WASHINGTON -- For those of us who think we have seen every war film Hollywood can offer, I have a surprise for you: "Zero Dark Thirty" rates up there on the topmost level with "Sergeant York," "From Here to Eternity" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
Doubtless Americans are rushing to see it because they feel they know the "real story" about how American SEALs, backed by the CIA and special operations forces, were able to get Osama bin Laden.
There he had been, the world's "most wanted" ideological renegade and killer, in a secret, grimy, three-story house in suburban Pakistan. On May 2, 2011, the now-famous SEAL Team Six left to leave Afghanistan in the dead of night in small helicopters. Their actions based upon extraordinary intelligence work, they swooped into the town of Abbottabad with "Star Wars" weapons and killed the man who had declared war on the United States.
But it is far too easy to watch this film -- extraordinary for its acting, for its terrifying special effects, for its general truthfulness -- and not understand that there are other, more revealing messages to decipher. We need to jot down the special experience of this unique drama in our notebooks under "Stunning Warnings of What Is to Come."
Think for just a moment of the war movies we have been used to, of the messages they uniformly sent us. Almost all of those films, watched by generations of adults as they grew up, were of world wars won by young American men who were either handsome and brave or funny and brave. Either Gary Cooper or William Bendix, Burt Lancaster or Frank Sinatra.
During World War II (in which my brother Glen was nearly killed), I remember my dear mother describing our soldiers as "our good CLEAN American boys over there" -- in contrast to that era's categorization of the Germans and the Russians.
There was no question in these movies as to who was the bravest, the most honest or the cleanest! There was no question about who was going to win the war, and then the peace.
Oh, yes, of course, there were melancholy moments: Deborah Kerr on the ship leaving Burt Lancaster in "From Here to Eternity"; the last soldier killed before the armistice was announced in "All Quiet on the Western Front"; the boys who would never come back and the mothers who knew it. But these were personal tragedies, not national ones. As a nation, we were going to win -- and did.
These "winning" films had to change after World War II -- and they did, once we got into unwinnable wars. When films started coming out about the Vietnam War, they were appropriately tragic. I saw "Platoon" only last week, and it was all-too-genuine. There was nothing in the film but god-awful fighting and suffering in swamps and on mountainsides, plus the requisite questions about "Why in hell are we here?" And the film never answered that question.
But we didn't learn from Vietnam not to get into "wars of choice" (in effect, wars we did not have to fight, where we had not been attacked). And then came Iraq and Afghanistan.
I have not seen any "Platoon"-style films on either of these disasters -- i.e., all fighting and arguing while in the grasp of deathly nothingness. Instead, Hollywood gives us "Zero Dark Thirty," which we would do well to try to understand.
Here, there are no great battles or great landings, no sad French cafes or grim German prison camps, no great moral questioning that would test the likes of a Niebuhr or a Tillich.
This age -- our age -- is characterized not by great fighters for national causes; our age is exemplified by the out-of-state actors, by men and women who operate not in groups singing "Over There" and "The White Cliffs of Dover" but who excel in small, highly technical groups who understand secrecy and stealth. They are sent off not at dawn by General Eisenhower to land on the beaches in Normandy, but at midnight-30 by largely unknown CIA officers to assassinate an evil, bearded old man sleeping in his eyrie.
This is the wr is fought today -- by special-ops, CIA and Army intelligence, the swift attack at midnight-30 against the leader, not of an army but of a band of rebels, of guerrillas, of insurgents.
What exactly this will mean for the future is difficult yet to say, but the implications are clearly there. The future of warfare is not institutions, but individual groups; not armies, but insurgents; and, in terms of those who set up the confrontations, not institutionalized groups but bands such as those now operating in Northern Mali, fighting out of caves and sand bunkers and not even in their own country.
Many of us thought that, once we got bin Laden, the conflict would all be over. In fact, as brave as that victory was, the conflict is only beginning.
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