All the wrong conclusions

April 25, 2008

Looking for an antiwar movie? Iraq Veterans Against the War member Martin Smith says that Stop-Loss isn't it.

IF YOU are looking for an antiwar movie, then skip Stop-Loss.

No overt political stance on the war is taken by director and co-writer Kimberly Peirce in the film. From the vantage of the soldiers, Stop-Loss shows the emotional impact that their service afflicts on their community and loved ones at home. Yet without a critique of the war, this film concludes with a supportive tone for the war effort in the guise of duty to one's fellow brothers in arms.

It is a reactionary conclusion that affirms the necessity of building an antiwar movement and the stark consequences of inaction. (Warning: This review divulges several plot turns)

The movie centers on Staff Sergeant Brandon King, who in the movie's dramatic opening leads his squad into an ambush in Tikrit, a firefight that leaves four U.S. soldiers killed and Private Rico Rodriguez severely wounded.

His injuries haunt King throughout the film with guilt-inspired post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) flashbacks. The opening bloodbath shows the chaos of battle and the confusion caused by the fog of war.

Review: Movies

Stop-Loss, directed by Kimberly Peirce, written by Peirce and Mark Richard, starring Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum and Abbie Cornish.

In the midst of the urban search for insurgents, King finds the huddled bodies of two women and a child on a blood-soaked mattress. The image is one of the film's few indictments of the war, exposing how combat indiscriminately targets the innocent and destroys the human spirit.

The relationship between soldiers and insurgents in the film parallels all counter-insurgency warfare, highlighting the difficulty in distinguishing between friend and foe. In the scenes in Iraq, all Arabs are portrayed as the potential enemy. While this may be the reality experienced by some troops, it is a disservice to the viewer not to explore the motives of the insurgency.

A subtle Islamophobia is implied by the unfolding of the scene of the ambush. As a sinister foreshadowing of the attack, the muezzin's call to prayer reverberates from loudspeakers moments before the ambush, implying that the Islamic faith is the cause of the insurgency, rather than the insurgency being a justified response to a foreign occupation.

Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum in Stop-Loss
Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum in Stop-Loss (Frank Masi)

The film then features King's unit's return home to Texas, complete with a hometown parade where his best friend, Sgt. Steve Shriver, tells the cheering crowd, "We're over there killing 'em in Iraq, so we don't have to kill them in Texas."

It is a pro-war rhetoric laced throughout the film that is never challenged, one of many zingers by Shriver and the other soldiers like, "Take out a Hajji every time they hit us, and send 'em back to Bible times" and "We just need to drop a 10,000 pound bomb for every time they hit us."

YET THE film moves beyond portraying the men in his unit as mere simpletons and redneck yahoos. They all struggle with some form of PTSD: Shriver beats his girlfriend when he can't get an erection, King has disruptive recurring flashbacks, and Tommy lapses into alcoholism and separates from his wife. After a severe bout of depression, Tommy commits suicide in the moments building up to the film's climax.

But the main storyline revolves around the status of King's discharge. While out-processing from the military, King is shocked to learn that he has orders back to Iraq; he has been stop-lossed, a "back-door draft" that allows the president to extend one's military obligation beyond their contract enlistment.

In a dramatic confrontation, King tells his lieutenant commander, "With all due respect, fuck the president." It is a moment that brought standing ovations and cheers from active-duty service people at a theater outside Fort Carson, according to Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) members who had passed out copies of Sit-Rep, the IVAW newsletter, at the film's premiere.

The scene, one of the few worth remembering, obviously struck a chord. Rather than focusing on the commander-in-chief, however, the film shifts to blame the lack of forced conscription as the true culprit for the war's malfeasance and the undue burden pressed on the "good guys"--the football jocks turned battle heroes who are fighting "America's war."

King then goes AWOL, becoming a fugitive. In a tense moment when he is considering his options with his family, he explains that his stop-loss was due to the absence of a draft. Implicit throughout the rest of the film is an "us" against "them" attitude within the military that labels civilians as lazy, self-consumed and unwilling to sacrifice.

The posturing of military superiority becomes meshed with reactionary views about race. Three people of color, including two Blacks, rob King's belongings, an incident that triggers a combat flashback for King. He struggles with the robbers and overtakes their gun.

Forcing them to the ground, he screams obscenities at them, including "Hajji" and "You better start praying to Allah," enacting one of his memories of detaining suspects in Iraq. Yet rather than drawing a larger point about racism and the dehumanization of the enemy, the film instead links the hatred of the foreign Arab abroad to the fear of the domestic dark-skinned enemy at home.

Perhaps the most unrealistic scene is King's visit to Rodriguez at a military medical facility. Forget the atrocious and dilapidated facilities of Walter Reed, Rodriguez is in a state-of-the-art care unit where he tells King that he receives "first-class treatment." He even jokes about flirting with a nurse who has "soft hands" in contrast to the coarseness of his own prosthetic forearm.

When King confides to Rodriguez his guilt at leading the men into an ambush, Rodriguez responds with gratitude and says he might consider reenlisting so that his family can get a green card. King gains peace of mind and has no further flashbacks, symbolically suggesting that his fears were all for naught and that the military takes care of its own.

The climax of the film occurs after Tommy's funeral when Shriver punches King while screaming, "That's for running out on us, for coming home too late [to save Tommy], and for general principle." They fall to the ground and wrestle over the graves, a blatant metaphor for King wrestling with his own demons and the potential of another tour in Iraq that may bring his own death or self-destruction.

The ultimate tragedy of the movie is Brandon's decision to return to his unit from going AWOL, as he falls into formation and rides the bus to his deployment in Iraq, sitting next to his gung-ho buddy Shriver. It is a shame, because one is left to wonder what could have been and what other choices--beyond joining the movement of underground fugitives escaping to Canada--King might have had.

What if Brandon King's best friend had been war resister Camilo Mejía rather than Shriver, for example, or if he had heard about Winter Soldier? What if Brandon had met IVAW or read Soldiers in Revolt?

Unfortunately, with no antiwar voice in the movie and with no movement to open the space for GI resistance, the possible is silenced as impossibility. Even more tragic, this disappointing finale may be the likely reality for many, given the overall weakness of the antiwar movement. This is the tragic loss that must be stopped.

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