Patrick Crewdson - flag burner, Auckland

Saturday, July 24, 2004

War pigs

When I play the Grand Theft Auto games, I enjoy tuning between radio stations as I cock my Uzi and roll down the window for a drive-by shooting. Macabre, sure, but it's only a game. It's not as though I'm cueing up Rammstein as I prepare to gun down students at the real-life neighbourhood high school. In Fahrenheit 9/11, which I saw just a few hours ago, American soldiers on the sandy streets of Iraq load an OzzFest heavy metal tour CD into their tank's sound system. Seemingly unaware it might be inappropriate to take such glee in their jobs, they set the music to pipe into their helmets as they roam.

Cut to a bereaved Iraqi father carrying his dead son in his arms, the young boy's pants wet with urine.

Cut back to a soldier staring straight to camera, chanting a Bloodhound Gang refrain: “We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn. Burn motherfucker, burn.”

With Fahrenheit - the leader of what Salon called the Great Left-Wing Documentary Onslaught of 2004 - the author of Stupid White Men and Dude, Where's My Country? demonstrates again that his strength is in film-making, not writing. Aside from when he commandeers an ice cream truck to circle Washington DC's Capitol broadcasting the text of the Patriot Act, and when he implores members of Congress to volunteer their children for military service, Fahrenheit offers less of Moore the prankster than we’re used to. As a documentary, it is neither as slick nor as frenetic as Bowling for Columbine; temperamentally it’s closer to the slow-burning rage of Roger & Me. Moore's still not subtle, but he's more solemn than ever before.

Fahrenheit's sights are set on George W. Bush. Throughout, the POTUS is in full bumbling mode, lingering at a primary school photo op while planes fly into the Twin Towers, ineptly fielding questions from reporters, and giving the impression of a man well out of his depth. None of the Bush administration heavyweights escape unscathed; Rumsfeld, Powell, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Ashcroft and Rice are all depicted - in line with the suspicions of many lefties - as corrupt, foolish or both.

Predictably, the highly-charged debate over the veracity of Bowling for Columbine has been reproduced for Fahrenheit. As it raked in the cash at the US box office, critics labelled it inaccurate, misleading, and even, in the words of celebrated contrarian Christopher Hitchens, “a spectacle of abject political cowardice”. One prominent website lists '59 deceits' (pdf) - lies it claims are tantamount to fraud. Moore has responded in a ‘War room’ on his own website, citing evidence and listing sources.

It is fair to say the film is often closer to propaganda than a cogent argument. Evidence is provided for some claims - often in the form of extreme close-ups on the raw Courier font of incriminating official documents - but more is achieved by insinuation. The subject matter ranges widely: there are links between the House of Saud and the House of Bush and between the Bush administration and the oil and weapons industries; Bush stole the 2000 presidential election; the Patriot Act allows thought-policing of fascist proportions; the case for war in Iraq was mendacious and misleading; young American service men and women in Iraq are being wounded or killed for no good reason.

As Russell said in his reflections on the film, “Even once you sift out the dubious elements, you're still left with the feeling that it makes a case to answer for the Bush administration and its chums.” At times Fahrenheit feels scattershot, but the unifying theme is that Bush is dangerously incompetent and a pawn of special interests.

For those - like me - who believe the election was a scam, who believe September 11 was exploited, who opposed the war in Iraq, and who wouldn't trust Bush as far as they could kick him, Fahrenheit 9/11 is another chance to rebel and yell (and to say 'I told you so'). True, Michael Moore has been known to play fast and loose with the truth. True, he wields a satirical axe rather than a rapier wit. And true, Fahrenheit plumps for emotion over journalism. But with Iraqis and Americans (with Linkin Park on their headphones) dying in combat each day and Afghanistan ignored, it's time blame got honestly apportioned.

Update: More on the relationship between Bush and the Saudis. 'Bush's bungled Saudi deal-making', from Salon:
A series of early favors the Bush administration did for the Saudis helped set the tone for what was to come. The Clinton administration had pushed specific initiatives against al-Qaida and the Taliban, some of which were successful, including sending an American delegation to the kingdom to discuss terrorist financing. As described in the 9/11 commission's staff report, "In Saudi Arabia the team concentrated on tracing bin Laden's assets and access to his family's money, exchanges that led to further, fruitful work." In contrast, the report continues, "the Bush administration did not develop any diplomatic initiatives on al Qaeda with the Saudi government before the 9/11 attack," a serious mistake considering the belief of counterterrorism experts that the real possibility of a huge strike against the United States required pressing the Saudis hard.
The Bush administration's patient exculpation of the Saudi role in 9/11, and above all its closure of the giant Saudi air base, should have strengthened America's hand with the kingdom on vital matters. But Bush did not use this source of leverage well: He failed to get in return a real Saudi commitment to ending jihadist incitement and implementing domestic reforms. The fresh waves of ill will against America generated by Bush's go-it-alone invasion dissipated whatever goodwill had been gained. In the end, Bush's diplomatic dance with the Saudis, combined with his bungled occupation of Iraq, made America less safe from terror attacks, not more.