A film on how the Iraq war is brutalising U.S. soldiersFeb 10th, 2009 | By editor | Category: Viewers Talk
It is a searing comment on the effect of war on young soldiers who soon find they are not on a mission to restore democracy or protect their country, but to kill or be killed.
Can there be a greater indictment of a system than that the very people who make it tick and without whose loyalty and dedication it cannot possibly run, lose trust in it and turn hostile?
There is a seminal moment in the Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis’ widely-debated film on the Iraq debacle, In the Valley of Elah, when a retired American soldier who has lost both his sons because of his country’s actions in Iraq pulls down the Stars-and-Stripes from a neighbourhood flagpole and replaces it with a tattered substitute deliberately hoisting it upside down.
“Is it to stay like this?” asks his neighbour, a Hispanic immigrant, with some surprise.
“Yes, it will stay like this forever,” he replies curtly and walks away.
Yet, at the start of the film, we see the same man brimming with patriotism despite losing one son and desperately trying to find the other who has been missing since his return from the killing-fields of Baghdad. Seeing his neighbour — the same Hispanic immigrant — struggling to hoist the flag, he offers to help. And when he discovers that the man has put it up the wrong way around, he sets it right telling him that when the flag is flown upside down it is “officially an appeal for help in a situation of danger.”
So, how does one explain his later action? How does a proud war veteran, who believed that his country could do no wrong and happily sent his only other child to Iraq even after losing the first, come to question his faith in his country and its army?
Answering these questions would mean giving the story away but suffice it to say that Hank Deerfield (brilliantly played by Tommy Lee Jones) has strong reasons to be disillusioned and to feel betrayed. And his story is likely to resonate universally with soldiers, especially their families who ever have had to deal with an insensitive bureaucracy.
‘Inspired’ by real events
The fact that the film is “inspired” by real events makes it more relevant. It is said to be based, broadly, on the story of Richard Davis, an American soldier, who was murdered in mysterious circumstances after he returned home from Iraq in 2003 and his father ( like Deerfield) launched his own investigation after being fobbed off by the military establishment.
The film does not blame any individual for Deerfield’s tragedy. It is not as though someone deliberately set out to deceive, hurt or humiliate him. What he is up against is a wall of collective cynicism and arrogance that comes with the cosy belief, common among all bureaucracies, that the ordinary little man cannot challenge the system.
The film, which made a huge impact at last year’s Venice Film Festival and won an award for Haggis, portrays the plight of the common man in the face of state machinery. The trick, we are told, is to overcome that fear as David did when he took on Goliath in the biblical Valley of Elah which gives the film its title.
At another level, In the Valley of Elah — the latest in a string of critical Hollywood films on Iraq — is a searing comment on the brutalising effect of war on young soldiers who soon find that they are not on a mission to restore democracy or protect their country, but to kill or be killed. And by the time they are through with their “tour of duty” they have lost their innocence and are not the same people any more. To his horror, Deerfield discovers that his “little boy” who, he thought, was busy “restoring democracy” in Iraq had turned into a sadist committing the same sort of atrocities on Iraqis as his real-life compatriots did at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere.
The boy returns from Iraq suffering from post-war trauma and instead of going back to his family, he disappears — only to be killed in a drugs-related brawl, his body found chopped into little pieces. That is how the life of a promising young soldier, the son of a proud American war veteran, ends: not in a blaze of glory on the battlefield but in a grimy parking lot.
As one critic noted: “Finally, Deerfield’s son in Iraq descended into behaviour that can only reflect the hell-hole that war is, and what Deerfield’s colleagues eventually do to him is only a consequence of all that dehumanisation.”
The incidence of post-war trauma is reported to be widespread among British and American soldiers returning from Iraq. And, according to Haggis, the suicide rate in the American army has recorded a 30-year-high in the wake of the Iraq invasion.
“The only reason there are not more suicides is because the Vietnam veterans have taken them [the Iraq veterans] under their wings and are talking them through this. They are not getting help from the government,” he said introducing his film at the Venice festival.
He accused the American government of being in denial about the post-war stress affecting soldiers who have come back from Iraq — a charge also hurled at the British government. American war veterans have applauded the film saying that it reflects their own war-time experiences but, apparently, the Pentagon is not amused.
Published on 2008, Fedruary 08