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Gulf Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Islamofascists

In George Lucas’s recent Star Wars film, Both sides of the epic concluding battle are disposable. The Confederacy of Independent Systems fought with droids of varying shapes and sizes. The Republic fought with a recently found, all too convenient clone army, all bred from a single template- a bounty hunter named Jango Fett. They are blown up, shot up and generally knocked around like their eventual replacements, the stormtroopers.

Oh, those poor stormtroopers. Dehumanized targets for the righteous Rebels. Couldn't aim straight, either. Their masks hid any separate identities, just as the Mandalorian style masks hid the indentical faces of the clonetroopers. In the real world, though, such dehumanization doesn't take place behind masks. It's political labels that are the most effective.

In movies, it's always nice to have a nice ready store of stock villains ready to rush into a scene to demonstrate the valor and skill of the hero. sometimes uniformed, sometimes just plain ugly, either way deprived of the individual faces and lives that make them worth mourning.

Is that bad? Not necessarily, not if the story is about the characters on one side of the battle, rather than the interaction of the two. Identifiable characters are a precious commodity for screen time, and unless they are part of the drama, they are best left anonymous.

Of course, that's movies, where the audience never usually has to encounter stormtroopers, clonetroopers, acid blooded Xenomorphs, Old-Fashioned Soviets, medieval or colonial era brits, or any of the other cannon fodder that gets mowed down for their entertainment. In real life, the people who die en masse often have families, kin, friends, willing to take their place. In a country of millions, a guerilla war, sufficiently motivated can make a continued presence bloody on all sides.

In the movies, it only takes a slight adjustment in budget to make a thousand ten thousand, or to just computer generate the whole crowd. In real life, our soldiers are a great deal more expensive to multiply, and never so unlimited. In Return of the King, they could throw hundreds of thousands of soldiers into one battle for just a few million. It's costing us billions to do the same in Iraq. Real Soldiers require more care and feeding than their digital counterparts.

The armies we see in movies are a trick of the eye, more than anything else. They live and die for the shot. The Armies we have in real life have lives and identities of which this war is only a part. We will have to live with the veterans of this war. I doubt an orc or a Kiwi-accented Mandalorian clone's going to move in next door, but you may find yourself living next to a veteran of the War on Terror.

There's a point here, of course- there is a difference between flesh and blood war and war on the silver screen. It's glorious to see Aragorn carve through the Uruk-Hai at Amon Hen, but after the fighting in Najaf is done, people will have to live there once more. Hopefully, we'll not have permanently destroyed anything that people would find it hard to forgive being removed from existence.

Najaf is a very good example of why some Neocon thinking on this subject is dangerously off base. The Neocons love a good battle, love historical figures who love one. They like all the things that characterize a good movie battle- Good vs. Evil, epic scale, persistence despite odds, heightened emotions, all sympathies with the good guys, nothing but death and destruction for the bad guys. Isn't that the way it should be? But in Najaf, the plot thickens, and we have a building that's not so disposable, one which Shiites across the world will not forgive the destruction of easily. Our wars can have pretty permanent effects on the real world, and not all of them are desireable.

But hey, we got to win, don't we?

Fascists and totalitarians make good cannon fodder, don't they? People nobody has to care about dying. Nazis die by the bushel in Indiana Jones movies, especially in the gory finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the power of God lays the smackdown on them. The next movie in the Indiana Jones trilogy, of course, features a bunch of nutty religious cultists, also high on the list of cannon fodder in movies. In James Cameron's True Lies, the villains are the nuke-wielding terrorists of Crimson Jihad, power-tripping religious nuts which could only have been played for laughs, as they were, in the more innocent nineties.

Lo and behold, what have the Neocons created? Combination Nazis and religious cultists, known as the Islamofascists. With this label, the war can be taken alternatively to terrorists or to some government we don't like. That government doesn't even have to be real high on the list of terrorist supporters. All they have to be is muslim, maybe Islamist, and have a non-democratic government. Presto-Digitalis! Cannon fodder! An enemy that can be slaughtered without giving the public much pause.

We are dealing with complex enemies here. The Neocons are convinced that attacking Iraq was about cracking down on this threat before it became manifest, but if that's what we were doing in Iraq, then we are waging an illegal war. To fight a war to pre-empt a present threat is permissable. To do so to prevent a threat from ever coming to exist is a different matter.

Especially if we're not dealing with a trully potential threat in the first place. If Islamofascists only exist as a figment of imagination of the Neocons, then fighting this supposed enemy will be an exercise in misguided foreign policy, with many unpleasant ramifications.

These are not mindless creatures we kill, or extras being lead around by the second unit director or assistant AD. These are people, good or bad. Their relatives and countrymen will respond to their deaths. Their neighboring countries will respond to whatever threat we put up. And what's more they will do what many masses of soldiers don't tend to do in movies unless the writer has the sense to put it into the movie- they will learn from our tactics and strategies. Do not kid yourself, you Neocons out there- our enemies are taking notes. They are drawing up plans. They are putting their top men on the issue of how to face us when we come.

Already, a favorite option of the Neocons is off the table concerning Iran. Apparently, somebody learned a lesson from the Israeli attack of the eighties, and Iran is promising that any move against their nuclear facilities will lead to war, with our troops well within range.

If the time comes, and real war beckons with our real enemies, and we must fight these wars, a naive philosophy of labelling faceless masses, in ignorance of our opponent's true beliefs and loyalties, will only serve to guide us into mistake after mistake when we wage the wars we really need to wage.

In the movies, we can fit our enemies to our expectations. In the real world, we must fit our knowledge to our enemies, and sending to central neocon casting for an analysis of our enemy will only get our soldiers and civilians killed.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at August 19, 2004 11:40 PM