“In the Valley of Elah” has Hollywood relying on cell phone images from Iraq that Mike Deerfield sent to his father via email. Despite the amateur sound and picture quality, we discern armed soldiers riding in a vehicle, the sounds of cursing, a man screaming in pain and others laughing. A still photo shows a burned out VW bus, a dead body and group of young boys running toward camera in a Baghdad neighborhood. The clues for a mystery!
What happened to retired MP Sergeant (Tommy Lee Jones) Hank Deerfield’s son, Mike? This frozen digital instant in time and the audio visual records of early 21st Century warfare might also provide future anthropologists with some idea of the lunacy of our time.
Mike sent his Dad these cell-phone videos that show in blurry, sometimes semi audible form how the Iraq war has drained the soldiers’ empathy. The young men just back from Iraq look normal, act politely and courteously–a facade covering their semi psychotic, drug addicted selves. Indeed, the film shows that Iraq has destroyed the psychic integrity of those young people who served there. That conclusion should become grounds for declaring a state of larger political and cultural distress.
The older Deerfield, a Vietnam vet and now a gravel hauler, retains his military police discipline. He travels to an army base in New Mexico to find his son, AWOL shortly after returning from Iraq. His character remains military: he shines his shoes, presses his trousers and makes his bed military fashion. This stubborn racist, determined to find his son, remains confident that his beloved military will help him.
En route, he shows a Salvadoran groundskeeper the proper way to fly the American flag–fly it upside down only to show distress, a call for help.
Mike had telephones from Iraq: “Get me out of here,” in tears, he pleaded with his Dad. The pain flashes on the sergeant’s face. He mutters a cliché. “Stay safe.” The helpless father hopes his son “will get over it”–the stress of combat.
American grit means: Your country calls; you serve. I’ve met Sgt. Deerfield in bars, at ball games and airports. I’ve had him in my classes at universities. His religious loyalty remained an article of faith, until Iraq. When the President calls, you don’t question legalities and procedures. You serve — even after the trauma of Vietnam, when a lot of Deerfields returned bitter. “They [the politicians] didn’t let us win,” is the refrain, still heard on right wing talk shows referring to the lack of political will–as if winning was a possibility.
Iraq, like Vietnam, doesn’t relate to courage and valor; nor defending “our country.” How many veterans have now asked: did the United States have a legal or moral reason to intervene?
Some soldiers still justify their behavior by referring to “obeying orders,” but only the most dense and dogmatic actually talk seriously about either conflict as bringing democracy or freedom to these lands.
We know what happens to young men and women who kill innocent people, including small children, when the actual rules of daily engagement condone the murder of such innocents under the guise of self-protection.
After Vietnam, many who returned physically whole suffered from severe mental gaps, not just difficult periods of adjustment but permanent disabilities that left them homeless and perhaps psychotic.
Mike’s emailed images and the subsequent testimony of his former comrades provide the craggy faced Deerfield with meager clues to such psychosis. In the barracks the men in his son’s unit show him deference and respect, address him as sir–as they pathologically lie
The mystery of Mike being AWOL gets solved when Mike’s dismembered and charred body parts are found. In trying to learn why Mike was killed, Hank delves ever deeper into the reality Mike had just experienced. The unrelenting and nameless roadside bombs have changed the face of even the war rules for a Vietnam style engagement. Orders given override basic humanity. For survival, “do not stop” to avoid a young boy retrieving his soccer ball in the road. Like Vietnam, every civilian, even children, that we have come to show the light of democracy must loom as a potential threat to individual soldiers’ lives.
We have seen TV images of wounded youth without arms, legs, eyes, brain function, getting “rehab” in Walter Reed hospital. But it makes no sense. The people we’re supposedly helping plant improvised incendiary devices to kill and maim the helpers? How does the lethal response of Iraqis mix with the religious credo inside the honorable souls of the men and women who have gone there “to serve”? Not all these youngsters were like Jessica Lynch, who enlisted “because I couldn’t get a job at Walmart?”
Mike, for example, wanted to show his father that he too could serve like a man. But something went wrong. The film slowly amasses evidence about Mike’s death and the nature of how Iraq has altered the nature of the soldiers. Outwardly, their voices sounded normal, replete with the mandatory “sir” added to the end of sentences. Their erect body postures showed their military training: toughness and poise. Americans don’t show weakness even under extreme stress.
After serving in Iraq, however, the men fall apart. Hank has not yet grasped the significance of his son’s death. He still clings to the notion of soldiering as serving, of courage as conquering fear. It doesn’t allow him to ask the right questions about who murdered his boy or what motives the killer might have had. But as a former military policeman he knows how to ask, look, listen, and learn from the men in Mike’s unit. But he still doesn’t show any curiosity about why the United States with its humongous technological superiority and brave soldiers hasn’t won a real war since WWII? (Gulf War I was a technological massacre).
Does the clue for the larger mystery lie in the film’s title, “In the Valley of Elah,” the place where David transcended fear to accomplish the unthinkable? Does this biblical story that Hank relates to the young son of a sympathetic police detective at bedtime relate to the meaning of courage in the Iraq War context? Is the new Goliath the war machine itself with tens of thousands of factories and contractors 435 congressional districts that feeds the local and national economies? Few politicians dare confront it with a weapon as simple as a stone and slingshot: the truth?
Other than non-front runners Ron Paul, Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, the presidential aspirants salute the bloated military, which did not win wars in Korea, Vietnam, where millions of Davids confronted the technological Goliath with far cruder weapons and forced the United States to withdraw. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Resistance has driven US politics into a tizzy.
By its nature, war drives people into irrational states–even after the battles are over. Like many a grieving parent, Hank, too, begins to lose his grip as he stops thinking like a detective and vents his anger with racist language on a Mexican-American from Mike’s unit. He actually cuts himself while shaving. His wife (Susan Sarandon) blames him for taking away both her sons. The other also died in military service–and, on top of this, there’s guilt. Hank substituted machismo for compassion when Mike desperately needed him. Now the stoic, grieving father, must fight the military bureaucrats–and police “rules” — to get answers. He keeps looking at the fragments of video and the still photo as it dawns on him that the damage done to those who served in Iraq cannot be repaired.
The chaotic fragments of jiggly cell phone video–unusual in Hollywood films, noted for careful composition–challenge the audience aesthetically as well as politically. How do you extract meaning from visual and audio chaos?
“In the Valley of Elah” offers no answers, other than the Iraq war has permanently altered US politics. Hank’s innate sense of country right or wrong and soldiers as noble erodes with the understanding of what happened to his son and his son’s killers. The facts of murder lead him to distrust the institution with which he has identified.
Each member of Mike’s unit has become a killer, drug addict, patron of sleazy sex bars. All have become pathological liars; his own son turned into a sadist in Iraq. “In the Valley of Elah” is about the changing nature of American axioms–we are good, our cause is noble, to serve in the military brings honor to the family. Like the Vietnam veterans–alas, did we really need another lesson?–the soldiers returning from Iraq also suffer from post-traumatic stress. Some have committed horrible crimes.
Mike disobeyed orders after committing an unthinkable act which his superior ordered. He stopped his vehicle, got out and photographed the scene where he lost his soul–in the service of his country.
SAUL LANDAU writes a regular column for CounterPunch and progresoweekly.com. His new Counterpunch Press book is A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. His new film, WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE (on globalization in Mexico) won the VIDEOFEST 2007 Award for best activist video. The event was held in October at the Roxie Theater. The film is available through firstname.lastname@example.org