Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What Did Americans Want in the Wake of 911?

I still can remember very clearly seeing the 1972 movie, Deliverance.

Like the American people who were stunned by 911, none of us in the audience were at all prepared for Ned Beatty’s “big scene.” At the moment that that searing episode of unexpected homosexual rape occurred, I cringed in my seat, barely aware that the person sitting directly behind me had blown a whole mouthful of popcorn into the back of my head. Nevertheless, this film was so intense, I never looked away from the screen.

James Dickey wrote the novel by the same name as well as the screenplay. His son, Christopher Dickey Jr. has an article in last week's Newsweek. He writes that he recently had an occasion to start,

. . .thinking about the movie's particular relevance for the post-9/11 world. My old man and I disagreed about many things, but when I watched the re-released film again just recently, in light of current headlines, I realized just how well he'd tapped into those mind-sets that eventually helped plunge us into the Mesopotamian quagmire.

In the movie, four Atlanta suburbanites take a break from their weekends of golfing and go canoeing up in the mountains. In this river trip they find a life-changing and life-ending adventure. I’m not going to ruin the movie in the off-chance I have a reader who has not seen it. But I might let Chris Dickey ruin it instead:

The instigator of the expedition is Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds in the movie), and while he talks about getting back to nature and testing himself against the wild, he's really more of a country-club Friedrich Nietzsche: a would-be "übermensch," or "superman," riffing on the 19th-century German philosopher's conceits, constantly training his body and mind to excel, reinventing himself to lead. His destiny—to survive against all odds—will be a triumph of his will. Or so he thinks.

. . . our man Lewis He's a rich boy from Atlanta whose main income is from inherited real estate. But he loves to flirt with extinction. To come near death, then survive—
That intensity, well, that's something special. I believe in survival, all kinds. Every time I come up here I believe in it more.
Once Lewis is in his element (the country) the three other golfers (played by Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) begin to think Lewis is a little crazy. The Voight character

. . . thinks Lewis is a little nuts, but he's fascinated by the idea that Lewis might be right about—something—he's not sure what. Obsessions like those of Lewis Medlock can create their own charisma, inspiring fear while pretending to resist it. Untested ersatz fortitude often looks impressive.

Dickey’s reinterpretation of the movie:

Lewis is Vice President Dick Cheney's closet fantasy of himself, and as such, a sort of model for the Bush administration as a whole. And Ed, he's about the rest of us, just scared and trying to get by. And the river? That's the war in Iraq.
"What the hell you want to go fuck around with that river for?" one of the unfriendly locals asks Lewis early in the movie.

"Because it's there," says Lewis.

"It's there alright. You get in and you can't get out, you gonna wish it wasn't."
One of the most disconcerting aspects of the endless war the United States is fighting now is that it started because Iraq was there: it appeared to be a made-to-order target for an easy invasion that would have great symbolic . . . significance for the thinkers around Bush. After 9/11, the capture of the terrorists who plotted the attack and the destruction of the Taliban government in Afghanistan that gave them shelter just hadn't seemed a weighty enough challenge for these would-be supermen.

To reinforce this point, Dickey quotes Newt Gingrich who had back channels to Don Rumsfeld in November 2001:
There's a feeling we've got to do something that counts — and bombing caves is not something that counts.
In Afghanistan,

. . . they had tasted that great forbidden fruit of war, the sense of license that it gives, and they didn't want to give it up. In wartime they could make up their laws as they went along. On a grand scale they could reinterpret the Constitution until it became meaningless.

. . . the core coterie around Bush and Cheney, who never were soldiers, pushed for war with Iraq at all costs and as an end to almost all constraints.

Anxious to assert their vision of American strength, and themselves as its personifications, they were looking for a fight with Saddam Hussein long before September 11. Casting themselves as implacable opponents of tyranny, the ideologues of the administration had, since the days of the Soviet Union, envied the tyrants' ruthlessness. Quick to denounce bias when they faced opposition, they were the first to use mass deception to assure their own grip on power. And what made all this possible? They could not do any of it—they could not begin to do it—without war and its attendant mystique of survival.

At a key juncture in the movie, Lewis has shot one of the mountain men in the back with a broadhead arrow and he's trying to convince his three companions that they should hide the body. He faces down strong opposition that they should go to the police, trust in the law and just tell their side of the story. Lewis sneers:
The law? The law? What law. Where's the law, Drew?

You believe in democracy don't you? Well, then, we'll take a vote.
With that, Lewis bulldozes his terrified companions into burying the evidence. Dickey’s clinching paragraphs:

So the war-lovers in the Bush administration got what they wanted with a democratic vote. The United States invaded Iraq. And those of us who were covering the build-up to that war kept saying, OK, Saddam's a bad guy, but what are the American plans for the aftermath of the invasion—for the occupation? You don't eliminate a dictatorship that has been in place for more than 30 years and expect it will be an orderly transition. The response from the supermen: there won't be an occupation; it won't be a problem.

. . . . What I wonder is whether in the real-world crisis of Iraq there is enough sanity and bravery in Washington to deliver us from the evil that's been created in Iraq. Unfortunately it doesn't look that way. Whether we listen to the Republicans or the Democrats, the woman candidate for president or the men, all the major contenders remain reluctant to challenge the ersatz standards of strength set by the Bush administration. Sure, they snipe at each other, but none want to appear weak on national security. So we're left with "Law, what law? Plan, what plan?" And we continue to float down the river as if without a paddle, unable and unwilling to climb out, with much more violence and in all probability worse humiliations yet to come.

So here we Americans are, lingering in the twilight of Bush’s white water trip - with 446 days to go - still looking for Deliverance.


In my pages, I post my image only once a year.
Pretty damned scary, huh?