The "Fahrenheit" boiling point

Since returning home from the war, I've begun to worry that antiwar fervor may turn into anger at U.S. troops.

Published July 14, 2004 6:09PM (EDT)

As a veteran who has spent the past few months since I left the army traveling around the country, one refrain I keep hearing is "I don't think we need to be in Iraq, but I support the troops." I have heard this in New York City as often as I have in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. No matter what the opinion of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, the admiration and appreciation the public feels for its veterans is widespread and genuine. Not even the horrors of Abu Ghraib seem to have dampened the public's view of the men and woman fighting abroad.

But as anger builds toward President Bush over the Iraq War, I fear that anger is eventually bound to spill onto the foot soldiers anonymously serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don't think it's an irrational fear: Even those of us born after the Vietnam War read about the "baby killer" epithets that greeted returning veterans as the antiwar sentiment escalated. And so as I began to survey much of the antiwar popular culture for this essay, I found myself increasingly uneasy by what I saw. Not so much in the works themselves, but in the reactions of the people with whom I sat.

I saw the Al-Jazeera documentary "Control Room" during a stop in Atlanta on my recent book tour. The last time I watched a movie with a crowd had been in April, in Afghanistan, with the platoon of Army Rangers I had led for the past year. Quite a different audience from the one in the Little Five Points section of Atlanta. I wondered what my Rangers would have made of the documentary. I could easily guess the opinions of the other people in the theater by the time the opening credits rolled, and I think I would have valued the unpredictable and surprisingly diverse opinions of my Rangers more.

The crowd in Atlanta began by wildly cheering the trailer to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," and I suspected they were there more to sate their anti-Bush appetites than to watch a study of the burgeoning Arab free press. After all, "Fahrenheit 9/11" would not open for another four days, so I guess they had to do something until then.

The crowd came to see an anti-Bush film, and that's what they got, though that might come as a surprise to the filmmaker, Jehane Noujaim. The film wasn't an explicit anti-Bush screed -- it was the story of a struggling Arab cable network and its efforts to cover the news as well as CNN, while at the same time keeping some semblance of objectivity in a region infected with overwhelming anti-American sentiment. Granted, the film offered plenty of opportunities to boo and hiss Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush -- and the audience cheerfully took up every opportunity. But they did so without pausing, I think, to take in some of the more serious questions the film asked about the media coverage of the war and about Arab-American relations. While the film tackles the pro-Arab bias at Al-Jazeera, the network got a free pass of sorts from the Atlanta audience.

I sincerely doubt the audience members who forgave the obvious pro-Arab and anti-American bias at Al-Jazeera would have been so forgiving if they had been watching, say, the new documentary "Outfoxed" (which I haven't seen), which chronicles the alleged conservative bias at Fox News. Bias in the media is fine, the audience seemed to be saying with their applause, so long as the bias is in line with their own.

I identified with the young Marine lieutenant, Josh Rushing, who served as one of Central Command's press officers, probably because I too was a young lieutenant at the time of the invasion. Rushing comes off as genuinely eager to understand the Arab world's perspective in order to sell the American line on the war in Iraq. And though the film opens with Rushing bumbling his way through a debate with an Al-Jazeera correspondent (whose cellphone ring is, hilariously, the opening bars of "Scotland the Brave"), he redeems himself later in the movie with his thoughtful perspective on the struggle to communicate with the Arab media.

In his most intelligent criticism of Al-Jazeera, he mentions the network's practice of ending their broadcasts with images of American soldiers and military equipment immediately followed by images of screaming, bleeding Iraqi children and civilians. The American equivalent would be Fox running footage of the twin towers collapsing over and over again before every commercial. Now that would have sparked outrage with this crowd. But as the Marine lieutenant made his case against Al-Jazeera, the audience in Atlanta laughed derisively in the same way they greeted every statement made by the secretary of defense.

A few days later I watched "Fahrenheit 9/11" in a crowded theater in Charleston, S.C. (I saw it again for this essay two weeks later.) I had really enjoyed two of Moore's previous films, "Roger and Me" especially, but also "Bowling for Columbine." But those movies had struck me as curiously incomplete arguments. In neither film does Michael Moore provide a real answer for the problems he sees in Flint, Mich., and in the rest of America -- just a vague assertion that the government should do something. In "Fahrenheit 9/11," by contrast, Moore offers a clear solution to the problems he sees in America and the world: Don't elect George Bush this November.

The film is biased, unfair and maddening. In other words, it's exactly what Moore cheerfully told the world the film would be when he made it.

I had seen " Control Room" with my mom, whose politics run somewhere to the left on the political spectrum, and I was glad she was not with me as I watched "Fahrenheit 9/11." The series of interviews Moore has with a mother who lost her son in Iraq is heartbreaking, and I knew my own three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq had put quite a few gray hairs on my mom's head over the past three years.

But as this woman, Lila Lipscomb -- who had encouraged her son to join the military to escape the economically depressed Flint area -- tearfully asked the camera why her son had to die in Iraq, the woman behind me hissed at the screen, "Because you sent him over there, you idiot!"

I was shocked. That remark was more crass than anything I had seen on the screen. And I found myself even happier than before that my mother wasn't with me to see "Fahrenheit 9/11." Because despite her left-leaning politics and gentle nature, I couldn't help but think that she would have turned around and hit that woman. Most of the public simply can't understand the anxiety that military families live with while their loved ones are away at war. Just the other day I spoke to a woman in Montgomery, Ala., who broke down in tears as she spoke about her son in Iraq.

In the end, I was left wondering what good, if any, films like "Fahrenheit 9/11" really provide us. "Control Room" offered an insight into a network that had previously been an enigma to me, something I never watched but often heard politicians complain about. "Fahrenheit 9/11," by contrast, merely packaged a series of anti-Bush rants I had heard before into one neat, clever film. (So, too, did Tim Robbins' off-Broadway play "Embedded," though neither neatly nor cleverly.) I walked away from "Fahrenheit 9/11" as if I had just eaten a candy bar -- I was on a sugar high but knew what I had just ingested wasn't healthy for me in the least.

I also didn't appreciate the way U.S. servicemen were depicted in the film. The first time Moore shows servicemen on camera, they are bragging about the heavy metal they listen to in their tanks while they kill Iraqis. War provides "the ultimate rush," one young soldier claims. The second time Moore shows servicemen on camera, however, they are lamenting the way the war is being fought and sound as disillusioned as they do anxious to go home. As Jethro Tull plays on the tank's speaker system, one soldier rhetorically asks the camera, "It's not that easy to conquer a country, is it?"

The problem is, these two vignettes don't make sense when paired together. Are American soldiers merciless killing machines pumped up on the "XXX" soundtrack as they mow down Iraqi soldiers and civilians? Or are they scared kids from the heartland who resent U.S. policymakers and want nothing more than to come home alive?

Moore stumbles into a revelation here, albeit clumsily and unwittingly: Soldiers aren't so easily stereotyped. The reality is, they are complex, just like you and me, with both strengths and weaknesses. The American media has, through the years, done a poor job of communicating this to the public. Most media, lazily avoiding complexity so as to squeeze a war into the 30-minute evening newscast, paint soldiers as morally flawless, with a superhuman sense of duty and honor. ("I think Navy SEALs rock!" Katie Couric cheerfully cries in "Fahrenheit 9/11.") Most pop history books -- such as "The Greatest Generation" ---only reinforce this notion. As a result, America is shocked when confronted with atrocities like My Lai or, today, Abu Ghraib. How could our boys do this?

But equally wrong, of course, were those who shouted "baby killer" at every veteran who returned from Vietnam. Most veterans were nothing of the sort --and I would bet most protesters were as keenly aware of that then as they are now. The soldiers of that age were just as they are today -- mostly earnest young American men and women who, for the most part, proudly served their country overseas and prayed like all hell they would come home in one piece.

The irony of Michael Moore, as a friend of mine from Nashville pointed out, is that he too is guilty of mentioning only the facts that are helpful to his case, a tactic that will sound familiar to those who remember the run-up to the ground war in Iraq. Ultimately, "Fahrenheit 9/11" has more flash and anger than reason.

For an antiwar documentary with the substance to meet Moore's style, you're better off watching the more intelligent if less entertaining "Uncovered." Far less exciting to watch than "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Uncovered" is content to run interviews with dozens of high-level government officials who offer candid testimony as to how they feel the administration misled the country and marched down a path toward unjustified war. Released in 2003, the documentary by Robert Greenwald (also the director of "Outfoxed") is largely a cult success, selling more than 100,000 copies online, and it will air this fall on the Sundance Channel.

But I fear the American left is beyond the highly nuanced, sophisticated arguments they have always embraced in the past (occasionally to their detriment). For now, they just want to be angry. And Michael Moore and others are happy to meet their needs.

So where does all that anger go? Unfortunately, I do fear it will begin to fall on the soldiers and their families, especially if Bush wins the White House in November. For now, Moore and other antiwar protesters have the election to focus on. But if Bush is reelected, there is no telling what kind of ugly turn the public's anger will take.

I fear the left's view of American fighting men and women will devolve from admiration to ambivalence to disgust the longer this war lasts and the longer we're exposed to simplistic rants from folks like Moore. Witness the illustrator Ted Rall, whose cartoon accusing Pat Tillman of wasting his life fighting for a foolish cause was widely criticized following Tillman's death in April. As soon as the news of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse hit the press, Rall revised his opinion of soldiers and denounced America's fighting men and women in Iraq as "Gestapo thugs." And consider the experience of Jason Gilson, a 23-year-old who was wounded as a Marine serving in Iraq, who says he was booed and called a "murderer" while marching at the Fourth of July parade in Bainbridge Island, outside Seattle.

Are both of those examples anomalies? Sure. But aren't they also the inevitable result when the rhetoric has been ratcheted to such an extreme?

Since I left Iraq in January, life has gotten tougher for the servicemen and servicewomen in that country. The bloody month of April claimed more lives than any other since the occupation began, and the beheadings of hostages -- especially when combined with the gruesome Abu Ghraib pictures -- add a nasty edge to the conflict that didn't exist in the first year of the war.

As the public becomes more agitated about the war, it will increasingly be tested in how it treats soldiers when they return home to America. We'll have to wait and see whether troops will once again be met at the airports with buckets of red paint tossed by antiwar protesters. If it comes to that, however, it would support what has become a repeated, tragic sentiment these past few years: that we didn't really learn anything from Vietnam after all.

By Andrew Exum

Andrew Exum, a former Army captain, is the author of "This Man's Army: A Soldier's Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism."

MORE FROM Andrew Exum

Related Topics ------------------------------------------