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Valkyries Over Iraq—The Trouble with War Movies

Harper's Magazine | Friday, Nov 11, 2005

Early in 2003, a little more than ten years after the conclusion of the First Gulf War-which is to say the short, fast, clean, clear, and ever so painlessly triumphalist one-and on the very brink of what was rapidly seeming the inevitable launch of its far more complicated sequel, Anthony Swofford, a Marine sniper veteran of that first conflict, published a powerfully bleak memoir of his experiences there in the Kuwaiti amphitheater back in the early nineties, a bitterly cautionary screed, utterly pithed of illusion or easy consolations. Of all the revelations in Swofford's brisk chronicle, one of the most startling occurred near the book's very outset, as he described how Marines on the verge of being sent into battle goosed themselves into a blissed-out state of readiness by screening videos of movies depicting earlier wars, and in particular battle scenes from several of the bleakest Vietnam movies of allsome of the most thoroughly illusionand consolation-pithed films ever made-scenes, for example, like Robert Duvall's celebrated and notoriously blood-drenched Valkyrie helicopter raid in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

"There is talk," Swofford noted, "that many Vietnam filmsare antiwar, that the messageis that war is inhumane… But actually, Vietnam films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended." Swofford went on to allow as how Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan might well watch such films "and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible, and they will tell their friends at church and their family this, but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base ... and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine…

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