When do we again get the absurd war movies?

APRIL 28TH, 2016 — POST 115

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan which began in 2001 are some of the most protracted and complex of the modern era. In nearing the fifteenth anniversary of the West’s entrance (re-entrance?) into the Middle East, these conflicts have become broadly characterised as unfocused in their aims, based on bad intelligence, and questionably practiced, specifically with regards to the treatment of prisoners. Despite the “concrete” results of the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein and the neutralisation of Osama Bin Laden, these conflicts are, for a lot of people, considered to be mistakes. Some of the revelations from Serial’s second season about “deserting” soldier Bowe Bergdahl further add ammunition to this narrative. With Bergdahl leaving his post to, as he says, raise an alarm that would get him an audience with senior military leadership, it’s clear that soldiers there and civilians back at home both were asking the same question: “What are we doing here?”

This absurdist questioning, and one that has been asked before in Vietnam and in George H. Bush’s Middle East involvment, is something we’re collectively very mindful of and yet don’t talk much about. With armed forces of a lot of the West still deployed in the region, we are rightfully more concerned with getting our troops home safely than navel-gazing and wondering “What was it all for?” Specifically in our pop cultural products that deal with these conflicts in movies and television, you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a wink in acknowledgement of the absurdism of these conflicts (the only notable counterexample to this probably being Team America). Sure, Zero Dark Thirty had a late James Gandolfini as a military strategist look to a scale model of Bin Laden’s compound, point to a model tree, and ask “Can’t you get a camera in here? In these trees maybe?”. But this was a brief absurd blip in a movie endowed with its own self-seriousness. What I’m waiting for is a movie that is bold enough to entirely wallow in the darkest of comedic wells.

Nautilus last week published a piece about dark humour, citing the work of Peter McGraw, a behavioral scientist at the University of Colorado. McGraw sees successful (i.e. funny) dark comedy as a “benign violation”. For McGraw “psychological distance” is the force by which a violation (the representation of something horrific) can be rendered benign, and as such funny. For films such as Apocalypse Now, the absurd humour that comes from killer lines like “Charlie don’t surf!” can be accounted for by the fact that the film was released almost four years after the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Time, as the Nautilus piece points out, is one of the most efficient means of putting psychological distance between something horrific and its representation.

However, with the bounds of these most recent conflicts increasingly blurred and protracted, our movies have been primarily concerned not with asking “Why are we here?” but working exactly exactly what “here” even is. The three-tours-three-vignette structure of The Hurt Locker reveals that in the grandest of uncertainties, the moment-to-moment is all that is fathomable for those on the ground. Without a clear end date, despite George W. Bush hanging “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” from an aircraft carrier in 2003, it’s unclear how long it will take until we get the equivalent of Full Metal Jacket (1987, 12 years after the end of the Vietnam War) or Three Kings (2000, 9 years after the end of the Gulf War).

The Nautilus piece does unwittingly provide a counterexample to McGraw’s theory that psychological distance can render a violation benign. Louis C.K.’s now-notorious child molesters bit, where C.K. posits how deeply a child molester must love molesting children given the consequences if caught, succeeds not in pushing us away from our image of a child molester to make us laugh but in putting us inside this image, forcing us to view the world like they do. Perhaps then it’s not time we ought to wait for in finding the absurd cultural products of this century’s central conflicts. It just might be a case of finding our way inside the most absurd of perspectives.