Directed by British born Sam Mendes, Jarhead focuses squarely on the experiences of an American Marine Sniper during the first gulf war. Unlike the Vietnam war when public disillusionment was exorcised by Hollywood in the form of left wing documentaries like Hearts and Minds (Dir. Peter Davis, 1974) that attempted to propagate an oppositional ideology, the current occupation of Iraq has seen minimal attempts on part of Hollywood at trying to question the legality of war and provoke debate on the question of a dubious U.S foreign policy.
The Cycle of Vietnam war films released at the end of the 70s provided somewhat of a cathartic form of cinematic wish fulfilment that was embodied in the invincible comic book creation of John Rambo. For America, the war film continues to be one of the most direct means of coming to terms with national trauma and past events. Taking on the Gulf war as a means of addressing America's quest for global hegemony is hugely problematic considering that Iraq is still occupied by a shaky coalition of British and American troops. Thus is seems strange how it is at all possible for a film like Jarhead to provide any sense of national closure on the first invasion of Iraq in 1990 when the country is still under foreign military occupation. This is a contradiction that the film fails to address and come to terms with throughout the meandering narrative.
Sam Mendes' directorial intentions were underlined quite explicitly prior to the film's release, stating that he was not making a war film in order to address political issues and that any reference to contemporary events was inadvertently a coincidence. However, this is simply not the case. Jarhead is fiercely political but just like Ridley Scott's 'Black Hawk Down', the film subscribes to the dominant point of view, namely that war affects the American soldier more emotionally and physically than it does to the ordinary civilian or the other side. The effects of war upon the individual seems to be a central thematic preoccupation of most war films but this approach tends to dehumanise the enemy to such an extent that they become invisible and irrelevant in the context of more complex wider political and social dimensions.
War as Simulacra
The first Gulf war was represented by the mass media as a bloodless entertaining spectacle that asked audiences to side with the Allied forces and rejoice in the civilised notions of liberation and freedom. Many post modern theorists like Jean Baudrillard have referred to the first Gulf war as the first non-war, a war that did not take place but was a war of simulacra and simulation. There is no doubt that Mendes acquits himself superbly in his examination of post modern warfare and this is underlined by the relatively little action Swofford (Jake Gyllenhall) and his buddies encounter in Iraq. The frustrations of the Marine played by Peter Skarsgard as he watches as planes fly overhead knowing he is never going to see any real action not only telling points to the nature of modern warfare and the dominance of air superiority, but also supports the theory of how the media has rendered war as an instantaneous and immediate spectacle that propagates the contemporary reality of a new kind of perpetual war, a war that is 'on going', 'never ending' as celebrated and made famous by the Bush administration's fixation with Orwellian doublespeak.
Whilst Jarhead revels in Baudrillard style post modern metaphors, it dismisses the notion that when dealing with a sensitive political issue like a recent war it is necessary to take somewhat of an impartial and balanced approach to the material. Instead Jarhead declares itself as apolitical which is merely a non offensive marketing approach adopted by Hollywood in fear of scaring away their target audience of young white males with video game fantasies. Hollywood has yet to address the decades of racial misrepresentation of the Middle East that have normalised and naturalised Western audiences to xenophobic stereotypes. It is of no surprise that Jarhead perpetuates the dominant stereotype of the oriental 'other' by reducing and simplifying the Iraqi people to a group of bewildered tribesmen escorting their camels through the desert. Though it may be an autobiographical moment, it nonetheless represents the Iraqi people as faceless, silent and grotesquely one dimensional. On the three occasion's we do see the Iraqi people; the tribesmen, the two soldiers arguing in the airport control tower and the burnt out remains on the highway of death, they are filmed at a distance, rendering them as inconsequential to the conflict and allowing the audience to disassociate themselves from any feelings of guilt.
In the light of today's climate of self censorship, to have humanised the Iraqi people and provide them with an adequate voice would have been viewed as a form of anti-American sentiment and clearly an unpatriotic action yet it is an approach that rarely characterises Hollywood war films, an exception being 'Three Kings' directed by David O Russell. Therefore it is difficult for Jarhead to claim itself as anti-war film when in fact it propagates traditional and conservative ideologies. The film's conservatism is no better expressed in the closing sequence. Swofford's homecoming becomes the beginning of a forced attempt to come to terms with the war but he never acknowledges the effect his actions and collaboration with the American military has had upon the civilian population of Iraq. The cost of war is never really measured in terms of civilian casualties.
Jarhead's post modern accomplishments extends to the pastiche of popular war films that are referenced throughout the film's narrative. One of the more intriguing aspects is how another anti-war film like Apocalypse Now is used as a form of 'military pornography', energising and conditioning the troops into one collective, brutal rabble. The sequence in which a mess hall packed with Marines humming along to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries as Kilgore co ordinates the massacre of a Vietnamese village reveals an extraordinary racism that is manufactured through the power of cinema and instilled within the soldiers. The Hollywood war film and it's close association with the racist caricatures is present even in so called anti-war films like 'The Deer Hunter' which represents the Viet Cong as savage, inarticulate torturers who engage in a sadistic and depraved game of Russian roulette with their prisoners. The opening sequence to Jarhead, clearly an obviously signposted homage to Kubrick's 'Full Metal Jacket', imitates the cold, detached visual style of Kubrick. The absence of real emotion is Mendes' criticising the apathetic nature of contemporary warfare that is nullifying and empty as the media's post modern presentation of the war.
The Illusion of Liberalism
The film's singular moment of outspoken political commentary and left wing ideological posturing comes as the Marines are heading back to base. One of the Marines's criticises the elite for using the military presence as a means of protecting their oil rich interests, only to be told to shut up and get on with his job of following orders and shooting the enemy. The moment is merely Hollywood paying lip service to liberalism. One moment of ideological intent is not enough to counter the film's over riding message; American lives matter more than Iraqi one's.