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A Review of "Stop-Loss"

The No Escape Clause on Iraq

by SAUL LANDAU

"Be all you can be” extol the commercials inducing naïve youngsters to enlist. The pictures show attractive people learning skills, not killing or getting killed, wounded or psychically scarred. The palpable glorification of the military gets reinforced through welcome home parades in small towns and repeated celebratory references by the President, Congress and the patriotic media. At ball games, announcers use the 7th inning stretch to pay tribute to those serving in the military.

From the words, the TV commercials and countless movies, one would conclude the US military is invincible. Such accolades about the presumed success of US military campaigns success collide with the facts. Indeed, failure at war still infects US domestic politics. In 2004, John Kerry got “swiftboated.” Bumper stickers still refer to the MIAs in Vietnam.

The bitterness reflects reality. The celebrated and very costly military hasn’t won a war since 1945 when the United States belonged to an alliance, in which the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the fighting. In Gulf War I, the US perpetrated a technological massacre against an Iraqi enemy that didn’t fight back. Every time an enemy resisted the United States withdrew from the conflict: Korea and Vietnam; eventually, Afghanistan and Iraq. No one in Congress or the mainstream media dares draw the obvious conclusion: the solders in Korea and Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, have had nothing to do with defending the United States. None of those countries attacked or threatened our homeland. But each military escapade produces unintended and thorny domestic consequences.

Illustratively, the April 6 NY Times headlined its lead story, “Army is Worried by Rising Stress of Return Tours.” The report added unpleasant facts to the already high levels of anxiety the distressed public suffers under the weight of Bush’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The article refers to mental troubles vets experience upon returning unwillingly to war zones. Repeated tours, the story states, leads a considerable number to suffer post “traumatic stress disorders, low morale, mental health pressures, and stress related work problems.”

The war has come home in the form of countless wife and child abuse reports, divorces, lost jobs, murders, suicides and homelessness. The November 8, 2007 NY Times reported that more than 400 US veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars live in the streets, including female veterans. "Sexual abuse is a risk factor for homelessness," said Pete Dougherty, of the Veterans Administration. Veterans make up 11% of the adult population, but 26% of the homeless.

The VA estimated that "more than 250,000 veterans may be homeless on any given night and that twice as many veterans experience homelessness over the course of a year. Many other veterans are considered at risk because of poverty, lack of support from family and friends and precarious living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing." (Alexandra Marks, Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 8, 2005)

Pentagon statistical charts don’t include hundreds of thousands of vets who haven’t lost limbs, eyes or pieces of brain, and don’t show body wounds, but carry the equivalent of chronic bleeding in their psyches that MRI’s can’t see. The “support our troops” Administration does little to help them in their difficult re-entry to civilian life processes. A November 8, 2007 Associated Press story cited a Pentagon report noting almost 1,600 returning Army Reservists filing complaints with the Labor Department about the government not acting to get their old jobs back. Thousands more complained to the Defense Department.

The media has not adequately covered the plight of vets who think they have finally come home from Iraq and then get “stop-lossed,” referring to the loophole in the soldier’s contract that allows the President to send the GI back to Iraq for another tour of duty.

The problem, as implied in the NY Times article, becomes the source of “Stop-Loss,” an artfully dramatized new film by Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”). The opening scenes of fighting in Tikrit surpass previous war “realism” in Hollywood. Even more “in your face” than the openings scenes of “Saving Private Ryan,” the surround sound in the theater for “Stop-Loss” amplifies the soldiers’ terrified breathing as well as the more voluble sound effects of shots and explosions as an army check point patrol chases a car full of insurgents into an alley – an ambush. The sergeant barely hesitates before commanding his men to pursue and then, in the ensuing battle, three of his men die and another gets seriously wounded. In the firefight civilians also die, including women and small children.

In Paul Haggis’ “In The Valley of Elah” (2007), each member of a returning platoon from Iraq had morphed from clean-cut young men into killers, drug addicts and patrons of sleazy sex bars. They also had become pathological liars and, a few became sadistic – thanks to their bitter experiences in Iraq. Like “Elah,” “Stop Loss” shows through graphic images how this war drives its combatants into states of mind that vitiate their reentry into civilian life. Once back in a small Texas town, the three buddies from the Tikrit squad that survived the ambush no longer think about soldiering as serving their country, the corny words used by podium speakers extolling the virtues of the returning heroes after the parade in their honor.

The men in the opening battle scene show they have the courage to face death. For the remainder of the film, the question becomes: do they have the inner fortitude to face life? Clichés about war’s nobility, fighting terrorism or spreading democracy become laughable abstractions when shooting starts. Daily encounters with death have led the squad members to bond, ties that grow so strong that their wives, girlfriends and mothers cannot compete with them. The survival instinct has pushed the neurons of their psyches to re-knit, to produce magnetic attachments to each other and, when they return home, repel their wives and lovers.

How does Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the guilt ridden, traumatized soldier shed his uniform and become his new wife’s passionate lover? How does Steve (Channing Tatum), the battlefield hero with thoughts of death and destruction dominating his brain, please his horny girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) Tommy’s wife throws him over. Steve’s girlfriend calls for help after he hits her. He fails to perform in bed and then, drunk he digs a hole in her front yard and crawls in, pistol in hand. Tommy retreats to Steve’s ranch, lines up the wedding presents and with his army buddy uses the gifts for target practice, symbolizing his rejection of the most sacred of civilian institutions. Like the anti-hero in “Elah,” the men in “Stop-Loss” record their experiences on video. We hear and see, a baptism in the barracks, and unrelenting death on the Iraqi streets. Basic humanity turns into kill or be killed. Unlike his squad mates, Sergeant Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) seems eager to rid himself of the army world. He cannot bear the thought of returning to the responsibility of leading men into ambush and death. But when he appears for his discharge, an army clerk notifies him that he has been “stop-lossed.” Brandon must return to Iraq. Against his patriotic father’s advise, Brandon goes AWOL, and plans to appeal to a Senator who told him – when he was a returning hero – to come to him for any help

The film takes the hero to a military hospital where the armless, legless and eyeless get “rehab.”

The film opened just before General David Petraeus made yet another supplemental budget request to continue Bush’s Iraq war and occupation – on April 8. None of the funds he desires would go toward dealing with the consequences of continuing to deploy US troops in a hostile place.

Herold Noel, a homeless Iraqi war vet, sleeps in his jeep in New York City in places where police will not ticket him. "I saw a baby decapitated when it was run over by a truck – I relived that every night." In Iraq, Noel drove a fuel truck for the military. (AP July 5, 2006) "Our troops are cracking under the pressure and pain," wrote Steve Hammons. "Non-stop danger, buddies being blown to bits, urban warfare, ever-present roadside bombs and many other very severe stressors are pushing them over the edge." (American Chronicle, June 2, 2006)

Members of Congress should see “Stop-Loss” before voting for more death money abroad and social problems at home.

SAUL LANDAU is an Institute for Policy Studies Fellow and writes weekly for CounterPunch and progreswoweekly.com. His new CounterPunch book is A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. Get his new dvd – WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE – from roundworldproductions@gmail.com