“Casualties of War” Redux—in Iraq

I’ve remembered Brian De Palma for two great (if uneven)  fims: the 1981 “Blow Out” and the 1989 “Casualties of War,” which showed that Michael J. Fox could do more than ingratiate (not to mention Sean Penn, who has never been big on being ingratiating and was particularly vicious in “Casualties of War”). De Palma has made much more commercially successful movies than these two great ones, including Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993), the first Mission Impossible (1996)— along with the disastrous adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and such dubious (if stylish) movies as Snake Eyes (1998), Mission to Mars (2000), and “The Black Dahlia” (2006) that lost money.


Learning of another movie about young Americans (soldiers) way out of their depth in a hot and hostile environment of counter-insurgency did not make me rush to a movie theater to see “Redacted” in 2007 (a year which also saw the excellent “Rendition” and the well-acted “In the Valley of Elah” followed in 2008 by the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” (and “Stop-Loss” and “American Son”) and in 2009 by “The Messenger” and “Taking Chance” preceded by the 2005 “Jarhead” with Jake Gylenhaal). And Like “Casualties of War,” “Redacted” dramatized a real instance of rape and murder of civilians and one soldier’s unease with what he was supposed to remain silent about.


“Do we need to go there again?” is a question I asked myself, and Brian De Palma most certainly asked himself. His answer and eventually mine as well are a reluctant yes. As Cheney and Bush and Powell lied about the imminent danger Saddam Hussein presented to Peoria, I wondered how the populace of these United States could again fall for official lies. The lessons Powell learned from actually having been in Vietnam were cast aside by Donald Rumsfeld. What Rumsfeld learned from the American war on Vietnam was to more tightly control access of reporters to what was going on in the field, particularly in a counterinsurgency (as he long denied there was an insurgency).


Absolutely central to De Palma’s movie are new media that any soldier might use, including mobile phones, lightweight digital cameras, Skype, Facebook, etc. These are what made denial of the tortures at Abu Grhaib fail (though the Bush administration managed to confine disciplining low in the chain of command). In the movie (which I will reiterate was based on a real atrocity), two of the five men are making video diaries. These include their sergeant (the only person exercising any discipline over them) exploding, and one of the two video diarists being abducted.

The fascination with the mechanics/techniques of representation makes “Blow Out” a precursor of “Redacted.” “Blow Out” and “Casualties of War” also prefigure “Redacted” in official rejection of the possibility of the crimes. The coverup of the atrocities in “Redacted” does not succeed as well as the ones in “Blow Out,” but the depressing realization that no one cares what really happens is a theme running hrough both movies.


De Palma also includes security camera footage, and in contrast to all these rough media, a French tv documentary that has the elegant look of a Brian De Palma movie. This collage of media makes for one important difference from “Casualties of War,” which was shot on film stock. I will readily stipulate that the characters in “Casualties of War” or war were more developed than those in “Redacted,” though at least as schematic.


In a regrettably brief interview that is a bonus feature on the DVD, De Palma opines that soldiers in Iraq are in a more frustrating position than those in Vietnam were: those in Vietnam had access to sex, drugs, and alcohol, all of which were and are largely unavailable to US military personnel in Iraq (and Afghanistan). The frustration and constant anxiety of urban residence with enemies who do not look any different from civilians leads to aggression—and not just in this movie. The young men were lied to about why they were put into a place where they know nothing of the language or culture (and care less, if that is possible) and are not invariably noble. They (and we safe at home) should be angry about being lied to (and the deployments drag on, three years after we elected someone who opposed the occupation of Iraq…)


Especially after the illuminating interview on the Criterion edition of “Blow Out,” I would have liked more from De Palma talking about what he did with five million dollars in Jordan (that would be 1/18th of the budget for “Mission to Mars” a tenth of that for “The Black Dahlia”). A five-minute look at shooting a poker scene is unimpressive. The DVD does have a remarkable hour-long bonus feature of of “Refugee Interviews.”


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