Incompetent officers, cynical troops, flawed military objectives.

Hollywood hasn't made many movies about the first Gulf War, probably since it is almost universally considered to be the most lopsided military victory since Agincourt and therefore a poor subject for Vietnamization. However, that appears to be changing: Jarhead is coming to a theatre near you.

As a former Marine infantryman, I am definitely interested in seeing this one. Both of my former reserve units were activated during the Gulf War; one helped liberate Kuwait. I had many friends who served. Indeed, had I not decided to marry my wife in 1988 instead of becoming an officer, I almost certainly would have been there myself.

But looking at the description of the story on the website, I'm concerned this is going to be just Platoon set in the desert instead of the jungle. Here's the official summary of the story:

Jarhead (the self-imposed monkier of the Marines) follows "Swoff" (Gyllenhaal), a third-generation enlistee, from a sobering stint in boot camp to active duty, sporting a sniper's rifle and a hundred-pound ruck on his back through Middle East deserts with no cover from intolerable heat or Iraqi soldiers, always potentially just over the next horizon. Swoff and his fellow Marines sustain themselves with sardonic humanity and wicked comedy on blazing desert fields in a country they don't understand against an enemy they can't see for a cause they don't fully fathom.

When the website's own description of the movie contains several historical errors, well, that doesn't bode very well for the movie itself.

Intolerable heat? Blazing deserts? Yeah, the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are very hot. But Operation Desert Storm began in January 1991, and the ground troops didn't cross the border until late February. Despite relatively pleasant temperatures of up to 70 degrees during the day, the conditions were very cold, with windchill dropping below freezing at night. Several Army Green Berets even died of exposure while operating in the deserts of western Iraq. If the movie portrays the Marines fighting in Kuwait in the desert heat that will be a serious historical error.

Furthermore, I remember the run up to the Gulf War, and during the hot months of August, September and October, 1990, there wasn't even talk of the Marines doing anything but preventing an invasion of Saudi Arabia. It wasn't until after the November elections that President Bush announced his intention to kick Saddam out of Kuwait, and even then it wasn't a sure thing, as the US Congress and the United Nations were very reluctant to go along.

Against an enemy they can't see? The Iraqis had nowhere to hide during the Gulf War. They were pounded mercilessly by Coalition air strikes and artillery. After the Marines crossed the border, it wasn't hard to find them: Over 100,000 Iraqis surrendered, so many that according to General Norman Schwartzkopf they actually slowed the Marines down, and a roughly equal number were unable to surrender because they were dead. If "Swoff" couldn't see the enemy, he must not have been looking for them.

For a cause they don't fully fathom? It's not an exaggeration to say that everyone in Gulf War I, from the highest-ranking generals to the lowliest privates, knew why they were there: To kick Saddam out of Kuwait and enforce the UN Resolutions. The tactical objectives were as clear as crystal, which explains in part why we were so successful. True, the realpolitik cabal of the Bush Administration (led by General Scowcroft) snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by allowing Saddam to survive (something we are paying for now), but as far as the troops were concerned, their way home was through Kuwait.

This account may be "irreverent" but it's certainly not "true", other than there was a Marine sniper named Swofford who served in the Gulf War. From what I read it's simply an attempt to discredit the most lopsided rout in US military history. While American blood was spilled and Marines did die, that's what war is about. The fact the US was victorious doesn't mean that history has been "sanitized".


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