Barely two minutes into the premiere episode of Over There, Steven Bochco‘s gritty television series about soldiers fighting in the Iraq war, and already the myth of the “stab in the back” the nutty idea that we are, somehow, not being allowed to win by pansy generals and public relations hacks had reared its ugly and all-too-familiar head. The Americans are moving in on a mosque that is chock-full of insurgents, taking fire, while “Sergeant Scream” AKA Chris Silas, played by Erik Palladino is bellowing at his troops that he’s being kept in Iraq for an extra 90-day stint. All the while they’re being pinned down by enemy fire, he’s complaining that they aren’t allowed to just go in there and blow everyone to smithereens “because al-Jazeera has a reporter in there” and “some general 1,000 miles away” is more concerned with “public relations” than with winning the war.
Sergeant Scream’s ranting rages continue throughout episode one, and, one suspects, throughout the series, although we are soon no doubt to be clued in that he really has a heart of gold. This rapid-fire stream of abuse, self-pity, and untrammeled rage is echoed albeit less harshly by the rest of the platoon, all freshly recruited to our noble Iraqi enterprise. These people are constantly talking even as they’re blowing apart insurgents, taking enemy fire, slinking through the desert, or just hanging out back at their base. The chatter is incessant, like the sound of cicadas in summer, and always about the same subject: their lives, their troubles, their cliché-ridden histories. What few Iraqis we see are merely stick figures waiting to be mowed down, moving through the garish yellow of the desert like zombies in Night of the Living Dead. This war might as well be taking place in an Arizona trailer park for all the characters seem to be aware of or even faintly curious about their surroundings. It isn’t about Iraq, it’s all about the Americans their feelings, their class and ethnic divisions, and their endless narcissistic banter.
Tying it loosely together is an overarching view of soldiering as an inherently noble and valorizing activity, one that is not necessarily tied to country or ideology. The aesthetic quality of military life that brings out the human capacity for teamwork is underscored in the opening battle scene, as the unit sticks together under enemy fire. Yet these are not unthinking automatons: they disobey orders and spontaneously fire back, even though they’ve been told to hunker down while Sergeant Screamer faces down his superior officer by protesting orders that contradict the rules of engagement “and common sense,” as the Screamer avers. As if the U.S. military, which decimated Fallujah and is systematically leveling the Sunni Triangle, isn’t being aggressive enough. Yeah, that’s the real problem, isn’t it? After all, we’ve only killed around 100,000 Iraqis so far what’re we waiting for?
Quite a few Iraqis are killed in the first episode, while the Americans suffer a single casualty a blown-off leg. In the aftermath of the mosque battle which the Americans suddenly and inexplicably win, even though they start out at an apparent disadvantage two soldiers are standing over the corpse of an insurgent. Looking down at the fallen Iraqi as if he were a rabbit bagged on a hunt, one says to the other: “Nice shooting.”
There isn’t much time for character development in the initial episode, but there are premonitions of purest cardboard, overlaid with a thin patina of ethnic and idiosyncratic color. The “nice shooting” remark takes place in a dialogue between the two African-American male characters, the Good Black Male and the Baaaaad Black Brutha. The Good one is a former choirboy who joined the Army out of pique at not having won the National Choirboy Contest and no, I am not making that up. I only wish I were. The Baaaaad one is rejected by Mr. Choirboy in their first interaction when the former offers the latter a pact of racial solidarity. Choirboy disdains this black nationalist subversion and upholds the multi-culti ideal of the cohesive military unit: we’re in the Army now, bud, and we have to stick together as soldiers. This point is made, self-consciously and insistently throughout the first episode, and yet there is, oddly, hardly any interracial dialogue, at least among the male characters. A strange segregation seems to have slipped into the script: the U.S. military, according to the producers of Over There, is rather like a prison or a high school cafeteria, i.e., strictly divided along racial lines.
The interactions among the white kids are similarly hackneyed and unbelievable. I had to laugh when they introduced Frank “Dim” Dumphy, played by Luke Macfarlane. We are supposed to believe that, having graduated from Cornell University, “Dim” somehow decided to sign up with the U.S. Army as a lowly private. He is the intellectual of the group you can tell because not only did he go to Cornell, but he also wears glasses, the expensive rimless kind that accentuates the WASPy patrician severity of his face. And those thoughtful, soulful eyes!
Dim Dumphy is clearly meant as the authorial voice, the one who imparts Meaning to it all: the gratuitous sex, the melodramatic gore, the perpetual chatter is given thematic heft by his pretentious maundering. It is Dumphy who, in a video message to the girl back home, gives full expression to Bochco’s brand of bullsh*t masquerading as profundity:
“We’re monsters, and war is what unmasks us. But there is a kind of honor in it. A kind of grace. I guess if I’m a monster, it’s my privilege to be one.”
Just like it’s an honor to be her husband, he adds, segueing easily into the familiar narcissistic soliloquy: the war has somehow pushed him further along his own personal road to self-fulfillment and a happy marriage. It’s a just-war theory that upholds mass murder as a means to self-realization.
Dumphy is an example of that heretofore unknown species, the neocon in uniform. He tells Bo Rider a fresh-faced, gung-ho blonde mimbo who burbles “I love the Army!” as they’re pinned down by insurgent fire “You’re a natural leader. I’m trying to figure out why that is.” The condescending tone, the faintly derisive smile, captures perfectly the tone of our neoconservative intellectuals as they valorize the warrior spirit and coldly contemplate its uses.
The climax of the nonexistent plot comes when they decide to go on a highly improbable “beer run” American boyz boogie in the desert! Cruising down the road, they discover that everybody has a cute nickname. And they all talk about it endlessly. This happy chatter is suddenly shattered, however, when their truck is hit by a tremendous explosion, and the ugly realism of war is brought home to us as the camera closes in on the severed leg of an American casualty, hanging there in mid-air like so much ground chuck.
One is tempted to ask Dumphy: So where’s the “grace” in this? Is it “honor” or just plain horror?
The idea that Hollywood is a bastion of left-wing antiwar sentiment, a pocket of Blue State subversion amid a sea of Red State jingoism, ought to be dispelled by the premiere of this series. The fictionalization of a war that has yet to be concluded and on television yet lends itself easily to the suspicion that we are somehow being manipulated into believing this conflict is what it isn’t: a winnable fight, an heroic quest, a noble cause betrayed. Over There has some good music, a haunting theme song, is photographed beautifully and holds out great promise as possibly the most effective war propaganda since Hollywood jumped on the pro-war bandwagon during World War II.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You read it here first:
“This isn’t about Rove.
“It’s about a cabal of war hawks inside the administration who passed on this information to others without telling them about Plame-Wilson’s deep cover status, perhaps suggesting that she was just an analyst working at a desk rather than a covert operative involved in a vitally important overseas operation, the knowledge of which was highly compartmentalized and only dispensed on a need-to-know basis. When Rove and his shills blabbed to reporters and anyone who would listen, they didn’t realize that they were aiding and abetting an elaborate ploy to stick it to the CIA.
“Seen against the backdrop of the fierce intra-bureaucratic war that broke out in the administration in the run-up to the Iraq war with the CIA and the mainline intelligence and diplomatic communities pitted against civilian neoconservatives in the upper echelons of the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President the outing of Plame and her colleagues amounts to an act of espionage committed out of a desire to exact revenge. The leakers meant to retaliate not just against Joe Wilson, through his wife, but against the ‘old guard‘ that was resisting the campaign to lie us into war. When the CIA wouldn’t go along with the neocon program and ‘spice up’ their analyses with Ahmed Chalabi‘s tall tales and the outright forgery of the Niger uranium documents, the War Party struck back at them with the sort of viciousness for which the neocons are rightly renowned.”
“Rove-gate: Who Leaked to the Leakers?” July 15, 2005
Less than two weeks later, the Washington Post confirms:
“The special prosecutor in the CIA leak probe has interviewed a wider range of administration officials than was previously known, part of an effort to determine whether anyone broke laws during a White House effort two years ago to discredit allegations that President Bush used faulty intelligence to justify the Iraq war, according to several officials familiar with the case.
“Prosecutors have questioned former CIA director George J. Tenet and deputy director John E. McLaughlin, former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, State Department officials, and even a stranger who approached columnist Robert D. Novak on the street.
“In doing so, special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has asked not only about how CIA operative Valerie Plame’s name was leaked but also how the administration went about shifting responsibility from the White House to the CIA for having included 16 words in the 2003 State of the Union address about Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium from Africa, an assertion that was later disputed.”
“Prosecutor in CIA Leak Case Casting a Wide Net,” by Walter Pincus and Jim VandeHei, July 27, 2005