Entry from May 20, 2002

A dissenting voice, here, about what seems to be the general verdict on HBO’s production of John Frankenheimer’s film, The Path to War (“a tremendous achievement,” Tom Shales, Washington Post). Michael Gambon’s performance in the role of Lyndon Johnson is splendid, to be sure, and Alec Baldwin manages to look just right for creepy Robert McNamara. Donald Sutherland is a memorable if sanitized Clark Clifford and Bruce McGill’s George Ball is naturally thrown into prominence by being the lone dissenter through much of the Vietnam buildup. But Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and others of those in Johnson’s inner circle who bore so much of the responsibility for the war and, more importantly, the way it was fought, are colorless and hard to distinguish one from another. This is not accidental. The premiss of the film requires that what it regards as irredeemable error be shoved into the same receptacle and left as undifferentiated as it is unexamined.

For the film could hardly be more emphatically committed to the media consensus about the war, which is that it was mistaken at first, ultimately crazy and always, always unwinnable. You can tell because the enemy is as elusive as he is in Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola’s film set the arrogant, patronizing standard for almost every cinematic treatment of the war since with its powerful visual metaphor of the lonely band of Americans firing their guns into the jungle without effect. The image is of course taken from Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness first pictured a warship “firing into a continent” (as he put it), but for Coppola’s use of it in Vietnam its meaning was subtly shifted. In Conrad, the unresisting jungle was the symbol of a savagery that the so-called civilizing mission of European imperialism could never tame but would itself be corrupted by; in Apocalypse Now, the image was crassly conscripted to stand for what in Coppola’s mind was the romantic authenticity and therefore invincibility of the Communist enemy.

Nowadays, as The Path to War demonstrates, you don’t even need the set-up provided by simulated combat showing doomed or wigged-out American troops. You don’t need to show a single image of the futility of American involvement in Southeast Asia and can simply take it for granted. If it weren’t for the media consensus on Vietnam, it would not be possible to watch The Path to War without saying, “Wait a minute! Whom is this war being fought against? Where is the other side? How can you present to us something purporting to be ‘The Path to War’ without devoting a so much as a frame of film to one of the parties to this war, and what it might have contributed to making it happen?” But it does not occur to us to make any such protest because the media and entertainment culture — assisted, it should be added, by an almost equally unanimous academic consensus — have taught us that the other side were not really human but a kind of divine force, intended by fate for no other purpose than to be the nemesis of American power, confidence and “innocence.”

In this sense, the media and academic consensus amount to a sort of mirror-image of the technocratic arrogance that they so assiduously condemn in the American makers of the war. To both, the war was all a matter of America, and America’s culture (masculine, patriarchal, imperial) and America’s tradition of violence and contempt for indigenous people and America’s paranoia about Communism and God knows what all else about America. The enemy is a mere irrelevance. But the enemy were people too. They did some smart things and they did some dumb things. They also did some absolutely horrible things that the makers of The Path to War are simply not interested in when it came time to show the forces at work on poor, doomed Lyndon Johnson. In fact, they were never invincible and bore little or no resemblance to that imagined force of nature on which naïve American culture and foreign policy were bound to be wrecked. They could have been beaten if the will to beat them had existed, and a more serious look at why it did not exist in Lyndon Johnson’s administration — nor yet in Richard Nixon’s — would have made a much more interesting film.


I thought at first that it was just an incredibly stupid question when, on “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert asked Vice President Cheney what, “knowing what you know today,” he would have done differently before September 11th. The Vice President was of course far too polite and forbearing with Mr Russert to say, “Well, Tim, it’s a tough choice but, knowing what I know today, I guess I would have had Mohammed Atta and his eighteen henchmen rounded up in Boston and Newark before they ever got on those planes.” I wondered later if maybe Russert wasn’t half-hoping that he would have said, “Well, you got me there, Tim. I have to admit that I’d have let them go right ahead and hijack those planes and crash them into those buildings.” For, after all, wasn’t such a charge actually made in all apparent seriousness by Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and no one thought anything of it but that she was “playing to her base” in a black community receptive to conspiracy theories? Now she claims to have been vindicated. And why not? As Russert shows, it is now possible to say anything at all to a public official, even openly to insult his honor, and expect to pay no penalty. Who is to say what might or might not be true? One guess is as good as another.

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