Is Black Panther the first great Iraq War movie?

By

New movie prompts cultural analysis.

By NAWAL ARJINI

 

One of the most beautiful and generous aspects of Ryan Coogler’s recent Black Panther movie is that it dedicates its emotional center to its villain: Eric N’Jadaka, better known as Killmonger. The hero, the Black Panther himself, is earnest, simple, and difficult to hate. But Killmonger tests the ease with which superhero-movie audiences align themselves with the (ultimately, inevitably) winning side: he has a compellingly troubled past (for which T’Challa’s idolized father is responsible) and an uncompromising mission of racial redress. In giving us Killmonger’s full backstory, it becomes the first mainstream movie to deal seriously with the fallout of the Iraq War.

Killmonger, as we learn from Martin Freeman’s CIA character, assumed his nickname on tour in the Middle East, where he “racked up confirmed kills like it was a video game.” Presumably this is what got him recruited to a Joint Special Operations Command—as we are told, “these guys are serious. They would drop off the grid so they could commit assassinations and take down governments.” And in fact the JSOC task forces formed during Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) were the same ones who, two years later, became part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

By the Center for Public Integrity’s tally, the Bush administration lied to the public 935 times between October 2001 and September 2003 about the threat Iraq posed to America. The lies ranged from presenting untrustworthy sources (pretending to believe con artists and tortured detainees who told the U.S. Iraq had nuclear capacity) to disingenuous suspicion (Colin Powell’s argument that Iraq was lying about the destruction of the four tons of biological weapons stockpiled before the First Gulf War) to elaborate fabrications (in Bush’s radio address to the nation: “The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more and, according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given”).

This year—actually, this Tuesday—marks the 15th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The U.S., along with the U.K., Australia, and Poland, sent nearly 200,000 soldiers to fight the Iraqi army, followed later by troops from the rest of the Coalition of the Willing. (Another lie: British writer Tariq Ali referred to it as the “Coalition of the Shilling,” referencing the foreign aid promised to countries which agreed to send troops.) In February of that year, millions of people worldwide had marched in the largest protest in history; one month later, they watched their governments wage war in their name. The youngest voters now come at the tail end of a generation whose formative political experience was being lied to by their government.

For most young people, black Americans, and Muslim Americans, the inexcusability of this war was a primary political truth. (African-American enrollment in the military, historically constituting a disproportionate part of army recruitment, fell dramatically after the invasion.) For another part of America, though, this was less obvious. In an early blog post for the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates referred to this class as “Serious People”—the people insulated from war and its effects. In a recent review of Coates’ latest book, Pankaj Mishra notes that among “the most remarkable of these reasonable people” was Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of the Atlantic (and champion of Coates), who published an article in the New Yorker advancing the administration’s transparent lies about Iraq’s links to al-Qaeda. The New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, TIME, Slate, the New Republic, MSNBC—the list of news outlets which supported the war and repeated Pentagon information without question. And there is a damning catalogue of the warmongering editors and journalists who filled their pages with the administration’s lies: Nicholas Kristof, Bill Keller, George Packer, Michael Ignatieff, David Frum, David Remnick, David Brooks, Christopher Hitchens, and Hendrik Hertzberg, among many others.

Despite almost no support from the mainstream media, millions of Americans were able to think critically about information received from the government. Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote (in 2013) that his tacit acceptance of the war—“if the U.S. was going to take out a mad tyrant, who was I to object? And more, who were you to object?”—faded after the invasion, that the war taught him virtue of skepticism about “reasonable people [who] assemble sober arguments for disaster” and “the folly of mocking radicalism.” But hundreds of thousands of Americans knew what disaster looked like before it happened and marched in the streets to try and prevent it (alongside millions of people worldwide). It doesn’t take a radical to question received information—as Coates admits, the popularity of the war protests “meant the election of the country’s first black president whose ascent began at an anti-war rally in Chicago.”

The Iraq War: A Historiography of Wikipedia Changelogs is a set of 12 printed volumes plainly and patiently documenting every change to the “Iraq War” Wikipedia article from 2004 to 2009. Each volume, on average, contains 1,000 edits. It’s an art piece, not for sale, only briefly exhibited.

Source: BookTwo, courtesy James Bridle

Its creator, James Bridle, describes the piece (“a changelog”) as more about Wikipedia than about Iraq: the war highlights the problems in “the flatness of digital memory.” “A more nuanced comprehension of historical process would enable us to better weigh truth,” he wrote in 2010, “whether it concerns the evidence for going to war, the proliferation of damaging conspiracy theories, the polarisation of debate on climate change, or so many other issues.” The piece itself is, as he describes it, a “prop” in a larger argument. It presents, without analysis or context, the changes people tried to make, </ref>s and all. Some of the changes are just inserting references or changing redirects; others are substantial additions; others add sentences like “106,900 innocent Iraqi civilians to date have been brutally murdered in cold blood by Bushler and his henchmen.” One deletes the whole article and replaces it with

“Iraq War, eh???

All your oil are belong to U.S.

Stup up stoopid Americans”

I tried to edit the Wikipedia article to add, after “The U.S. formally withdrew all combat troops from Iraq by December 2011,” the sentence “As of 2018, the Pentagon reports 9,000 American troops remain stationed in Iraq (3,500 more than the Department of Defense’s official reports).” I couldn’t: as of February 25, the article is now “semi-protected,” meaning enough “vandalism” has occured on the page that now only certain users or administrators are allowed to edit the article. (The catalyst for this lock seems to have been an edit which deleted the whole article and redirected it to the “Pornhub” article.)

In a way, the changelogs betray their own mission to help us better weigh the truth of the evidence for war. Veterans and Iraqis are just as able to edit the “Iraq War” page as Jeffrey Goldberg or David Frum. Although it is a beautiful work of art, its historiographic goal needed a different page. Wikipedia wasn’t the source of misinformation about the Iraq War, and out historical memory about the war is not shaped by a multiplicity of accounts from ordinary citizens around the world. Misinformation came from sources vested with traditional authority and embedded in traditional channels of power. And our memory of Iraq—though Iraq is not over—has been shaped by the same people as well.

In 2007, following a series of box-office disasters, critics began to wonder if American audiences were suffering from “Iraq War fatigue.” Audiences didn’t want to see movies made about the war, whether they were unquestioning hand-on-heart glorification of American soldiers or (the only other option) preachy message movies about the effects of war on soldiers (and, secondarily, Iraqis), which still inevitably end up excusing soldiers for horrors committed on Muslim people because of their own personal anguishes. The movie that eventually became the most successful—despite being one of two ever Best Picture winners to never break the box-office top ten—was The Hurt Locker, which was carefully distanced from the “politics” of the war it was depicting. In multiple interviews, when asked about “Iraq War fatigue,” the American director, Kathryn Bigelow, described the movie as about “the type of soldier who volunteers for this particular conflict and then, because of his or her aptitude, is chosen and given the opportunity to go into bomb disarmament and goes toward what everybody else is running from.” Reviewers from both liberal and conservative outlets, few veterans among them, praised the “realism” of the characters’ psychologies and behavior in wartime.

Why would someone make an Iraq War movie, especially one so careful about imitating setting and time period, without talking about, or at least implying, the fabrications which brought us there? Some reviewers believed it was talking about the Iraq War, obliquely and not exactly critically—as reviewer Tara McKelvey wrote, “‘The Hurt Locker’ is one of the most effective recruiting vehicles for the U.S. Army that I have seen.” But even if the movie is, in some part, aiming to revive the reputation of a flagging institution, or reinforce a mandatory and “patriotic” respect for troops, it is really about individuals: storm-chasers seeking thrills in other countries, not the conditions or forces which allowed them to be there. In countless movies about individuals faced with difficult but particular choices, we remember the war as an unlinked collection of people following orders—not the people or ideologies that made those orders in the first place.

Despite Bigelow’s strenuous attempts at realism, real-life members of bomb squads roundly criticized the movie’s portrayal of nonstop thrills and life-threatening danger. Air Force Times wrote that Renner’s character is “exactly the kind of person that we’re not looking for”: even the “realistic” portrayal of the kind of man who looks for violence and is able to find it isn’t actually realistic. It is a projection of critics comfortable in their homes; it is our own striving for violence abroad that finds itself manifested in movies like these.

If the changelog and Iraq War movies lead us to question how we remember the war, Black Panther leads us to ask what that remembrance means for governance. Killmonger’s service in Afghanistan and Iraq is brought up a second time in the movie, as he prepares to fight T’Challa (his cousin, the titular character) for the throne of Wakanda. “I killed in America,” he says, in response to T’Challa’s demand for surrender, “Afghanistan….” As he lists the countries where he has murdered, he takes off his shirt to reveal the thousands of scars on his upper body, each representing a kill. Though his speech is about the evils he has committed in the name of a higher justice, he sounds proud when he comes to “Iraq,” throwing his shirt to the ground and approaching T’Challa bare-chested, admitting that he “took life from my own brothers and sisters right here on this continent.”

Killmonger’s points about race relations worldwide struck a chord with both characters in the movie and viewers in real life. Countless blog posts, tweets, and articles have been written in the month since the movie’s release arguing some variation of “Killmonger was right.” But the movie’s emphasis on his military service in the Middle East—and its almost unprecedented willingness to criticize a veteran onscreen—is part of what makes him, ultimately, unfit to lead. As Adam Serwer put it in the Atlantic, “it is somewhat bizarre to see people endorse a comic-book version of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. (It’s also worth noting that Killmonger’s military service was invented by Coogler and the screenwriters; in the comics, he’s just an angry civilian.) We can’t trust Killmonger to run Wakanda, an uncolonized country, because he’s been trained by the imperial military; that’s where he gets his scorched-earth strategy from, that’s why he’s immune to suffering or the unnecessary loss of human life, that’s why he thinks he knows better, enough to overthrow an existing government.

 

The politics of Black Panther are still muddled at best; the (again, extremely rare) willingness to question military authority is offset somewhat by the benevolence of Martin Freeman’s character, a white CIA operative basically brought along for his surveillance capacity. (Killmonger isn’t “Wakandan, he’s one of ours,” he says; the U.S. government “trained him to do” the kind of destabilizing Killmonger does in the movie.) But it may serve as a model for how to maintain a critical remembrance of the Iraq War—not directly (America may still not be ready for a movie from the Iraqi perspective, in which case we’re consigned to the same stories of tortured soldiers we’ve had since the Civil War), but through a slightly obscured lens. As novelist Garth Hallberg said in a recent interview, “A lot of interesting writing about right now is being done masked—expressed via stories set 10 to 30, 30 years in the past, like The Flamethrowers, or Tree of Smoke, the great Iraq War novel that just happens to be set in Vietnam.”

Perhaps it’s too difficult to get American audiences to empathize directly with people we’ve been trained to see as enemies (though again, Black Panther might prove that wrong). If movies portraying the ongoing war from the perspective of the people most affected remain out of reach for most of us, we may have to settle for “masked” depictions. Maybe this is the best antidote to lies, anyway: we are past the point where we can confront them head-on. All we can do now is remember that they exist, and ask where they come from.

 

Nawal Arjini ’18 ([email protected]) is an anxious senior watching movies in the Dudley Co-op.