GI Film Festival 2008: Military Service with a Human Face

"Americans," explained Captain Dale Dyle, "don’t want to see our troops portrayed as killers."

Hollywood seems late to understand that message despite the low earnings of movies that trash service in the U.S. military. Lions for Lambs ($15 million), Redacted (worldwide gross: $220, 307 — not a typo), and Rendition ($10 million) were all consigned to Box Office Death. Stop Loss ($10 million), the story of a soldier who "refuses to fight this [Iraq] war" when ordered to return to active duty, came and went in short order.

How has Hollywood gotten it so wrong? Why has Hollywood chosen to portray the American military as the bad guy?

"They’ve built an echo chamber," said Phil Strub, Special Assistant for Entertainment Media at the Pentagon.

Film critic Gary Arnold agreed. "These people [who write and produce films] haven’t ever served in the military. They don’t know anyone who’s served in the military. They don’t know people who know people who’ve served in the military."

It was the sense that Hollywood had more an interest in negative — and not realistic — portrayals of the military experience that caused Brandon Millett to found the GI Film Fest in 2007. The Fest just enjoyed its second year in operations last weekend.

"This might not be as big as Cannes," Millett said, "but it’s just as important. These stories need to be told."

Stories like Grace is Gone, which shows a father’s (John Cusack) journey to connect with his children after learning that his wife Grace was killed in duty. Or Fighting for Life, which takes you inside the world of the Uniformed Services University, considered the "West Point of medical schools" and the primary trainer of battlefield medics who are saving more lives than ever before, which is why Iraq War casualties have been relatively modest (America lost 50,000 servicemen in Vietnam). 

But the Festival saved its best for last. Director Mitch Anderson spent half of his personal savings to travel the world with one simple question: what would happen if the United States were to withdraw from its commitments abroad?

The World Without US is set in an election year, and William Turner is running for president on a non-interventionist platform. From our military budget of $420 billion annually, Turner argues, half could easily be cut without national security ramifications. The savings would be used to pay for universal health care and jobs for all Americans, and our withdrawal from each and every theater would "restore" America’s good name.

But Turner’s contributions are mere vignettes; the meat is Anderson’s interviews with scholars the world over. The World Without US focuses on the impact of U.S. withdrawal from three theatres: Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

Said Anderson: "People might feel America should do things differently. But no one ever says ‘just go home.’"

Using the Bosnian wars as a "test case," Anderson argues that ethnic cleanings in Europe would have been far worse without American intervention. Europe isn’t prepared to exert itself militarily, even to aggressors on its own continent. When genocide broke out, twice, on Europe’s doorstep, no one stepped up.

"Without America, the killing would have gone on," explained Martin Hutterbrink, a German journalist.

The argument is weaker for American involvement in the Middle East. It’s America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia that exposes the hypocrisy behind efforts to democratize the region. Asia and Europe depend far more heavily upon Middle Eastern oil than we — distribution channels our naval installations keep open.

But with troops in Iraq and our ally in Israel, America’s involvement in the Middle East will only expand. 

America’s Asian allies should theoretically be able to defend themselves. Japan is the second-wealthiest nation on earth. South Korea is twelfth. South Korea has twice the people of North Korea and twenty-times the money, and yet 30,000 Americans man the de-militarized zone to this day.

What would happen if they left? China’s bugaboo, Taiwan, experts agreed, would fall in less than a month. South Korea is hindered by geography — with Seoul a mere 40 miles from the border, the nation is vulnerable to a massive attack. Japan might have the worst logistics of all: a pacifist island, with few resources, and a militarist past its neighbors haven’t forgotten.

Without America waiting in the wings, the global order wouldn’t change — it wouldn’t exist. No one is manning the door in Europe, and the countries waiting to step into any breach in the Middle East (Iran) and Asia (China) don’t have our, or anyone else’s, best interests at heart.

It’s a challenge being the globe’s only "hyperpower," but consider the alternatives. The film closes with footage of a nuclear attack ravaging Japan as President Turner drones on about how America’s withdrawal from the world has worked out for all parties.


Media images can be powerful. They’re often more powerful and memorable than the written word. But field experience is so much deeper. And this weekend my most powerful lesson in military honor came not from the films, or the panels, but when I lost my wallet — and about $200 — in the theater.

I hurried back as fast as possible, hoping that the wallet would still be where it’d probably fallen. It wasn’t. 

Within seconds of hearing my situation all ten or twelve of the Young Marines in attendance were combing the theatre. Just as I was prepared to consider the wallet lost and thank my new friends for their help, one young lady informed me that my wallet had been found and returned to the front desk.

Not a dollar was out of place. Not even a "finder’s fee."

"I can’t believe it," I said, equal parts relieved and surprised.

"This is about the most honest group you could ever lose valuables around," replied a parent chaperone of the under-18 group, many of whom will join the service upon reaching adulthood.

Shame that Hollywood can’t find these types of soldiers to make films about — maybe people would actually care to see them.


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