In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee, USA/UK/China, 2016), there is a sequence where Billy (Joe Alwyn) experiences a flashback to his tour as a soldier in Iraq.
The scene is ultimately innocuous, but as Billy looks around him in an Iraqi market, we see and hear how a soldier thinks: could those kids be throwing a grenade? could that man be reaching for a gun?
In keeping with the film’s arch self-consciousness, the sequence also features one soldier buying bootleg DVDs – of a Disney film – for his daughter. But the reason why I want to discuss this sequence is because the iconography of uniformed soldiers walking armed through a traditional ‘Middle Eastern’ market place, replete with stalls, sandy ground, narrow alleys and sandstone walls, and with people wearing elaborate robes, has also been deployed elsewhere in recent cinema, namely in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, USA/UK, 2016).
The key difference is that in Billy Lynn, which is far more interesting than its unpromising title would suggest, we are with the soldiers, while in Rogue One, we see these scenes of armed soldiers walking through otherwise traditional bazaars and other ‘Middle Eastern’ spaces through the eyes of the rebels – those who are going specifically to pull out guns and lob grenades in order to defy the imperial presence.
It is not that Billy Lynn is specifically critiquing Disney – even if the Disney bootleg is mentioned. Nor is it that Billy Lynn quite offers a corrective to Rogue One, as it offers a sympathetic portrayal of the life of a soldier who ultimately decides to fight for his fellow servicemen – while Rogue One offers a fantasy of striking back against the Empire, the storm troopers of which are disposable enemies.
Rather, both films in fact help us to understand a more subtle but important process – even though they nominally give us completely different perspectives (soldiers and rebels). And this process is the normalisation of Empire via their shared iconography of soldiers walking through ‘Middle Eastern’ bazaars.
Billy Lynn spends a lot of time conveying how contemporary America is a militarised zone. Although it amuses Billy and his comrades that business people describe their workspace as the ‘war room,’ while using other would-be combat terms to describe their work, such moments nonetheless convey the militarisation of the domestic space and its everyday routines.
This is also conveyed in the violence that the soldiers experience not just in Iraq (during Billy’s flashbacks) but at home, where/when the film is set. The film is about the Bravos, a group of soldiers who have become the face of the Iraq war after a journalist’s film camera – abandoned but left recording during a military engagement – captures footage of Billy rushing to rescue Sergeant Virgil ‘Shroom’ Breem (Vin Diesel).
Given their rise to fame, the soldiers are to appear at a show with Destiny’s Child during the halftime interval of an American football game in Dallas. Celebrated as heroes, the soldiers are also in the process of trying to negotiate a movie deal to tell their story.
Without going into too much detail – since it is not the focus of this blog post – the film articulates the way in which domestic America is as violent as Iraq as the soldiers are constantly harassed and abused – even though they receive acclaim from an otherwise patriotic audience.
What is more, while films like Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, USA, 1944) and Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2006) critique the process of using heroic soldiers at spectacular jamborees in order to sell war bonds in a bid to further the war effort, Billy Lynn demonstrates quite clearly in their bid to have their story made into a movie that war provides the material for cinema, and thus to a degree how cinema also provides the material for war.
What is more, while the explosions during the halftime show panic the soldiers as much as does real combat in Iraq (and not simply in a way of setting off a traumatic memory), we get a sense in Ang Lee’s film of how the contemporary USA is indeed built as a simulacrum of war that is itself sufficiently traumatic that the soldiers prefer to bond with each other and to return to Iraq (there are two extraordinary scenes in which men declare their love for each other) rather than to stay at home.
In other words, PTSD is not specifically caused by the trials of war itself – but equally by the never-ending war-like/militarised aspects of contemporary American life: the same car manufacturers (Humvee), explosions, aggressive people, loud noises – except here surrounded by plenty and with a huge emphasis on consumption/consumerism.
Even if the soldiers are doing a job that is not everywhere popular (they themselves understand very well that the major result of their work is that it likely breeds rather than reverses anti-American sentiment), it is in their interactions and experiences with each other that they can find some humanity in a world where otherwise they are simply (undervalued and underpaid) commodities and objects.
This even extends to Billy’s love life; in a remarkable sequence, he realises that Faison (Makenzie Leigh), a cheerleader whom he has just met but upon whom he is sweet, desires him only as a soldier and not as a person (she is disappointed when Billy says that he wishes he could run away with her; a soldier must fulfil his duty). Lee and actor Alwyn subtly manage to capture both Billy’s vulnerability in projecting his own desire for escape on to Faison (the youthful intensity of the recent crush – demonstrating that even though he has fought in combat, Billy is still in some senses a child), as well as the way in which that crush is extinguished in an instant by a single turn of phrase (her disappointment that he does not return willingly to Iraq).
There is a clear critique of Billy Lynn to be made for its treatment of women, including the way in which Billy’s anti-war sister, played by Kristen Stewart, is a woman scarred from a car accident and whom Billy is specifically fighting to protect by serving his country in order to pay her medical bills. But an extended critique will be for someone else to make.
Furthermore, there is of course a critique of the film to be made in its refusal to give us the perspective of those against whom the soldiers fight in Iraq – even though we see at length what it means to take a life by hand as Billy scrambles with someone who might typically be referred to as an insurgent next to Shroom, who has been shot.
However, while Rogue One may in some senses offer a corrective – by giving us the perspective of the rebels (even if in a fantasy universe now owned by Disney) – both films contribute to the same process of naturalising Empire.
Billy Lynn clearly articulates the way in which war is a mediatised spectacle. Everyday life becomes militarised as it also becomes mediatised, while war itself becomes everyday as it, too, becomes mediatised. In its own way, Rogue One does this, too.
While in Billy Lynn Iraqi lives are somewhat disposable (in spite of the extended depiction of the death of the insurgent at Billy’s hands), in Rogue One storm troopers are disposable. While Shroom is killed in Billy Lynn and all of the rebels perish in Rogue One, the imbalance in both films between the numbers of deaths that we see means that both also broadly convey a fantasy of war as simulacrum, or what we might call a war without casualties. War as entertainment. Not war as real (even if Billy Lynn also tries to get to that reality).
This reflects to a certain extent the way in which contemporary warfare is – from the perspective of the West – a war without casualties (we are horrified when the numbers of Western casualties grows – even though countless Iraqis and Afghans have died in this war – as if their lives did not matter or count since they are somehow not quite as human).
In reference to the first Iraq/Persian Gulf War in 1991, French philosopher Paul Virilio argues that ‘[t]he war of zero casualties (or nearly, on the side of the allies) was therefore also a war of zero political victory.’ Saddam Hussein remained in power – which in the fullness of time led to a second war, where Hussein was toppled (one cannot help but think not only of Hussein’s ungainly death, but also of the much more viewer-friendly toppling of his statue; this is a war about symbols and aesthetically pleasing images – and thus about media – as much as it is about humans, who have a propensity to be aesthetically unpleasing, or war, which also is likely not as pleasing to behold in real life as it is in movies – with Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (Australia/USA, 2016) doing a fine job of hypocritically saying how bad war is before pouring on the war porn in heavy doses), and then to an ongoing war that the American soldiers describe in Billy Lynn as being beyond their understanding as Iraqis now fight each other as well as them.
While Virilio’s assertion is insightful, what he does not quite articulate here is that political victory is not the point. The war itself is the point of the war. The war produces the images, which produces the war, which produces the patriotism, which produces the buying, which produces the consumption, which produces war bonds in the form of bondage to war, which produces cinema, which produces war, which produces cinema, which produces war… and so on.
If there were victory in this war, the war would end and there would no longer be images for us to look at and advertisers and patriots and others for us to get to use those images to make money, and there would no longer be arms sales or private business contracts, or movie deals, and so on. The becoming-everyday of war is matched by the militarisation of everyday life, then, since both are the same process of keeping capital going, with the media playing a major role in the making-everyday/naturalisation of this process.
More than this. If the war cannot end, since this would also mean the end of capitalism, then soldiers in the ‘Middle East’ is to become an everyday – or at least repeated – occurrence. This is, in other words, Empire-building. It is not colonialism, or at least will not go by that name, since a) colonialism is unfashionable and generally condemned and b) because it does not involve colonisation specifically so much as an ongoing and repeated military presence in such places – because the perpetuation of war (war as capital) demands it.
In this sense, Rogue One is for all of its rebellious bluster serving the same purpose as Billy Lynn, even though the latter critiques it: normalising images of invading/Western soldiers in ‘Middle Eastern’ locations – because this is indeed our new reality.
What is more… while Rogue One plays the card of giving us a fantasy of rebellion, it still only perpetuates fantasies of violence, while at the same time demonstrating that Disney’s attempts to regain/retain global domination also involves a kind of militarisation of cinema/a making-cinematic of war.
For, as Disney via the Star Wars franchise and Marvel shows us how we are set to have endless, perhaps infinite, stories set in each fictional universe (not just sequels and prequels, but ‘Star Wars stories’ and the infinite regression of the Marvel spin-offs), so, too, is Disney normalised as the only reality.
This process of normalisation – as delimiting the human imagination such that it can do nothing other than imagine the world as it is, and not a different world that we may ourselves forge – is itself war. It is an ideological war that is about getting people to buy only certain products and to mistrust others (it can be seen in Tesco, Sainsbury and Waitrose opening stores all across the UK and which are putting out of business countless ‘corner shops’ – perhaps not coincidentally run often by immigrant families with brown skins). And this war is waged through the media, which in turn depict how war is a supposedly necessary and normal part of our lives.
It is a complex and confusing world, where we are – specifically to use war terminology – bombarded by images and sounds that render us all always nervous and on the edge of our seats – in a world very far removed from the quiet and the natural sounds of pre-industrial humankind. It is a war waged for the control of our planet and of each other, with the idea of fighting for control and/or of seeking power becoming naturalised such that no one even questions it anymore. That is, we do not object to being controlled – as we instead reach constantly into our pockets to receive micro-hits of cinema from our smartphone screens, so normalised has this disciplining via militarisation of the everyday become.
The question becomes, then: do you buy into this world of warcraft, or not?