War Movies for Peaceniks

Well dearest motherfuckers, it’s that time of the year again. A time for heatwaves, fireworks, hotdogs, and backyard swimming pools. Annoyingly enough, it’s also a time for that kneejerk, braindead brand of jingoism that Americans like to call patriotism. A very special genre of collective mental illness that dominates the early days of summer like heatstroke. This sickness comes with many symptoms; teary-eyed flag worship, shitty country music songs, the objectification of veterans as mascots for imperialism. But as a reclusive anarchist cinephile, few of these rituals sickens me more than the clogging of cable television with the pornographic mush of Hollywood war cinema. If I have to sit through the deification of an unapologetic psychopath like Chris Kyle one more goddamn time, I swear I’ll scale the Superdome with my bare hands and take potshots at the satellites broadcasting such noxious trash.

All is not lost, however, dearest motherfuckers. Luckily the Kali Yuga comes to us during the age of Hulu and Netflix, and there are indeed a fair number of war films that can actually teach us a thing or two about what all this patriotic mania really leads too. So I’ve compiled another of my famous movie lists, a list of war movies for peaceniks to get freaks like me through the festivities felony-free. As usual, many of these movies don’t fit the given genre in the traditional sense, but they are all movies that deal with the specter of warfare in one way, shape, or form.

Apocalypse Now (1979) by Francis Ford Coppola-  The greatest war movie ever shot by an American director only could have escaped Hollywood during the peak of its countercultural identity crisis. No mainstream narrative could ever accurately capture the sheer madness of America’s dark imperial disaster in Vietnam, so Francis Ford Coppola had to create an epic art film full of napalm surfing, hallucinogenic massacres, and rogue warlords being worshipped as gods. For me, the defining scene of the whole damn odyssey has to be the unhinged chaos of Do Lung Bridge, where every night a ragtag battalion of mentally cracking GI’s destroy what they’re stationed to protect in order to defend it from ghost soldiers who may or may not even exist, just to build it back up and start all over again the next morning. I can’t think of a better analogy for the absurdity of military occupation.

Dead Presidents (1995) by the Hughes Brothers-  One of the most underrated movies on the list is naturally one of the few films to accurately capture the relationship of people of color with Vietnam and the American war machine, not just during combat but after too. A few friends from the Bronx are shipped off to Vietnam fresh out of high school only to find a world totally indifferent to their psychic wounds once they return home. Like all too many GI’s of the era, they resort to using the skills the government taught them for crime, and like all too many GI’s of any era, the results are as tragic as they were inevitable.

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky & the Media (1992) by Mark Achbar & Peter Wintonick-  I hate the way the motherfucker votes but no modern thinker sums up the complexities of the American propaganda apparatus like Noam Chomsky, and nothing is a better primer for his work than this cult classic documentary which focuses on the theories of Chomsky’s 1988 book of the same name. Professor Chomsky calmly and conclusively breaks down for the audience the ways in which the corporate media in a supposedly democratic society can manipulate the public into tacitly consenting to one insane foreign bloodbath after another. Careful attention is particularly given to the media blackout over the genocide in East Timor which America helped its puppet regime in Indonesia to carry out right under the noses of an oblivious American public while the press simultaneously hyped a mirror genocide just to the north in Cambodia. All this and more is made shockingly possible by those fucking heroes in the so-called American free press.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990) by Adrian Lyne-  Adrian Lyne’s visually spellbinding cult classic about a Vietnam veteran suffering from the hellacious side effects of government experiments with hallucinogenic drugs is made all the more terrifying because it’s based in real-life history. The CIA and the United States military subjected unknown numbers of unwitting American soldiers to experiments with LSD and even more debilitating super hallucinogen like BZ as part of Project MKUltra, in direct violation of the standards set by the Nuremberg Tribunals against medical experiments on non-consenting subjects. Like Jacob Singer, many of those subjects came home from serving their country only to face a lifetime of debilitating waking nightmares and government stonewalling. When do we honor their sacrifice?

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) by Werner Herzog-  The movie that inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s direction for Apocalypse Now isn’t exactly a movie about warfare so much as it’s a movie about the madness of imperial conquest. After venturing into the Amazon rain forest in search of the mythical city of gold, El Dorado, a rogue battalion of conquistadors find themselves in deep over their heads as the unseen natives pick them off one by one with inferior primitive weaponry as their fearless leader, Aguirre, played by the brilliantly gonzo Klaus Kinski, slowly loses his grip on reality. It should be mandatory viewing in every military academy in the country.

Full Metal Jacket (1987) by Stanley Kubrick-  The great Stanley Kubrick’s attempt to make a purely philosophical Vietnam War movie is really two films in one and only the first one really shook me. The story of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and Leonard Lawrence aka Private Pyle is really the story about how abusive institutions like Parris Island break down socially fragile human beings and strip them of their humanity. America’s boot camps are essentially sociopath factories, which explains why so many of them have become hives of violence, with our heroes in uniform all too often turning their rifles against themselves and their fellow soldiers.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) by Errol Morris-  The most shockingly revolting thing about this biopic on celebrated war criminal and US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is how human the man comes across even while justifying his unforgivable crimes. McNamara’s 11 lessons aren’t a blueprint for avoiding another Vietnam-sized disaster in the Middle East as many liberal commentators contend. It’s 11 ways in which a sane human being can rationalize a life devoted to madness. The eeriest of the bunch is lesson number 9; In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil. Stalin couldn’t have put it better himself.

Downfall (2004) by Oliver Hirschbiegel-  All empires collapse, but it is very rare to get a birds-eye glimpse of the monumental monsters that build them during their painful final hours of power. This is the achievement of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, a film that painstakingly recreates the final day of the Fuhrerbunker using archival documents and first person accounts. Many critics were upset to see a jarringly human portrait of Adolf Hitler, but that is the most terrifying reality of even the most monstrous imperial tyrants. They really are just human beings. It is the very power they hold that makes them capable of such atrocities. Once stripped of that power, they die naked and alone, just like their victims.

Come and See (1985) by Elem Klimov-  By far the most earth-shatteringly devastating portrait of warfare ever committed to film. Come and See genuinely has to be seen to be believed. The story of a teenage Soviet partisan who gets separated from his battalion only to experience the horrors of the Nazi death squads firsthand as a civilian feels more like a horror movie than a mainstream war picture. But that is precisely what war is. It is horror and devastation and humanity at its most depraved. It is gang rape committed by cackling soldiers and burning churches full of screaming women and children. There are no heroes or happy endings. What Hollywood has turned war into with its pedantic dreck isn’t just offensively inaccurate. It’s harmful to society at large. It takes the shock of merciless marvels like Come and See to wake us from this slumber. We can only hope it’s not too late.

Nicky Reid is an agoraphobic anarcho-genderqueer gonzo blogger from Central Pennsylvania and assistant editor for Attack the System. You can find her online at Exile in Happy Valley.