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March 28, 2008


Iraq — Band of brothers

Consensus: Stop-Loss is sincere and complex, and features strong performances, but it also veers into overwrought dramatic territory and tries to cover too much ground. (Rotten Tomatoes)

The logic behind the film Stop-Loss is simple:

How does a government handle its military needs if there’s no draft?

Rely on the patriotic instincts of its young men to volunteer. (Yes, the modern military includes women, but day-to-day combat — the nitty-gritty of any war — is still very much a man’s sphere.)

What does a government do if the war goes sour and the pool of volunteers begins to dry up?

Stop-loss. According to Title 10, United States Code, Section 12305(a),

the President may suspend any provision of law relating to promotion, retirement, or separation applicable to any member of the armed forces who the President determines is essential to the national security of the United States.

What does a volunteer do who has reached the end of his service — and the end of his psychological rope — if he is stop-lossed?

He goes AWOL. Kathy Dobie reported in Harper’s that as of 2005, some 5,500 people had gone AWOL. As stop-losses accelerated, so did desertions. In 2007, Courage To Resist, an organization that supports war resisters, said the count was up to 40,000.

How does a government stop the flow of deserters?

By relying on the ethos of honor and mutual protection that develops on the battlefield. Soldiers may enlist from a sense of duty or patriotism, but in the end they fight to save the lives of themselves and their comrades. (It seems difficult to make dramatic territory like this “overwrought.”)

There’s an odd convergence between this position and the loopy yellow ribbon of the bumper stickers or refrigerator magnets. Support Our Troops: that’s exactly what those guys in Baghdad and Fallujah and Basra are trying to do.

It’s one of those cases where the form is similar but the content is different. Imagine that you have two shiny red apples. They look the same. But cut them open, and you’ll discover that one is hollow — no content at all, just skin; the other is loaded with fruit.

The hollow apple can be found on any number of websites — for example, America Supports You, which is run by the Department of Defense; Soldiers’ Angels, which bears the slogan “May No Soldier Go Unloved”; Operation Support Our Troops, “about our troops, for our troops”; and Support Our Troops, a blanket site that provides a list of similar-minded websites. They endeavor to provide useful information about Vet centers and clinics, but much space is devoted to a kind of USO work, soliciting letters and packages for servicemen and women engaged in what is apparently a generic war.

The war faced by the soldiers in the movie Stop-Loss is anything but generic. It’s composed of specific sights and sounds, with actions based on strong individual relationships. They’ve seen — and through the wonders of modern technology, filmed — the slaughter by Americans of women and children. They’ve faced the terror of ambushes by seemingly invisible attackers on city streets. And all they have left is one another.

Yes, this shiny red apple is loaded with fruit. But it’s stinking rotten, and our soldiers know it.

In the middle of March, Iraq Veterans Against the War and a number of other veterans groups conducted a hearing at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland. The event was reminiscent of the Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971, where more than a hundred people testified about human rights violations they had witnessed in Vietnam. Like the earlier hearing, the one this year was ignored by the mainstream media. But members of the indy media were there. Amy Goodman described the event on Democracy Now:

Last weekend, in the lead-up to the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a remarkable gathering occurred just outside Washington, D.C., called Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan, Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations. Hundreds of veterans of these two wars, along with active-duty soldiers, came together to offer testimony about the horrors of war, including atrocities they witnessed or committed themselves….

What followed were four days of gripping testimony, ranging from firsthand accounts of the murder of Iraqi civilians, the dehumanization of Iraqis and Afghanis that undergirds the violence of the occupations, to the toll that violence takes on the soldiers themselves and the inadequate care they receive upon returning home.

The atrocities should surprise no one, says former marine corporal Jason Washburn.

The more guys we lose, personal friends, the less the guys really care what damage they did to the area and the people that got killed.

It’s all there, in Stop-Loss.

       — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008