10/16/2007 03:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On General Sanchez, Al Gore, Gen "Q," and Unjust Wars

Lt. General Ricardo S. Sanchez, an Iraqi War insider if there ever was one, tells us the quagmire in Iraq is a "nightmare," and it makes the front page of Saturday's New York Times. Here, the message is hardly a revelation, but the messenger is.

Meanwhile, the man who won the popular vote for president in 2000 wins a Nobel Prize for giving us an overdue warning on what seems to be happening to the planet we all share, and at a much quicker rate than previously anticipated.

Global warming aside, hearing of this honor, and confronting our current environment, don't we all wish a bit more fervently that this high office had not been snatched away from Al Gore, and instead handed to someone who's probably done more to hurt the credibility and prestige of the United States than any president in our country's history?

I don't think we'd be bogged down in Iraq if Mr. Gore, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, had been elected, do you?

Being a modern politician as well as environmental advocate, Mr. Gore also saw the potential impact of his film (An Inconvenient Truth) to advance a message and a cause-one we can adopt, individually and collectively, in approaching (or even assaulting) our own political representatives. When the courageous General Sanchez went public in the Times with his own scathing assessment of the Iraq conflict, he was pretty much doing the same thing, just using a different medium. I'll bet you 10 bucks he's off the Bush Christmas card list.

Back when "W" was first elected, I had this primal feeling of witnessing a car crash in slow motion. That sensation only grew as I saw our nation edging toward full-scale war in Iraq in the wake of 9/11.

Is that where Osama bin Laden is really hiding and operating, I wondered with a certain degree of skepticism? Well, regardless, it is confirmed that Saddam has all those lethal WMDs he can either provide to the terrorists, or simply use on us. Next thing you know we're in Baghdad blowing up stuff, but where precisely are those pesky weapons we were hearing about? Oops. You could not make this up if you tried.

Then I knew the informed mutterings I'd heard were true. I'd even sensed it myself from the start: It is Vietnam, all over again.

Even before General Sanchez went public with his perspective on Saturday, my mind had already ventured back to the student militancy I recall from those far-off Vietnam protest days, when the anger about the horrific quagmire in Indochina was channeled into an electric form of activism that catalyzed Americans -- young and old -- to exercise their constitutional freedoms and make their voices heard.

I pondered where that sense of outrage is keeping itself today. I know I've seen protesters, but to my jaundiced eye, it feels nothing like the '60s and '70s.

Then, like déjà vu, I happened to catch Thomas Friedman's incisive Times column last week on what he's dubbed "Generation Q". Basically, these are our kids -- or grand-kids -- many of whom seem to be redirecting themselves and their priorities inward, both due to the transforming force of technology, and the pressure-cooker competitiveness of today's academic and workplace environments.

In other words, who even has the time to march in 2007?

Mr. Friedman's primary argument was that regardless of prevailing trends and conditions, this next generation should somehow make the time to be more active and vocal, since practically speaking, they stand to inherit this mess of a world we're bequeathing them. Of course, he's correct. (And we elders should pitch in too).

General Sanchez, Al Gore, and "Gen Q": what do they have in common beyond being today's news? These first two men are each sending out critical messages, intrinsically more relevant to these young, smart but increasingly internalized Americans than to their aging forebears. "Q" must come to stand for "quest" rather than "quiet".

In this impassioned, somewhat nostalgic frame of mind, I wanted to pass on some outstanding films, both narrative and documentary, that portray the appalling waste and tragedy of what we'll call "the unjust wars," starting with Vietnam and ending in Iraq:

In The Year Of The Pig (1968) -- Emile de Antonio's excoriating documentary is a revealing history lesson that goes back to French colonial rule in Indochina. It relates how in the mid-'40s, a diminutive Marxist named Ho Chi Minh gradually became a national hero, beloved by most of his country -- North and South. Perhaps most memorably, Year captures the "arrogance of power" our top national leaders projected, with the windy Hubert Humphrey showing his political cunning by exclaiming that "it is hard to win the peace' (with the emphasis on "win"). Meanwhile, we watch Tricky Dick, the old Cold Warrior and gifted globalist, patiently explain why it would be bad for America to let Indochina go Communist, as if speaking to a bunch of high school kids. Then we behold the incumbent LBJ, who just looks drawn and defeated (a bit like fellow Texan "W"), and adopts a consistently defensive posture (a bit like fellow Texan "W"). Get this paraphrase of a defiant LBJ non-sequitur: "You all don't have it so bad, do you?" In other words, leave me alone.

Hearts and Minds (1974) -- Peter Davis's acclaimed doc places us at the very heart of the Vietnam conflict, depicting the toll in lives, while examining how the first "television war" was portrayed in our living rooms. Interviews with veterans, family members, policymakers, and military brass are all part of the film's careful dissection of our nation's collective conscience in the early-mid 1970s. Davis intercuts newsreel footage of the war's horrific impact with the ill-informed or misleading comments of its official supporters in the Pentagon and Congress. A devastating chronicle of a still-healing national wound, Hearts and Minds remains a powerful, intense cautionary tale for any era, and particularly this one.

Coming Home (1978) -- The late director Hal Ashby's triumph, overshadowed somewhat by the more heralded Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter (which came out the same year and won the Best Picture Oscar), is on its face a tender love story, but more important, it's an original, highly emotional take on the human price of a war that nobody really understands. Jane Fonda plays Sally, a Veterans' hospital volunteer, whose husband Bob (Bruce Dern) is in Vietnam. At the hospital, she befriends Luke (Jon Voight), a paraplegic as a result of the same war. Luke gradually overcomes his bitterness through his relationship with Sally, which evolves into a love affair. When Bob returns from overseas, he, Sally and Luke have a lot to sort through. Even as they fight for the same woman, the conflict between the two men also concerns the wrenching process of each man coming to terms with their respective war experiences. (Understandably, Luke is a bit farther along on this emotional journey). This riveting film is propelled by top-notch performances from the three fabulous leads, all of whom were Oscar-nominated (Voight and Fonda won, for Best Actor and Actress).

No Man's Land (2001) - After a blistering field-artillery salvo, two soldiers -- Bosnian Chiki and Serb Nino -- find themselves marooned in a trench together while another combatant lies atop a land mine that, if moved, will blow them to bits. Meanwhile, British journalist Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge) and U.N. peacekeepers observe their harrowing plight from a distance. This dark, satiric Serbo-Croatian film deservedly won the 2001 Best Foreign Film Oscar. Built around the tense standoff between Chiki and Nino, we view their bizarre predicament not just as two enemies who ironically must help each other survive, but also through the eyes of impotent U.N. representatives, and, of course, the omnipresent media. By turns bleak, frightening, and funny, No Man's Land is an ingenious piece of cinema, as it delivers yet another new and original slant on war's innate futility.

Turtles Can Fly (2004)- Set in a Kurdish refugee camp on the Iraqi-Turkish border just weeks before the 2003 U.S. invasion, this jaw-dropping story trails Satellite, a bossy, tech-obsessed 13-year-old who leads a motley gang of children and sets up TV reception for local villages anxiously awaiting news of the imminent war. Smitten by an orphaned girl newly arrived from Halabja, Satellite tries to help her, but his efforts are hampered by her protective brother, an armless land-mine survivor who supposedly can predict the future. Few films can match the dazzling visuals and heart-wrenching storyline of this unforgettable drama, which spins a tender, engrossing tale about the costs of war from the perspective of three Kurdish children. Harsh yet compassionate, Turtles is filled with potent, resonant images -- among them, a blind toddler seated in a mine field, and a maimed child expertly defusing a mine with his teeth. Don't miss this beautiful, disturbing, hypnotic work.

My Country, My Country (2005) - This intimate doc takes us into the home of Dr. Riyadh, a Baghdad-based physician and city-council member, in the volatile run-up to the historic elections of January 2005. As he travels from his free clinic to inspections at Abu Ghraib and beyond, we get a rare glimpse of the day-to-day experiences of average Iraqis, the hardships they endure, and the heartbreaking polarities that divide Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd. This bird's-eye view film tracks the reality of the occupation from the vantage point of a man who, despite his cynicism about the post-Saddam puppet government, tries to convince his fellow Sunnis (once a ruling-class minority) to participate in the elections. Even in the face of bombings, political turmoil, and the certainty of diminishing returns at the polling booth, Riyadh retains his sense of dignity and hope. See this to experience the evolving contours of the war in Iraq.

Road to Guantanamo (2006) - In late September 2001, young Brit Asif Iqbal traveled with friends Shafiq and Ruhel to Karachi, where he planned to get married. This film revisits how the "Tipton Three," as they came to be known, wound up in nearby Afghanistan, were eventually captured by the Northern Alliance and taken by American forces to Guantanamo Bay. There they were held without charges for two years under suspicion of being Al-Qaeda operatives. This jarring docudrama combines interviews, news footage, and fervid re-enactments to tell the harrowing true story of three British men of Pakistani descent who found themselves detained and brutalized by their Afghan (and later, American) captors in our post-9/11 campaign against the Taliban. Amazingly, Asif, Shafiq, and Ruhel tell their story without a trace of malice, a miracle considering the deprivations they endured. Without doubt, Guantanamo should be required viewing for anyone concerned about respect for the Geneva Conventions -- and basic civil rights.