Iraq vet Ross Caputi's film opens with a fleeting synopsis of the American heartbreak -- and the bandage we tape across it.
His documentary, Fear Not the Path of Truth, is about the U.S. devastation of Fallujah, in which he participated as part of Operation Phantom Fury in November 2004, but the first couple minutes give us an overview of his hometown, the "former industrial city" of Fitchburg, Mass.:
"But the factory jobs are long gone, so there's really only two types of people that live here. They're the people with good-paying jobs in Boston or Worcester who come out here to build big houses at relatively cheap prices. Everyone else gets by doing work on those houses, doing their lawns, putting additions on them, painting them.
"If there was a point of unity among all the racial and economic divisions in this little city, it had to be the troops. Everyone respected the troops."
I was struck especially hard by this small moment because it encapsulates the lie of militarism where it is most invulnerable: at the humanity of the men and women who protect us, putting their lives on the line. When all else goes wrong, the troops remain sacred. In a broken economy, the troops are sacred. Militarism is the god we can manipulate.
And yet the moment to expel this lie from human society has never been riper. The trans-national cost of militarism is some $2 trillion a year, according to an ambitious new website called World Beyond War. The insanity of war not only squanders our resources, ravages the environment and slaughters the innocent, it perpetuates a global culture of violence, which is the very thing we honor our troops for protecting us from.
"Unless we want to risk catastrophic loss or even extinction, we must abolish war," according to the site's introductory statement. This puts it in the biggest context possible. We cannot settle for less.
"Every war brings with it both massive destruction and the risk of uncontrolled escalation. We are facing a world of greater weapons proliferation, resource shortages, environmental pressures, and the largest human population the earth has seen. In such a turbulent world, we must abolish sustained and coordinated militarized combat between groups (primarily governments) known as war, because its continuation puts all life on the planet at risk."
And yet . . . the next war we enjoin will be fully funded and garner the support of most of the public. The current military budget keeps growing even as the country reels from the consequences of its most recent military rampages. The government continues to develop new generations of weapons to perfect and perpetuate its ability to eliminate all life on Earth in a context of almost complete acquiescence. The interests of continued war permeate the highest levels of political and economic power and control the mainstream media. How do war's abolitionists stand a chance?
Ross Caputi, who came home a hero, begins to answer this question, or at least brings hope to those who ask it.
"It didn't feel right to me, but I couldn't put it into words," he said. This was post-Phantom Fury, when he was back home, being applauded by his friends and by the media.
He'd been part of the most devastating carnage of the Iraq war. The city of Fallujah -- "center of resistance" to the American occupation -- was taught a big, bad lesson. Thousands were killed. The city was destroyed and, for good measure, saturated with depleted uranium dust, the equivalent of nuclear fallout. Yet the "we're number one!" mentality was everywhere. A video game about the siege of Fallujah was in the works.
"Afterward it was rubble. The whole country said we were heroes, but it was a confusing experience. I decided I was not going to let Fallujah be a skeleton in my closet for the rest of my life."
He told me: "I started to do a lot of reading. I was also drinking and doing drugs. Eventually the books won out." These included Howard Zinn's A Peoples History of the United States. "That was a game changer," he said.
Caputi's "confusion" over the devastation of Fallujah eventually turned into informed political activism. He joined with others to create a website called Justice for Fallujah and began spreading the word that the siege of the city was a war crime. A donation allowed him to make Fear Not the Path of Truth, his journey beyond the military mindset. One of the documentary's appealing features is its honest inquiry into the psychology of war, beginning with his own manipulation.
"I struggle to even explain how something like Fallujah, so obviously wrong, seemed acceptable at the time," he says to Kathleen Malley-Morrison, a psychology professor. "Even obvious things like kicking women and children out of their homes, forcing them to flee into the desert, then destroying their homes. I managed to believe what our command was telling us, that we were doing this for their own good. How is that possible?"
The question is an open wound, so utterly basic to war and its abolition. Malley-Morrison discusses the cognitive tricks that allow good people to behave inhumanely: dehumanizing the enemy, ignoring or minimizing the consequences of one's actions.
Later Caputi asks another professor, Sohail Hashmi, about the differences between "insurgent," "terrorist" and "jihadist" -- terms the U.S. military used as casually interchangeable epithets for the enemy -- and absorbs Hashmi's discussion of the meaning of "jihad": a Muslim's struggle to be true to his faith and do the right thing.
The interviewees also include Noam Chomsky, who makes the point that the GIs, caught in the middle of the vortex of war, are far less to blame for their confusion over the wrong that was occurring than the politicians and editors at a comfortable remove from the hellish action, who also saw nothing wrong with the devastation of Fallujah.
At one point, Chomsky expresses wonderment that, on day one of Phantom Fury, the New York Times gleefully reported on the U.S. seizure of Fallujah General Hospital, deemed a "propaganda center" for the insurgents because it was reporting casualty figures. The paper even ran a photo on the front page of doctors and patients lying shackled on the floor of the hospital. How could they manage not to notice, Chomsky wanted to know, that this was a war crime in progress?
In February, Caputi's documentary screens in Fitchburg. And the abolition movement takes another step forward.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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