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Screening the Afghanistan, Iraq Wars Back Home

There’s a scene in the new movie Savages where the “good guys,” artisanal pot growers Ben and Chon, organize some of Chon’s ex–Navy Seal friends to emplace IEDs in the road they know a group of nasties from the Baja cartel will take to a meeting. It was a strange moment for me, after seven embeds with American troops in Afghanistan—to be rooting for the IED-makers. It would be an even stranger moment for an ex–Navy Seal. Yet no one knows better than American officers who fought in Afghanistan or Iraq how much more fun it would be to be on the insurgents’ side.

These complexities were explored more entertainingly and with greater nuance in the 2009 movie Avatar, which may be the best expression on film yet of the counterinsurgent’s envy of the insurgent’s more glamorous, appealing side. But Savages points to a cost that the blue people never pay in Avatar—becoming degraded themselves by the necessities of the fight. As Oliver Stone engineers it, Ben and Chon can’t simply give up the business when the Baja thugs move in—they have no choice but to fight. And yet that fight does not improve them.

Along with Savages, The Dark Knight Rises is an example of the way in which our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being digested at home. The Dark Knight Rises is also impossible to imagine having been made in, say, 1999; it features hundreds of conventional bomb explosions in the heart of Gotham and Army troops in full battle rattle surrounding the city.

There’s nothing surprising in a country’s politics spilling over into its movies—and they tend to show up after a time lag that allows for events to thoroughly penetrate the national subconscious. The first film in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, Batman Begins, hardly even felt post-9/11, though there is that moment near the end when Bruce Wayne vows to rebuild Wayne Manor, torched by the vaguely Central Asian “League of Shadows.” Christopher Nolan began work on Batman Begins in late 2003, when it was still possible to see Iraq as a success. There was no mayhem to bring home, no worry that the insurgency might be unstoppable. The Dark Knight, shot in 2007, at the peak of the Iraqi insurgency, featured Iraq-style explosions and heavy weapons battles on the streets of Gotham.

With more than 2 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, moviemakers can assume a substantial audience that will recognize references to the military and perhaps welcome doing some digestion of their own in the guise of entertainment. Nothing in The Dark Knight Rises and Savages is likely to offend a veteran or a supporter of the two wars. Both take for granted a world view, perhaps that of the mainstream of the country: that our military are noble, though their mission may damage them; that riches are not the sign of wrongdoing or corruption; that capitalism is the source of great benefits but that it must be endlessly renewed and re-invigorated.

The Dark Knight was widely assumed to be a pro-Bush movie. The novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan called it, in a famous op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war.” And The Dark Knight Rises continues what John Podhoretz aptly termed “a Classic Comics version of Edmund Burke,” with Batman defending order and property against an Occupy-like rabble.

But The Dark Knight Rises is set eight years after The Dark Knight, perhaps not coincidentally the term limit for American presidents (and, until Mayor Bloomberg changed it, for New York City mayors). Those have been years in which the cost of defending the free world against terrorism has weighed ever more heavily on the United States and American culture.

Set in a Gotham City where the crime epidemic of Batman Begins has been replaced with a 1990s-like materialistic opulence, the final film of the trilogy adds rue and disillusionment to its underlying idealism. It is more knowing than the two earlier movies about the ways in which fighting the kinds of wars we have been fighting erodes the distinctions between us and the bad guys. The explosions that rip across Gotham at one point in the film no longer have the shock value that street battles in Gotham had in The Dark Knight. Maybe they are even a “safe” way of preparing ourselves for the next attack on American soil.

The sunny, glossy Savages might seem the polar opposite of The Dark Knight Rises, but it tells something of the same dilemma. Through its simple-minded surfer girl narrator, the film seems to take a libertarian view in which marijuana dealers are just businessmen like any others, but criticism of marijuana and the drug business seeps in. The Baja cartel head herself points out that pot leads to problems with concentration. And as the movie evolves, we see the ex-Seals and Buddhists acting more and more like the cartel members.

And the toll of these years of war goes some way toward explaining the Aurora shooting at The Dark Knight Rises premiere. It may be that part of the reason for the increasing casualty count in mass shootings in the US is a deadening in sensibility that comes from a decade of reading about terrorist attacks that leave, say, fifty or sixty Iraqi civilians dead. How can an American civilian read that, day in and day out, without hardening himself to the implications? Fifty is the new twenty, and twenty is the new five. After all, if you are going to take an assault weapon to a hitherto safe place and shoot people, there’s the question of how many is enough to satisfy you.

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